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Poll: 2 in 5 Americans are likely to attend a large gathering this holiday season

As Covid-19 infections surge, experts are concerned the holidays could make things worse.

A man in a gray hoodie and green mask holds up a large, white-feathered turkey.
A Rhode Island turkey farmer prepares birds for holiday meals.
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

A new poll conducted by Ohio State University has found that 38 percent of Americans say they are likely to participate in gatherings of more than 10 family members this holiday season, and a third would not ask others to wear masks at holiday gatherings.

The findings, which come as the US is experiencing its third and most widely spread wave of coronavirus infections, suggest that millions of Americans may end up ignoring suggestions from public health experts on how to minimize their risk of transmitting Covid-19 during the upcoming holiday season.

The national survey, which took responses from over 2,000 people, found that while a majority of people do expect to take some mitigation measures as they celebrate during the holidays, a significant percentage are disinclined to.

For instance, 27 percent of respondents indicated that they wouldn’t practice social distancing during holiday gatherings, the survey found.

“We’re going to look back at what happened during this holiday season and ask ourselves, ‘Were we part of the solution or were we part of the problem?’” said Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at the university’s Wexner Medical Center. “When you’re gathered together around the table, engaged in conversation, sitting less than six feet apart with your masks down, even in a small group, that’s when the spread of this virus can really happen.”

Stopping the spread of the coronavirus is a matter of pressing concern for public health officials — in the United States, daily confirmed cases recently topped 180,000. Hospitalization records are being broken, leading to concerns that hospitals in many states will soon be overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients. And deaths are rising as well, averaging more than 1,000 per day in the past week.

Experts have been warning for months that unless government officials took drastic action — and unless people began to limit their indoor interactions with others — the fall and winter would see terribly high case numbers.

In early October, when case numbers were still below 50,000 per day, Michael Osterholm — director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and member of President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force — told Vox’s German Lopez, “The next number in the fall is likely going to shoot way up.”

Back then, Osterholm predicted the daily case numbers would rise above the summer’s record, going “well beyond 65,000, 70,000.” Unfortunately, he has been proven right.

To help limit further spread, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the federal coronavirus task force, has recommended mask-wearing during holiday gatherings and cautioned against large gatherings — particularly if they involve people coming from regions where there are high rates of coronavirus infections.

“You get one person who’s asymptomatic and infected, and then all of a sudden, four or five people in that gathering are infected,” Fauci said during an interview in October. “To me, that’s the exact scenario that you’re going to see on Thanksgiving.”

Fauci has said that he won’t be getting together with his own daughters this Thanksgiving because they live in regions with high rates of infection.

As Vox’s Brian Resnick has explained, there are numerous factors that can affect the risk of spread at gatherings like Thanksgiving — for example, whether the celebrations are conducted indoors or outdoors, where there is greater air circulation. Another factor to consider is whether food will be served — or if guests would be willing to skip the refreshments in order to keep their masks on.

Experts say that creativity is important for making judicious decisions on how to minimize risk as infection rates surge across the country.

“One of the ways that we can adapt is to have some flexibility around our traditions and rituals that are really important in our lives,” Julia Marcus, a Harvard infectious disease epidemiologist, told Resnick. “I would encourage people to think outside the box.”

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