In 2020, Thanksgiving was a pivotal moment that set in motion America’s winter COVID-19 surge – and this year, cases are once again rising.
But experts say that a winter surge in 2021 is unlikely to be as devastating as it was last year due to widespread vaccinations and booster shots.
To safely gather for the holidays, experts told DailyMail.com they recommend getting vaccinated, utilizing tests, wearing high-quality masks while traveling and maintaining awareness of Covid metrics in one’s community.
They also suggest everyone get booster shots – even young adults with no existing health conditions – as a way to cut down the risk of infection as well as transmission of the coronavirus.
Use the map below to see how your county’s case rate in the week leading up to Thanksgiving 2021 compares to Thanksgiving 2020.
On Thanksgiving in 2020, the U.S. was facing a rapid increase in Covid cases – reporting about 170,000 new cases a day, compared to 95,000 new cases a day this Thanksgiving
November 2020 marked the start of a devastating Covid surge in the U.S.
Cases rose sharply through that month, with an average of 170,000 new cases recorded each day in the week leading up to Thanksgiving itself.
In November 2021, ‘we’re in a much better place, simply because we have vaccines,’ Dr Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist with the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, told DailyMail.com.
The country is reporting about 95,000 new cases a day as of November 23, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That’s about 45 percent lower than last year’s national new case rate.
‘But still we’re not in a good place,’ Mokdad said.
Close to 100,000 new cases a day is far above the rate that the U.S. would need to reach to lift all restrictions, which Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has said is about 10,000 new cases a day.
Similarly, the U.S.’s current Covid hospitalization numbers are far below last November, but are still much higher than what experts hoped to see after almost a year of widely available vaccines.
About 44,000 Americans are in the hospital with Covid as of November 22, according to the CDC.
That’s just over half the number of people hospitalized on Thanksgiving in 2020 – about 84,000.
The vast majority of these patients are unvaccinated. Unvaccinated Americans are about 10 times more likely to be hospitalized with Covid than vaccinated Americans, according to CDC analysis.
As Covid cases rise nationwide, many of the states feeling the brunt of the surge are those located further north.
About 44,000 Americans are currently hospitalized with Covid, compared to about 84,000 on Thanksgiving in 2020. Some states are now seeing record hospitalizations
Michigan, New Hampshire and Minnesota have the highest case rates in the country, according to the November 23 Community Profile Report.
All three states have recorded more than 500 new cases for every 100,000 people in the past week, five times higher than the CDC’s threshold for high Covid transmission.
In Minnesota, hospitals are currently seeing their highest Covid patient numbers of 2021.
Some Minnesota school districts have moved classes online or closed school for the full week of Thanksgiving to address the surge.
Vermont, another northern state that was previously considered a Covid success tory, is seeing its highest case rates of the entire pandemic.
Colorado is another state facing concerning Covid case numbers.
‘Last year, this was a really bad time. And this year, it’s a really bad time,’ Dr Jon Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, told DailyMail.com.
‘Our peak of hospitalizations last year was actually December 1. We had 1,847 Coloradans in the hospital. We’ve been on the rise since September here, and yesterday, that number was 1,565.’
On Thanksgiving in 2020, Covid deaths were also increasing sharply. During the peak of the 2020 winter surge, the U.S. would report over 3,000 deaths a day
Colorado Governor Jared Polis was among the state leaders who announced that all adults in his state were eligible for booster shots, before the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expanded authorization nationwide.
‘Our chief medical officer, Eric France, said that everybody in the state is at high risk’ for Covid due to the rising case numbers, Samet said.
Existing Covid vaccine regimens are very effective at protecting against severe Covid symptoms, hospitalization, and death – especially for younger people who don’t have medical conditions conferring Covid risk.
But protecting severe Covid symptoms on an individual level are not the only reason to get vaccinated, Samet said.
‘There is this very important notion of not what’s in it for an individual personally, but what’s in it for everybody,’ he said. ‘And that is reducing transmission by not becoming infected.’
Dr Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, agreed.
‘There are three reasons to get a booster shot,’ he said. The first reason is preventing severe disease – an important motivator for seniors and other vulnerable individuals.
‘Goal number two is prevention of infection,’ Chin-Hong told DailyMail.com.
This may be an important goal for healthcare and other essential workers who want to lower their risk of missing work and being unable to support their families due to a mild Covid case.
Booster shots can help prevent severe Covid symptoms, as well as reducing risk of infection and transmission, said Dr Chin-Hong. Pictured: A senior receives her booster shot of the Pfizer vaccine in Boca Raton, Florida, September 2021
The third goal is preventing transmission.
‘For example, if you were going across the country to visit Grandma, you probably would want to focus on the goal of transmission prevention,’ Chin-Hong said.
‘Even if you’re fine, and it [Covid] would just seem like an annoying cold to you, you don’t want to bring it to Grandma.’
Thanks to widespread vaccinations and booster shots, experts who spoke to DailyMail.com said that a surge this winter is likely to be less deadly than what the country faced last year.
The current surge in Europe ‘should be a warning sign for all of us in the U.S.,’ Mokdad said, as European countries facing increasing cases have similar vaccination rates to the U.S.
To Mokdad, the European surge is a signal of waning vaccine immunity – and a motivator for Americans to get their booster shots.
Still, Samet said that, without vaccinations, Colorado’s current surge ‘would have been devastating.’
Based on modeling research, he said, Colorado may see a similar pattern of cases this year – rising through November and December, then falling in January – but that fewer cases would lead to severe illness.
Monoclonal antibodies and other treatments, such as the Pfizer and Merck antiviral pills currently under consideration at the FDA, may also help reduce case severity.
However, Samet also noted that the U.S. ‘healthcare system seems to be more stressed this year,’ after almost two years of a pandemic.
About one in five healthcare workers has quit their job since March 2020, according to The Atlantic.
Vaccinations, tests, high-quality masks, and other safety measures can reduce risk for Americans traveling and gathering with family this holiday season. Pictured: Vaccination at a clinic for kids in Racine, Wisconsin, November 2021
For Americans gathering during Thanksgiving and other winter holidays in 2021, all the experts who spoke to the DailyMail.com emphasized getting vaccinated – including booster shots.
Testing for Covid prior to travel or gatherings was another common recommendation.
‘Use a rapid test before visiting Grandma,’ Chin-Hong suggested. Rapid tests can ‘make everyone feel safe when people are coming from different households from around the country.’
Mokdad additionally recommended utilizing high-quality masks, such as N95s and KN95s – particularly while traveling on an airplane or public transportation.
Finally, multiple experts who spoke to DailyMail.com recommended that Americans be aware of the case rates in the areas where they’re traveling from or to, as well as the behaviors of others in their families.
‘Particularly when you’re indoors, treat those occasions with care,’ Dr William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told DailyMail.com.
‘Think in advance about when and who’s going to wear masks when we all get together,’ he said.
‘What are the ground rules going to be? Should some people be tested before they come to the celebration?’
Thinking through such questions in advance – and communicating with guests of those celebrations – can help to increase safety and reduce friction on holidays themselves, Schaffner said.