The risks of traveling home for Thanksgiving are far deadlier this year than spats with relatives over mashed potatoes and roasted turkey.
The COVID-19 pandemic is the worst it’s ever been in the U.S., with over 1.1 million cases reported in the past week. The CDC has warned against traveling this year, pleading with Americans to celebrate Thanksgiving virtually.
Despite this, at least thousands of UF students are traveling home for the holiday and hundreds partied in groups over the weekend. A group of UF Health doctors staged a demonstration to pass out masks and raise awareness of the dangers of COVID-19 to bargoers.
The university asked students living in residence halls to complete a survey about their travel plans before and after break. UF estimates 87% of students who live in residence halls will leave campus for Thanksgiving Break, which begins Wednesday, said UF spokesperson Steve Orlando.
This means about 5,000 of the 5,707 students currently living in on-campus residence halls plan to travel this week. Of those traveling, about 40% plan to return to campus afterward — despite classes moving online after break — and 24% were undecided, Orlando said.
Travel plans for the tens of thousands of students who live off campus are unclear, because the survey targeted students on campus.
UF’s COVID-19 cases have risen consistently throughout November. This week’s seven-day average was about 35 positive cases a day, and there are 799 students and staff quarantined as of Sunday, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard.
If people choose to travel, the safest way is by quarantining for 14 days beforehand, and only spending time with people within the household, said Dr. Kartik Cherabuddi, epidemiologist and associate professor of infectious diseases at the UF College of Medicine.
“Keep grandma and other at-risk family safer by choosing celebrations that keep friends six feet apart, masked and outdoors,” he said.
Getting tested prior to traveling is not the only precaution people should take, he said. People should continue taking precautions once they’re home, even if they’ve tested negative and quarantined.
“It is not to be applied as a pass to safety since any exposure in the past 14 days can still turn into an illness in the subsequent days with no further exposure,” he said.
While some UF students continue to party, others are taking precautions leading up to break.
Jenna Williams, an 18-year-old psychology freshman, said she got tested for COVID-19 Wednesday and plans to get a rapid test once she arrives home in South Florida Sunday.
“I’m very serious about it,” Williams said. “I’m not one of those kids that goes out and parties right now.”
In the period between receiving her test results and actually leaving for home, Williams said she plans on isolating and wearing a mask, which she has been doing all semester.
“I would feel so bad if I ever brought anything home,” she said. “So I will definitely do what needs to be done in order for that to not happen.”
Still, tens of thousands of UF students live off campus and in the surrounding Gainesville area, where bars and restaurants are typically packed full of mostly maskless students.
On Friday, a group of UF Health doctors and interns staged a demonstration outside Downtown and Midtown hotspots — Downtown Fats, White Buffalo, Fat Daddy’s — to voice their grievances about large-scale gatherings.
Dr. Ellery Altshuler, an internal medicine resident at UF Health Shands, organized the demonstration. He and three other health care workers donned masks and scrubs, handing out masks to bar and restaurant goers.
They stood on street corners holding large, white signs that read “protect your family this Thanksgiving, mask up,” “2,000 died today from COVID,” and “don’t give the rona to your grandma.”
Altshuler said they staged the demonstration Friday night to remind people what’s at stake before they travel home for Thanksgiving.
“All of the residents are seeing a ton of COVID patients,” he said. “People don't realize the impact of some of these mass-spreader events just because they don't see it.”
Altshuler said it’s hard to watch people pack into bars and restaurants knowing the effect it has on hospitals.
“The hardest part is probably calling family members,” he said. “They're sitting by the phone, hoping for good news — you call them every day, and patients just get worse and worse.”