As Thanksgiving approaches, US virus cases tick upward once more
By Mitch Smith
A month ago, new coronavirus cases in the United States were ticking steadily downward and the worst of a miserable summer surge fueled by the delta variant appeared to be over. But as Americans travel this week to meet far-flung relatives for Thanksgiving dinner, new virus cases are rising once more, especially in the Upper Midwest and Northeast.
Federal medical teams have been dispatched to Minnesota to help at overwhelmed hospitals. Michigan is enduring its worst case surge yet, with daily caseloads doubling since the start of November. Even New England, where vaccination rates are high, is struggling: Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire have tried to contain major outbreaks.
Nationally, case levels remain well below those seen in early September, when summer infections peaked, and are below those seen last Thanksgiving. But conditions are worsening rapidly, and this will not be the post-pandemic Thanksgiving that Americans had hoped for. More than 90,000 cases are being reported each day, comparable to early August, and more than 30 states are seeing sustained upticks in infections. In the hardest-hit places, hospitalizations are climbing.
“This thing is no longer just throwing curveballs at us — it’s throwing 210-mile-an-hour curveballs at us,” said Michael Osterholm, a public health researcher at the University of Minnesota. He said that the virus had repeatedly defied predictions and continues to do so.
The new rise in cases comes at a complicated moment. Last Thanksgiving, before vaccines were available, federal and local officials had firmly urged Americans to forgo holiday gatherings. But in sharp contrast, public health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, have mostly suggested this year that vaccinated people could gather in relative safety.
In interviews across the country, Americans said they were not sure what to think.
Jess Helle-Morrissey, 43, a therapist who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, said she has decided to host a dinner, although case rates in her state are among the country’s worst. About 4,200 cases are emerging every day and hospitalizations are soaring in Minnesota.
“They are diligent maskers and don’t take any extra risks,” she said of her guests. “Everyone who is coming, I keep saying, is, you know, vaxxed to the max.”
In important ways, the country is in better shape than during previous upticks. Doctors have learned more about how to treat the virus and experts are hopeful that antiviral pills will soon be approved. Most crucially, many Americans have been vaccinated. The availability of those shots — including the recent approval of booster doses for all adults — has raised confidence for many who said they planned to proceed with holiday celebrations.
But about 50,000 coronavirus patients are hospitalized nationwide, and tens of millions of Americans have declined to be vaccinated. The course of the virus in Europe, where Austria is entering a lockdown and some areas of Germany have shut down Christmas markets, has raised fears about just how high case numbers might rise in the United States.
“The last thing I want is what Austria is doing,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, the public health commissioner in Chicago, where cases have started to rise. “I really, really don’t want to go there.”
In Austria, about 66% of the population has been fully vaccinated against the virus. In the United States, about 59% of the population has been.
Still, millions of Americans were forging ahead with holiday plans. Federal officials expected Thanksgiving air travel to approach pre-pandemic levels. And plenty of people who hit the road this year will be unvaccinated, unmasked and largely unworried about COVID-19.
Many experts said the wide availability of vaccines, now authorized for everyone 5 and older, as well as at-home testing, made it possible for vaccinated people to host a relatively safe, although not fully risk-free, gathering.
Arwady said she planned to spend the holiday with extended family members, all of whom are vaccinated except young children who are not eligible. While reports of new cases in Illinois have increased 62% in the past two weeks, she said she wanted vaccinated people to feel confident going about their life and to enjoy Thanksgiving.
“Is there the potential for some spread? Of course there is,” said Arwady, who suggested that unvaccinated adults consider staying home. “Are the people who are vaccinated, even if they haven’t gotten a booster, likely to end up in the hospital or die? They’re really not.”
Osterholm said he worried about breakthrough cases in vaccinated people who did not have booster shots and about the potential for future mutations of the virus. Still, he too said he would gather for the holiday with vaccinated family members who live nearby.
Officials who once urged caution were now deferring to individuals to make their own decisions.
“It’s really hard to tell people to stay away from their families,” said Mayor Katie Rosenberg of Wausau, Wisconsin, where cases have surged to their highest levels since late 2020. “I can’t anymore.”
Dr. Rebecca Smith, a public health researcher at the University of Illinois, said she planned to travel by vehicle with her children to see family but would get tested before and after.
“People want to get back to normal and we understand that — and there are ways to do that safely,” she said.