From A Doctor: Use Our Family's 'Safe' Thanksgiving Story As A Warning

by Robin Schoenthaler
What Happened When Our Family Attempted A 'COVID Safe' Thanksgiving`
Courtesy of Robin Schoenthaler

I’m a physician in Boston and I have been obsessed with the coronavirus pandemic since the first stories trickled out of China into my consciousness. Every day I listen to podcasts and medical lectures by a long line of virologists, epidemiologists, aerosolologists and infectious disease doctors. Every week I write an essay for my friends and family in my area about what we’ve learned about COVID-19 and how to protect ourselves.

I have two young adult sons named Mackenzie, 24 and Cooper, 21, who live nearby and who have been what I call “COVID-conscious” since the start; with a mom like me it would be hard to be otherwise.

Both kids work and study from their apartments, both have small friend pods, both have excellent COVID hygiene, particularly with me and anyone who falls into a high-risk group, and both stayed mostly bubbled at home the last two weeks before Thanksgiving.

Because of this, we agreed to have a science-based “as-safe-as-we-can-make-it” Thanksgiving following all the techniques I had been researching and writing about the previous weeks.

We kept it small (just the three of us), we kept it short (two hours), and we kept the kitchen-cooking time to a minimum. We ate with the windows open and the fans on and we sat in two adjacent rooms with each of us seated about ten feet apart. Plus, we stayed masked the entire time except when actively putting food in our mouths, pulling our masks back up into place between servings and when chatting during the meal.

It all went perfectly.

But then, on Saturday morning while I was walking with a friend at the “Pope John Paul II Park” on the edge of Boston, Kenzie texted me saying, ”Sooooo I have bad news.” Half a minute later he sent a second text that read, “I feel horrible.”

I knew instantly what it was — he was sick with COVID. Which meant he had been contagious on Thanksgiving.

Every parent has their very lowest parenting moment. This was mine. I bent over on the walkway and I just could not stand up. All I could think was, “Why why why didn’t we just skip Thanksgiving this year? And now it is too late to stop whatever tsunami is coming our way.”

Courtesy of Robin Schoenthaler

The rest of Kenzie’s texts confirmed my fears: he was definitely sick with a fever, body aches, headache. He lost his sense of smell and taste, and yes, my son tested positive for COVID later that day.

It was a very bad day.

This is exactly how COVID spreads: a person, like my beloved son, can have COVID and have no symptoms at all, not a single clue, for several days before getting sick. A person can be contagious, like my beloved son, on Thanksgiving Day and then not get any symptoms at all until Saturday, while his mom is walking in a park.

This is exactly why we were so meticulously careful about our Thanksgiving. We knew it was possible one of us could be that asymptomatic contagious person. Not likely, not even probable. Kenzie has five friends in his bubble. All had been tested the week before for travel and were negative. All have been tested since and stayed negative, and all were asymptomatic. He had only shopped, carefully, at a couple of large stores. All of us had been mostly at home for the previous two weeks.

We had no reason at all to think any of us had COVID that Thanksgiving Day, but we couldn’t be sure. So we followed the science and opened the windows, turned on the fans, sat far from each other and masked up nearly every moment we didn’t have a fork in our mouths.

And as it turned out, the science worked. Coop and I have remained COVID-negative. And asymptomatic. Kenzie had a rough week but is getting better.

We’re all getting better.

The science worked.

But was gathering my little family together for some pumpkin pie and whatnot worth it? Was it worth it to have Kenzie feeling “Defcon One Guilt” about potentially exposing us? Was it worth the discomfort of having to tell his contacts they needed to be tested and then go into ten days of quarantine?

Was it worth all the 4:00 am wake-ups, the test-result anxiety, the constant texting each other checking on symptoms while living through that first week of absolute uncertainty about how things would turn out?

Am I ever going to hold another Thanksgiving in the middle of a global pandemic? Absolutely not.

And Christmas in 2020?

No possible way. Not a bit. Not a chance.

And I’m never going back to that Pope John Paul II Park place again.