How should we celebrate Thanksgiving during a pandemic? Austin’s top doctor advises us to ‘alter traditions’


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Next week would normally be a time where people gather with their loved ones to enjoy Thanksgiving, but Austin’s top doctor said everyone should “alter traditions” so that they can stay as safe as possible.

“We have to appreciate that the disease is spreading in our jurisdiction, around Texas and around the country in a degree that we have not seen yet in this pandemic,” Dr. Mark Escott said.

Dr. Escott, the interim health authority for Austin-Travis County, joined digital anchor Will DuPree on KXAN Live for a conversation Tuesday morning to talk specifically about safe practices for Thanksgiving. He explained that he and his family are not going to travel anywhere for the holiday.

“We’ve made the tough decision to stay here in Austin and have a meal with just our family and do a Zoom call with the extended family for the holidays,” Dr. Escott said. “It’s not worth the risk. Again, we’ve just seen COVID-19 devastate families, and, as much as we’d like to see them, we want to make sure that we see them in future years, as well, so I think the best thing to do is to protect them and stay home.”

He advised people to hold celebrations virtually if they’d like to include family members or friends who don’t live with them, which is admittedly difficult.

“We know that disease is spreading, and it’s spreading at times when people are less protective,” Dr. Escott said. “We’re not seeing disease transmission in places where masking and distancing are normal practices, such as schools and workplaces. We’re seeing it in these family gatherings, gatherings with friends.”

Mask & distance inside homes

However, he added, “If you decide to have a gathering anyway, practice those same measures that you could at school or at work, and that is mask and distance within the household, as well.”

When asked if there’s a suggested amount of people to safely cap a gathering, Dr. Escott said transmission is still possible no matter the group size without masking or distancing in place.

“We say things like ‘limit it to 10’ not because there’s no risk involved in that, but because [that] limits the impact of transmission,” he explained. “We’ve certainly seen cases where one single individual in that group had COVID-19, and then multiple others will get it. I think this is particularly true for those individuals who have been engaging in activities that they were not able to protect themselves, so this may be high school students. This may be individuals who were involved in extracurricular activities where we know transmission is happening in those circumstances. They need to be particularly vigilant to ensure they can protect older members of their household.”

COVID-19 testing

Dr. Escott said Austin Public Health received a substantial increase in requests for COVID-19 tests ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, and he assured people there is enough testing capacity to handle that. However, he said even getting a test ahead of a gathering doesn’t provide a 100% guarantee of safety. He pointed to the coronavirus outbreak at the White House that happened when President Trump held a ceremony in the Rose Garden to announce Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination for the U.S. Supreme Court.

“That testing will tell you whether or not the virus is a substantial level to be detected that day. It doesn’t tell you anything about tomorrow or next week,” he said. “While it’s a measure, it is not a completely protective measure, and that’s why the strategies to prevent transmission have to be multiple layers. The testing is a great start if you want to get tested in advance, but that doesn’t mean that you should have those interactions without the masking, without the social distancing, without the attention to hygiene, including washing your hands.”

Vaccine development

Two drug companies, Pfizer and Moderna, announced promising data showing that their COVID-19 vaccine candidates are more than 90% effective. Despite those hopeful developments, Dr. Escott stressed that a viable vaccine would not be available to most people for several months.

“Now is the time to really rein things in,” he said. “Now’s the time to flatten the curve as much as we can because we know we don’t have to persist in this vigilance forever. We do need to try to save lives right now so that we can benefit from the vaccine and prevent unnecessary deaths locally here and certainly across America.”

Dr. Escott also shared his reaction to news that Pfizer chose Texas as one of four states to participate in its pilot delivery system.

“We’re certainly excited to receive the vaccine,” he said. “Our teams at Austin Public Health have been working with a coalition of partners around this community to make sure that we’re prepared to receive those vaccines and administer them in our community.”

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