Are Small Gatherings Driving Recent Covid-19 Surges? Policymakers and Scientists Are at Odds

Data suggests that universities, indoor dining and large parties may be the bigger culprits

Three people sit around a table for Thanksgiving dinner while having a video call with a woman holding a mug.
In some states, the odds of having a Covid-positive guest at a ten-person dinner are as high as 80 percent. Getty Images

With Thanksgiving tomorrow, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is strongly dissuading friends and families from different households to gather. There have been more than 12.3 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and nearly 260,000 deaths in the United States since the pandemic began, according to the CDC. As the nation faces another surge before the holidays, leaders and policymakers seem to be pinning the blame on small household gatherings, reports Apoorva Mandavilli for the New York Times.

But some scientists aren't so sure that such get-togethers are the primary driver of the recent surge, especially because people are now reporting multiple ways they could have been exposedmaking it unclear how and where people contracted the virus, the Times reports.

Gatherings undeniably play a part in transmitting the virus. For example, Canadians experienced a rise in cases following Thanksgiving last month. Experts say that result further illustrates that meeting people beyond one's immediate household unit is high-risk.

"Every interaction that you have is a possible exposure," Christopher Babiuch, a physician at the Cleveland Clinic Lorain Family Health Center, tells Lynanne Vucovich of the Norwalk Reflector. "The more people you interact with, the higher the risk of you getting COVID, and the risk right now is significantly higher than at any other point in this pandemic."

For example, 12 people gathered for a birthday party in Texas earlier this month, and after a few guests reported feeling ill in the sunsequent days, everyone got tested, reports Inyoung Choi for Insider. All attendees, plus three others, tested positive for Covid-19.

Even a dinner as small as ten people could lead to an outbreak, reports Maggie Koerth for FiveThirtyEight. Georgia Tech’s Covid-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool estimates that in some states, the odds of having a coronavirus-positive guest at a ten-person dinner are as high as 80 percent.

"In February or March, when we had very few cases, there was less of a risk," Aditya Shah, an infectious diseases expert at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, tells FiveThirtyEight. "Now it’s so widespread…that’s different."

In response to the escalating outbreak, states have started implementing further restrictions on social gatherings and travel. For example, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island limited indoor gatherings to ten people in recent weeks, report Joseph Spector and Jon Campbell for USA Today.

But are some events driving new surges more than others in the United States? It's hard to say. In Louisiana, less than two percent of the state's cases are a result of smaller social events, the New York Times reports. In some states, officials have limited private get-togethers but allowed larger gatherings that can lead to high numbers of cases.

For example, in Texas, more than 26,000 cases have been linked to 84 colleges, reports the Times. In Minnesota, officials encourage virtual private gatherings but allow places of worship, funeral homes and wedding venues to host as many as 250 people indoors. Vermont is discouraging masked outdoor meetings with neighbors, but allows indoor dining at restaurants, reports Vermont Public Radio's Jane Lindholm and Lydia Brown.

"If you’re an average person looking at what’s allowed and what’s not allowed, it may not make a lot of sense," Ashleigh Tuite, an infectious disease modeler at the University of Toronto in Canada, tells the Times. "I can get together with nine of my best friends and sit around a table at a restaurant. So why can’t I do that in my house?"

Outbreaks were once easier to link back to a place or event, but now it's becoming exceedingly difficult to track outbreaks since cases are so widespread.

"It seems like [officials are] passing off the responsibility for controlling the outbreak to individuals and individual choices," Ellie Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University, tells the Times. "A pandemic is more a failure of the system than the failure of individual choices. Household gatherings would be much safer if officials put stricter limits on commercial and nonresidential activities. They are choosing not to, and then saying the fault lies with individuals."

But as cases rise, it's still important for people to remain vigilant in protecting themselves and others. If people choose to attend gatherings, Babiuch says that they should remain masked, bring their own eating utensils and consider moving the event outside. If it is indoors, they should open windows to improve air flow, reports the Norwalk Reflector. Of course, a virtual event would be the least risky option.

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