Stay home for the holidays, US health officials warn

The winter of 2020-21 looks to be one sustained wave of COVID-19 across the entire nation.

The holiday season in the United States traditionally revolves around Thanksgiving (26 November) and Christmas (25 December), as well as other end-of-year communal and religious events such as Hanukkah and New Year’s Eve. Family gatherings and meet-ups with friends are an integral part of this period, and this is what makes observance, let alone enforcement, of COVID-19 restrictions so difficult.

At the time of this writing, almost every state in the US is within the “red zone” metric for community spread of COVID-19 – over 101 cases per 100,000 people – under Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines. Going into the winter, states in the south, west and interior of the country largely spared from the initial impact of the pandemic in the spring are hardest-hit, and among the most at-risk due to lack of earlier preventive measures and limited medical infrastructure to handle a surge in infections. States that were hardest-hit earlier on, as well as those that weathered the first half of the year relatively well, are not as badly affected but they too are beginning to backslide as fatigue over restrictions and cold weather sets in, driving people indoors and to relax social distancing.

Having been asked to defer celebrating other holidays so far this year as well as life events such as funerals, birthdays and weddings, a significant minority of Americans are prepared to defy social distancing measures in the coming two months in order to have a semblance of normalcy. Most people will not, though. Despite loud protests over these issues, Americans are in fact deferring non-essential travel, wearing face masks, ordering in and not going out to gather in large numbers. People are not filling shopping malls, restaurants and movie theatres because of inconsistently enforced capacity and operating hour limits; they are not going because they do not feel safe even with those measures in place.

Yet the sheer numbers of people moving around – polls show that two in five Americans are expected to gather in settings of 10 or more people during the holiday season – poses a major risk to healthcare systems even if the travel season is forecast to be the lowest in volume since 2008. Their capacity is not infinite and is already reaching its limits even before Thanksgiving. But absent centralized quarantine measures and interstate travel restrictions, social pressure and individuals’ own personal risk assessments are the only factors that will limit large private gatherings during the holiday season. And there will also be strong social pressure to not limit one’s exposure to others. While people may be more willing to distance by Christmas once the risks become more apparent, it will be too late to avoid the spike that Thanksgiving is expected to bring, straining healthcare systems in almost every jurisdiction at least much as they were in the spring in the hardest-hit areas.

Some states had resisted instituting, or reimposing, more stringent restrictions as well as mask mandates have now done so going into the holiday season. Doing so now in advance of Thanksgiving and Christmas is seen as hypocritical by detractors and johnny-come-lately by those who argued for such measures before now, when they would have been more effective and helped avoid transmission rates spiking to their present levels by slowing the spread of the virus.

Paul Mutter is a US-based political and security risk analyst.

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