Here’s when we’ll know how bad the Thanksgiving COVID-19 spike is

  • Thanksgiving is over, but it could be weeks or even a month before we know just how many people were infected with the novel coronavirus during the holiday.
  • We will have to wait up to two weeks before the sickest COVID-19 patients begin to show up at hospitals, and another two weeks before those will serious illnesses die.
  • The week of Thanksgiving was by far the busiest travel week since March, but far fewer people traveled this year than in 2019, which is a good sign.

For weeks, health experts and government officials warned Americans to avoid travel and mass gatherings during the Thanksgiving holiday. The US has been breaking its own COVID-19 case records for weeks, and it seemed inevitable that the infection rate would spike even higher in the weeks after Thanksgiving. The only real mysteries are how high the infection rate will go, and how long it will be before we see the spike reflected in the data.

As Stat explains, it will be a few days before those who were infected at their Thanksgiving gatherings or while traveling to and from their home states begin to feel sick. Then they have to go get tested and wait for their results, which can take anywhere between one and seven days. Two weeks from now, those who get sick enough to require urgent care will begin to show up in hospitals, and two weeks later, the seriously ill will begin to die. Those deaths will take time to record and appear in official tallies. In other words, we won’t know the full true extent of the damage until the end of December or early January, at which point Christmas will have already come and gone.

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“Probably what this means is three or four weeks after Thanksgiving, we will see more people die than otherwise would have,” Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, predicted when asked about the fallout ahead of Thanksgiving. “We’ll see more people get infected over Thanksgiving. And unfortunately, it will probably be a lot of older people who are gathering together with their families.”

The good news is that many Americans took the threat seriously, as a Harris Poll survey showed that 70% of people were going to avoid gathering with people who don’t live with them, while 75% said they weren’t planning to travel for Thanksgiving. Needless to say, it’s impossible to get your family sick if you don’t see them.

Unfortunately, data from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reveals that more than 900,000 travelers were screened at airports around the US for seven days leading up to Thanksgiving, with those figures topping one million on three occasions. The busiest travel day since March actually occurred on Sunday, when nearly 1.2 million Americans returned home from their holiday travel. Still, these numbers are significantly lower than they were a year ago, which means that hundreds of thousands of Americans heeded the warnings.

“This all started after Labor Day, just a steady spike of Covid infections,” said El Paso nurse Juan Anchondo of the spike in his city. “I’m afraid because the holidays are coming up — Thanksgiving, Christmas — I’m afraid it’s going to be worse here, and everywhere else in the states. It’s a scary time out there right now.”

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