What a public health expert is grateful for this Thanksgiving
Leana Wen

What a public health expert is grateful for this Thanksgiving

As Americans head into the Thanksgiving holiday, I know everyone talks about being grateful, and that can feel rote or even cruel during a pandemic when so many and much have been lost. But I am truly grateful.

I am grateful for the scientists who worked so hard for decades, hoping that their research would one day be useful to the world; for the people who kept my elders safe during the pandemic; for my family, friends and spiritual leaders who reminded me we’ve fought big battles before; for my child’s teachers, coaches and administrators who kept educating middle schoolers — who were so incredibly lost in the middle of the pandemic. I’m grateful for the courage of people who lost loved ones and spoke up so that we’d remember them.

I’m also grateful for CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, who has so many medical and CNN network responsibilities, and still finds the time to do a weekly Q&A with me. She helps us all sort out what we can safely do — for school, visiting family, celebrating the holidays and more. I wanted to ask her what she’s thinking about this Thanksgiving.

Wen is an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She is also author of a new book, “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health.”

CNN: What are you grateful for this Thanksgiving holiday?

Dr. Leana Wen: There is so much that I’m deeply grateful for. First, I’m grateful for my family. My husband, Sebastian, and I have two lovely little kids, a 4-year-old son, Eli, and the “pandemic baby” Isabelle, who is now a year and a half.

Sebastian contracted Covid-19 last year, just a month before the vaccines were made available. He became quite ill, though he was never hospitalized, and it has taken him months to regain his sense of smell and taste. He still has some brain fog and fatigue, now nearly a year after contracting coronavirus. We feel very grateful that he survived Covid-19, and we mourn the over 750,000 Americans and millions of people around the world who have tragically succumbed to the pandemic.

Of course, we are very grateful to the international collaboration of scientists who have worked together to deliver on the incredible medical advance of the coronavirus vaccines. These vaccines are saving countless lives and are allowing so many families to now get together over the holidays.

I also want to express my gratitude to public health workers. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other frontline health care workers deserve our thanks, and so do those who work tirelessly in city, county and state health departments around the country. These are individuals who were already overstretched and overworked before the pandemic, who then had to take on the responsibility of setting up testing, standing up contact-tracing operations, then running the most expansive vaccination effort in recent history.

On top of that, they battle constant misinformation and disinformation. Many public health officials have faced harassment, even physical harm, just for trying to do their job. I give thanks to them, and to all the essential workers and their families who have sacrificed so much over the last two years.

CNN: How will you celebrate with your family?

Wen: This year, we have a series of Friendsgivings that Sebastian and I will be going to with our kids. On Thanksgiving Day, we are getting together with a group of other families to celebrate. All of us have extended families in other parts of the country and the world, and so it has been a tradition to get together with one another. The plan is to gather primarily outdoors, and we will also plan to do rapid tests the day of, so that we can reduce our risk of getting together if we need to move indoors.

That weekend, we will also be seeing other friends, including to host playdates in our backyard. We certainly miss having family nearby but are very thankful to this incredible community of wonderful friends in our area.

CNN: What precautions will you still take?

Wen: Because we have two children too young to be vaccinated, we are still trying to gather primarily outdoors. That’s particularly important because we will be seeing multiple families, and many of them also have young, unvaccinated kids. Some of our closest friends have kids who are just getting their first doses of the vaccine since they are in the 5-11-year-old age range, and we want to be careful for them — and for our kids.

There is one occasion where we will be going indoors for a part of the celebration. Everyone doing so is reducing their risk for three days beforehand, and then taking a rapid test that morning. This doesn’t remove all risk but does help to reduce the risk.

CNN: How do you keep the pandemic in perspective?

Wen: At this point in the pandemic, I think it’s important to figure out how to live with Covid-19. We have to accept that we’re not going to eradicate the coronavirus any time soon, but we also have to figure out a way to live with it so that it no longer prevents us from doing the things we most love.

Vaccines are key to living with the virus. There is a lot that we can do this Thanksgiving that we could not last year. We are not going to eliminate risk from Covid-19, but we can reduce it — and manage it — to keep our families safe while also regaining a sense of normalcy.

CNN: What do you wish for the coming year?

Wen: First, I wish for vaccines for younger children, so that Eli and Isabelle can have the protection afforded by the vaccines. Our family is still living with so much caution because of our children, and I cannot wait until our kids are able to be vaccinated. Hopefully, this will happen in the first quarter of the new year, and we can enjoy a much more normal spring.

Second, I wish for a lot more availability of Covid-19 testing. Testing is also key to us living with the coronavirus. I hope the United States learns from many parts of the world that have made rapid, home testing the norm, such that everyone getting together for dinner and social events will test right before seeing one another.

Third, I wish that we could take public health out of the partisan and ideological crosshairs. Issues like masking, vaccination, testing and treatment should not be political. I hope we can get to a place of valuing and truly investing in the lifesaving and life-changing work of public health.

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