Nov. 19—With Thanksgiving just a few days away, it seems one can't watch TV or scan one's favorite news website without encountering a triple-whammy of depressing pre-holiday headlines.
Turkeys are expensive and in short supply. Planes are crowded and fares are high. Respiratory viruses, including the flu, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), are spreading quickly and sending a lot of people to the hospital.
As individuals, we can't do a whole lot about turkeys and airfares — other than staying home and eating ham. But we all can play a role in limiting the spread of viruses that might otherwise turn this holiday season into a depressing rerun of the past two years.
It won't be easy, because right now we all crave "normal." We want to see people smile. We want to gather around the dinner table with family members. We want our children to hug their grandparents. We want to crowd together in the family room and watch the Vikings beat the Patriots on Thursday night.
Conversely, the last thing anyone wants to hear about right now is a return to masking mandates, but it's beginning to happen. COVID outbreaks have hit some assisted living facilities in Rochester, forcing visitors and staff to mask up again. Several school districts in Minnesota are experiencing such high rates of respiratory illnesses that masks are coming back. Flu outbreaks are happening across the state, roughly six to eight weeks ahead of what would occur in a normal year.
So, should we all be donning masks again?
Don't expect Gov. Walz to step in with an executive order, or for your local city council to mandate masks in all indoor public settings. Nor should they. At this point in the pandemic, with vaccines widely available, we all have to make the choices that are right for us, our friends, our co-workers and our loved ones. While smart people can disagree about whether the government did too much or not enough to halt the spread of COVID-19, it's difficult to imagine a return to the severe restrictions of 2020 and 2021.
But as you prepare for your Thanksgiving traditions, here's some advice that we believe everyone should heed:
* If your brother-in-law or your aunt shows up wearing a mask, don't see it as a political statement. It's a piece of fabric. People wearing masks at the grocery store or the auto repair shop aren't being paranoid — they're being cautious.
* If your sister calls you Wednesday night to say that she, her husband and their two kids aren't coming because little Billy has a cold, don't try to change her mind. Thank her for consideration, and if you can, leave a pumpkin pie on her doorstep Thursday evening.
* If you wake up Thursday morning with a cough and a runny nose, don't put on a brave face and quietly press on with your plans to host a dozen people. Take an at-home COVID test. Even if it's negative, you owe it to your guests to inform them, before they arrive, that you are under the weather.
We hope that precautions like this don't become the "new normal." We look forward to the day when holiday gatherings aren't jeopardized by a sore throat, a runny nose or a 100-degree fever.
But we're not there yet. There's a lot of illness floating around out there, which means that on planes, trains and at family gatherings this week, some of us will wear a mask, even when others are not. If you choose to wear a mask, know that you will gain a significant amount of protection against COVID and other viruses.
Last week, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a so-called "natural experiment" that took place last spring in Massachusetts. When state masking mandates were lifted, researchers began monitoring 70 districts that let students shed their masks, as well as two districts — Boston and Chelsea — that required masking for an additional 15 weeks.
Despite the fact that many of the Boston school buildings in the study are among the state's oldest, without modern ventilation systems, and are crowded with students from at-risk communities, these mask-mandating schools had far lower rates of COVID during the 15-week study period than did schools where masking was optional.
How much of an impact did masks make? About 45 fewer cases per 1,000 students. Or, put another way, the 70 schools that lifted their mandates experienced nearly 12,000 COVID cases that would likely have been avoided if students and staff had worn masks through the end of the school year.
No, the mask mandates didn't eliminate COVID. The school districts that kept students in masks still had COVID outbreaks, but the numbers were lower.
The data doesn't lie. Masks work. When most of us were wearing them pretty much everywhere, we experienced far fewer colds and much less flu.
Today, we all get to make our own calls about gatherings, masking and travel. The best guidance we can offer is to follow the advice that NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt delivers at the end of every broadcast: "Take care of yourself, and each other."
And the second-best piece of advice we can offer about Thanksgiving is this: Make an extra pumpkin pie, and eat a slice for breakfast on Friday.