By Alex Fitzpatrick
Senior Editor
Monday, November 23, 2020

A Single COVID-19 Test Can't Guarantee a Safe Thanksgiving

Over the past few days, my social media feeds have been jam-packed with pictures and videos of COVID-19 testing lines that stretch multiple blocks. Some people report waiting hours for their turn, while others say they’re being turned away before ever getting the chance. It’s not just here in the New York metro area, either—similar delays are being reported around the country.

The intense testing demand is at least partially due to the fact that the virus is spiking across the U.S.; it’s natural that more people would seek testing as their risk of exposure increases due to local outbreaks. But this new wave of demand also comes just a few days before Thanksgiving, and multiple friends working at testing sites have told me that many people are seeking tests specifically because they’re planning to gather with family this week.

Public-health officials, epidemiologists, doctors and nurses have been begging people to stay home this Thanksgiving amid fears that the holiday will be a national super-spreader event. But optimism bias—the idea that “it won’t happen to me”—is a hell of a drug, and many people are choosing to congregate despite the risks (air travel this weekend approached its highest pandemic-era point yet).

If you’ve decided to gather with friends or family this Thanksgiving, getting a test first is certainly better than not getting one at all—if you test positive, you clearly know that you should cancel your plans and stay home. But what some people don’t seem to realize is this: receiving a single negative COVID-19 test result days before a gathering can’t guarantee that you won’t wind up infecting others at that event.

Why? Once you’re exposed to the virus, it can take several days for it to replicate in your body to the point that you would test positive—this is called the “incubation period.” The upshot is this: You could be exposed on a Sunday, test negative the next day, but be contagious by Thursday. Moreover, in the Thanksgiving context, it’s also possible to test negative today, pick up the virus while traveling home, then be infectious by the time everyone’s together on Thursday. And don’t forget that about 40% of people with COVID-19 never experience symptoms, so you could still be a carrier even if you’re feeling fantastic.

Tests are only one part of the pandemic toolbox, best used in combination with a 14-day quarantine period. A single negative test is good news, but not free license to forgo other precautions. And the danger here goes beyond you and your immediate family—when it comes to an infectious disease like this one, we’re all potential links in a chain. If you wind up spreading the virus at the Thanksgiving table, even if nobody in your family gets ill, they could then go on to infect others, who could wind up sick, or worse. That’s why experts want you to stay home—it’s not just about individual health, it’s about public health.

My advice? Stay home, hop on Zoom with the family (the company’s lifting its typical 40-minute limit this year), and do everything you can to break those chains. “A Zoom Thanksgiving is better than an ICU Christmas,” has become this year’s unofficial PSA. I couldn’t agree more. And if you need some help having that difficult conversation with your family, we’ve got you covered.

Introducing TIME's new COVID-19 advice column

Living through the COVID-19 pandemic is hard. TIME's new advice column is here to help, with expert-guided answers to your most pressing coronavirus questions. Need help breaking the news that you won't be home for the holidays? Deciding if that dinner party is safe to attend? Fighting through your quarantine fatigue? Our health reporters will consult experts who can help find a safe and practical solution. Send us your pandemic dilemmas at covidquestions@time.com.


The Global Situation

More than 58.6 million people around the world had been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of 1 a.m. E.T. today, and nearly 1.4 million people have died. Here's where daily cases have risen or fallen over the last 14 days, shown in confirmed cases per 100,000 residents:

On Nov. 22, there were 490,495 new cases and 7,632 new deaths confirmed globally. Here's how the world as a whole is currently trending:

Here is every country with over 800,000 confirmed cases:

Drugmaker AstraZeneca announced today that the COVID-19 vaccine candidate it’s creating alongside Oxford University is up to 90% effective at preventing disease, the latest bit of good pandemic news from the pharmaceutical world. Studies suggest the shot is maximally effective when a half-dose is given first, followed by a full dose at least a month later; it’s only 62% effective when two full doses are given on the same schedule. The results are preliminary and scientists need to better understand what’s causing that difference, but this is likely good news—especially considering that AstraZeneca’s vaccine is relatively easy to store and is based on more well-established methods compared to those from Pfizer and Moderna, which, while promising, use a less battle-tested genetic material called mRNA.

New restrictions begin in the Seoul area of South Korea tomorrow amid a worrying spike in viral clusters there. Restaurant hours and public transportation service will be cut, while nightclubs will be closed. The country reported 271 new cases today; cases have been growing slightly since officials relaxed the rules over fears of an economic slowdown.

The Canadian city of Toronto is headed into a four-week lockdown beginning today as cases surge there, CNN reports. Restaurants, gyms and many stores will be closed, while the city’s Raptors pro basketball team will relocate to Florida to avoid running afoul of the new requirements. More than 1,500 people have died of COVID-19 in Toronto since the pandemic began; about 500 new cases are being reported daily.

The Situation in the U.S.

The U.S. had recorded more than 12.2 million coronavirus cases as of 1 a.m. E.T. today. More than 256,000 people have died. Here's where daily cases have risen or fallen over the last 14 days, shown in confirmed cases per 100,000 residents:

On Nov. 22, there were 142,732 new cases and 921 new deaths confirmed in the U.S. Here's how the country as a whole is currently trending:

The U.S. as a whole set a record for new daily cases on Friday, at 196,004, while the states of California (15,685), Massachusetts (3,206), Missouri (1,972), New Jersey (4,669), North Carolina (4,514) and Oregon (1,502) set records of their own over the weekend. These grim and astonishing numbers come even before at least some American families are set to gather for Thanksgiving this week; expect to see the holiday’s toll begin to show up in the data about two weeks thereafter.

The first COVID-19 immunizations in the U.S. could take place as soon as Dec. 12, according to Moncef Slaoui, head of the federal government’s “Operation Warp Speed” project—just days after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is set to discuss an emergency-use authorization for Pfizer’s vaccine. Those with the highest need, like the elderly and health care workers, will likely receive the first doses; mass vaccination is set to begin next year.

But, while the percentage of Americans saying they’re willing to get a COVID-19 vaccine has been rising in recent weeks, there’s still an alarming number of holdouts, and public buy-in is needed for vaccines to work on a macro scale. To combat so-called “vaccine hesitancy,” the non-profit advertising group Ad Council is rolling out a $50 million campaign to promote vaccine adoption, the New York Times reports. “We’re working in advance, so that once those vaccines are proven to be safe and approved by all the right people, we’re ready to go,” the group’s CEO, Lisa Sherman, told the Times.

All numbers unless otherwise specified are from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, and are accurate as of Nov. 23, 1 a.m. E.T. To see larger, interactive versions of these maps and charts, click here.


Food Banks Are Struggling to Keep Up

As many American families suddenly find themselves in need of help due to the pandemic, food banks are doing the best they can to keep up with demand—but many are struggling to provide what people need, my colleague Abby Vesoulis reports. Read more here.

Hundreds of New Yorkers’ Bodies Are Still in Freezer Trucks

The bodies of more than 600 COVID-19 victims whose families can’t be found or who can’t afford a burial remain in storage in freezer trucks in Brooklyn, the Wall Street Journal reports. Many similar “rolling morgue” trucks have been called in to other hotspots around the country as the number of bodies overwhelms local capacity. Read more here.

Only the Fed Can Save the Economy

As Congress fails to pass further pandemic stimulus or extend vital federal programs set to expire at year’s end, it’s falling on the Federal Reserve to keep the U.S. economy afloat, analyst Zachary Karabell writes. Read more here.

Thanks for reading. We hope you find the Coronavirus Brief newsletter to be a helpful tool to navigate this very complex situation, and welcome feedback at coronavirus.brief@time.com.

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Today's newsletter was written by Alex Fitzpatrick and edited by Jamie Ducharme.

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