Some of us told ourselves we were tired of the spring lock (true), the weather finally warmed up (true), we had done so well to keep the infection rates from shooting in the summer (not really true – we never even got them low enough to get out of the so-called first wave). But not surprisingly, infection rates continued to climb.
The country faces some of the same choices again as we quickly enter the sanctuary’s trifecta: Thanksgiving, the December holidays (Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa) and New Year’s Eve.
Cindy McMahon, from Manasquan, New Jersey, was hoping her brother’s family could join her family of four plus their 87-year-old mother for Thanksgiving this year.
“Well, my brother and sister-in-law have been spending Thanksgiving elsewhere for a number of years and they decided that this year they will change their routine and join us,” she told me.
So McMahon and her sister-in-law hatched their plan back in August when cases in New Jersey were under control. “They would join us and we would be nine for Thanksgiving,” she said.
They had no idea how much things would change again over the next three months.
Lay the ground for the winter
What McMahon, her family and the rest of us choose to do in the coming weeks is likely to lay the groundwork for the pandemic path in the long, cold days that follow this winter.
The sad truth is that we are in an even worse position than we were this summer: Prior to the previous holidays, the path of the pandemic fell in at least some states. Currently, infection rates are rising in 44 states.
For more than two weeks in a row, the country has added more than 100,000 new coronavirus diagnoses every day. On Friday, the country recorded its highest number of Covid-19 cases: 195,542. By comparison, on Memorial Day, there were fewer than 20,000 daily new cases.
In all, the country is rapidly closing in on 12 million cases of coronavirus, and there have been more than 250,000 deaths. On Friday alone, more than 1,850 deaths were reported. Also on Friday, there was a record number of admissions due to Covid-19 – 82,178 people – according to the Covid Tracking Project. Hospitals in some states are overwhelmed; lack of staff due to illness exacerbates the problem.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington predicts that in early January, more than 2,000 people in the United States will die each day from Covid-19, and that if behavior does not change, total U.S. deaths could reach more than 471,000 before March 1st. And it warns that hospital systems, especially ICUs, are expected to be “under extreme stress in December and January in 18 states.”
State after state introduces new restrictions. And public health experts are sounding the alarm louder than ever.
One of the biggest areas of concern: small indoor household gatherings, as most families typically plan this time of year. Let’s face it. It gets colder outside, which means most of the country will spend time indoors.
When eating, you can also not wear a mask. And holiday dinners are not quiet conditions, which means there will likely be loud talking and maybe even singing, which is festive, but also a recipe for aerosolized virus.
And can you imagine not hugging or snuggling up close? Add a glass of wine to the equation and physical distance can go out the window.
That’s why CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield specifically designated holidays when he spoke to the country’s governors a few weeks ago. “What we see as the growing threat right now is actually the acquisition of infection through small household collections. And especially when Thanksgiving comes up, we think it’s really important to emphasize the vigilance of these continued mitigation steps in the household,” he said. told them.
And that brings us back to Cindy McMahon.
For his part, McMahon began building a spreadsheet. “I started thinking about it … and that was what made me create the spreadsheet … I really thought I could figure out how it could work,” she said.
She took what she knew about each family member – their age and companionship that they come in contact with, do they leave home for school or work, do they wear masks consistently, do the people they come in contact with, do they mask consistently, what leisure activities they participate in – and into the spreadsheet it all went.
“I decided I wanted to fill in for each one and see where it led and if there was actually any way we could actually be together, sit across from each other at the dining table … enjoy our meal without our masks on. And “It was my thought process. How can I make it happen again? How can we have a relatively normal Thanksgiving in anything but normal times?” she wondered.
The safest solution
It is true that some communities are safer than others with lower levels of community dispersal, but in general the country is widely infected at this point and holiday travel can make any place a hotspot.
You will be in good company. The director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, said that for the first time in 27 years, his family will not gather for Thanksgiving.
“It’s just not safe to take that kind of chance with people coming from different parts of the country with uncertain status. The problem with this disease is, it’s so easy for people to get infected and not know it, and then spread it to them next to them without realizing it, ”he said during an NPR interview in October.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said in a CNBC interview that he and his family will abstain from Thanksgiving this year and hope everyone will do the same.
“We have to get through the next few months. This is the hardest point of this pandemic right now – the next two months. We can not give up our watch right now,” Gottlieb said, adding that we must think of the elderly people who are most at risk.
And the same goes for me. Like Gottlieb, I have three daughters, and with my older parents living in a different state, this is usually the time of year when we get to see each other.
But this holiday season, our interactions will be on display – with promises and hopes that next year will be different.
Changing traditions to limit the risk
If you are still considering getting guests out of town, be sure to take into account the level of communities scattered throughout their place of origin. If they come from a place where the number increases and the positivity rate of the test is above 5-10%, it means an even greater risk.
The same goes for college students returning home for the holidays. For the sake of reducing infection, the CDC says they do not count as members of your household.
“People who have not lived in your household for the 14 days before you celebrate should not be considered members of your household and therefore you should take these extra precautions, even wearing masks in your own home,” Erin Sauber-Schatz , The CDC’s leadership for EU intervention and critical population task force said during a telephone briefing on Thursday.
Finally, the agency notes, the larger and the longer the collection, the greater the risk, so try to keep the meetings as small and as short as possible. Limit the number of people handling the food. And even though it is a festive occasion, it is still important to maintain physical distance between guests from different households, to wear masks and wash hands frequently.
Even if you think you and your guests are equally strict and security-minded, talk about what it really means.
“I find over and over again what a family thinks is very risk-averse is not the same as another family describes that they are risk-averse. So even though they kind of think, ‘Oh, we do the same thing,’ they’re not, “said Erin Bromage, an associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and a CNN analyst.
These honest conversations take place best before the holidays, so you can consider the answers when planning.
For Cindy McMahon, the spreadsheet highlighted a wide range of issues. “At first I thought, ‘Oh, I’m such a genius … I think maybe I can make this work.’ And so when you start filling out these columns, you’re like – the feeling of fear — no: there’s no way I can make this happen, “she said.
She thought about getting everyone tested and then going down before the visit, but realized it was unrealistic. “How could I expect any family member to be in? My husband had to go to work and you know he teaches at his school,” she said.
“I was trying to come up with solutions and it just came back to ‘Let’s just be safe,'” she said, adding that her own mother “knew right away that it would never work.”
McMahon said she struggled with the decision not to gather for Thanksgiving, but pragmatism knocked out denial.
“I’m very sorry. I love the holiday season. I can not even think ahead to Christmas time because I know I’m crying my eyes out that we can not have our traditional [celebration] – But you know what? It is OK. Right? Turns in life in any case regardless of the virus. So you just roll with it and keep cooking, “she said.
And while she does not make lemon pie out of the lemons that we have all been given, she still makes pie.
“When we came to the conclusion that we could not gather, it did not mean that I did not put a turkey in the oven and that I would not make all the traditional food and … three pies and all the treats,” said she plans to pack some portions and drop off the shopping bags at her mother’s door.
Hopefully there will be many stories like McMahons this holiday season. They are not stories about canceling our holidays, but about recognizing that it will have to be different this year. They are stories full of love, not because we met together this season, but because we sacrificed to keep each other safer. They are stories of physical distance, but not socially isolating, because we need social connection more than ever.
Hopefully these are stories of people reminding each other that we really are in this together and then rising to the moment by being kind to everyone around you.
CNN Health’s Andrea Kane contributed to this report.