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New data suggests millions of Americans traveled for Thanksgiving despite CDC recommendations and state stay-at-home orders

There’s yet more data suggesting that millions of Americans gathered for Thanksgiving despite public health pleas to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic — including Californians who were told to shelter in place.

More than four million people in the U.S. journeyed away from home for Thanksgiving, according to data shared with CNN by The Center for New Data, including more than 1.6 million who traveled out of state.

The Center for New Data is a nonprofit agency that works with reporting partners like ProPublica and the Washington Post, and tech partners like Snowflake

and Okta
to study public issues such as the pandemic and election integrity.

For its Thanksgiving travel research, it used geolocation data to anonymously track the movements of more than 30 million devices across the country, comparing each phone or tablet’s established home base with its location on Thanksgiving to see how far people traveled, and whether they crossed state lines.

And almost 2.5 million people — or, more than half of those tracked leaving home for the holiday — traveled more than 60 miles for their Thanksgiving dinner, according to the data. About 91,000 devices were detected flying.

This didn’t just fly in the face of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “strongly” urging Americans to avoid traveling for Thanksgiving — but about half of states have put travel restrictions in place to stem the spread of COVID-19. California, for example, had a travel advisory in place during Thanksgiving week urging residents to stay home or in their region, and to avoid non-essential travel. What’s more, anyone arriving into California was asked to self-quarantine for 14. days, and there were regional stay-at-home orders. Yet the Center for New Data found that almost 50,000 devices in California on Thanksgiving had come in from other states, and almost 120,000 other devices had traveled across country lines.

Almost one in five people in Georgia crossed county lines to gather for Thanksgiving, as well. And fellow Southern states including Arkansas, Virginia and Mississippi also had high numbers of Thanksgiving travelers.

Yet data from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) suggests that the number of pandemic Thanksgiving travelers could actually be much higher, as it showed that 1.18 million travelers went through TSA checkpoints on the Sunday after Thanksgiving alone — the most since March 16. And AAA, formerly known as the American Automobile Association, estimated in mid-October that 50 million people planned to travel over the Thanksgiving holiday travel period between Wednesday, Nov. 25 and Sunday, Nov. 29. 

Related:Thanksgiving travel was too strong a pull to keep most Americans home, data suggest

The U.S. suffered its worst week of COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic last week, which was two weeks after Thanksgiving. But the worst of the feared “Thanksgiving surge” in cases may be yet to come, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, who has warned it takes two and a half weeks from an event to see a surge in new positive cases. The means that the Turkey Day fallout could peak sometime this week.

Health experts are just as concerned about the December holidays becoming superspreader events, as well. The CDC once again recommends on its website that “staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others,” and Dr. Fauci has noted he’s not spending Christmas with his daughters, either.

Read:Americans prepare to travel again for Christmas, while hospitals brace for post-Thanksgiving surge

But while AAA expects the majority of Americans to stay home for the December holidays, it estimates that as many as 84.5 million may still travel from Dec. 23 through Jan. 3.

Hope is on the horizon, however, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the BioNTech-Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for emergency use last week, and the first doses are already being given to U.S. health care workers. The FDA is also expected to grant emergency use authorization to Moderna’s vaccine on Thursday, and the regulator published a document on Thursday noting that Moderna’s candidate is “highly effective” at preventing infections with the coronavirus.

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