Americans are beginning their treks home for the Thanksgiving holiday this weekend, doing so in the face of uncertainty from political leadership and a surge in coronavirus case numbers, which have consistently reached new heights in November.
On Friday, the United States set a daily incidence record for the country of 195,542 confirmed new cases of the novel coronavirus, according to data compiled by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. That new high shattered the record set only the previous day before when the nation totaled just under 188,000 new cases.
Those numbers come as Americans hop on planes or pile in cars and make their way to see loved ones after months of on-again, off-again social distancing, changing local and state regulations, and weak guidance from federal authorities. On Thursday — when the US recorded a new daily incidence record that was then broken the next day — the CDC issued a “strong” warning telling people that the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving was to do so only with the people they live with.
“Gatherings with family and friends who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu,” the CDC cautioned, while noting that more than 1 million COVID-19 cases were reported in the US in the previous seven days.
Still, that guidance came only a week before the Thanksgiving holiday, a known popular travel period every year, and after experts had been warning for months of a possible surge during winter, when those who choose to congregate would likely do so inside.
“We know we’re going to get cases after Thanksgiving,” Amesh Adalja, infectious diseases physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, previously told BuzzFeed News. “It’s just a question of trying to keep them as minimal as possible.”
It does not appear the country will be able to keep it minimal. The US surpassed 12 million total confirmed cases on Saturday after recently exceeding 250,000 total deaths, a number that will likely increase as one projection suggests another 200,000 people will die by the beginning of March.
On Thursday, the White House coronavirus task force held a press briefing — its first public appearance in months — at which Vice President Mike Pence tried to offer reassurances about the anticipated vaccines.
"We've continued to be on the same mission we've been on throughout the course of this year, and that is to save American lives," Pence said without endorsing the CDC's recommendation for Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving.
Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at the Columbia University School of Public Health, said that even though messaging from the CDC was “a little late,” the agency had been hamstrung by the Trump administration.
“It would have been helpful if we could have been preparing people for months,” she told BuzzFeed News. “But to a certain degree, we did not imagine back in March that this response would be so horrible that we would be looking at 300,000 or 400,000 deaths by the end of the year.”
It’s too early to tell how the CDC’s recommendation, which came long after many people had made holiday plans and booked travel, will affect people looking to gather around Thanksgiving meals with their families. Early images and video from airports around the country suggest that many will take the risk.
“It’s really very concerning because it’s not just what people are doing at the airport,” said Rasmussen. “It’s also the reason they’re at the airport, which is presumably to go to have in-person meals with their families.”
She said she plans on holding a virtual Thanksgiving with family members she doesn’t live with, calling it an investment in the future.
In a video taken at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International airport and shared by local reporter Max Gorden, large crowds of mostly masked people had already started to form as people waited to fly off to different parts of the country.
Arizona reported 4,471 new coronavirus cases on Friday, according to data from Johns Hopkins. It’s fast approaching the state’s daily incidence record of 4,877 set in July.