The thing we’ve been warned about for months — the cold-weather surge in COVID-19 cases — is here, happening all around us. Nearly a quarter of a million Americans have died of the virus so far, and there are more than 10 million cases nationwide — far more than at any other point in the pandemic. Hospitalizations are at an all-time high. And still, somehow, still people are planning to travel for the holiday season: United and American Airlines are adding flights to meet expected demand.
Perhaps they are telling themselves that airplanes carry a relatively low risk of COVID transmission; that much may be true. But everything that comes along with holiday travel — namely, prolonged indoor exposure to people outside your household — is much riskier, and we’re not even remotely in the position to take risks. Things were very bad in March and April, and now they are much worse.
Earlier this year, we mostly agreed to stop all unnecessary travel — in August, global travel was down 85 percent from 2019. Nothing has happened to render this policy unnecessary. It’s just that now it’s almost Thanksgiving, and soon it will be Christmas, and we had hoped it would be safer by now. But it’s not.
This shouldn’t be shocking: There are no widely available treatments; there is no vaccine; and mask compliance is irregular at best. President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to make combatting the coronavirus pandemic his No. 1 priority, but he won’t take office until early next year. In the meantime, President Trump and the rest of our national leadership continues to pretend none of this is happening.
Managing COVID-19 risk (and its economic consequences) has fallen too heavily on individual Americans, and it’s not fair. It’s only natural to be exhausted and lonely after nine months of changing guidelines. Our collective mental health is suffering, and it’s hard to trust that our government and health-care system will ever sufficiently equip itself to meet the needs of a traumatized nation (and world). It’s infuriating to be told to keep doing the same things we’ve been told to do since March. And yet, that’s as good as we’ve got. Until next spring and early summer, when immunologist and presidential adviser Anthony Fauci says he hopes the vaccine will be readily available, we have to keep washing our hands, wearing masks, and practicing social distancing. And that means not traveling to be with other people — even if it’s a holiday, and even if that has been our holiday routine until now.
“When people get together indoors — eating, drinking, talking, shouting, singing — that’s unfortunately how to spread a lot of COVID, especially when people are traveling around,” former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden told CBS News. Frieden warned that increased travel over Thanksgiving could lead to yet another surge in December. Fauci has said his own children won’t travel to see him for Thanksgiving; other epidemiologists and infectious-disease experts suggest organizing get-togethers over Zoom and confining in-person celebration to single households.
Nobody wants to hear this. Most people want to travel for the holidays, whether to be with family or to be somewhere (anywhere, at this point) different. But if you haven’t already broken it to the people you’d otherwise see, it’s time to tell them you’re staying put. Hopefully our aspirational vaccine timeline is right, and hopefully by this time next year things will be different. In order to give ourselves that chance, we can’t risk the possibility that our personal holiday travel might get someone sick. By now, we know enough to know how dangerous a gamble that can be.