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Thanksgiving's Impact On Pandemic Unclear


Even though hope is on the way with vaccines, the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc across the country. And while it remains unclear how much of an impact Thanksgiving had on the pandemic, experts are bracing for what's coming over the next holidays and beyond.

NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now with the latest. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Ailsa.

CHANG: So going into Thanksgiving, we heard a lot of fears about how, like, get-togethers would make the pandemic much worse. Do we know now whether that really happened?

STEIN: You know, Ailsa, the short answer is it's still hard to know for sure. I've been talking with epidemiologists around the country about this, and some think the holiday did throw fuel onto the fire, especially in some places. Others say it's still kind of murky. You know, it is clear that millions of people ignored public health warnings and traveled for Thanksgiving. But Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington says cellphone data also shows that changed dramatically after the holiday. Activity plummeted, and lots of people just seemed to have hunkered down.

ALI MOKDAD: After Thanksgiving - silence. Even, like, number of cellphone calls went down. Eating at restaurants went down. So here you have two events - major events that happened at the same time. Very hard to tease the impact of Thanksgiving.

STEIN: And you know, on top of that, lots of places imposed new restrictions. The holidays always cause delays in reporting data, which makes it hard to interpret what's going on, and there's lots of variation of what's been happening around the country since Thanksgiving.

CHANG: Variation. OK, let's talk about that. What have we been seeing happening all around the country?

STEIN: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So there are parts of the country where things aren't quite as bad as they had been, like the Midwest, which had been getting hammered in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. Things seem to have leveled off there or even improved a bit. It's still bad, but at least it's not, you know, accelerating upwards like before in this terrifying way. But other parts of the country, especially some big states, have gotten really terrible. And Dr. David Rubin at the University of Pennsylvania - he blames Thanksgiving.

DAVID RUBIN: Right after the holiday, within a week you saw, you know, Los Angeles, for example, surge past 10,000 cases a day very quickly. The New York region really blew up. And then we're really seeing it in the southeast right now in the Carolinas, in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi.

STEIN: You know, and he says in North Carolina, there's been a notable spike of infections among elderly people. He suspects that many are parents and grandparents who caught the virus around the Thanksgiving dinner table from college students on home for break.

CHANG: Man. OK, well, can you just step back for a moment and tell us what do the numbers look like nationally right now?

STEIN: Yeah, so unfortunately, overall, the pandemic has never been worse in this country. More than 200,000 people are getting infected every day on many days. More than 112,000 people are now hospitalized with COVID-19. Hospitals are running out of beds and doctors and nurses. More than 300,000 people have already died, and thousands more are dying every day. And we're now about a week away from Christmas, when lots of people could be getting together for even longer than they did over Thanksgiving. I talked about this with Jeffrey Shaman at Columbia.

JEFFREY SHAMAN: We have to be very, very careful with this virus right now. Particularly with these vaccines being deployed now, we have to keep face mask-wearing, the social distancing, the restrictions on mass gatherings and the limited interaction with people that we would like to interact with. If we start relaxing those, the virus can take off again.

STEIN: And some projections say tens of thousands of more people could die in the many months it's going to take for enough people to get vaccinated to finally stop this pandemic.

CHANG: That is NPR's Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: Sure thing, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.