White House largely silent on health precautions for Thanksgiving
The White House is struggling to offer a clear message on how Americans should approach Thanksgiving as coronavirus cases surge around the country and experts worry holiday gatherings could produce yet another spike in infections.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidance on best practices for holding Thanksgiving gatherings, and the agency followed that up on Thursday by advising against traveling for the holiday.
But the White House has done little to elevate the recommendations from the country’s top public health agency, while some administration officials have outright contradicted the CDC’s advice.
“The CDC has excellent guidance on how to approach Thanksgiving. But putting out excellent guidance on the web without being able to hold a press conference and lift that up and have it be amplified by political leadership means it’s not going to have the impact that it should,” said Richard Besser, who led the agency in 2009.
“I’m hearing a lot of governors … telling people this is a year where you should think about a Zoom Thanksgiving,” Besser continued. “Governors are stepping up and doing that, but it would have much more impact if it were coming from the White House,” Besser added.
The White House coronavirus task force on Thursday held its first briefing in four months, but at no point did Vice President Pence or any of the health experts specifically talk about the upcoming holiday or whether it was safe to gather with family and friends.
Instead, Pence focused on promising vaccine developments while acknowledging cases were on the rise. Health experts such as Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx urged Americans to redouble their efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus by wearing masks and avoiding crowds.
Task force members declined to take questions from reporters at the briefing held in the White House press room.
Birx, in a subsequent interview with CNN, reiterated CDC guidance by encouraging the public to keep Thanksgiving gatherings to those in their immediate household.
The CDC issued guidance last week on celebrating Thanksgiving that encourages Americans to avoid holding gatherings with people who do not live in their household in order to minimize the risks of spreading the coronavirus. If extended family or friends do attend, the CDC advises that people wear masks and maintain a distance of at least six feet.
The agency on Thursday offered updated guidance that warned against traveling for Thanksgiving this year, citing the increased risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19.
While saying little about the CDC guidelines, some White House officials have instead undermined public health guidance and advisories from individual states, further muddying the message at a perilous time in the pandemic.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany criticized Oregon and New York for warning residents of potential consequences should they violate limits on gatherings during Thanksgiving, even as she acknowledged that “it’s up to every state to do what they want to do.”
“I think a lot of the guidelines you’re seeing are Orwellian,” McEnany said Wednesday on Fox News, a remark she stood by two days later when asked at a rare press briefing whether she was confusing the public by contradicting state guidelines.
Scott Atlas, who has solidified himself as President Trump’s top coronavirus adviser despite lacking a background in infectious diseases, bristled Monday night at the idea of excluding elderly relatives from Thanksgiving gatherings, even though those individuals are most at risk for contracting serious cases of COVID-19.
“This kind of isolation is one of the unspoken tragedies of the elderly, who are now being told, ‘Don’t see your family at Thanksgiving,'” Atlas said on Fox News. “For many people, this is their final Thanksgiving, believe it or not.”
The country is now regularly setting records for daily infections. As a result, hospitalizations are on the rise, and the U.S. this week surpassed 250,000 coronavirus deaths, a staggering number that experts warn may be exacerbated by a mix of gatherings around Thanksgiving, cold weather and public fatigue with the pandemic.
But Trump and Pence have been mostly absent from any public effort to get Americans to take the pandemic seriously ahead of the holiday season, when many Americans typically travel and hold large celebrations with family.
Trump will remain at the White House for Thanksgiving rather than traveling to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, though it’s unclear if the shift in plans is due to the pandemic or his ongoing bunker mentality after losing the election to President-elect Joe Biden.
Pence previously scrapped a vacation to Sanibel Island in Florida after Election Day, but a Federal Aviation Administration advisory indicates the vice president may travel there during the week of Thanksgiving.
Outside of the task force briefing on Thursday and an update on vaccines the week before, Trump and Pence have mostly avoided the public stage, leaving it to governors to drive home the importance of masks and social distancing.
“Thanksgiving is a week away. LARGE INDOOR DINNERS will spread COVID,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) tweeted. “Limit Thanksgiving to your immediate household. Gatherings over 10 people are not permitted. Spread thanks, not COVID.”
A bipartisan group of governors from the Midwest recorded a video message in which Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said gathering with loved ones via Zoom “is the right thing to do” and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) suggested wearing a mask indoors and taking it off only to eat or drink.
The White House coronavirus task force has offered advice to states ahead of the holidays, but it has mostly been done in private.
The task force issues state-specific reports each week outlining how the pandemic is evolving across the country, and the most recent report included recommendations for the holidays. The guidance included expanding public health messaging to warn about the risks of social gatherings, encouraging events only with individuals who live in the same household and emphasizing the risks of exposing elderly people or those with underlying conditions.
The lack of messaging on the part of the White House stands in contrast to the approach taken earlier in the pandemic.
Back in the spring, the White House made a more concerted effort to inform the public about best practices in the lead-up to Easter. Trump and Pence each said on camera at the time that they would be attending church services virtually, and the vice president specifically urged Americans to heed public health guidelines around Easter and Passover.
But Trump has largely become disengaged from the pandemic response. He has not attended a task force meeting in months, mocking the media’s focus on the crisis in the closing weeks of the campaign and failing to acknowledge the rising infections and deaths post-election.
Instead, Biden has been the one to give a direct message about the need to limit gatherings during Thanksgiving. He told front-line health workers on Wednesday that he would celebrate the holiday with just two other people to avoid mixing households.
“All of these difficult decisions, people are going to be making. We’ve got to give them hope,” Biden said.
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