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How to celebrate Thanksgiving safely — while still in the grips of the pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As eager as we are to give the all-clear signal, coronavirus cases are rising again. People who are vaccinated face less risk but not nothing, and millions remain unvaccinated. So how do you navigate the holidays if you're among the millions who are gathering in large groups this week? NPR's Allison Aubrey begins our coverage. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How concerned should people be?

AUBREY: You know, I think people should be aware. Cases have definitely rebounded. The good news is we clearly have ways to protect ourselves. Seventy-four percent of people 5 and up in the U.S. are vaccinated with at least one dose. And though there are plenty of breakthrough cases - a few states tracking them find nearly a third of cases are among fully vaccinated people - they tend to be milder, Steve. But some people do get sick, and breakthrough infections are riskier in older people. That's why the CDC is recommending boosters. I spoke to Dr. Judy Guzman-Cottrill of Oregon Health and Science University who says booster shots will help shore up protection.

JUDY GUZMAN-COTTRILL: My elderly parents are planning to visit my family, which includes a flight from Illinois to Oregon. And they're both in their 80s, and my mom also has underlying health conditions. So they received their booster vaccines a couple weeks ago. I think that's a really important point when making travel plans for the holidays.

AUBREY: Especially for older people, though people 18 and up can get a booster.

INSKEEP: You still do get breakthrough infections, though. I've certainly known people who've had them. And you also have the odd relative or the many relatives, in some cases, who didn't get vaccinated. So should you ask people to get tested before coming over?

AUBREY: You know, a lot of infectious disease doctors tell me testing is a good idea, especially if you're planning a multigenerational gathering. If you have, as I do, a mix of grandparents, college kids coming home, people traveling through crowded airports, young kids not fully vaccinated yet, tests offer peace of mind, Steve. Dr. William Miller of The Ohio State University says older people, especially those 80 and up, even if they're vaccinated are more likely to end up seriously ill if infected. So taking extra steps to protect them just makes sense.

WILLIAM MILLER: I actually think that notion of using testing to be able to feel more confident, it is kind of a mindset. Like, let's make sure everyone's negative before we get together.

AUBREY: This is especially important if you have guests who are not vaccinated. And Miller says it's reasonable to not include people who are unvaccinated and won't get tested.

INSKEEP: Well, suppose that people do agree to get a test. It's possible to be - get a negative test and find out later you are actually positive. What's the best way and when's the best way to do this?

AUBREY: The over-the-counter rapid antigen test, such as the BinaxNOW or InteliSwab tests, are reliable, but they're not 100% sensitive at picking up very early infections. That's why it's best to do the test on the day of the gathering. Here's Judy Guzman-Cottrill again.

GUZMAN-COTTRILL: People must remember that the antigen tests are a quick snapshot. So a person could be negative on Monday but then positive a few days later. So I usually recommend if people are going to be using a home antigen test to use it as close to the event that you're gathering with others as possible.

AUBREY: For families traveling, some plan to do a test before they leave and then again a day or so later at their destination.

INSKEEP: What's the advice for families with kids who are as yet not able to get vaccinated because of their age?

AUBREY: Yeah. Well, I think for very young children and for 5- to 11-year-olds, there's kind of this limbo state because they're - many of them are partially vaccinated. So Dr. Emily Landon of the University of Chicago says people should take precautions based on the risks of the people they're gathering with, such as what is the age and health of grandparents if grandparents are in the picture?

EMILY LANDON: I think this depends a little bit on the situation of Grandma. If Grandma is a spry, young 70-year-old woman who has no medical problems and has, you know, two doses of vaccine plus a booster, you know, I don't think these kids are going to pose a ton of risk.

AUBREY: As long as kids have been masking at school and during travel and limiting their risks.

INSKEEP: Someone out listening is really appreciating that description of a spry, young 70-year-old.

AUBREY: (Laughter) That's right.

INSKEEP: But what if someone's a little bit older, maybe a little bit less spry?

AUBREY: You know, if your group includes people at high risk for a bad outcome from COVID, you know, people in 80s or 90s, you may want to consider more measures to protect them. Here's Dr. Landon again.

LANDON: Additional layers might mean they should maybe wear a mask around Grandma. Maybe you should have as much of the gathering outside as possible. Maybe you choose to not sleep over at Grandma's house but just come to Grandma's house during the day for the big event.

AUBREY: And drive home or sleep in a hotel or at a friend's to sort of limit the risk. I mean, bottom line, Steve - gatherings are on for so many Americans, and that is great, but given that the virus is still around, it is smart to be aware and take some precautions.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks for your reporting, as always.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.