Will we still be wearing masks at Thanksgiving 2021? Here's what Fauci says

Thanksgiving will be much different for millions of Americans this year with AAA projecting sharp decreases in the number of people who plan to travel to visit family and friends this holiday due to COVID-19.

Even as Americans were buoyed by news in recent days of two highly-effective vaccine candidates that appear close to starting distribution, new surges in the virus across the country suggest it will be a difficult winter season when it comes to curbing the spread of the pandemic.

So when the nation's top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci was asked on Tuesday whether we'd still be wearing masks at Thanksgiving next year, it seemed like a perfect opening for some good news.

RELATED: Fauci calls for U.S. to hit 'reset button' after some states reopened too quickly

Unfortunately, his answer to STAT reporter Helen Branswell was less satisfying than a can of cranberry sauce.

"I hope not. But my hope will be realized if we are successful in getting the overwhelming majority of the population vaccinated so that the level of infection in the community is so low and there are so many protected people that the virus has no place to go. Better known, Helen, as herd immunity," Fauci said, speaking during the STAT Summit being hosted virtually this week.

"If that's the case and we do that by the end of this year, we may have a considerable degree of normality," Fauci said. "Having said that, I think right now from what we're hearing, is that's aspirational but unlikely."

Even when vaccines are released, they should as a compliment, not a substitute, to other public health measures, he said.

That's in part because it's not yet known if the vaccines will offer sterilizing immunity or just protecting individuals from getting sick themselves, allowing them to inadvertently become asymptomatic spreaders of the virus, he said. 

"We will know that, ultimately, but we don't know that now," Fauci said. "My feeling is: When my turn comes to get vaccinated, I will not abandon all public health measures. Clearly, there will be a much greater ease in dropping back a bit on the stringency of it. But to just say: 'We're done with public health measures,' it's not going to be for a while. For those concerned, as I am, about the economy, about schools, about sports events, I think we're going to be a major shift toward much more normality. But it might not be exactly the way it was in 2019."