When you’re shopping for the turkey, stuffing and the cranberry sauce for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner, there’s one thing health experts say you shouldn’t forget to add to your basket: a rapid coronavirus test kit.
Including testing in your Thanksgiving Day plans should be a part of a strategy to help to keep the virus from being an uninvited guest at holiday festivities, health officials say.
As is wearing a mask if you’re going to be indoors with people who don’t live in your household, said Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state health department. She issued a statewide public health advisory Friday, recommending masks for all Michiganders older than 2 when indoors.
“Many of us are thrilled at the prospect of being with family and loved ones again,” said Dr. Adnan Munkarah, executive vice president and chief clinical officer of Henry Ford Health System. “We understand that this past year and a half has been very trying. We also want … to be safe and to make sure that we are not contributing to further spread” of the virus.
AAA predicts Americans will travel at pre-pandemic levels for Thanksgiving this year as 53.4 million people are expected to hit the road and take to the skies for the kickoff to the holiday season — that’s up 80% this year.
A new Monmouth University poll found that two-thirds of Americans plan to host a Thanksgiving Day gathering with the same or a greater number of people as they did before the pandemic began.
The heavy travel and large holiday meals are expected despite high rates of coronavirus spread and hospitalizations in Michigan and in many other parts of the country.
Michigan broke the pandemic record for the highest seven-day case rate on Friday, when it reached 696.7 cases per 100,000 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a case rate that leads the nation, and is more than double that of neighboring Ohio’s.
That could ratchet up infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths from the virus even higher.
“Vaccine status continues to be the most important and paramount in keeping all of us safe,” Munkarah said. “So for those of you who are getting with family, we hope that all of you have been vaccinated because this provides significant safety and protection for all of you.
“There is no question that in light of the numbers that we are seeing in the community, even in people who are vaccinated, COVID testing provides an added … safety measure, but does not displace vaccination as a tool to protect us from infection.”
Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail agreed, saying testing on the morning of Thanksgiving is just one layer in a multipronged approach to preventing spread of the virus this holiday season.
“My favorite advice is: If you’re going to gather, gather with fully vaccinated people. That’s the safest thing that you can do,” Vail said.
If young children still ineligible for vaccines are coming for the holiday feast, Vail said surrounding them with adults and older children who are fully vaccinated is “a heck of a lot safer.”
Hertel recommended tests both before and after holiday gatherings as well as anytime you have symptoms or after you’ve been exposed to a person with COVID-19.
If possible, keep gatherings small, Munkarah advised, and crack a window or two open to boost air flow.
“We know that stagnant air can definitely contribute to the transmission,” Munkarah said. “And by all means, if you are not feeling well, if you’re running a fever, or have shortness of breath or are tired and suspect that you might have either the flu or COVID, please stay at home so that you can protect your loved ones and those around you.”
Vail urged anyone eligible for COVID-19 vaccine booster shots to get them now. That’s especially important, she said, for people who are immunocompromised.
Amid growing case rates and concerns about waning immunity, federal regulators expanded booster shot eligibility Friday to include all U.S. adults for whom it has been at least six months since the last Pfizer or Moderna dose or at least two months after the last Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“Hopefully, most people have gotten moving forward with that,” she said.
The state health department also urges Michiganders to consider gathering where people can spread out and where there is good ventilation, to wear a mask in indoor public spaces and in crowded outdoor environments, along with frequent hand-washing.
Even mild symptoms that might be shrugged off as allergies or a cold ought to be taken seriously, Vail said. Anyone with such symptoms should stay home and get tested.
Munkarah warned, however, that testing isn’t a panacea.
“We need to remember that the COVID testing is just a snapshot in time,” he said. “So people can have negative testing today and turn positive tomorrow. And we know that with antigen testing, there is some what we call false-negative rates, this means people having the infection and still testing negative.
“So this is why it is important for us to follow the protective measures. … Make sure that the gatherings … and the groups that we are in all have been vaccinated.”
But it may not be possible to limit your holiday meal to only people who’ve gotten their shots. About 46% of the state’s total population is not fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Because the pandemic has been so politicized, and there’s so much misinformation about the vaccines and COVID-19 in general, the Office of the Surgeon General has published a guide to help people talk to their families and friends to combat misleading and false health information that could come up at the Thanksgiving table.
“This isn’t just something that affects a small segment of society,” said U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. “A recent poll indicated that nearly 80% of American adults either believe or aren’t sure about a common COVID-19 myth. As clinicians, community leaders, and other partners tell me as well, they are continuing to hear people quoting these myths to explain why they won’t get vaccinated.
“I’ve even heard some of these myths from my own family members who have received misleading videos and false articles through text chains and social media feeds. I’ve had to talk to my family members about why this content is harmful.”
The tool kit, Murthy said, “might come in handy around the dinner table this Thanksgiving.”
In place of an in-person gathering with unvaccinated people, health leaders suggest a Zoom celebration or even an outdoor get-together.
“Having Thanksgiving outside may be a little difficult,” Hertel said, given the weather, “although some people might enjoy that.”
If you must gather with others, the city of Detroit’s Health Department suggests testing no more than 72 hours in advance, along with wearing a mask when you’re indoors with people indoors who do not live in your household — whether they are vaccinated or not. And if you do travel, the health department recommends quarantining for at least one week following your return home.
“We are all looking forward to celebrating the holidays in person with our loved ones this year, and we want everyone to stay safe and healthy,” said Denise Fair Razo, Detroit’s chief public health officer.
Rapid coronavirus tests are sold at drugstores for about $25 apiece, though they’ve been in short supply in recent weeks.
If you can’t find one, the state health department offers dozens of pop-up testing options available around Michigan. For a full list, go to: michigan.gov/coronavirus or call the state’s COVID-19 hotline at 888-535-6136.
Free rapid tests also are available by appointment 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays at the Joseph Walker Williams Community Center, 8431 Rosa Parks Blvd., in Detroit. Call 313-230-0505. (The center will be closed Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday.)
The federal government also is working to increase access to free COVID-19 tests by expanding the number of sites where that service is available, including at local pharmacies. There are now several hundred locations in Michigan. You can find one nearby online at https://findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov. Call ahead to ensure test availability.
Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.