When COVID-19 first swept across the US last March, the average person probably wouldn’t have predicted that we’d be where we are today: still in the thick of it.

Yet now, over seven months later, college students across the country are facing that hard reality, and in some cases, an equally hard choice. This Thanksgiving, students living on campus (for some, college is in-person right now; for others, college is a mix of in-person and remote learning) must decide if they’re comfortable going home to celebrate the holiday with family. It’s a predicament that’s rife with confusion and questions—How can I travel safely? Will I get sick? Am I putting family at risk?—and consequently, threatens to rack people with guilt and anxiety. And for good reason: Rather than COVID-19 slowing down, the US is currently experiencing a third wave of the pandemic.

“As a respiratory epidemiologist and clinician, I will say our percent positivity has definitely been rising,” says Beth Thielen, MD, PhD, an expert in respiratory viral infections at the University of Minnesota. “The idea that it’s all because of increased testing has become a false argument. If that were the case, what you’d be seeing is the number of tests going up and the number of cases staying constant—so the percent positivity would be going down. It’s the opposite.”

Still, knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to stay separated from family or negate feelings of disappointment, grief, or anger.

“People are itching to return to normal—sometimes the psychological impact of that is to be in a bit of denial about the potential risk,” says Lily Brown, PhD, director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. “People are struggling with grief and mourning the life that we had at this time last year. They deeply desire to hold onto some sense of normalcy. What’s challenging for people is that even during the best years, the holidays can be deeply emotional. When we’re faced with the holidays in socially isolated ways, that can be especially difficult.”

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Ultimately, some students may not even have the ability to decide for themselves. “Many college students will be coming home regardless because colleges have changed when the semester is ending,” says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious diseases specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Meanwhile, other colleges are asking students to remain on campus—and require that the fall semester be finished remotely if they do leave. For those who end up heading home for whatever reason, it’s all about mitigating risk and staying as safe as possible under the circumstances.

Whether you’re traveling, staying on campus, or are still on the fence, here are expert tips to help you have a healthy (and sane) Thanksgiving.

To Travel or Not to Travel, That Is The Question

If you’re able to go home for Thanksgiving but can’t make up your mind, run through this checklist of considerations:

  • What’s the rate of infection where you go to school and where you’re traveling to? Although the vast majority of the US is experiencing a surge in cases, there are a handful of areas—such as Maine, Vermont, New York, and Hawaii—where the rate of infection remains relatively low. (Granted, spotting where COVID-19 is increasing can feel a bit like playing whack-a-mole. For the latest information, Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center updates data by county daily.).
  • If you’re coming from or going to an area with a high infection rate, you may want to reconsider travel or take extra precautions. “I’m in Minneapolis and the Upper Midwest is having rampant spread,” says Dr. Thielen. “That level of community spread it worrisome because you could be exposed and not know it.”
  • What precautions has your campus been taking? Do you feel as if your college has COVID-19 in check or are cases running rampant? At Vanderbilt, for example, there’s a mask mandate, socially distant classes, and weekly testing of the student body. Such precautions may help give you peace of mind that you’re less likely to be infected.
  • Will there be elderly and/or immunocompromised people attending? For many, this question is the big one. “From all the evidence we have, the risk of college students themselves getting severely ill isn’t zero, but it’s very low,” says Dr. Thielen. The real risk of going home for Thanksgiving is in exposing vulnerable older family members and those with underlying illnesses. “When COVID started circulating this past spring in long-term care facilities for elderly patients, we saw that the mortality rate could be quite high.”Making the situation even more tricky is the tendency of younger, healthy people to be entirely asymptomatic. Because of this, “kids are the ones who are most likely to bring it [COVID-19] into the family,” says Dr. Schaffner. In other words—is there someone in the house who you could unknowingly be putting in danger? And if so, can you come up with a careful plan to make sure that your visit won’t put their life at risk?
  • What would long-term symptoms mean for you? While COVID-19 generally isn’t fatal for young patients, it can cause persistent symptoms such as fatigue for weeks after the initial infection. “There’s real concern that this is a long-haul disease,” says Dr. Thielen. “Thinking about college athletes and such, I would take into account what it would mean if you got ill and were unable to participate in the next month or so of training. That is a real risk.”
  • Can you drive home? Because it allows you to stay isolated from other people who are potentially infected, driving will significantly reduce the risk of you contracting COVID-19 in transit and potentially giving it to your family. If driving isn’t an option, however, all is not lost. Flying likely isn’t quite as hazardous as we once thought—as long as you wear a mask.

    A recent study conducted by the Defense Department concluded that if passengers wear masks properly and continuously, little of the virus will spread because of how the air is circulated and filtered in cabins. “Everybody has to wear their masks all the time,” says Dr. Schaffner. “If they start taking it off to drink their cokes or have a sandwich, that breaks the discipline. You’re more at risk to the people who are in your row, two rows in front, and two rows behind.” 

    To help maintain social distancing even further, book with an airline that is blocking middle seats (as of early November 2020 Delta, Jet Blue. Alaska, Hawaiian, and Southwest Airlines) and reducing capacity through the holidays. Doctors Schaffner and Thielen also recommend picking a direct flight, if possible, to avoid spending more time than necessary in the airport and with two different sets of passengers.

    As for trains, there’s no concrete data yet. “It all depends on how dense the traveling population is,” says Dr. Schaffner. Better to book a quick plane flight if it means less exposure time and fewer overall passengers to make contact with.

[Click to Learn More About the Power of Anger]

Still Can’t Decide? Try These Tips

Even with the facts laid out in front of you, the choice might not feel clear.

“There are so many factors that go into the decision making around this that there’s a lot of uncertainty,” says Brown. “And when there’s uncertainty, people sometimes make rash decisions.”

These three strategies will help keep you on the right path for you:

  • Make a pros and cons list. The trick to this one? Transparency. “It’s easy to say ‘I have been told by public health professionals that I’m not supposed to do this’ and that’s an admirable approach,” says Brown. “But it can lead to resentment. Instead, really be honest with yourself about what the potential cons are. Consider how it might feel really good to connect with grandma on Thanksgiving, but the day after, how are you going to feel about your decisions? Is the relief going to be coupled with guilt? And is that guilt justified or unjustified?”
  • Get in touch with yourself. To reduce reactive decision making, Brown also recommends becoming more aware of the link between your emotions and behavior urges. “When we’re feeling a high-intensity emotion, it can pull us toward very reactive decisions—and those decisions often aren’t in our best interest,” she says. For example, are you okay with having Thanksgiving with the whole family because you genuinely think it’s safe? Or in your heart of hearts do you believe it’s too risky, and are just feeling tempted because you’re feeling so lonely?
  • Go surfing. The mindfulness technique of urge surfing encourages us to imagine riding our urges like a surfboard, instead of fighting against them. “When we have strong urges to engage in reactive behaviors they tend to reach a peak really quickly,” says Brown. “If you don’t give in, the urge will eventually subside. But it requires you to distract yourself to get some distance from the urge.”

Here’s What You Need to Know if You Decide to Go Home for Thanksgiving

First, the bad news: If you’re going home for Thanksgiving, there is no way to make your visit 100% safe. The good news? How high the risk depends largely on your behavior.

“I don’t like to use that four-letter word ‘safe,’” says Dr. Schaffner. “What we’re trying to do is keep the risk as low as possible.”

As for Dr. Schaffner and his household—which includes both a college and high school student—they plan to forgo a big, traditional family dinner. Instead, they will visit other relatives for a maximum of 1.5 hours and keep their masks on.

How to Mitigate Risk of COVID Transmission on Thanksgiving

  • Determine the rules in advance. “Don’t make it up on the fly, because that leads to argument and confusion,” says Dr. Schaffner. Well before the big day, have an open family discussion about everyone’s expectations and comfort levels and establish a game plan.
  • Limit the number of guests. While states have different guidelines regarding the number of people who should be at Thanksgiving get-togethers, just about everyone agrees that smaller is better. The size of where you’re meeting might affect how many people can safely come. “I would really try to have less than 10,” says Dr. Schaffner. “In the average home, it’s hard to stay separated if you have more than that.” Dr. Thielen also suggests thinking about the number of people in terms of households that quarantine together. “Every one of those people could be infected, but it’s not bringing in new germs from different places,” she says. “It’s the absolute number of different people who could have been mixing with other people that is really the driver.”
  • Don’t hug grandpa. As good as it will feel to see your family, it’s better for everyone in the long-run to make it a hug and kiss-free zone.
  • Eat outdoors if possible. Dining alfresco isn’t an option for everyone, but if the weather allows, it’s not a bad idea to take your turkey outside this year. Researchers believe that the risk of transmitting COVID-19 is much lower outdoors because fresh air is constantly moving. “That doesn’t give you an all-y all-y oxen free to take off your masks and be casual,” warns Dr. Schaffner. “You still have to observe the same rules. It’s just that outdoors, you reduce the risk even more.”
  • Don’t forget your manners. Your COVID manners, that is. Remember that they still apply, even with family. Whenever possible, stay six feet apart, wear a mask, and always practice good hand hygiene.

Should I Quarantine? Do I Need to Get Tested?

In the age of COVID-19, one of the biggest question marks has been how to travel safely. Is quarantining sufficient? If so, for how long? Do you also need to take a PCR test? This past week alone, New York tossed out its mandatory 14-day quarantine in favor of a testing approach for out-of-state travelers. According to both Dr. Thielen and Dr. Schaffner, quarantining for 14 days before you travel is the most effective way to reduce spread. (The incubation period of COVID-19 is estimated to be up to two weeks.)

“Probably more important than testing is controlling your exposure,” says Dr. Thielen.

Ultimately, college students who find themselves at the mercy of university scheduling will have to make do with reality. If a full two-week quarantine isn’t possible thanks to classes and exams, a modified quarantine will work. “Keep yourself isolated as much as possible in the weeks before your trip. Don’t go to bars and restaurants or other events,” says Dr. Thielen. When you get home, try to keep to your own part of the house as much as possible.

Both doctors also agree that you can’t “test” your way out of quarantine. “A test is a snapshot of a moment in time,” says Dr. Schaffner. “Testing can be part of what people do, but you can’t rely on it totally.”

Dr. Thielen explains: “I think everybody wants to think they can test their way out of this situation, but the reason we have quarantines is that if somebody is exposed to COVID-19 today, they can start shedding the virus and become infectious anywhere between two and 14 days after. There is an incredible amount of individual variability. Tests can create false reassurance in that way.”

Still, that’s not to say you shouldn’t take a PCR test as an extra precaution if it’s available in your area. These COVID-19 tests are largely accurate, while rapid tests are more likely to produce false negatives.

“If you get tested at the start of the trip, at least it tells you you’re not shedding the virus right now,” says Dr. Thielen. Depending on how long you’re home, another option is to get tested again after 14 days to confirm that you’re in the clear.

I’ve Decided to Stay on Campus. How Can I Make Thanksgiving Meaningful?

Making the difficult decision to not spend Thanksgiving with your family this year may bring up feelings of guilt, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. And it may require a difficult conversation with your loved ones if they’re on a different page. (If that’s the case, Brown recommends setting your boundaries with the dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skill known as DEAR MAN, an acronym that stands for describe, express, assess, reinforce, stay mindful, appear confident, and negotiate.)

But being away from home doesn’t mean you can’t mark the occasion and make it your own. According to Brown, no matter where you end up celebrating, it’s important to honor the spirit of the holidays.

“Think about the things you really enjoy about Thanksgiving,” she says. “Is it giving yourself permission to take the day off? Is it cooking? Is it connecting with loved ones?”

That might mean watching a holiday movie over Zoom with your siblings or preparing a big meal with a friend who stayed in town.

In fact, flexibility and creative thinking will likely prove to be two hallmarks of Thanksgiving 2020 for everyone, whether they’re celebrating with family, friends, or on their own.

“I think approaching the holidays this year will require acceptance that it’s not going to be normal—and also some grieving of that fact,” says Brown. “Maybe the goal shouldn’t be to make it [Thanksgiving] feel normal, but to get something out of the holiday under the circumstances.”

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Last Updated: Nov 5, 2020