A 13-year-old girl spread the coronavirus to 11 relatives across four states this summer, despite testing negative two days before a three-week family vacation, a recent journal article released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed.
The trip occurred at an undisclosed location in June and July, and it infected family members from ages 9 to 72 who traveled to a home that was shared between five households. No masks or distancing measures were in place. The teen was exposed to an unspecified covid-19 outbreak in June before testing negative, the report says. Nasal congestion was her only symptom.
The CDC declined to say where the family members were located “out of respect for the privacy of the family who generously shared their information with investigators,” but public health departments in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Georgia and Illinois were cited in the article’s footnotes.
“The findings in this report highlight the need for those potentially exposed to COVID-19 to self-quarantine for 14 days after exposure or after interstate travel when mandated by state, territorial, tribal or local authorities,” CDC spokesperson Scott Pauley told The Washington Post via email. “Social distancing, mask use, and hand hygiene reduce transmission in group settings and might have prevented this outbreak had they been used.”
The CDC also pointed to the case as evidence for the benefits of social distancing: Six other individuals who visited but remained outside the home and at a distance were not infected.
The coronavirus-spreading event shows the risks of mixed-household gatherings like family reunions and parties, experts say, even after receiving negative test results. It is an important cautionary tale as Americans weigh whether to travel to gather with loved ones this holiday season.
Epidemiologists say the superspreader vacation also shows that rowdy events such as college parties are not the only irresponsible covid-era gatherings. Any household mixing indoors can go awry without distancing and masks, even if participants are tested.
“The main thing with this case is that when you test somebody for coronavirus, you may just miss it. You might not have peak viral replication yet,” says Brad Pollock, the associate dean of public health sciences at the University of California at Davis. “It takes your body a good three to five days of incubation, and if it’s day four then you might test negative. But 12 hours later you could go from a low viral count to millions.”
As more people choose to travel, some U.S. airlines and airports are providing rapid coronavirus tests to travelers — for a price. But if you do travel this holiday season, health experts recommend driving over flying.
But what about holiday gatherings? Are they safe, even if everyone is masked and six feet apart?
“That’s easier said than done in family gatherings. It becomes more difficult when people want to see family members they haven’t seen in a while,” says Sandro Galea, the dean at Boston University’s School of Public Health. “My general advice is that people get tested before seeing more elderly family members, but that they also use other precautions,” including wearing masks, distancing and frequently washing hands.
Pollock says Thanksgiving gatherings and other family reunions should continue to be held outside, noting that families in warmer locations will have an easier time sticking to that rule. “I live in California where we can be outside in November for Thanksgiving,” he says. “You have to assume anyone at a gathering could be harboring the virus.”