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WATCH: What you need to know about Thanksgiving travel and COVID-19

As COVID-19 cases across the United States boom, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advised Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving. So, what should millions of Americans keep in mind as they consider their holiday plans?

PBS NewsHour’s John Yang asked Dr. Ranit Mishori of Georgetown University for her advice, and took viewer questions on the subject.

Watch the conversation in the player above.

Thanksgiving will look different this year, but Mishori said she, like some others across the country, are choosing to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with family or friends that are part of their pandemic “pods.”

“Podding” refers to the practice of making a pact between two households in which everyone involved agrees to maintain the same standard of pandemic safety, like avoiding restaurants, parties or any other kind of unmasked socializing with people who aren’t in the pod or in their respective households.

The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving, Mishori emphasized, is with the people with whom you already live. If you do choose to gather with people outside of your household, especially if you’re not part of a pre-established pod, it’s crucial to make sure that everyone who will be getting together is on the same page about pandemic safety. She added that while eating dinner outside would be ideal, you can also crack windows to allow for air flow when dining inside.

“If these are not people who behave in the same way as you do, I would be extremely cautious,” Mishori said. “You want to make sure that they are taking the same precautions that you are, because otherwise you’re completely unprotected.”

What does getting a COVID test tell us, and what doesn’t it tell us?

Testing is “one of the biggest misconceptions that people have about COVID,” Mishori stressed. Rather than being a free pass to travel or socialize without caution, tests instead mark a single moment in time.

If you get a negative result, that means your body wasn’t producing enough virus to show up on a test when you took it. But that can change in a matter of days, or even hours, if you’ve actually been exposed to the virus.

Mishori noted that tests are useful because they allow physicians and public health officials to let infected people know that they should isolate, and also notify their contacts through contact tracing.

“[Tests] are just one piece of the puzzle of mitigation and prevention of COVID,” Mishori said. “Testing is useful only when accompanied by limiting travel, limiting socializing, limiting gatherings and wearing a mask at all times.”

She also laid out the different types of COVID tests, and what they can tell you. PCR tests are considered the “gold standard” of coronavirus testing, but Mishori pointed out that in many parts of the country, those results are taking three or more days to come back. There are also rapid PCR tests that have a faster turnaround time, but both tests simply capture a moment in time and do not mean you’re completely in the clear.

Antigen tests are more useful for those who are showing symptoms or who are at a high risk of contracting the virus due to their daily exposure, Mishori said. These tests are good for accurately diagnosing those who are positive, but because they’re less sensitive, a negative result shouldn’t be relied upon.

Antibody tests, which she pointed out have “many accuracy issues,” can show whether a person has been infected with the coronavirus in the past. That means they’re not very useful for those who are trying to get a sense of their infection status right now before choosing to travel or see loved ones.

Should travelers wear N95 masks?

N95 masks are top-tier personal protective equipment worn by medical professionals to protect them from the coronavirus while treating COVID-19 patients. In order for these masks to be effective, Mishori noted, they must be specially fitted to a person’s face, which is why they’re not recommended for the general public. Wearing an unfitted N95 offers the wearer “a false sense of security.”

The second best option, she said, is to wear a surgical mask, or even two, layered over each other at the same time for added protection. That approach would be safer compared to wearing a regular cloth mask or a bandana.

Talking to college-aged adults about COVID-19’s long-term health risks

Although young adults are less likely to die from the coronavirus, people aged 18 to 29 years are the “major drivers” of transmission in the United States, and the second largest group of people who are hospitalized for COVID, Mishori said. She added that even those who contract mild cases can suffer long-term health problems, a group known as “long haulers.”

Mishori personally knows of people in their early 20s or their late teens who fall into that category. So although parents with children in that age range may face resistance, the risks they face if they don’t follow pandemic precautions, like limiting social interaction and wearing masks when seeing people outside of their family’s household, are real.

“I want to emphasize that even mild cases can be very, very serious for a lot of people for many weeks and months to come,” Mishori said.

What will a future vaccine mean for the pandemic?

Mishori said she’s feeling “hopeful” after three pharmaceutical companies released preliminary data that suggests that their vaccine candidates could be up to, or more than, 90 percent effective. She added that it’s possible that some of these vaccines could begin to be rolled out in limited supply as early as next month.

“Once more and more people — thousands, and hundreds of thousands of people — are actually receiving them, I think we will get some more practical information about their true efficacy and their side effects,” Mishori said. “But I’m very hopeful, and this is very welcome news.”

She noted, though, that “the devil is always in the details, and the details here are about the dissemination” of these vaccines. Some of the candidates must be kept at extremely cold temperatures, which could make distribution more difficult in more rural parts of the country.

Another challenge lies within the question of which groups will receive the initial doses as they’re rolled out. Some argue for those who seem to be spreading the virus frequently — young people between the ages of 18 to 29. But most agree, Mishori said, that people like health care and other essential workers who are most at risk should be first in line.

Mishori pointed out that a vaccine won’t be enough to wipe out the virus. Researchers are also not sure how long immunity, either through natural infection or vaccination, will last, or if there will be a difference between the two types of immunity.

“Even if you’re lucky enough to get the vaccine, it doesn’t mean that you can shed your mask, start partying, have a big gathering in your home,” Mishori said. “I think it’s really important to stress that you should continue to practice all of these public health measures to protect others.”

Why this winter should be our ‘most outdoorsy’ yet

The winter months tend to push our social lives inside, but this year, that shift could cause more people to contract the coronavirus from even small gatherings. That’s why Mishori advocates for making this winter our “most outdoorsy” one yet, noting that masks serve the dual purpose of protecting us from the virus and the bitter cold.

“Have a couple of good coats, a few layers, and go out. Spend more time outside,” Mishori said. “If you spend time outside doing some physical activity, you can keep up the temperature and feel a little warmer.”

Giving an outdoor “adventure” a try allows us to safely keep seeing the people we love while avoiding the risks that come with socializing inside.

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