There's No Foolproof Way to Gather for Thanksgiving, Says Miami Expert

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Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and while some folks may want to reconnect with loved ones after an extended separation, experts say gathering around the table with the whole family is not a good idea this year.

COVID-19 cases in Florida have been trending upward in recent weeks, signaling the possibility of a new surge comparable to the summertime spike in June and July, when the state was recording nearly 9,000 new cases a day. Although the number of new cases decreased in September and October to between 2,000 and 4,000 a day, according to the Florida Department of Health dashboard, November has seen daily new cases rise to nearly 10,000 once again.

With a new surge ratcheting up the risk of infection, families should probably consider doing a virtual Thanksgiving, says Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, chair of Florida International University's epidemiology department.

"The safest thing to do would be to just have a meal with the people in your household and perhaps do a Zoom get-together with extended family," Trepka tells New Times.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a comprehensive guide about holiday celebrations during the pandemic. Trepka recommends everyone read the guide before making dinner plans for next week.

The CDC guide says that members of the family who do not currently live with you, including children who live away at college, should be considered part of a different household and could pose a risk if they come home for the holidays. The CDC also says that under no circumstances should family members who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 gather with others, nor should people who show symptoms of the virus or are awaiting test results.

Even if a person has tested negative for COVID-19 before Thanksgiving, Trepka says, there's still a risk of infection after the fact.

"It's a good idea to get tested but even if you test negative, it's still not safe to meet indoors. You could still get infected hours after testing positive if you go to a store or somewhere where people are gathered," Trepka says.

The State of Florida recently deployed BinaxNOW rapid COVID-19 tests to certain Miami-Dade County walk-up and drive-thru testing sites, including those at Hard Rock Stadium, Marlins Stadium, and the Miami Beach Convention Center. The tests return results within an hour — much faster than the molecular PCR tests, which provide results in one to three days on average. But Trepka says people may not be able to rely on those test results to clear them for a holiday gathering, because they are only 95 percent accurate.

"These tests are rapid but not very sensitive, and they miss a lot of infections. If you test positive, you can be sure you're positive. But if you test negative, you may want to take a PCR test," Trepka says.

One option to reduce risk might be for dinner attendees to get tested before Thanksgiving and then stay locked down at home until the holiday to make sure they don't contract the virus after the test. Even with this measure, however, the chance of contracting the virus is not zero, so families should have other protective measures in place.

Trepka says people need to consider which family member might be most vulnerable to COVID and tailor plans around that person. If your family has someone who's elderly or someone with pre-existing health conditions like lung or heart disease, she says, it would be best to have them not gather with people outside of their household.

If a family insists on eating together in person and doesn't have any individuals at high risk, Trepka warns that certain precautions should still be in place.

"The next-best thing would be a small, outdoor gathering with everyone seated six feet apart and wearing masks [when not eating]," Trepka says. "Indoor gatherings would be bad and are not recommended for anybody."

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