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If it’s not too chilly on Thanksgiving, Anthony Fauci and his wife, possibly joined by their isolating next-door neighbors, will bundle up in sweaters, turn on a recently bought portable outdoor heater and enjoy their holiday meal on their deck, the couples six feet apart and – when not eating – wearing masks. If it’s very cold, they will open their dining room windows, run their air purifier with the HEPA filter and eat inside, mindful that being outside and opening windows when indoors reduces the risk from airborne coronavirus.
“We tried the heater the other night when it was cool, and it was amazing,” says Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “If you wear a sweater or jacket, the heater works really well. We felt perfectly comfortable. We will try to do that on Thanksgiving.”
Scientists today know more about coronavirus transmission than they did at the outset of the pandemic, information that has eased the stress over certain activities, such as touching groceries, packages or mail, or going to the doctor. Nevertheless, this has been dragging on for nine months, and Americans, understandably, are weary, a feeling exacerbated by having to forgo traditional celebrations and holidays such as Thanksgiving.
Experts worry this “pandemic fatigue” may prompt them to relax their behaviors. “When you’ve been doing this for so long, you forget to be careful,” Fauci says. “But it’s very important to not become complacent or inattentive.”
Cases are skyrocketing again – in some regions surging to their highest levels since summer – fueling concern that people are becoming less vigilant. “There is a real danger in complacency, and we are seeing the effects of that play out in real time,” says Michelle DallaPiazza, an infectious diseases specialist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “Across the country, we have begun to see another increase in infections and deaths after a period of time with low transmission.”
To be sure, it is painful and often lonely to abandon social rituals – all of them, not just Thanksgiving and Christmas but funerals, weddings, graduations, birthday parties and religious observances. “They all affirm our social identity,” Connick says. “I fear that some people simply can’t bear to stay away. They will attend social gatherings, and some will get infected.”
There are subliminal reasons that explain why people become lax about protective measures, despite the continuing – or worsening – risk, experts say.
“The threat becomes less intimidating over time,” says Lynn Bufka, senior director of practice transformation and quality for the American Psychological Association. “We get used to it. That’s a good thing if the threat isn’t something that is dangerous. But covid-19 is bad. Many of us haven’t had it, or haven’t yet had direct experience with it with friends or family, so it becomes less threatening. That’s part of the challenge of maintaining vigilance and the behaviors that keep us safe.”
Moreover, the payoff for following safety practices is invisible, she says, meaning we haven’t become infected, whereas ignoring them provides an immediate (albeit potentially dangerous) one.
If you don’t social distance or wear a mask, “you get to hug your friends, and have fun with them,” she says. “In the short term, that feels good. The things we do to prevent transmission don’t get the same kind of reward as not doing those things.”
Paul Slovic, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, puts it another way. “The thing about this virus that makes it so difficult to combat – and successful in perpetuating its existence – is that it’s not a visible threat,” he says. “The benefit is invisible, but the cost is immediate and visible. You can’t go to work, or meet with your friends, and that is a bad situation.”
Experts suggest that pandemic-fatigued individuals “reframe” the sacrifices they must make to keep themselves and others safe.
“It’s very human to crave a return to normalcy and make covid-19 just disappear,” says Jeni Stolow, a behavioral social scientist and assistant professor in Temple University’s College of Public Health. “But the reality is that it isn’t going to go away just because we want it to.”
It’s better to change your perspective, she says: “Don’t say, ‘I can’t see my grandmother, and I miss her.’ Instead, you should say, ‘I’m protecting my grandmother because I love her.’ “
Meanwhile, people should take comfort in the things they can do now that were iffy six months ago, rather than focusing on what they still can’t do. Doctors and dentists, for example, have procedures in place that make patient visits safer. It’s OK to handle groceries, packages and mail without fear, experts say.
“You can feel the avocados,” Robert T. Schooley, an infectious diseases specialist at University of California at San Diego, says. “Literally, when we didn’t know how much more important aerosol transmission was, I wouldn’t handle the produce at the grocery store. Now I don’t have any compunction about doing that.”
Moreover, anxiety about surfaces should not distract people from what he describes as the real problem.
“We worry too much about the things we touch and not enough about the air we breathe,” Schooley says. “Just because they deep clean the bar, doesn’t mean it’s safe to go there and have a drink. The real danger is going there and having a drink with people who aren’t wearing masks.”
Thanksgiving presents special challenges for Americans yearning to return to normalcy during an abnormal time. Thanksgiving, probably more than any other holiday, typically produces large multigenerational gatherings – parents, grandparents, children grandchildren, college kids on break – many traveling by air – and with everyone kissing and hugging everyone else.
“It’s the most Norman Rockwell of all the holidays,” says William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. “It is the one holiday that is totally family oriented.”
And it’s enough to make public health experts shudder.
“It’s a perfect storm,” Schooley says. “You have multiple generations of families, young people who have been out and about and exposed, and older people who have been sequestered. You have little kids. You have people traveling extensively to be together for a prolonged period of time in a packed dining room having a meal. It’s a feast for the virus.”
This year, the Faucis will not be hosting their three grown daughters, who live in different parts of the country, and who decided to stay away to safeguard their father. Fauci’s age – he will be 80 in December – puts him in danger of severe covid-19 disease. Instead, the family will get together for an hour on Zoom, Fauci says.
“They are very careful, but they would have to fly to get here,” says Fauci, who has become the nation’s most recognized authority on the pandemic. “How would they know if they got infected on the plane? They thought it best this way. This was a decision driven by my children. They are very protective of me.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a public warning about the dangers of family holiday gatherings, and posted advice for safely coping with them, including Thanksgiving. Among other things, the CDC stressed that travel increases the risk of contracting covid-19, and said the most prudent plan was to have a small dinner limited to only people already living in the household.
Think carefully about family members – their ages and any underlying medical conditions – and the potential risk of mixing them with young adults or children who haven’t been sequestering, experts say. And be cautious when it comes to little children. “They can hug their grandparents only around the waist, but no kissing,” Schaffner says. “And don’t stay close.”
Keep the group as small as possible. “I don’t think people should have as large a gathering as they might otherwise have had,” says Andrew Badley, an immunovirologist and head of the Mayo Clinic’s covid-19 task force. “It should not be a broad invite list. It should only be people you know and trust, and who you believe are taking responsible measures to reduce risk.”
And forget about Black Friday. “This isn’t the right time to stampede through closed spaces with hundreds of strangers trying to save $30 on a plasma screen television,” Schooley says. “Cyber Monday is just around the corner. Stay home and support the local stores by shopping online.”
Lately, Connick finds herself urging her family, friends and patients to hang on. “Don’t look at this as being forever,” she says. “Just say to yourself: ‘I kept myself healthy for 9 months, I can do it a little bit longer.’ “
“It will end,” he says. “For sure, it’s going to end. When we get a vaccine, and the rate of infection goes down, we will get closer to some form of normalcy. Knowing that may help people get through this. It is going to end. That’s the message we need to get across.”