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COVID, the flu, RSV: How to have a virus-free Thanksgiving

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Travelers head to the terminal at Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday. The holiday travel rush is already on, and it could spread out over more days than usual this year. Travel experts say the ability of many people to work remotely is letting them take off early for Thanksgiving or return home later. 

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

As many of us prepare to get on the road or head to the airport to gather with loved ones this Thanksgiving, it is still important to stay vigilant about COVID.

While the coronavirus does not loom as large as it once did, wish as we might, it and its many subvariants are very much still here. In the Bay Area, there are two more viruses to contend with — the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. Combined, these three viruses are straining local hospitals as case numbers of each are spiking, leading some experts to worry about the potential of Thanksgiving triggering a "tripledemic."

That said, the last two years of the pandemic also demonstrated how critical community and social connections are to our health. Lockdowns and lengthy quarantines led to an unprecedented global increase in loneliness and anxiety and depression. Here in the U.S., emerging evidence suggests that 61% of young adults are experiencing a sense of "serious loneliness." This is why occasions such as Thanksgiving are important — they provide a much-needed opportunity to connect with family and friends, and potentially alleviate some of these mental health challenges.  

So how can we stay safe while enjoying the holiday?

The first step is understanding that everyone's risk tolerance for a coronavirus infection is different. For some, contracting the virus may not present a major challenge, but for many, the infection can be debilitating. People with comorbid medical conditions, like cancer or diabetes, or those with reduced immunity, continue to be at risk of developing serious health consequences from the virus. Moreover, long COVID or post-COVID — the spectrum of symptoms people experience after an initial infection — is still a poorly understood phenomenon that can have lasting impacts on a person's life for months or years.

If you haven't already, consider broaching the topic of risk tolerance with your loved ones before the big gathering. Hosts can ask guests about what kind of protections would make them comfortable or ask them to get rapid tests done beforehand. Guests could also disclose with each other or with the host ahead of time if they've recently been infected so that others can make informed decisions about whether they'll attend.

For those using public transportation to get to Thanksgiving dinner, masking is another important tool at your disposal. Miscommunication and the politicization of face masks, especially around when to use them and which ones to use, have led to a rapid decline in their adoption. But high-quality face masks, such as the N95s or KN95s, which are available online and at numerous local stores, are effective against infection and can be an important tool in crowded places such as the airport or inside the airplane.

For those hosting, having enough rapid home coronavirus tests on hand can also help prevent the spread of infection as is increasing ventilation wherever guests are gathering. Wherever possible, using outdoor space is a smarter choice to decrease the circulating virus particles and prevent the spread of the virus.

Lastly, developing contingency plans for the scenario if someone gets infected, either while traveling or on the day of, is prudent. Being prepared with a plan for how and where guests might isolate, or if needed, how to obtain Paxlovid, can give everyone just a bit more peace of mind and more ability to be present and connect.

In the long term, nothing will prevent the spread of the virus more than getting vaccinated or the latest booster. With the holiday upon us, instituting some of these practices can go a long way in keeping everyone safe.

Taking time to connect with loved ones over the holidays is critical to overall health. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, a research initiative going on for more than 80 years, demonstrated that investing in good relationships had a positive impact on participants' long-term physical and mental health and well-being. Staying vigilant about preventing the spread of viral infection is a small investment to ensure everyone can celebrate the holiday.

Dr. Junaid Nabi is a physician and senior fellow at the Aspen Institute focusing on global health systems. He is a member of the Working Group on Regulatory Considerations at the World Health Organization. Twitter: @JunaidNabiMD

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