US public-health experts say they're staying home this Thanksgiving — but some will still gather with family
  • As Thanksgiving approaches, Americans must decide whether to gather with their loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Many US public-health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, are tweaking their holiday traditions and hunkering down at home with their immediate families.
  • Here's how nine experts are choosing to spend their Thanksgiving this year.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Holidays are fast approaching in the US, and millions of people will soon face the difficult decision of whether to visit friends and family during a pandemic.

Public-health experts, too, are weighing the mental health benefits of seeing their loved ones after nearly nine months of isolation against the risks of spreading the coronavirus to their families.

"I think loneliness, depression, and anxiety are real effects of this pandemic and people should be seeing each other during this holiday," Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told Business Insider. "My school has a contract that says we can't travel, so I am not going anywhere, but I would if that arbitrary rule was lifted!"

Other experts are canceling holiday plans and hunkering down at home.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said his children won't be visiting for fear of exposing him and his wife to the coronavirus.

"My Thanksgiving is going to look very different this year," Fauci told CBS News in October. "I would love to have it with my children, but my children are in three separate states throughout the country, and in order for them to get here, they would all have to go to an airport, get on a plane, travel with public transportation."

At age 79, Fauci has a higher risk of severe infection. But he isn't the only one making adjustments.

Here's how other experts plan to keep their families safe this Thanksgiving.

The strictest experts are celebrating virtually

Family members wearing masks gather for a meal.2K Studio/Getty

Neil Sehgal is skipping Thanksgiving dinner with his family for the first time in over a decade.

"I couldn't live with myself if I infected my mom and my dad," Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, told The Washington Post.

To visit his parents safely, Sehgal said, he would have to navigate precautions — including traveling by car, quarantining, and getting tested — with "a nail-biting level of complexity." 

"The emotional toll, for me, is not worth it," he added.

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, also canceled his extended family's Thanksgiving for the first time in 27 years.

Indeed, the risks of gathering in person are too high, according to Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University School of Public Health. Rasmussen tweeted Thursday that she'd miss seeing her parents, brother, sister-in-law, and niece this year.

"I'd rather celebrate the holidays with them over Zoom than over FaceTime because someone is in the ICU," she wrote.

Even those hunkered down at home are still taking the opportunity to get creative with holiday traditions.

"I'm having my kids plan our Thanksgiving menu," Keri Althoff, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Today. "I'm pretty sure we're having popcorn and macaroni and cheese. And they'll remember that and that will be fun for them."

While Althoff's immediate family isn't traveling, she said, they're still planning to say grace with the rest of their relatives via Zoom.

Others experts are skipping the turkey 

William Schaffner's family will be gathering, but not eating, this Thanksgiving.

"We're not having Thanksgiving in person around a dinner table. We'll all be very happy to see each other, but no hugs or kisses," Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, told WebMD. 

The Schaffner family will get together (socially distanced) for an hour-and-a-half, he said — but his family intends to skip the turkey, because eating would require them to remove their masks. 

Other experts will eat with their extended families outside.

Anne Liu's uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents usually get together, she said, but this year her family is scaling back.

"We may try to do small gatherings outdoors, in a distanced, masked setting where we're not sharing food, which all seems sort of antithetical to Thanksgiving. But at least we may be able to see each other," Liu, an immunologist and infectious-disease doctor at Stanford Health Care, told Today.

For Irfan Hafiz, an infectious disease specialist at Northwestern Medicine, the decision not to see extended family wasn't easy.

In September, when coronavirus transmission appeared to have slowed, Hafiz's family was considering having a somewhat regular Thanksgiving, he told Today. But October's record-breaking surge in US coronavirus cases forced him to rethink his plans.

"I called my mom up and just told her that it's probably not a good idea to be getting together for Thanksgiving this year," Hafiz said, adding that now only his immediate family will be celebrating together.

Still, most public-health experts are optimistic that the 2021 holidays will be easier to navigate.

"This year is the COVID year. Thanksgiving has got to be different," Schaffner told WebMD. "Let's not get too excited about this. It's only one year."

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