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Did Thanksgiving Travel Cause COVID-19 Surge? Experts Say Results Are Mixed

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. It's not like we did not know this next news story would happen. We were warned to cancel Thanksgiving celebrations or face a new surge of coronavirus infections by mid-December. Plenty of Americans did cancel their plans, although many also traveled, and Will Stone reports on what happened next.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: It was about 10 days after Thanksgiving when Dr. Vishnu Chundi started to see the aftermath of the holiday in his hospital.

VISHNU CHUNDI: I took care of a husband and wife, OK? There are two children, of which the mother passed away. It was basically from a dinner gathering.

STONE: Chundi heads a COVID task force for the Chicago Medical Society, and the mother who died was actually someone he knew.

CHUNDI: She herself was a retired nurse. You know, she didn't think it could happen to her, and yet it did. That's the take-home point for all this. It's very sad.

STONE: Chundi says he's heard countless stories like this. It's precisely what was feared before Thanksgiving - innocent family gatherings where unknowingly the virus spreads across generations.

THOMAS FARLEY: We tried everything we could to have people not do that.

STONE: That's Thomas Farley, a physician and health commissioner for Philadelphia.

FARLEY: Our case counts were falling before then.

STONE: But just five days after the holiday, Philadelphia had a big spike, accompanied by stories of people falling sick after meals together.

FARLEY: There's no question in my mind that we now know from Thanksgiving that get-togethers on a single day can change the entire course of the epidemic.

STONE: Farley says it was a huge setback. It's similar on Long Island. Dr. Gregson Pigott with Suffolk County says they knew from Halloween that a holiday could spike cases. Then Thanksgiving happened.

GREGSON PIGOTT: And all of a sudden, December 1, December 2, it went from 600 to 900. So we think that is also a spike related to a holiday weekend.

STONE: He says cases haven't come down since.

PIGOTT: That's the frustrating thing that we're trying to do our best to control the pandemic, to keep a lid on it.

STONE: There are some places where there's a strong association between Thanksgiving and a new wave of infections, from Austin, Texas, to Massachusetts. Some states believe they've dodged a post-Thanksgiving surge. Nationally, the picture is mixed.

ELLIE MURRAY: We're reasonably in a position where we can say that that really massive tsunami of cases didn't happen. And that suggests the precautions people took on average were pretty good.

STONE: Ellie Murray is an epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health. She says there are a lot of caveats, though. First, the virus was already so widespread before Thanksgiving, that makes it harder to identify big spikes and the causes. And Murray says it's still too early to say much conclusively because it's not just a matter of looking at how many cases there are but how fast infections are rising. Think of it like trying to spot when a car has gone from 20 to 25 miles per hour.

MURRAY: And it's not going to be right at the time it changes. That's sort of what we're looking at here. Like, we're trying to guess from these case counts, what is the speed of this car? Have we put our foot on the gas?

STONE: Her best read of the current data is that probably the U.S. did OK. It's not suddenly going twice as fast but not really slowing down either. So looking ahead...

MURRAY: Try to do what you did for Thanksgiving or a little bit safer.

STONE: In parts of the U.S., it would actually be more doable if controlling the spread came down to just one or two holiday events. Dr. Karen Landers with the Alabama Department of Public Health says they did see cases related to Thanksgiving, but...

KAREN LANDERS: We were already on an upward trend. So just another event on top of an upward trend.

STONE: Approaching the holidays, she holds out hope that their numbers don't continue to surge because of Thanksgiving.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.

INSKEEP: That story came from NPR's reporting partnership with Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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