Julie McDonald Commentary: Thanksgiving Tips During a Pandemic


History provides lessons for today’s turmoil.

More than a century ago, medical officials urged Americans to curtail Thanksgiving celebrations to prevent another flare-up of the Spanish influenza, which killed as many as 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 in the United States. Like the coronavirus pandemic now, the Spanish influenza struck in waves — from the first cases in March 1918 through the spring, surging again in the fall of 1918 with a third wave in January 1919.

However, in 1918, most people fought the disease together, wearing masks as a sign of unity and patriotism, according to an article in USA Today. San Francisco, today a liberal bastion, was home to 1918’s largest anti-masking campaign.

More recently, our neighbors to the north saw a surge in coronavirus cases two weeks after families gathered together for Canadian Thanksgiving, celebrated Oct. 12 this year, and the numbers keep climbing.

Cold weather brought more people indoors, so cases are soaring. Hospitals are filling to capacity.

Pandemic fatigue has set in. We’re tired of social distancing, lockdowns, and quarantines. We hate to see businesses shuttered, perhaps permanently. We want to celebrate our blessings together as we always do. Like everyone else, I wish the coronavirus would just go away.

But public health experts recommend against gathering this Thanksgiving with anyone outside immediate family to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

For decades, we spent Thanksgiving near Bellingham with my husband’s family and Christmas in Vancouver with mine. As the older generation passed away, traditions shifted. We’ve celebrated Thanksgiving a few times at my sister’s in Washougal where, following tradition, everyone writes a note of gratitude each year on the tablecloth. (It’s fun to read past praises.) Other times we’ve alternated hosting Thanksgiving dinner with my stepdaughter in Woodland. We’ve gathered in Woodland on Christmas Eves and alternated Christmas Day dinners at my home or my sister’s in Olympia.

Not this year. My husband and I will celebrate Thanksgiving at home with my daughter because we don’t want to risk our lives or anyone else’s. We also don’t want to discuss politics over turkey dinner with family members who hold opposing viewpoints. That’s a recipe for indigestion.

Dr. Rob McElhaney, whose Mary’s Corner Clinic has been on the frontlines in coronavirus testing, said he usually celebrates Thanksgiving with more than 20 family members, but this year he and his wife, Becci, will stay home and meet only with family in Winlock they see every week, all younger than 50.

“My 80-year-old mother would tell you she’d rather risk her life than forgo an opportunity to meet with family, and this almost persuades me,” McElhaney said. “I am hopeful we can bring the current spike in numbers down, and I’ll feel more comfortable gathering with mom and in larger numbers at Christmas.”

Like the rest of the nation, Lewis County has seen a surge in coronavirus infections as expected this fall, with more people inside and more person-to-person contact, but McElhaney said the summer increase was more surprising.

While it’s easy to politicize, McElhaney outlined basic facts about the novel coronavirus:

  Human-to-human contact spreads the virus

  The more people you are exposed to, the greater your risk of contracting it

  It’s much more deadly, particularly for those over 65, than influenza

  It’s predominately spread via respiratory droplets, much less by direct physical contact

  Spread is reduced by wearing masks, although studies suggest masks protect others better than they protect the wearers

Dr. McElhaney wears a mask in public but not in his home or back office.

No perfect road map exists for balancing human life and illness with the economic, social, and mental hardships many are experiencing, he said, but vaccine efforts by Pfizer and Moderna provide a positive note.

“The safety and effectiveness of the vaccines to date appears outstanding,” McElhaney said. “I am very hopeful that we are in the fourth quarter of this pandemic.”

What we’ve learned scientifically could trim future disruptions during a pandemic to three to six months rather than 18 months, he said.

“Everyone is looking for the perfect answer,” McElhaney said. “It is safe to be kind to everyone. It is safe to educate yourself. It is safe to be patient. It is safe to love.”

Chris Thomas, senior communications manager with Providence Health & Services Southwest, offered basic guidelines such as wearing masks, social distancing, and good hand hygiene. Beyond that, for the holidays, he suggested:

• Limit in-person gatherings. Reduce the number of times you gather, how many people attend and how long you spend together. Gather outside if possible, or open windows and doors to maximize ventilation inside.

• Wear a face covering when around people who don’t live with you, including close friends and family. Many contract COVID-19 from someone who doesn’t show symptoms yet.

• Talk to family and friends about alternate ways to celebrate. Brainstorm ideas for virtual celebrations to spend time together without risking anyone’s health.

• Discuss in-person gathering guidelines. Discuss how you’re going to reduce risks of spreading COVID-19 when you meet.

• Stay home if sick or exposed to COVID-19. If you’re feeling under the weather but aren’t sure if you’re sick, take the cautious approach and protect others by staying home.

• Keep up good hygiene habits. Wash or sanitize your hands often and avoid touching your face.

We hope our son in Helsinki, Finland, will fly home to celebrate Christmas with us, but the surging coronavirus in Washington State may put those plans on pause. We long to see him, but whatever keeps our family and community safe makes the best sense.

As the adage says, this, too, shall pass.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at chaptersoflife1999@gmail.com.