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Millions of Americans are traveling for Thanksgiving despite warnings about COVID-19 from public health officials

Passengers at ticket counters at Terminal C at Logan Airport.
Passengers at ticket counters at Terminal C at Logan Airport.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Millions of Americans have begun to scatter across the country for the Thanksgiving holiday, despite warnings from public health officials and elected leaders to refrain from traveling as coronavirus infections surge to alarming levels.

While passenger volumes at Logan International Airport and other airports across the country remain far lower than last year, Sunday marked the country’s busiest air travel day since mid-March, with nearly 1.05 million passengers crossing security checkpoints. It was only the third time since the earliest weeks of the pandemic that more than 1 million passengers flew in a day — and the second since Friday, according to Transportation Security Administration data.

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The uptick closely followed a new advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people should stay home for Thanksgiving to contain the virus’s spread. Political leaders and public health experts warn that holiday get-togethers, typically held in close proximity indoors, will likely amplify the recent surge.

“The biggest risk is that you’re taking the virus from one place, and moving it to another,” said Megan Ranney, associate professor of emergency medicine at Brown University. “You could be traveling when you’re asymptomatic and infectious, and you’ve now spread the virus across state lines or across towns.”

A large gathering around the Thanksgiving table is a “perfect medium for transmission,” she added.

New England has also seen a jump in air traffic, according to TSA. Just over 78,000 people traveled from the region’s six major airports between Friday and Sunday, with the vast majority flying out of Logan. About 60,000 traveled each of the previous three weekends, the agency said.

The Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association circulated a letter Monday, signed by nearly 100 chief medical officers and chief nursing officers from across the state, urging people to think carefully about Thanksgiving by keeping gatherings small, setting up meal tables to allow for distance, celebrating outside when possible, and staying mindful of seniors and those with chronic conditions.

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”Throughout the pandemic, we have often been asked how people can support our caregivers as they combat COVID-19 with compassion and bravery,” they wrote. “Wearing a mask and avoiding large gatherings is the greatest gift you can give.”

At Logan on Monday, a long line of travelers awaited check-in at Terminal E. Many appeared to be students headed home for the holiday.

Anna Penner, 19, stood in the line with several bags, essentially all she could carry from her dorm room at Amherst College back to Salt Lake City. Like many students traveling home, she won’t be returning to campus until spring.

“It is scary traveling and knowing we may be bringing it back to our families,” Penner said. “I got tested yesterday, so as far as I know, I don’t have it.”

Public health experts have warned that negative tests do not guarantee that family gatherings will be safe, since infections may last several days before yielding a positive result. But state officials have reported a sharp increase in testing in recent days, with more than 100,000 new tests on Saturday and Sunday, an indication that people are seeking assurance before celebrating the holiday.

Despite the recent uptick, the weekend’s passenger counts across the country were still about 57 percent lower than the same weekend in 2019, when 7 million people passed through airports. The figure was about 67 percent lower from 2019 for the New England airports. After months of low traffic, officials at Logan recently announced they were cutting the workforce by about 25 percent.

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Governor Charlie Baker, whose administration has urged residents to celebrate Thanksgiving within their households, took some heart in the numbers at a news conference on Monday, noting that the decline from last year shows that “the message that’s been delivered by folks like us and by many others across the country has clearly resonated with many people” who will stay home.

Still, Ranney said the passenger growth over recent weeks is worrisome.

“Like so many things with this pandemic, there’s the perfect, and then there’s the reality. The only way to completely stop transmission of this virus is to completely stay home. But that’s not realistic, appropriate, or feasible,” she said. “I’d certainly far rather see people not travel at all, but the fewer people who travel, the better. I’m glad many Americans are listening to the guidelines. I wish that more were.”

Motorists may also be backing away from holiday travel plans. Based on an October survey, the American Automobile Association projected that about 50 million people would travel for the holiday, a 10 percent drop from last year and the steepest decrease since the 2008 recession; the estimate in Massachusetts was similar at 9.7 percent.

But the organization recently said the number of travelers will probably be lower, with many travelers making last-minute decisions to cancel plans due to the surge in the virus.

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“People really are thinking long and hard about whether it’s safe to travel,” said Mary Maguire, spokeswoman for AAA Southern New England.

Massachusetts reached a new pandemic milestone over the weekend, registering 200,000 confirmed coronavirus cases. Last week, the nationwide death toll from the virus surpassed 250,000, and officials said they expect that number to continue a steady climb.

Public health experts stress that the biggest risk associated with travel is not the act of traveling itself, but what people do once they arrive — and the possibility that they’re bringing the virus with them.

Airplanes, for example, are fairly safe, because they replace air regularly and use high-quality filtration systems, said Joseph Allen, associate professor of exposure assessment science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Eating a meal in a stuffy dining room with a wide-cast net of family members is a far greater threat.

“Airplanes are very effective at moving sick people around the country,” Allen said. “The individual risk on the airplane is lower than other aspects of travel . . . I’m more worried about what’s happening in people’s homes.”

At Logan, Melissa Dingle, 21, arrived around 3 p.m. for a flight back home to Canada. She has been living off campus at the University of New Hampshire since July.

Dingle said she felt comfortable traveling home for the holidays because she has been regularly tested at school and she’ll be home with family until next year, finishing the semester online.

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“I made the decision when I knew I could go home for over a month,” she said.

At his news conference, Baker urged those who are traveling to wear face masks, practice social distancing, and follow other public health measures if they plan to interact with people outside of their households for the holiday.

“My hope is that the folks who do travel recognize and understand that they have an additional responsibility here with respect to how they deal with people they’re coming in contact with who they don’t normally spend time with,” Baker said.

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8. Amanda Kaufman can be reached at amanda.kaufman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandakauf1.