THURSDAY, Nov. 19, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Americans should stay home and avoid big Thanksgiving gatherings, leading public health agencies and medical societies warn, as COVID-19 cases surge across the country.
At a press conference held Thursday, officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised people to limit celebrations to only those who've been living in the household for the previous two weeks.
Groups representing the nation's doctors, nurses and hospitals also issued a joint recommendation to curb travel and mingling this holiday season.
"With Thanksgiving approaching, our hearts and minds turn to seeing family and friends, as part of one of our nation's great traditions, and we all need to consider the safest way to celebrate this holiday," said Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC's COVID-19 incident manager. "Amidst this critical phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, CDC is recommending against travel during the Thanksgiving period."
The CDC took this step based on the "exponential increase" in COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths that has occurred this month, said Walke and Erin Sauber-Schatz, lead for the CDC's Community Intervention and Critical Population Task Force.
"The reason we made the update is the fact that over the last week, we've seen over a million new cases in the country," Sauber-Schatz said.
Over 250,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19.
Three of the nation's leading medical societies lent their voices to the same message Thursday in an open letter asking Americans to pare down their holiday plans.
"We -- the physicians, nurses, hospital and health system leaders and public health professionals on the front lines of this pandemic -- strongly urge everyone throughout our country to celebrate responsibly, in a scaled-back fashion that limits the virus's spread, to help reduce the risk of infecting friends, family and others you love," reads the letter co-signed by the American Medical Association, American Hospital Association and American Nurses Association.
The letter noted that throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 spread has followed a similar pattern around holidays and mass gatherings.
"Positive cases spiked after Memorial Day, after the Fourth of July, after Labor Day, and now two weeks after Halloween," the letter said. "The record-shattering surge underway is resulting in uncontrolled community spread and infection that has already overburdened health systems in some areas and will ultimately consume capacity of our health care system and may reduce the availability of care in many places in our country."
Aside from the strong recommendation against travel and gatherings, the CDC's updated guidance also provided clarification about who should be considered part of a household for infection control purposes.
"We received lots of questions from Americans about college students or people coming home for the holidays," Sauber-Schatz said. "The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is at home with the people in your household. If people have not been actively living with you for the 14 days before you're celebrating, they are not considered a member of your household."
If college students do go home for Thanksgiving, everyone in the household should wear a mask and stringently follow infection control measures, Walke said. These include sustaining good ventilation throughout the house, practicing hand hygiene and maintaining social distancing.
"What's at stake is the increased chance of one of your loved ones becoming sick and then being hospitalized and dying," Walke said. "Around these holidays, we tend to get people together from multiple generations -- grandparents, parents, nieces and nephews all come together in this celebration."
People who are older or who have chronic health problems are at increased risk of a potentially fatal COVID infection, health officials said.
There's also the risk of further spread if a person travels to a big family gathering, becomes infected, and then returns to their own community to pass the virus along there, Walke said.
The CDC asks that before people travel to a Thanksgiving gathering, they consider:
Whether someone at the gathering is at increased risk from COVID.
If COVID is spiking in either their own community or their destination.
Whether hospitals are becoming overwhelmed by COVID cases.
If restrictions for travelers are in place, either in their state or the locale they plan to visit.
Whether during the 14 days before travel, either you or those you are visiting have had close contact with people outside your households.
Whether travel plans involve cramped conditions in a bus, train or airplane.
CDC officials are even concerned about infections occurring at transportation hubs like bus stations or airports, Walke said.
"When people are in lines or waiting to get on the bus or the plane, people tend to crowd together and can't maintain their distance," he said.
"If the answer to any of these questions is 'yes,' you should consider making other plans, such as hosting a virtual gathering or delaying your travel," the CDC guidance says. "It's important to talk with the people you live with and your family and friends about the risks of traveling."
If attending or hosting a gathering that includes people not in your household, the CDC recommends that you:
Bring your own food, drinks, plates, cups and utensils.
Wear a mask, removing it only to eat or drink.
Limit the number of people in food-preparation areas.
Have a small outdoor meal with a limited number of guests.
Have one person serve the food if a meal is being shared, using disposable items like paper plates and plastic utensils.
In their open letter, the medical associations acknowledged that people have grown weary with pandemic-related restrictions and urged Americans to celebrate responsibly.
"Given the serious risks, we underscore how important it is to wear masks, maintain physical distancing and wash your hands," the letter said. "Following these science-based, common-sense measures is the best way to prevent our health care systems and dedicated health care professionals from being overwhelmed by critically ill patients."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tips for celebrating Thanksgiving during the pandemic.
SOURCES: Henry Walke, MD, MPH, COVID-19 Incident Manager, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Erin Sauber-Schatz, PhD, MPH, lead, CDC Community Intervention and Critical Population Task Force; open letter signed by the American Medical Association, American Hospital Association, American Nurses Association