Americans heard the pleas to stay home. They were told what would happen if they didn’t. Still, millions traveled and gathered during last week’s Thanksgiving holiday, either doubting the warnings or deciding they would take their chances.
Now, like any partygoer waking from a raucous weekend — feeling a bit hung over and perhaps a tinge of regret — the nation is about to face the consequences of its behavior and will need to quickly apply the lessons before heading into the doubleheader of Christmas and New Year’s.
Health experts point to several key takeaways: Many states were overwhelmed by unexpected surges in testing — with many families hoping a negative result might make their planned gatherings a little safer. Some airports were not prepared for the huge crowds that had not been seen since the beginning of the pandemic, making it difficult for travelers to maintain social distancing.
But perhaps the most obvious lesson: Public health messaging needs to be retooled, as whole swaths of the country are simply tuning out the warnings from officials and experts. “We have to rethink how we’re communicating. Blaming people, yelling at them, stigmatizing them — clearly it’s not working,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security. “We have to show compassion and empathy. Understand where people are coming from and persuade them to do otherwise.”
As bad as the country’s infections and hospitalizations are now, they will probably worsen in coming weeks because of the millions of interactions that occurred over Thanksgiving, experts say.
In recent days America’s infection curve has already become a sheer mountain-climber’s cliff with record-breaking case numbers and hospitalizations. If people travel and gather for Christmas as they did this past week, they project, the country’s already catastrophic situation could reach levels where hospitals are forced to choose which patients to save and which to let die, and where lockdowns become unavoidable realities of everyday life.
“What concerns me is that Thanksgiving is an American holiday,” said Melissa Nolan, an epidemiologist at the University of South Carolina. “Christmas is an international holiday — it’s celebrated around the world. So if Thanksgiving is an indicator of how much travel we can expect at Christmas, I think that is very concerning.”
During this small window between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the thing most in need of course correction is the country’s messaging, many experts believe. “If we see a post-Thanksgiving surge of cases and deaths, is that going to change people’s minds for Christmas?” Rasmussen, the Georgetown virologist, asked. “I kind of doubt it because cases and deaths were going up already before Thanksgiving.”
Many people seem to be continuing to indulge in a kind of magical thinking and denialism, as they have all year long. “It’s like ‘I know this is a bad idea, but I want to do it, so I’ll find a reason and way,’ ” Rasmussen said.
To counter that, some health departments put out messages ahead of Thanksgiving designed to shock and scare residents into paying attention. Among the bluntest messages were images posted by the Salt Lake County Health Department on Twitter. One showed a family smiling for a photo around a Thanksgiving table.
“Everybody say, ‘I was just exposed to COVID!’ ” a text bubble says. The caption offers a stark warning: “Thanksgiving leftovers won’t taste as good if you’re on a ventilator.”
The campaign was intended to shock people out of pandemic fatigue, a Health Department spokesman.