With universities setting their own COVID-19 protocols, health officials are worried about holiday spread
Bianna Golodryga and Meridith Edwards, CNN
(CNN) — College sophomore Elliot Boz arrived at his parent’s home in San Mateo, California, over the weekend with his bags in tow.
Like many colleges across the country, his school –– the University of Michigan — rewrote its academic calendar to end the in-person semester at Thanksgiving, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That means Boz will remain home for the remainder of the year.
But just days before Thanksgiving, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance urging Americans not travel for the holiday.
That left Boz — and hundreds and thousands of other students nationwide — in a predicament: Leave as planned, despite CDC guidance, or stay even though the semester is over? And do the risks of potentially carrying COVID to their parents outweigh the benefits of reuniting with them?
For Boz, making the trek — as safey as possible — was worth it.
“Everybody’s trying to do their best about how to travel safely,” Boz, 19, told CNN. “You have people sitting apart in airplanes, without a middle seat, you have everybody wearing a mask, you have everybody washing (their) hands. So I think that you’re going to see a lot of students go back home, and that’s what you’re seeing right now.”
Colleges play ‘important role’ in ensuring Thanksgiving safety
The choice to return home as cases continue to surge nationwide has not been an easy one for college students to make — and some health experts are concerned that colleges didn’t help enough to ensure safe departures for all students.
Universities across the country set their own COVID testing protocols before students left campus. There are no federal guidelines in place, leaving health officials frustrated.
“Colleges play an important role in making sure that Thanksgiving is as safe as it can be for young, asymptomatic individuals, the so-called silent spreaders are fueling the epidemic in this country,” David Paltiel, professor of public health at Yale University, told CNN.
“And so colleges have a responsibility to ensure that they don’t unwittingly unleash ticking time bombs into the nation’s airports, train stations and Thanksgiving dining tables.”
Without testing, a student can be asymptomatic and unknowingly take the virus home. Health experts have said it can take days before a new infection shows up on a COVID-19 test.
Public health officials generally urged Americans to celebrate Thanksgiving only with members of the same household, or at least gather outdoors, to avoid further virus spread. The CDC also recommended last week that Americans should not travel for Thanksgiving.
Over 5.9 million people have flown through US airports since the CDC’s anti-travel recommendation last week, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration.
An ‘extra level of responsibility’
Boz said he took all precautions he could prior to flying home — he made sure he tested negative for COVID-19, and avoided risky activities on campus.
“I was trying to be responsible, getting a COVID test back, in Michigan before I flew to come back home,” he said. He was also extra cautious about who he saw before the flight, adding “it’s kind of like this extra level of responsibility.”
Boz said he plans to wear a mask, avoid gatherings and wash his hands often to help protect himself and his family from COVID while he’s home.
Boz’s father Mike said his son’s sense of responsibility is what convinced the family he should come home.
“He is a responsible kid and so he got tested,” Mike Boz told CNN. “There is always a risk, but, but the risk is minimized as much as possible”
When asked how his parents feel about COVID-19 and the risks they could face with his return, Boz said they’re “less nervous than they should be.”
“Initially, they were really trying to … stay home,” he said. “Now they take a few more risks. But now with the spike, (in cases), I think they’re staying home and I’m pushing them to stay home as well.”
Even with Boz’s return, Thanksgiving — as expected — was not the same this year because of the pandemic.
The Boz family Thanksgiving traditionally includes Elliot, his parents, his 81-year-old grandparents (who live nearby), his older brother, Shura, and other family friends.
But Shura Boz, a college senior living in Los Angeles, opted not to trek to San Mateo for Thanksgiving this year. The Boz’s family friends are also no longer attending the gathering.
“My grandparents are really kind of the high risk factor in this situation,” Boz said. “How confident can we be that we’re not bringing home the virus or that we’re traveling safely? So in terms of my brother in LA — there’s much more of a kind of surge in a small, dense area. “
In LA, health officials said Wednesday that average daily cases climbed 113% during the first two weeks of November, and hospitalizations have increased 70% over the past two weeks.
A bittersweet holiday season
The Thanksgiving coronavirus surge could turn into the Christmas surge, warned Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
“I worry that the Thanksgiving Day surge will then just add into what will become the Christmas surge, which will then make this one seem as if it wasn’t so bad,” he said. “We have to understand we’re in a very dangerous place. People have to stop swapping air. It’s just that simple.”
The safety concerns as a result of the ongoing pandemic have made the overall holiday season bittersweet, Mike Boz said.
He and his wife, as well as both sets of their parents, immigrated from Russia three decades ago. Thanksgiving has truly become “a family event,” Mike Boz said, where everyone is normally able to get together. Now, for them and countless others nationwide, things have changed.
“It’s certainly been a year,” Mike Boz said, “unlike any other year in the last 30 something years that I’ve been in the United States.”