WATERLOO, Iowa (KWWL)- Millions of Americans hit the roads and headed to airports on Wednesday to spend Thanksgiving with family and friends. The latest estimate from the TSA is that 20 million people will take to the skies throughout the holiday weekend.
As Americans head off to their holiday destinations, the daily number of new COVID-19 cases is rising in more than half of all states.
"If you're traveling, be aware of the COVID-19 activity in the different in the location you are going to and any travel requirements, including airline requirements," Black Hawk County Public Health Director. Dr. Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye said.
According to data released Wednesday by the Iowa Department of Public Health, Iowa saw 10,346 new COVID-19 cases from Wednesday, November 17 to Wednesday, November 24. That's an average of 1,478 new cases per day over the last seven days. The number of new cases is up 12% from the number of new cases reported last week.
"We are seeing an increase in our cases," Dr. Egbuonye said. "I think that is one of the things that people are should be mindful that we now have respiratory viruses that are circulating, not just COVID-19 but also the flu."
On the first Thanksgiving in the era of COVID-19 vaccines, airports are seeing pre-pandemic travel levels. The TSA screened more than 2.2 million people Tuesday and more than 2 million the day before.
"I think more people are getting out and feeling like it is safer," Katie Young said as she boarded a flight from Waterloo to Chicago on Wednesday. "I think people feel freer to travel and visit family."
Infectious disease expert and Executive Dean of the Carver College of Medicine at the University of Iowa, Dr. Patricia Winokur, said it is safe to gather around the holidays if your family is vaccinated.
"A lot of the population has gotten vaccinated, and they're feeling a little bit more comfortable with social gatherings, and that's good," Dr. Winokur said. "What the vaccines are for is trying to give people more freedom. If you haven't been vaccinated, my recommendation is that now's the time to get vaccinated and protect yourself and your family members for those holiday gatherings."
Dr. Winokur said everybody who is now eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot should get one before their holiday gatherings. Even if you are vaccinated, Dr. Winokur said you should still be cautious.
"If you have a very immunocompromised family member, someone who hasn't been able to get vaccinated, those are times to be more cautious," she said. "Masks might be appropriate in that setting to protect someone who's very frail."
Dr. Egbuonye said it is important to practice good safety protocols so everyone can stay healthy throughout the holiday season.
"If you have a member of your household that is sick from COVID-19, you should not attend or host holiday gatherings, follow isolation and quarantine guidelines," Dr. Egbuonye said. "You should also wear a mask when indoors in public and practice social distancing and public places."
Dr. Egbuonye said those traveling should continue to take the mitigation measures public health experts have been encouraging since the pandemic began, like frequently washing your hands and not touching your face.
"It is important to continue to remember is to practice regular washing and cleaning of frequently touched surfaces," Dr. Egbuonye said. "At the beginning of the pandemic was that was something that was frequently communicated, and we have to continue to do those things."
Last Thanksgiving, there were lines of cars waiting at testing sites for COVID-19 tests. This year, at-home test kits are readily available and can serve as an extra layer of protection to ensure safe holiday gatherings.
If you start to feel sick and are unsure whether it is COVID-19 or the flu, Dr. Egbuonye said you should get tested.
COVID-19 test kits are available at the Black Hawk County Health Department and a handful of retail stores.
After the last year, families gathering around the table for a Thanksgiving meal have plenty of reasons to be thankful.
"Now is the time to have a gathering if you have people that are vaccinated. As the holidays roll around, that's a great time to have an opportunity to reconnect," Dr. Winokur said. "We want people to have some, some enjoyment this holiday season. It has been a long pandemic."