Guest Column: Doctor says settle for virtual holidays this year amid COVID-19
How much more can 2020 take from us? Unfortunately, to be safe, we should let the pandemic rob us of in-person Thanksgiving feasts with loved ones.
Excited to see her children and grandchildren, an 80-year-old grandmother traveled halfway across California to visit, eagerly planning all the meals she would cook and share. The family enjoyed elaborate curries and stews, stories and laughs; two weeks later, that woman ended up as a patient in my hospital struggling to breathe. What began as a cough among the family ended up as a life-threatening COVID-19 infection for the grandmother.
With Thanksgiving and the winter holidays fast approaching, I fear that our hospitals across the nation will be filled with more avoidable stories like this. This year for the holidays, we all need to settle for virtual family gatherings rather than in-person get-togethers.
With the coronavirus pandemic stretching into its eighth month, it is natural to want to put a pause on social distancing. Thanksgiving is only one day, and it is when family and loved ones should gather and feast. How much more can 2020 take from us?
Communal meals are highest risk
Unfortunately, to be safe, we should let the pandemic rob us of this time-honored tradition, too. The incidence of COVID-19 infections continues to rise throughout the country. More ominously, the level of hospitalizations has also risen to magnitudes nearing those in the spring. This is bad news as this number lags behind the rise in deaths. Already at more than 240,000 fatalities, we must brace for more.
The highest risk of transmission of the virus is when there is prolonged, indoor contact (now defined as at least15 minutes). A communal meal inside the house certainly meets this definition.
It is also known that spread of COVID-19 among family members is not only common, it also can be quick. This was borne out in a recent study from the Centers for Disease and Prevention. The study tracked COVID-19 positive individuals, each living with others who did not have the virus. At the end of the study, 53% of all the family members within the different households tested positive. Most caught it within five days.
Other studies from the CDC also push back against the myth that children cannot spread the virus. Adolescents have been identified as the source of several COVID-19 outbreaks.
No matter how you slice it, large indoor family gatherings will put people at risk of coronavirus infections. Asymptomatic infections exist, and even with available testing, there are many false negatives. The risk is just too high to get the extended family together for turkey this year.
In fact, this danger can be seen in Canada. Almost like a crystal ball into the future, Canada celebrates Thanksgiving in October, and the holiday is being blamed for leading to a surge of outbreaks.
Everyone is vulnerable to COVID-19
And it’s not just the elderly and vulnerable who are at risk of dying and serious illness. Thousands of young people in the United States have been hospitalized with COVID-19, and many have died. Some young people have recovered from the virus but continue to struggle with complications that we are still learning about.
Often dubbed “long haulers,” these individuals deal with prolonged and life-changing symptoms that can include debilitating fatigue, difficulty concentrating, post-traumatic stress disorder and asthma-like syndromes. Even athletes in peak physical condition, such as an NFL running back, have succumbed to COVID-19 and its complications.
Good news for the future:For COVID-19, vaccine offers light at the end of a dark winter
The grandmother who drove across the state to spend time with her children spent weeks on a ventilator and, sadly, she eventually died. Her children and grandchildren had fevers and coughs from COVID-19, but they recovered.
This year continues to be a struggle, but insisting on in-person holiday gatherings will only prolong the suffering by increasing the risk of spread. The numbers continue to rise, but we can slow it down by limiting indoor get-togethers, wearing masks and socially distancing. Opt for virtual family gatherings for Thanksgiving and the winter holidays this year. You may miss your mother's sweet potato casserole or your brother's special cranberry sauce, but at least your family will be healthier.
Dr. Thomas K. Lew, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is an assistant clinical professor of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and an attending physician of Hospital Medicine at Stanford Health Care–ValleyCare. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasLewMD