MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:
You're listening to SHORT WAVE From NPR. Hey, everybody. Maddie Sofia here.
EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: And Emily Kwong.
SOFIA: So over the past week, the U.S. has hit a record number of coronavirus cases multiple times.
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ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The U.S. enters the worst stage of the coronavirus pandemic to date. With an unthinkable 1 million new cases each week and no sign of letting up...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: California is the second state to record more than 1 million coronavirus cases.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: In the past month, the number of people hospitalized with the virus in the U.S. has nearly doubled.
SOFIA: We now have what experts call unchecked community spread in more than 40 states. Some hospitals in parts of the Midwest are completely at capacity or almost there, and many of our health care workers are exhausted. And this is happening as we're headed into the holidays.
KWONG: Right. And the reality is, when people get together for holidays like Thanksgiving, it's impossible to be risk-free.
SOFIA: All gatherings carry risk, and that risk is considerably greater when you include people from outside your immediate household.
KWONG: Yeah. The safest way to do Thanksgiving is actually to stay where you are. Celebrate in person with those you already live with and virtually with those you don't. That's what Dr. Anthony Fauci is doing.
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ANTHONY FAUCI: I have three adult professional daughters in three separate parts of the country that would require flying for two of them and driving for another. What we're going to do is we're going to have a meal with my wife and I, and we're going to Zoom in and spend some time back and forth with the girls. I don't like it that way, but I think they're making a prudent decision in trying to protect their father. And I'm proud of them for that.
SOFIA: But realistically, we know that not everyone is going to have a remote Thanksgiving. People are going to gather in bigger groups for the holidays. Maybe some of your family members have insisted on gathering. And even if you don't agree with them, you want to help keep them as safe as you can.
KWONG: Yeah, or maybe you have a loved one who has been isolated for too long and is really struggling. Whatever your situation is, we want to help you and your loved ones stay safe this holiday season.
SOFIA: So today on the show, ways to reduce risk if you're getting together for the holidays - steps to take before, during and after you get together.
KWONG: This is SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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SOFIA: So one of the most important things you can do to stay safe, regardless of how much or little you're celebrating, is to have really clear communication with the people you're gathering with.
KWONG: That's right. If you are traveling to someone else's home for the holidays, setting expectations and rules for that gathering before you get there is key. I mean, Maddie, how many times have you gotten to some kind of socially distant hangout where you're not exactly sure what the rules are?
SOFIA: All the time, Kwong. And it makes me really sweaty and nervous. You know that. So to counteract that, I've started asking questions ahead of time. Like, can we keep it outside and at a distance? How many people will be there? - that kind of stuff.
KWONG: And it's so much easier to have those conversations beforehand instead of on the spot, especially if you're far from home and can't easily leave if you're uncomfortable.
SOFIA: Right. And if your family is suggesting something you're not comfortable with, you get to know ahead of time. And we want to make it clear that it is OK to back out entirely or from some of the celebration. Maybe you decide, OK, I don't want to be indoors with that many people for that long. So maybe instead of coming over early, I'll just come later for dessert and hang out for, like, a bit.
KWONG: Now, we say this knowing family dynamics are tough, but the pandemic has gotten a lot worse really quickly, especially over the last few weeks. And if you or a family member no longer feel safe traveling or being together, you have to respect that.
DAVID RUBIN: I certainly think for our family, we're taking that approach - particularly as we've seen our rates really skyrocket in our region - to recognize that this is truly a different phase. Whatever you thought about what we should or shouldn't be doing six weeks ago, it's a very different calculus right now.
KWONG: That's David Rubin. He's a doctor from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. And listen; If your family isn't OK with you changing your mind, just send your angry relatives to Maddie.
KWONG: Her email is M-S-O-F...
SOFIA: OK. All right. OK. But yeah, I mean, if it means you're more comfortable and safe, you can send me your angry loved ones. Or, you know, better yet, just send them this episode.
KWONG: Yeah, that's true. That's a better idea.
KWONG: OK. Let's say you talk with your family, and you decide you want to visit. We're going to walk you through an imaginary Thanksgiving. OK, we're one week out from the holiday, so everybody should be quarantining now if you haven't already started because every day you limit your interactions with others will decrease your chances of bringing the virus into your homes.
SOFIA: And as far as testing goes, it can't hurt for everyone to get tested now - like, today. But a test really only tells you about your status the moment you take it because it takes coronavirus a while to build up in your body after you're infected. So getting tested once at the last minute isn't super-helpful.
RUBIN: The drive-by test on Tuesday before Thanksgiving is not going to protect the family at the Thanksgiving table because it only tells you about your exposure six or seven days ago, particularly if you've not been quarantining.
KWONG: Plus, it may be a while before you get results back. Nationwide, testing companies are reporting that it's taking longer these days to turn around tests. But regardless, the best indicator of your risk is your own behavior, so start that quarantine now.
SOFIA: OK, so we've had that set-up conversation. If we can, we've gotten tested. We are in full quarantine mode. Let's talk travel real quick, Em.
KWONG: So the ideal way to travel according to the CDC and epidemiologists like Mercedes Carnethon - it's in your own personal car. That's because unlike airports or buses or train stations, it's really you in your own bubble.
MERCEDES CARNETHON: And it's really only those stops in the interim to get gas, to stop to pick up food and even interactions in a hotel if you have to stay overnight. So that's clearly the safest form of transportation.
SOFIA: Now, we know that everybody does not have their own car or can afford to rent one. So if you do have to travel via public transportation, always remember your mask. Keep as much distance as possible from fellow travelers, and wash your hands whenever you can.
KWONG: OK, so now we've run through all of that prep work. Let's talk safety at the main event - the holiday celebration - starting with the hellos. Maybe it's been a while since you've seen Uncle Jay, and he is a hugger. Well, as he approaches you got to remind him, OK, wait. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop, Uncle Jay. Let's do a little air hug, you know, and say, you owe me one. Your Christmas present can make up for the lack of hug right now.
SOFIA: (Laughter) I like how you got a present out of that somehow, Kwong.
KWONG: Buying and selling, baby.
SOFIA: Always, always. OK. OK. So here's another big one. And I know it's already really chilly lots of places. But if possible, like Judy Guzman-Cottrill - an infectious disease doctor - says, keep things outdoors.
JUDY GUZMAN-COTTRILL: Yeah, absolutely. Outdoors, again, is always safer than indoors because of the natural ventilation and the constant movement of air.
KWONG: Even if you've quarantined and gotten multiple tests, maybe put those tailgating tents to use, you know, the way you can stay outside and keep at a distance but be covered from rain overhead.
SOFIA: Right. And if possible, avoid tents that have those fold-down sides, or keep them up a little bit for airflow if you absolutely have to.
KWONG: But let's say you don't have an outdoor space - right, Maddie? - and you have to gather indoors.
KWONG: All right. In that case, try still to get as much air circulating as possible, and fresh air is the best. So crack windows. Have fans blow air from inside the room out of those windows. That's all a good bet.
SOFIA: Getting a portable air cleaner is also a good idea for indoor spaces if you can afford it. A good HEPA air filter can cut down on overall particles, which means fewer coronavirus-containing particles.
KWONG: Which is crucial because some coronavirus particles are super-tiny and can hang out in the air for hours. And more importantly, they build up over time. So the faster you can make that meal, the better. The CDC says that 15 minutes of close contact over 24 hours is all it takes to get someone sick.
KWONG: And, of course, it's still essential to wear a mask whenever you are indoors and keep as much distance as possible.
SOFIA: And as far as risk goes, the food itself is not a huge risk. But be careful on how you prep and serve it. The CDC recommends one person doling out the food and avoiding going in and out of the areas where the food is being prepped and handled, like the kitchen.
KWONG: Yeah. So the CDC is basically saying, make sure there aren't too many cooks in the kitchen...
KWONG: ...For science and safety but maybe for your sanity, too.
KWONG: That's always, like, a stressful part of Thanksgiving anyway.
SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, it's always for safety in my family regardless of pandemic. You know what I'm saying, Kwong?
SOFIA: The CDC also suggests using single-use utensils and plates you can just throw out instead of all cleaning up together. R.I.P., the Earth. And, again, make sure everyone's keeping their masks on the whole time they're not eating and drinking. And when masks do come off, make sure they're stored properly.
KWONG: Like in a paper or mesh bag. And then do, you know, a little splash of hand sani (ph) just to be sure.
SOFIA: Yeah. And throw out that bag once you're masked up again.
KWONG: But again, all this advice is under the umbrella advice to try to keep...
KWONG: ...The whole visit as short as possible. But especially keep as few things inside as possible.
SOFIA: So maybe you eat quickly inside but say, like, OK, this has been fun. Let's keep bonding by playing cornhole outside or going on a socially distant stroll around the neighborhood - that kind of stuff.
KWONG: Now is the time to come up with new traditions. Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist from Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says we're already doing it. People in her neighborhood got really creative during Halloween.
MONICA SCHOCH-SPANA: You know, creating clotheslines with little bags of candy spread out so kids could take that or chutes where you could deliver candy down the chute at a safe distance. And so I think it's that capacity for humans to improvise that speaks to, again, our ability to recreate culture in ways that are driven by the historical moment in which we're living.
SOFIA: I like that, Kwong. That's nice.
SOFIA: OK, so we've had our meal, maybe a little pumpkin pie, and it is time to leave.
KWONG: No long goodbyes, no kissing and hugging, which I know kind of sucks.
SOFIA: Yeah, it really sucks.
KWONG: Now, that brings us to our last piece of advice. Your holiday visit and all of that awkward communication and non-hugging is not over when you leave because you just spent considerable time with people outside your home bubble. So it's really important to quarantine as best you can for two weeks after.
SOFIA: And it's not a bad idea during that time for you to get tested about a week after your visit or your last possible exposure. And if you test positive, share that information with whoever was there. There's no shame in getting the coronavirus however you got it, and telling people they may have been exposed is protecting them.
KWONG: I'm really glad you said that, Maddie, because, you know, Thanksgiving, if you're going to do it in person in a safe way, is really a month-long commitment.
KWONG: And if you're not able or willing to do that but you want to stay safe, it's a good idea to reconsider if you should even have in-person Thanksgiving...
KWONG: ...Or if you should scale back your Thanksgiving in some kind of way. You know, after working on this episode, that's what my family is doing.
KWONG: And look. We know you've been hearing this kind of stuff for a while now. It is a lot. And to be honest, we are scared and frustrated, too, because we have not had a consistent, coherent and scientifically sound leadership at the federal level - and, in some cases, at the state level - on what to do. The responsibility to slow down this pandemic has been put on us, the individuals.
SOFIA: But the trick is to stop thinking of ourselves as a bunch of individuals and start acting like a community.
SOFIA: I mean, when you're making decisions out here, it's not just about whether or not you get sick. Just being in the world right now can make things more risky for other people.
SOFIA: Like, are you going to contribute to longer, slow lines in the airport that will put airport staff at higher risk?
KWONG: So this winter, these are the decisions we have to make. Choosing to drive somewhere instead of fly or getting your flu shot so you're less likely to take up the time of a very overworked health care worker or wearing a mask - I mean, these things can literally save lives. That's not an exaggeration. We get to decide how bad this will get.
SOFIA: Look. We know we threw a bunch of information at you in this episode, so we'll make sure to put resources in the episode notes for you about best practices for ventilation, info on testing, that kind of stuff.
KWONG: So from us to you, happy holidays, everyone. Please stay safe. Stay home as much as possible, and take care of each other. This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Ariela Zebede. Leo Del Aguila was the audio engineer on this episode. I'm Emily Kwong.
SOFIA: And I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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