What 635 Epidemiologists Are Doing for Thanksgiving

The family of one epidemiologist plans to celebrate Thanksgiving in a garage, with tables 10 feet apart and the doors rolled up. Another epidemiologist’s family is forgoing a traditional meal for an outdoor hot cider toast with neighbors. A third is dining in an outdoor tent, with a heater, humidifier and air purifier running.

And, according to an informal survey of 635 epidemiologists by The New York Times, the large majority are not celebrating with people outside their household. Public health experts from a range of backgrounds answered our questionnaire. Not all of them study Covid-19, but all have professional training about how to think about disease spread and risk.

How 635 epidemiologists are spending the holiday season

Seventy-nine percent said they were having Thanksgiving dinner with members of their household or not at all. Just 21 percent said they would be dining with people outside their household — and in most cases, they described going to great lengths to do so in a safe way. Their answers were similar for the other winter holidays, like Christmas and Hanukkah.

About 8,000 epidemiologists were invited to participate in our survey, which was circulated by email to the membership of the Society for Epidemiologic Research and to individual scientists.

The holiday season is arriving as the coronavirus spreads with renewed strength across the United States, with cases up 77 percent and deaths up 52 percent in the last 14 days. On Thursday, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans to avoid travel and celebrate the holiday only with members of their household. Epidemiologists are making these same personal decisions, with added expertise.

“As difficult as it is not to be together for such occasions, we respect the virus and know that no system or level of personal protection is perfect,” said Bruce Copley, an epidemiologist who works as a private consultant and is not celebrating with anyone outside his household.

Another epidemiologist, Kendra Sims, a doctoral student at Oregon State University, is eschewing any special Thanksgiving dinner this year. “Nothing tastes as good as safety feels,” she said.

Some have coordinated with family or friends to cook side dishes, then exchange them and return home to dine alone. Some are quarantining, having no contact with others, for two or more weeks before the holiday, and getting multiple tests. Others are inviting only members of their quarantine pods — one said her pod had written “a constitution of allowable activities” to ensure they all followed the same rules. Many are resorting to a Zoom-giving.

“It’s just me, and while I usually have a place to go, this year I intend to stay home and just Skype or Zoom with family and friends instead,” said Bill Strohsnitter, an affiliate associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “I guess that’s why the N.F.L. gave us Turkey Day football.”

Epidemiologists stressed that their decisions depended on many factors, including the level of virus spread in their area; the degree of isolation of the people they may join; and whether they’re able to have the meal in safer ways, like outdoors.

Credit...Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

“We will be celebrating Thanksgiving outside, using portable tables and heaters,” said Erin C. Dunn, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. “In Maine. Enough said.”

Epidemiologists are also considering personal circumstances. Several said they were inviting people who were single for dinner, or including college students returning home or relatives who were recently widowed. Some said they were trying to find a safe way to gather for their own mental health.

“Ph.D.s are lonely,” said Nina Masters, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, who plans to travel from Ann Arbor to New York to see her parents. “I will quarantine for three full weeks — an extra, for good measure.”

In other cases, they said their own health concerns or their relatives’ age or underlying conditions were driving their decision.

“Seeing family is restorative and a source of joy,” said Danielle Gartner, a research associate at Michigan State University. But she is pregnant and said she was also weighing the risks to her health and her baby’s. “Given the spikes in cases in Michigan, we decided it best to cancel our plans to gather in person. The same is true for the Christmas holiday.”

Jennifer Kelsey, an emeritus professor of epidemiology at Stanford University, who is 78, does not plan to have a special dinner: “There is no way I would attend a holiday gathering, as I am not suicidal.”

Some said that instead of trying to recreate a traditional Thanksgiving or mourning the loss of it, they planned to do something entirely different.

“I live alone with my 5-year-old,” said Alicia Allen, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. “We’re going to skip the normal Thanksgiving plans, which for us means a road trip, and go on a hike and picnic locally instead, just the two of us.”

Hannah Maier, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, has devised an alternate meal. She is having a few friends over outside, and serving fall cocktails and individual savory and sweet mini pies: “Maybe we’ll incorporate some hopscotch or sprints down the block to stay warm.”

Others said that as experts in public health, with deep knowledge of how an individual’s actions can put the broader community at risk, they felt it was their responsibility to cancel plans, or else they never made them in the first place.

“Each individual has to do their part for the greater good and public health of our family, neighbors, strangers and, most importantly, the health care workers and first responders who must continue to care for the public,” said Anna Gorczyca, an assistant research professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Several are focusing on the fact that it’s a short-term sacrifice, because the recent news about highly effective vaccines suggests it will be safe to gather next holiday season, if not sooner.

Mollie Wood, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Cincinnati, considered driving nine hours to see her mother, but decided to wait.

“I miss her so much, but I just couldn’t convince myself there was a safe way to do it,” she said. “So we’re going to have a video chat on the holiday this year, and plan for a big party next year.”

“I would like to see my family. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It’s my birthday and my dad’s, too. But I’d also really like to celebrate many future Thanksgivings with my family and birthdays with my dad. I assume others would appreciate the same. So we have absolutely no holiday celebrations with people from outside our household this year.”

Rachel Widome, associate professor, University of Minnesota

“We were planning to celebrate with my parents, as usual, but my mother phoned last night and said that because Dr. Fauci was canceling Thanksgiving dinner with his daughters, she was canceling ours.”

Linda Kahn, postdoctoral fellow, N.Y.U.

“Thanksgiving has the strong potential to be the start of a period of bleakness around Covid-19 the likes of which we haven’t seen yet, and we have seen some really grim times already. I am terrified of the ramifications of decisions the population as a whole is making around Thanksgiving.”

Sarah Cohen, senior managing epidemiologist, EpidStrategies

“I feel incredibly depressed to not see my extended family this year. My newborn won’t get to see his grandparents for his first Thanksgiving. At this stage, he will spend his entire life without knowing other family members. Even as a professional, I sometimes find it hard to take. Given that as an epidemiologist, I understand the need for social distancing, I can only imagine how the general public feels.”

Annette Regan, assistant professor, University of San Francisco

“My elderly mother lives alone in isolation. The rest of my household will isolate for about two weeks before and be tested directly before getting together. The total number of people is six.”

Jennifer Albrecht, associate professor, University of Maryland

“We formed a pod with another family several months ago after writing up a ‘constitution’ of allowable activities. We are all working from home and limit in-person shopping or visits with others outside the pod.”

Christine Gille Kunitz, doctoral student, University of Minnesota

“My husband and I are welcoming a new puppy into our household over Thanksgiving weekend! With no family close to us, this is a different but a great way for our family to celebrate Thanksgiving this year.”

Taylor Etzel, doctoral student, Johns Hopkins University

“Planning to go camping and fishing with my partner.”

Linda Titus, adjunct professor of public health, University of Southern Maine; and professor emeritus, Dartmouth

“My household has strict quarantine plans in place and will be tested multiple times before driving to our families’ homes, where we will quarantine and test again.”

Ruby Barnard-Mayers, doctoral student, Boston University

“Santa had better wear a mask.”

Theodore Brasky, assistant professor, Ohio State University

“Children will interact with other neighborhood children, but adults will not interact outside the household.”

Jay Kaufman, professor, McGill University

“It will be a tough year, but my household will not be spending it indoors with family or friends, since the worst gift we could give would be to spread Covid-19.”

Laura Anderson, assistant professor, McMaster University

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