The CDC’s Thanksgiving Guidelines Now Caution Against Traveling

What doctors want you to know ahead of the holiday.

by JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
A woman puts a suitcase up on public transportation. Doctors explain how to safely travel home for t...
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Thanksgiving and the winter holidays may look like the only bright spots in the hellscape that is the end of this year, but they come with a unique-to-2020 set of logistical challenges. Namely, whether it's actually safe to travel home for the holidays this year, considering the pandemic isn't over. This year, spreading COVID-19 to your community and the people at your table is much more of a threat than your aunt's awful sweet potato casserole.

"Thanksgiving and Christmas will look very different this year, but our connections to friends and family are as essential as they ever were," Gwen Murphy Ph.D. M.P.H., director of epidemiology at home testing company LetsGetChecked, tells Bustle.

Is It Safe To Travel Home For The Holidays?

For many people, a big family get-together for Thanksgiving won't be sensible right now. "Ideally we would all stay at home and celebrate with our own households, reaching out virtually to extended family and friends that we would usually spend the holidays with," Murphy says. There's a lot to be said for staying within your own bubble or pod during the holidays.

On Nov. 19, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) officially updated its Thanksgiving guidelines to discourage people from traveling or visiting people outside of their households. "Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year," the new guidelines state.

"Whether you plan to travel by car, plane, train or bus, if you’re traveling outside of your home and from one location to another, you’re increasing the risk of becoming exposed and spreading COVID-19," Dr. Robert Quigley M.D., global medical director and senior vice president of International SOS, a health and security risk mitigation firm, tells Bustle. He says you should assess the risk of going home for the holidays carefully. Where is everybody coming from? Are they, or you, in states with surging cases? Is anybody at home high-risk for the virus? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it might be best to say 'nope' and stay home, just in case you or any other guests are asymptomatic carriers. The CDC also includes a similar list of questions in its Thanksgiving guidelines.

How To Stay Safe If You're Traveling Home For The Holidays

If you really need to travel, Dr. Quigley suggests you pack enough essential items, including medication and clothing, to quarantine for a full two weeks when you arrive. Depending on state regulations, you may also need to quarantine when you come home, or consider getting COVID-tested as soon as you can. Dr. Robert Mordkin M.D., chief medical officer of LetsGetChecked, suggests traveling by car if possible, though only with people in your bubble. "Flying is OK, as long as safety precautions are strictly adhered to, specifically practicing constant mask use and careful hand hygiene," he says. The CDC cautions against bus, train, or air travel where it's not possible to stay six feet away from others.

Anybody who does travel, Dr. Quigley says, should wear an effective mask at all times, wash your hands after contact with surfaces, and avoid touching your eyes and mouth. "Try to restrict large gatherings, particularly indoors where air is not circulated, continue with social distancing measures, eat family meals outdoors, and always wear a proper mask," Dr. Mordkin says. Yes, that might mean a masked Christmas where you throw your gifts at each other across the room, or stay six feet away around the backyard bonfire. But it's way better than getting sick or endangering others.

The CDC suggests that events be outside as much as possible, with a very limited guest list, masks and hand sanitizer on hand, and, if necessary, asking people to self-isolate for 14 days beforehand. They say you should stay for as short a time as possible, and leave ASAP if people aren't socially distancing or masking up. And if you've been exposed to anybody with COVID, have symptoms, or are at higher risk of getting severely sick from it, stay home.

Be prepped medically before you go, too. "The most important thing you can do to protect yourself and loved ones is to get your flu shot," Dr. Janette Nesheiwat M.D., a family and emergency doctor, tells Bustle. If you're traveling, she also suggests getting a COVID test before you leave, to lessen the chances that you're an asymptomatic carrier who might spread COVID to another family member.

How To Celebrate The Holidays Safely If You're Not Traveling

It's important to try and preserve your bonds even if you're not traveling. "Spending time with your family is mentally and emotionally beneficial for many Americans," Dr. Nesheiwat says. "The holidays are a time of year where many patients suffer from depression and seasonal affective disorder, and these symptoms can be exacerbated if you were forced to be alone for the holidays." Whatever your situation, it's a good idea to plan to be with other people, virtually or otherwise, during the holidays.

Erring on the side of caution may be for the best. "We should celebrate virtually this year, in order to make sure that we are all here to celebrate next year," Murphy says. The bottom line, Dr. Nesheiwat says, is to use common sense: wear a mask, avoid crowds, keep hands and surfaces clean, and if in doubt, stick to yelling about turkey recipes over Zoom.


Dr. Robert Mordkin M.D.

Gwen Murphy Ph.D. M.P.H.

Dr. Janette Nesheiwat M.D.

Dr. Robert Quigley M.D.

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