Juggling Act: Holidays will present some families with COVID conundrum

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

When Thanksgiving arrives next week and my extended family finally comes together for our first big holiday meal in more than a year because of COVID, I know the corn kernels will make an appearance.

My mom started it years ago after our Thanksgiving meal. Supposedly taken from a Five Kernels tradition based on the Pilgrims and their first Thanksgiving meal with the Native Americans who helped them survive centuries ago, each guest is given five corn kernels. We take turns sharing something for which we're grateful. After each kernel, we drop it into a bowl and pass it on to the next person to share his or her gratitude.

Family, health and jobs often top the list for most of us, though one year the young son of a dear family friend who was with us expressed his gratitude for my mom's cuckoo clock. And it is a pretty darn cool clock.

This year, I already feel incredibly grateful that we'll just be together -- for cousins, cranberry sauce and chaos. But the holidays aren't even here yet and COVID is already forcing us to make tough decisions.

With more than a dozen people who will be together from several families, we've agreed to do a quick test for COVID before our gathering just to be on the safe side.

We're all vaccinated, except for one family member who refuses to both get vaccinated or get tested before Thanksgiving. Rather than be a part of our festivities, he's decided to stay home. Principle, for him, trumps family. And that's his choice.

A brined and glazed turkey elevates the Thanksgiving meal.

I know we aren't alone. Families across the country are making tough decisions about spending the holiday together, especially if they have different views on getting vaccinated. 

Thanksgiving arrives next week as COVID cases are, again, surging in Michigan, the latest wave in this unyielding pandemic. Michigan, in fact, leads the country in new COVID-19 cases per population over the last seven days, according to tracking data released earlier this week from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So what are families to do? Even with numbers rising, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden's top medical advisor, has encouraged those who are fully vaccinated to "feel good" about being together during the holidays.

"If you get vaccinated and your family's vaccinated, you can feel good about enjoying a typical Thanksgiving, Christmas with your family and close friends," Fauci, who is also director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview on Monday hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

For families with mixed vaccination status, though, the decision about being together isn't quite as easy.

A Harris poll conducted in September of 2,055 U.S. adults, including 1,454 vaccinated ones, found 50% of vaccinated respondents are either “extremely” or “considerably” hesitant to spend the holidays with unvaccinated family members or friends, according to a Forbes.com story.

“Our new data suggests the vaccine divide is not only reshaping relationships, but soon the holiday travel season,” said Harris Poll CEO John Gerzema in the Forbes story, noting that vaccinated Americans are “placing stricter boundaries around whom they choose to spend time with. So expect to see cancellations and rerouted plans as vaccinated Americans avoid their unvaccinated friends and family.”

Last year, my immediate family of four spent the holidays with just us. My mom joined us briefly to say hi on Thanksgiving day and we hung out in chairs, all wearing masks, in our driveway. For Christmas, she did spend the day with us.

I actually loved the lack of frenzy last year. There was no rushing from the parade to whip up a side dish, get ready and then rush to someone's house. We had nowhere to go and nothing on the agenda. It was simple and wonderful.

But when I think about what matters during the holidays, it's being with extended family and loved ones. And while I can appreciate that I have relatives who don't like being told what to do, we have to also think about the greater good. Sometimes that's the bigger principle.

So we'll gather for Thanksgiving next week, corn kernels and all, with one less family member. And as we each share what we're thankful for, I know what's at the top of my list (especially after having COVID): the COVID vaccine. It's why we're getting together at all.