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Thanksgiving shows US learned few COVID lessons after Chinese New Year

  • On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised against traveling for Thanksgiving.
  • But millions of Americans still plan to see relatives and host large, multi-household gatherings.
  • Ahead of the Lunar New Year, Chinese authorities banned large gatherings and put hotspots in lockdown, which experts say reduced coronavirus spread.
  • Much of the US does not seem to be following that example. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Just a week ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Americans not to travel to see family or friends outside their households.

“The tragedy that could happen is that one of your family members, from coming together in this family gathering, actually could end up being hospitalized and severely ill and die,” Henry Walke, the CDC’s COVID-19 incident manager, said on a call with reporters on Thursday.

But although fewer US residents will travel over Thanksgiving this year than in a typical season, tens of millions still plan to drive, fly, or take a bus to mingle with extended family. Experts expect the mass travel to exacerbate the country’s already devastating surge in cases and deaths.

In the last week, 1 million people were diagnosed with the coronavirus. On average each day, 1,300 people have died.

Anand Swaminathan, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at St. Joseph’s Hospital in New Jersey, told Business Insider that by mid-December, vast numbers of people sickened at holiday gatherings could overwhelm and “break” hospitals. 

“We don’t even know how bad the swell and surge is going to be after Thanksgiving,” Swaminathan said.

lunar new year

People pray for good fortune as they hold burning incense on the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year at Yonghegong Lama Temple, in Beijing, February 19, 2015.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters


The US has plenty of examples of successful efforts to curtail the coronavirus’ spread. But the most notable ahead of this holiday season is China’s approach to the Lunar New Year. A few days before that holiday in January, the Chinese government recommended against travel nationwide, banned all public celebrations, and shut down all transportation to and from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. 

A May study published in Science showed that without those restrictions and recommendations, the coronavirus would have spread far more quickly.

“The epidemic peaked in Hubei province on February 4, 2020, indicating that measures such as closing citywide public transport and entertainment venues and banning public gatherings combined to avert hundreds of thousands of cases of infection,” the study authors wrote.

Yet 10 months later, and with many millions more cases than China had during the winter, the US is not following that example.

Lunar New Year travel spread the coronavirus, but far less than it could have

Travel ahead of the Lunar New Year almost certainly helped the virus spread among hundreds of cities and thousands of people in China and internationally, since many people traveled before regions and cities were locked down. But it could have been far worse.

Typically, Chinese citizens make 3 billion travel movements over the 40-day Lunar New Year holiday period from January to February.

lunar new year 2020

A Chinese tourist wears a mask as she arrives at Suvarnabhumi Airport during a welcome ceremony of Chinese Lunar New Year travellers in Bangkok, Thailand, January 22, 2020.

Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters


China banned all travel out of Wuhan on January 23, two days before Lunar New Year on January 25. A day later, it expanded the restriction to encompass the entire Hubei province. The nation also banned Lunar New Year celebrations in most major cities and advised citizens not to travel. 

China had confirmed just 835 coronavirus cases and 26 deaths at that point.

“The lockdown is actually very, very forward-looking because it is based on the judgment that Wuhan has already been much much worse than [had] surfaced at that time,” Jin Dong-Yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, told Business Insider.

What’s more, Jin said, China made its decision to enact restrictions when the outbreak situation was much smaller and more controllable. 

chinese lunar new year travel

Passengers wait to board trains at Shanghai’s Hongqiao Railway Station ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year in February 2018.

Aly Song/Reuters


“It’s not quite comparable to me — this year for the Chinese New Year, at that time the spreading of the virus is still localized, mainly in Wuhan,” he said, adding, “all the other cities have sporadic cases, you can say spikes and whatever, but there’s no major widespread outbreak. That’s the difference.”

Many Americans are still planning large Thanksgiving gatherings

Jin added that Chinese citizens are more likely to follow government orders than citizens of many other countries, particularly the US and Western Europe.

“China is very different from the rest of the world. They can be very disciplined,” he said. 

Indeed, Ye Shen, an epidemiologist at the University of Georgia, told Business Insider that “most Chinese citizens took the shutdowns very seriously.”

China wuhan coronavirus

A deserted Wuhan after Chinese officials put the region on lockdown.

Getty Images


“Many people canceled their trips, and many places had lockdown orders,” Shen said. “Personally, I have had family members and relatives canceling their travel plans to foreign countries such as Japan.”

Unlike China, the US has not instituted any outright travel bans in its hotspot zones. (At this point, the term hotspot may even be a misnomer, since most US regions have high case rates.) And the CDC’s guidance came after millions of families had already made plans.

Still, AAA predicts that Thanksgiving travel will decrease by 10% overall in the US relative to last year, the largest drop since the recession in 2008. Travel by bus, train, and cruise is expected to decrease the most: from 1.5 million passengers to just 353,000, or about 76%. 

Empty Plane coronavirus pandemic airplane

A masked passenger unloads luggage after landing at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport in Minnesota, May 28, 2020.

John Minchillo/AP


Airplane travel is down, too. According to a Business Insider analysis of commercial flight data provided by Cirium, the total number of domestic flights decreased 34.5% from last year. Whereas 2019 had 213,000 flights between the Friday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after, this year there are fewer than 140,000. The total number of available seats decreased by 33.6%, from about 26.6 million to 17.6 million.

But car travel is only projected to fall slightly, from 49.9 million to 47.8 million.

What’s more, a large percentage of Americans are still planning gatherings that public health experts consider unsafe.

In a recent survey by Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, nearly 40% of respondents said they will be attending a Thanksgiving gathering of 10 people or larger. Nearly 33% said they won’t require attendees to wear masks, and 25% said they won’t require social distancing. 

small gathering family outdoors

A family hosts an outdoor birthday party at their home in Brooklyn, New York, July 12, 2020.


Caitlin Ochs/Reuters



Eli Perencevich, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Iowa, told Business Insider that even many of his patients who are sick with other illnesses, or at risk due to their age, also say they won’t follow basic safety protocol.

“Many of them are like, ‘No, we’re still having Thanksgiving with the family, and I’m not wearing a mask.’ And it’s just devastating,” Perencevich said.

If you do gather with people from other households for Thanksgiving, most experts recommend staying outdoors, keeping group size limited, wearing masks, and social distancing. 

“Now isn’t the time to get the extended family together. Keep gatherings as small as possible,” Emma Hodcroft, a scientist from Basel, Switzerland who tracks coronavirus mutations, previously told Business Insider.

If you must travel, experts say, drive in your car, since that gives you the most control over your exposure risk.

Hilary Brueck and David Slotnick contributed reporting.

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