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COVID-19 impact from Thanksgiving travel and gatherings could be ‘precursor’ for upcoming holidays

Despite warnings to stay home this year for Thanksgiving, Boston Logan International Airport was bustling on the eve before Thanksgiving.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Fallout from Thanksgiving travel and festivities could intensify challenges Massachusetts will face as it continues to battle the pandemic through the December holidays, when officials will be navigating more uncertain terrain amid soaring numbers of cases.

While more indications emerge that people are chafing under pandemic restrictions, those measures are vital to curb the spread and ease pressure on the state’s health care system, officials said.

“Until we have a vaccine, we’re the vaccine,” said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll. “Our behavior, and what we do, can help prevent the spread of this virus in our community.”

In the wake of Thanksgiving, public health officials will be closely monitoring state metrics to see what effect holiday travel and gatherings will have on the state’s COVID-19 levels. They will be looking at new cases, positivity test results, hospitalizations, and the presence of coronavirus in wastewater, which is seen as an early warning system.

Some experts, including Dr. Robert Horsburgh, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University, warn that in order to limit additional cases, Governor Charlie Baker will need to roll back the state’s economic reopening.


“We need to ratchet things down and get on top of things like transmission before hospitals fill up and we’re having the crises we had before,” Horsburgh said. “It’s definitely going in the wrong direction, and we can’t sit pat, because with more infections out there, the risk is increasing.”

Dr. Alessandro Vespignani, director of the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University, said public health results from those Thanksgiving activities could help officials project how upcoming holidays will affect coronavirus numbers.

“We need to be very careful. What happened during Thanksgiving could be a precursor of all the other many holidays,” Vespignani said. “So if we see a surge after Thanksgiving, then we have to think [about] and factor other possible surges for Christmas, for New Year’s Eve, et cetera.”


On Sunday, the state Department of Public Health reported 2,501 new confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts, which brought the total to 217,163. The state’s death toll from confirmed cases reached 10,487, with 46 new deaths reported Sunday.

The state reported 43,709 people were estimated to have active cases of COVID-19 as of Sunday, up 1,160 from 42,549 reported Saturday.

A Baker spokesman said Sunday that the administration “is not considering changes to public health protocols at this time and will continue to monitor COVID-19 data.”

Dr. Mauricio Santillana, who is director of the Machine Intelligence Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital and is affiliated with Harvard Medical School, said adherence to some public health recommendations has fallen in Massachusetts.

Santillana was part of a group of researchers who reviewed survey data collected from respondents in the state that included questions on public health matters.

The findings from October showed that since April the number of people taking steps such as frequently washing hands, avoiding public or crowded places, and not having close contact with people outside their households had dropped, he said.

Mask wearing has remained prevalent, however, according to the report — although one in five respondents said they were not closely following those guidelines.

”We see a strong correlation between this willingness in engaging in risky behaviors perhaps due to the fatigue ... because we have been dealing with this for a long time,” Santillana said in a phone interview.


Nationally, more than 266,000 people have died due to COVID-19 as of Sunday, according to Johns Hopkins University, which reported about 13.3 million cases.

Hospitalizations have also surged: The COVID Tracking Project reported 91,635 people in the hospital with the virus across the nation as of Saturday — the highest number since near the start of the pandemic.

In Massachusetts, 1,081 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized as of Saturday,the state reported. That number was up from 1,045 patients on Friday.

Dr. Eric Dickson, chief executive of UMass Memorial Health Care, said Central Massachusetts has been hit hard by the state’s second surge and has a positivity rate around 8 percent.

At UMass Memorial, officials have been canceling some elective procedures to ensure they have hospital bed capacity, he said.

Another factor at play is vaccinations, which could begin in mid-December at least with medical workers, Dickson said. Vaccinations, along with testing and intensive care unit surge capacity, will require health care systems to redeploy their workers.

Dickson said he would be surprised if Baker did not roll back more of the state’s reopening before Jan. 1.

Still, the prospect of a vaccine will have a significant impact, he said.

“What I’m hearing from the work force is that they’re at least seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Dickson said.

Dr. David Hamer, a physician at Boston Medical Center and a Boston University epidemiologist, said it appears many Thanksgiving travelers took precautions, like being tested before and after their trips. But it was still potentially high risk for them to travel and attend large family gatherings, he said.


“There is a lot of disease being transmitted, and the next couple weeks, the next week in particular, will be crucial,” Hamer said.

Dr. Sam Scarpino, a Northeastern University epidemiologist, said officials are in a “wait and see” situation with the virus following the holiday.

“My intuition is that there will be a noticeable increase in cases due to super-spreading events over Thanksgiving,” Scarpino said in an e-mail.

Local and national officials had asked people ahead of the holiday to avoid traveling and keep celebrations small and limited to members of their households. Holiday travel was lower at New England airports compared to last year, but thousands still traveled by air, making for some of the busiest travel days since start of the pandemic.

At Logan International Airport Sunday morning, post-Thanksgiving crowd sizes were smaller than usual. Most people walking through the airport wore masks, and a few had their faces behind plastic shields.

Carolyn Brunelle of Bolton said she flew back from North Carolina, where she had rented a house for an outdoor Thanksgiving meal with family. She planned to get tested.

“The plane was full,” she said, describing a flight attendant with a loose-fitting mask. “So I would have some concerns.”

Tinashe and Casimir Ntar, of Malden, said they flew to visit friends near Chicago and drove through Indiana. They also planned to be tested after their return.


“You know, you want to be safe, but you also want the other person to not give you the virus. So you wear your mask,” Tinashe Ntar said. “But what can you do?”

In local communities, officials continued to grapple with the pandemic.

Good Samaritan Medical Center in Brockton will temporarily restrict visitors starting Monday, the hospital said in a statement, with some exceptions, such as allowing one parent or guardian to accompany children in for pediatric care.

Extenuating circumstances including hospice and end-of-life care will also be considered, the hospital said.

In Salem, which faces a moderate risk from COVID-19, according to state data, case numbers and hospitalizations at a regional medical center are creeping up, Driscoll said.

Salem has been offering in-person learning for some students, plus the city was able to hold limited Halloween festivities and is working to support public health and local businesses, the mayor said in a phone interview.

“If we collectively really care about each other as a city, as a society, these are actually small sacrifices that we’re asking everyone to make for hopefully a short period of time,” Driscoll said.

John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com. Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.