Editor’s Note: CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana S. Wen is an emergency physician and a visiting professor at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. Previously she served as Baltimore’s health commissioner. Follow on Twitter: @DrLeanaWen.
If you want to visit your family for Thanksgiving and avoid passing coronavirus on to them, experts say you need to quarantine for 14 days.
That’s two weeks of doing even less than we’re doing now, and it needs to start today.
CNN talked to CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and a visiting professor at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, to find out what that entails. Here’s her guidance.
CNN: Why do we need to quarantine before seeing relatives?
Dr. Leana Wen: The United States is suffering through the worst part of the pandemic that we have seen yet. We have added 1 million new infections in just 10 days. Hospitals in multiple states are already diverting patients because their emergency rooms and intensive care units are too full.
Remember that people we love can carry the virus as much as strangers can. When the level of virus in the community is so high, it’s not safe to get together in person, indoors, with anyone not in your immediate household bubble.
If you want to get together with other households for an indoor Thanksgiving, you need to quarantine for 14 days and then get tested.
CNN: Why is quarantine 14 days long?
Wen: Fourteen days is the maximum incubation period for the virus that causes Covid-19. If you quarantine for less time than 14 days, you could be infected and not know it. I am certain that none of us would want to inadvertently spread Covid-19 to those we love the most. Taking a test too early – before a 14-day quarantine – may not pick up on the infection.
CNN: What can we do during our quarantine?
Wen: In this case, quarantine refers to staying away from others and minimizing your risk as much as you can. It doesn’t mean staying locked in your house. Getting fresh air is good and important for your physical and mental health. So it’s fine to take walks and exercise outdoors. Try your best to stay away from other others, and keep at least a 6-foot distance when outdoors.
We know Thanksgiving can involve a lot of cooking, and therefore grocery shopping. Going to the grocery store can also be low risk, although you should try to go during off-times and try to go just once during your 14-day period. You could also try to order groceries or the entire meal to be delivered to your home.
CNN: What should we not do?
Wen: Here’s what’s high risk and should be avoided during this period. Do not go to indoor bars or restaurants. Avoid gyms. Most important: do not get together with anyone else outside your household for anything indoors – no dinner parties, no birthday celebrations or any other get-together indoors. If you are socializing outdoors, make sure you keep a 6-foot distance from others at all times.
If you’re getting together with other households for the holiday, you should discuss what other activities you would be OK with. Many doctors’ offices have put in place precautions and it’s probably low-risk to visit the doctor. Many workplaces have instituted many protocols to reduce risk, and it may even be very low-risk to go to work if you can keep at least a 10-foot distance from others and wear masks at all times.
CNN: Does everyone have to quarantine?
Wen: Yes. The key is that every member of every household that wants to get together must participate in the quarantine for 14 days. If one person breaks quarantine, that person is exposing everyone else to their risk. This requires a lot of trust, so set that expectation in advance.
CNN: What about daycares and schools?
Wen: This is a tough one. Daycares and schools may be necessary for a lot of families when it comes to childcare for working parents. They may be relatively lower risk for transmission, especially for younger children. However, there is an infection risk, especially given the high level of coronavirus across the country. I would not consider a family that’s still sending kids to daycare or school to be low risk enough to be part of an indoor celebration. But if kids stop daycare or school now and then get tested in 14 days, they could see other relatives indoors.
CNN: Can we still see one another if we don’t quarantine for 14 days?
Wen: Yes, but you can only see them outdoors, with households spaced at least six feet apart. You can still host safely and have fun! But do not get together indoors.
CNN: Are there other ways to celebrate if we can’t get together with our family?
Wen: Yes! Being safe doesn’t mean we should stay isolated. Maybe we can’t get together in person with family. You can plan an outdoor “Friendsgiving.” Bundle up and bring warm blankets. Be flexible if it turns out that we can’t celebrate Thanksgiving on that day because of the weather.
CNN: What if we have to travel to see family for Thanksgiving?
Wen: I’m less concerned about the travel itself than the activities before the travel. The 14-day quarantine period should happen before the travel. Then do everything you can to minimize risk while traveling.
CNN: Is driving better than flying?
Wen: Driving will be safer than flying because you can control who’s in your car. Keep rest stops to a minimum. Make sure to wear a mask if you’re using a public restroom and sanitize your hands after leaving. Even flying has relatively low risk, with only a handful of infections reported for flights where everyone is wearing masks. Make sure to wear a mask the entire flight, ideally an N95 or at least a 3-ply surgical mask.
Still, I urge everyone to reduce nonessential travel. Even though the travel itself is low-risk, I worry about people coming from all over the country, since nearly every part is a coronavirus hotspot at this point.
CNN: What about college students coming home for the holiday?
Wen: Many colleges have had outbreaks. Young people tend to be asymptomatic spreaders, and returning college students should be treated as being very high risk.
It’s probably not practical for students to quarantine for 14 days before they return. In that case, they need to quarantine once they return home. That means staying in an area of the house that’s totally separate from anyone else. They should not be in any indoor areas with other people for 14 days. They can socialize outdoors only during that period.
CNN: This is a lot. Is it really necessary?
Wen: Yes. I know it’s a lot. But we have to get through this winter. There is hope on the horizon, with a vaccine and therapeutics likely next year. We need to get to that point. That means we have to keep up all these precautions. Wear masks. Physical distance. Wash our hands. Avoid indoor gatherings.
We’ve already endured so many sacrifices. We can get through this winter, together.