November 15, 2021

What 28 experts say they will (and won't) do this holiday season

Daily Briefing

    As Thanksgiving and other holidays approach, what do experts think is safe to do this winter? STAT News spoke to 28 infectious disease experts about what they have planned for the upcoming holidays.

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    Where experts stand on certain activities

    For the survey, STAT News asked 28 infectious disease experts about their personal willingness to do certain activities, not what they would advise others to do, based on the state of the pandemic. Possible answers were "yes," "no," or "only if masked"—but many experts added caveats to their responses.

    When asked whether they would work in an office with others unmasked, 17 experts said no, and 11 said yes. Of the experts who said yes, many said they would only do so under certain conditions. For example, Jesse Goodman, an infectious diseases professor at Georgetown University, said he would only work in an office unmasked if people were vaccinated and he knew they were trying to limit their exposure.

    Only one question received a near-unanimous response of "no": whether the experts would attend an indoor concert or sporting where masking wearing was neither required nor enforced. Twenty-three experts said they would not attend such an event, and of the five who said "yes" or "only if masked," some noted that they would be more comfortable if proof of vaccination was required.

    However, STAT News found that more experts were willing to attend an indoor wedding or religious services if guests in attendance were not masked. Nine experts said they would attend, and six said they would attend if masked.

    "I would accept some risk here," said Natalie Dean, assistant professor of biostatistics, bioinformatics, and epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. "Weddings are important events, more so to me than indoor concerts."

    When asked about whether they were planning to travel outside of the country for a winter vacation, the experts were evenly split in their response. Twelve experts said no, and 12 said yes. There were also three "maybe" responses and one "to be determined." And according to STAT News, a few experts said the deciding factor was not Covid-19, rather it was because they were parents to young children.

    How experts plan to handle Thanksgiving

    STAT News also asked the experts how they would handle the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

    Nearly all the experts—26 out of 28—said they would travel by air, plane, or bus to spend Thanksgiving with their families or friends. However, 25 said they would only do so if masked, and some experts ruled out certain transportation methods, like trains and buses.

    When asked about hosting or attending a multigenerational dinner where some attendees were unvaccinated, either by choice or because they were too young, the experts were more divided in their responses. Fourteen experts said they would attend, but four said it depended on the reason why someone was unvaccinated.

    "Too young: yes. By choice: no," said Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington.

    Stanley Perlman, a professor at the University of Iowa, said he would attend such a dinner, but only if masked. "I would want to be masked when I am not eating and use social distancing when eating," he said. "Especially with family, I think that I need to be there."

    STAT News also found that the experts were similarly split on whether they would urge older relatives to skip a Thanksgiving dinner with unvaccinated attendees. Sixteen experts said yes, while 12 said no—two people said the question wasn't applicable to them.

    Shane Crotty, an immunologist at La Jolla Institute of Immunology, was one of the "no" votes. "The vaccine is sufficient protection," he said. "Family is important."

    Several experts also said they would be comfortable with older relatives attending a Thanksgiving dinner if rapid tests were used. "If people can get a Covid test done before the gathering, and if the vulnerable people are boosted, I would feel comfortable," said Akiko Iwasaki, a virologist and immunologist at Yale University.

    However, when asked whether they planned to use rapid tests during their own Thanksgiving gatherings, only 12 said they would. The other experts said they weren't planning to, weren't sure if they would, or would not need to have tests.

    According to Angela Rasmussen, a coronavirus virologist at the University of Saskatchewan's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, availability and costs of tests may be potential barriers to using rapid tests for gatherings.

    How to have your own safe holiday gatherings

    In October, CDC released updated guidance to help Americans safely celebrate the holidays this year, which includes masking and vaccination recommendations for all guests.

    According to a CDC spokesperson, the agency "fully expect[s] that families and friends will gather for the holidays this year" and that "[t]he best way to minimize Covid-19 risk and ensure that people can safely gather is to get vaccinated or get the booster, if you're eligible." (Branswell, STAT News, 11/10)

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