America’s third pandemic Thanksgiving may feel like the most normal holiday gathering in a while. AAA expects travel over the long weekend to reach 98% pre-pandemic levels, with an estimated 54.6 million people driving and flying to see loved ones. In fact, 2022 is on track to be the third busiest Thanksgiving since AAA started tracking these travel numbers in 2000.
At the beginning of the pandemic, celebrating Thanksgiving meant either virtual or very small in-person gatherings. Now that COVID-19 vaccines and medications are available, it makes it easier to see more family, “which is a beautiful thing,” says Dr. Juanita Mora, an allergy and immunology specialist at the Chicago Allergy Center and a national spokesperson for the American Lung Association. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your best to keep everyone safe this year—particularly since this Thanksgiving comes amid a new set of Omicron subvariants, a heavy flu season, and high RSV infection rates among children and older adults.
Mora tells TIME how she’s approaching this holiday season. “I’m trying to follow exactly what I’m telling patients,” she explains. “Our precautions should revolve around the most vulnerable person that’s going to be at our Thanksgiving table: so that grandparent who’s having chemotherapy, that parent with diabetes, or a child who has asthma, or that brand-new baby.”
For Mora’s family, their precautions “revolve around my dad who’s 76. He’s pretty healthy, but we want to make sure to keep him healthy.” The first step is to make sure everyone is up-to-date with their shots. “I’m the type of doctor that’s very proactive with her family,” says Mora, which means she makes sure “everyone’s flu vaccinated and has COVID-19 updated boosters, including the kids.”
Mora’s sister and her children will be visiting from California, and will have gotten their shots before traveling. She’s asking that all her family members wear a mask while traveling: “Mask on the plane, mask at the airport, mask at the train station, mask on the train as well, because all of that is going to be key in keeping our family members safe.”
Donald Milton, professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Maryland, is also hosting family this year who are traveling, and they are taking a similar approach. “We consistently use N95s when in public places with possible close contact and/or low indoor air quality,” he says. On top of this, “we will use HEPA filters and DIY Corsi-Rosenthal boxes to reduce risk of transmitting COVID and flu,” he says, adding that “everyone, including the 8-month old grandchild, has been vaccinated and boosted multiple times when eligible.”
Those gathering for Mora’s Thanksgiving will also be doing a “mini quarantine” in the week leading up to Thanksgiving dinner, she says; this means trying to limit the amount of people that they’re in contact with. “So no big events. Trying not to go to bars, not going to restaurants, shopping at the grocery store when there’s not going to be a lot of people,” Mora explains. “I’m a 7 A.M. grocery shopping kind of girl.”
Then, on the day prior to gathering, everyone will take a COVID-19 rapid test, says Mora. The same goes for Milton’s family: “We will ask everyone to test on two consecutive days, including the morning of the gathering or prior to arrival and stay away if they have either a positive test or symptoms,” he says.
It’s also worth taking a few additional precautions once the holiday is over. Mora recommends wearing a mask for a week afterwards if it was a big family reunion or family festivity, “just to make sure” that nobody unwittingly spreads viruses. Also, consider doing a rapid test five days after the gathering or if people start feeling sick. Taking all these precautions to minimize the risk of infection will be key, she says, to getting through—and enjoying—the holidays.
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Contributor: Kyla Mandel