Cases are rising on Thanksgiving again, but we’re better protected this year

Before the Omicron news hit on Thursday, I was planning to write a big post about how the state of the pandemic in the U.S. at Thanksgiving this year compares to the state of the pandemic at Thanksgiving last year. But, well, Omicron happened—so here’s a small post about Thanksgiving, instead.

Remember: last year, Thanksgiving was a turning point in the winter 2020 surge. While cases had already been going up prior to the holiday, the convergence of travel, indoor gatherings, and cold weather helped the coronavirus spread further. Christmas did the same thing, one month later.

This year, we saw cases increase once again in the weeks prior to Thanksgiving. But we’re better protected this time, thanks to vaccines and better knowledge of the virus.

Let’s look at the national metrics:

  • On November 23, 2021 (two days before Thanksgiving), the seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases was about 94,000 new cases a day. That’s about 45% lower than last year’s number, 170,000 new cases a day (on November 26, 2020, Thanksgiving itself).
  • On November 23, 2021, the seven-day average of new COVID-19 deaths was about 1,000 new deaths a day. That’s about 45% lower than last year’s number, 1,800 new deaths a day.
  • On November 25, 2021 (Thanksgiving day), 43,000 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in facilities across the U.S. That’s just under half as many as the number of patients hospitalized last year, 84,000 people.
  • As of November 24, 2021, 196 million Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19—and an additional 35 million have received at least one dose, while more than 37 million have received booster shots.

Clearly, while the trajectory of cases (and other metrics) may be the same as they were last year, the numbers are way lower. But the national metrics obscure local patterns. In some parts of the country, particularly some northern states, case numbers are actually higher at Thanksgiving this year than they were last year. 

You can see how your county is faring on this map, which I put together for a story on this topic. Use the drop-down menu at the top to click between Thanksgiving 2020 and Thanksgiving 2021.

For that story, I asked several COVID-19 experts for their thoughts on this winter’s oncoming surge, as well as their advice for staying safe while gathering for the holidays. Key pieces of advice included:

  • Get vaccinated, including a booster shot if you’re eligible.
  • Get tested prior to travel or large gatherings.
  • Use high-quality masks (especially N95s and KN95s) while traveling.
  • Be aware of case rates at both your point of origin and your destination.
  • If you’re gathering indoors with others, make sure everyone is on the same page about safety.

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