Around this time last year, a lot of Canadians had to make uncomfortable decisions about how they were going to celebrate Thanksgiving. We were entering the second wave of COVID infections after a relatively healthy summer, and while some opted for virtual dinners with family and friends, others took a shot at normalcy, gathering in-person, indoors and outdoors.
But in the two weeks following the holiday, COVID numbers spiked, even as testing numbers were lower.
“One of the theories is that at the same time the lockdown measures should have been bringing things down, it was actually Thanksgiving pushing those numbers back up,” Dr. Matthew Oughton, assistant professor of medicine at McGill University, told Time in November.
And while it may feel like we are not much more ahead than we were last year, there’s one important difference: vaccines. And while vaccines do provide a level of protection from the virus, there continues to be the possibility of breakthrough infection — although it’s rare and cases tend to be less severe. Still, we aren’t out of the woods yet.
“I would say we’re at a really different juncture now than we were a year ago,” Dr. Pia MacDonald, Senior Director of Applied Public Health Research at the Research Triangle Institute, told Delish. “But we’re at a pretty complicated juncture, so it’s well worth families and groups thinking very carefully through [how to handle Thanksgiving].”
What does that mean?
According to the experts, staying safe this turkey weekend means keeping gathering outdoors as much as possible, being upfront about vaccination status — this includes not overlooking children under 12 who have not yet had the shot— and continuing to take precautions if you or someone you are with has a compromised immune system.
Outdoors better than indoors
Health Canada says the lowest-risk celebrations are the ones that involve only your immediate household. But what if you are like many people, for whom the holidays mean spending time with family and friends who they don’t live with?
“Outdoors always trumps indoors” when it comes to preventing virus transmission, Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, told CBC News. If that’s not an option, making sure your guests are fully vaccinated is the another way to ensure safety.
“The vaccines are really effective, but they’re most effective when you’re surrounded by vaccinated people,” Dr. Matthew Miller, assistant dean at McMaster University’s department of biochemistry and biomedical sciences, told Global News. “If you introduce an unvaccinated person who might be infected into that group, then everyone’s risk of a breakthrough infection increases.”
If people are traveling from regions where case levels are higher, the risk goes up. Alberta, Saskatchewan, and parts of Manitoba, for example, are hotspots for the Delta variant, which is not only more contagious, but also more likely to cause severe disease. Experts are cautioning people within those regions to take extra caution when hosting gatherings, keep groups small and consider asking for proof of negative tests.
Ask about status
Although it may be a bit awkward, asking whether or not someone has been vaccinated is a valid question — and although it’s been politicized, it’s about health — and life — not politics.
“It’s absolutely reasonable, beyond reasonable” to ask someone whether they’re vaccinated,” Vardit Ravitsky, a professor at Université de Montréal, told Global. “I think it’s totally ethical… I think the people who should worry about the ethical aspects of their decisions are those who choose not to be vaccinated.”
Saying something straightforward like “Because of COVID, we’re only having people over who have been vaccinated. I hope you understand” makes it clear that it’s not a debate. And if you’re the one invited to someone else’s gathering, you can ask in a similar way — “Will everyone there be vaccinated? If so, I would love to join.”
Take extra care with kids, seniors
Since kids under 12 aren’t yet eligible to get the vaccine, they bring with them risk — they are also vulnerable. As are seniors, and people with conditions that compromise their immune responses, even if they have been vaccinated. If those groups make up a lot of the people on your list, aim for a small and short gathering — the fewer the people, and the shorter the amount of time they spend indoors together without masks, the lower the risk of transmission.
We are closer to “normal” than we were last year, but it’s not the year for a massive celebration.
“Let’s get to a new normal where we reimagine Thanksgiving and it’s not 50 people,” said MacDonald. “Celebrate that togetherness and not what we had five years ago. The vaccine is a huge gift. There is a lot to be thankful for.”