Turning the Tide Against COVID-19 During Thanksgiving

"As much as we love our families, we don't want our celebrations to hurt anyone." - Quotation from Tim Lahey, MD, infectious disease expert at UVM Medical Center.

Posted November 23, 2020

COVID-19 is spreading faster and wider in our region than we have seen before. And, with Thanksgiving right around the corner, this opportunistic virus is ready to take a stronger grip on our communities if we are not careful. This is why, in New York, private indoor gatherings are limited to no more than 10 people. And in Vermont, only members of the same household may gather together. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also urging everyone to stay home and avoid traveling for the holiday.

Many of us are thinking about spending time with family and friends we have not seen in person for a long time due to the pandemic. Thanksgiving traditionally brings our loved ones together to watch football, catch up with each other and share a meal.

It seems harmless enough, because we know these people. We trust them. We care about them, and they care about us. 

Thanksgiving: The Next Super Spreader Event

We know gatherings lead to community spread. While we tend to focus on crowds and distancing ourselves from people we don’t know, it is critical to understand that even small gatherings during the holiday present serious risk and can lead to more infections. 

More infections mean a spike in hospitalizations, putting us in the same precarious situation we faced in the spring: our health care system becoming overwhelmed, leading to a shut down in some services and leaving the health of many at risk.

Keith Collins, MD, an infectious disease expert at UVM Health Network - Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, has pointed out numerous times that fighting COVID-19 is no easy task.

“We don’t really have great treatments, yet,” Dr. Collins reminds us. “The ones we do have available are at best modestly effective. People across the country are still dying, and more will die with this surge.”

Help may soon be on the way in the form of effective vaccines. But they are not a done deal, and any vaccine is still months away for most of us. Many can get sick – even die – between now and then.

In the meantime, we have the power to protect ourselves. We flattened the curve and kept it there during the spring and summer by wearing our masks, keeping our distance and washing our hands more frequently.

What Worked in April Still Works Now

And our confidence is stronger than ever because of what we have learned since the pandemic began. With every passing day, we learn more about how COVID-19 spreads and what we can do to slow it down. 

That is why we cannot treat this upcoming Thanksgiving like any other year. The holiday presents this virus with another opportunity to grow and multiply. It also offers each of us the chance to prevent that.

Please limit your gatherings for the holiday, based on your state’s guidelines. Keep them to your immediate nuclear family as much as possible. Take part in virtual meals with your extended family and friends. 

My wife and I originally planned to host our three adult children and two significant others coming to our New York home from around the country. Several weeks ago, with the virus starting to rapidly spread, we set strict guidelines that anyone wanting to visit would have to meet:

  • Isolate as much as possible and practice social distancing for two weeks prior to traveling.
  • Get tested for COVID-19 three to four days ahead of the trip.
  • Test results must be negative.

As it turned out, our adult son who lives and works in Washington, D.C. was able to meet those guidelines and drove home (instead of flying) to reduce the traveling risk. He will stay with us until after Christmas. What was going to be a relatively small gathering of seven was trimmed down to a safer gathering of three, with the knowledge that proper precautions were taken.

While it is not the Thanksgiving we hoped for, these steps significantly increase the chances that we can be together in person, with no empty chairs, next year.

Every member of this community is tired of the pandemic, the isolation and all of the hurt and fear we are facing every day. Wars are lost, not won, if one side gets “tired” of fighting. Now is the time to double down.  

And if there is one thing to be thankful about this year, we know what steps we can take to minimize the risk, protect our loved ones and stop the spread of COVID-19. 

By Wouter Rietsema, MD, Vice President, Population Health and Information Services, UVM Health Network – Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital

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