Fauci and Collins dispense Thanksgiving COVID-19 advice at cathedral forum

Infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci advised weighing the risks. National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said he’s skipping the family gathering this year.

(RNS) — Beneath the neo-Gothic arches of Washington National Cathedral, Dr. Anthony Fauci mulled over the question everyone is asking: Should families gather for Thanksgiving during the coronavirus pandemic?

“I think every family unit needs to do a risk assessment,” said the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at a Thursday (Nov. 12) forum.

He said families should consider factors such as the age, underlying conditions, travel, testing and quarantining of people who wish to dine together on the holiday.

“You may want to make a decision that you’re just going to forestall it — now whenever I say that I’m the grinch that stole Thanksgiving,” he said. “I’m not saying that. I’m saying everyone needs to seriously think about the risk-benefit” ratio.


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“You might say,” the infectious disease expert added, “I had a wonderful Thanksgiving last year. I’m looking forward to a wonderful Thanksgiving next year. But maybe right now is not the time to have 25 people in a house when you take your mask off as you’re eating.”

The advice, from the man President Trump has threatened with firing and Joe Biden said he would hire if elected, came as the country has reached record numbers of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases. Fauci said he’s focused on public health and science — including the current promise of a vaccine — not politics.

“When you hear those things in the newspapers, many people think I get shook back and forth by that,” said Fauci to his moderator, Adi Ignatius, editor in chief of Harvard Business Review. “To be honest with you, I don’t.”

Fauci was followed by National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins and Dr. Luciana Borio, a member of Biden’s new coronavirus task force. The Ignatius Forum is an annual event at the cathedral that seeks expert opinions on pressing issues. Amy L. Ignatius, a New Hampshire Superior Court judge, moderated the discussion with Collins and Borio at the forum honoring her parents, cathedral benefactors.

Dr. Francis Collins speaks about COVID-19 at a Washington National Cathedral forum on Nov. 12, 2020. Image courtesy of Danielle E. Thomas/Washington National Cathedral

The forum was attended virtually by more than 7,000 registrants and by about 10 staffers and Ignatius family members who were at the cathedral in person, said Kevin Eckstrom, the National Cathedral’s chief communications officer.

One question posed to Collins during the event was whether outcomes may be better for COVID-19 patients for whom faith is important in their lives. The NIH director said that would be a good research subject to pursue.

“In other circumstances, yeah, there is evidence that people who have a spiritual part of their daily life seem to have more resilience when it comes to health issues and other things,” he said. “It’s not a huge effect, but it’s certainly in there.”


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Collins, who created BioLogos, an organization that fosters dialogue about Christianity and science, pointed to National Cathedral Dean Randy Hollerith’s earlier reference to Psalm 46 — which says, “God is our refuge and strength” — as a passage he personally considers to be a “great source of comfort.”

Collins also noted that he and his colleagues have been barraged with questions as people wonder what to do about holiday gatherings.

“I’m not going to have Thanksgiving with my family this year because of people in the family who are at risk, and I’m going to miss that — first time in 27 years there has not been a gathering of 30 or so people around the table,” said Collins. “When you put all the evidence together, we can get by this year without that.”

He added: “We’re going to get through a serious worldwide crisis, and it will have an end.”