Health officials recommend limiting travel and gatherings this Thanksgiving
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Health officials are urging Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving fearing it could lead to further spread of the COVID-19 virus that is currently infecting one of every 60 Coloradans.
“Where you have people, you have COVID. One out of 60 people in the state right now has COVID,” said Lauren Bryan, infection preventionist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs. “This is a numbers game.”
COVID-19 cases continue to climb both locally and around the country, which has health officials worried about Thanksgiving dinners becoming superspreader events. Health officials recommend having a dinner with just members of the same household.
“At Thanksgiving in particular, we always pack as many people around the table as we can,” Bryan said. “The separate side tables, the kids’ table, and you pack as many people as tightly as you can. This is not the year for that.”
Under level red restrictions in Routt County, personal gatherings are not allowed with people from more than one household. Local health officials have repeatedly pointed to gatherings around Halloween that have led to outbreaks, adding to the recent surge in cases that reached new highs Friday.
Routt County reported 122 cases in the most recent week from Nov. 12 to 18, the most in any seven-day period since the start of the pandemic, according to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Previous waves of the virus locally in the spring and in July topped out with around 20 new cases in a week. With no peak in sight, new reported cases are now six times larger.
In the most recent two weeks the county has reported 221 new cases of the virus, roughly 45% of the total number of cases the county has reported since March.
There have also been four more hospitalizations of Routt County residents, bringing total hospitalizations at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center to 17. Health officials also report more people seeking care at the hospital without requiring admission.
“I am more worried about it blowing up and really taxing our staff,” Bryan said. “Our ER is really seeing lots and lots of COVID cases. Our swabbing center is seeing lots of COVID cases. Even in the spring we didn’t have this kind of blow up of cases.”
Locally, outbreaks have repeatedly been linked to social gatherings, some in violation of local public health orders. While most outbreaks have come from businesses since the beginning of September, health officials have repeatedly said outbreaks from personal gatherings lead to more cases of the virus.
In the two weeks after Halloween, 26 or about 15% of the new cases can be directly linked to either a personal or social gatherings. At least 17 of the cases came from a Halloween gathering in violation of public health orders, according to Routt County epidemiologists.
While it is too soon for epidemiologists to quantify the full scope of cases that can be attributed to Halloween, there have been many secondary cases, like a parent testing positive after their child was at a gathering and contracted the virus.
“We anticipate that if Routt County residents gather with people from outside their household over Thanksgiving, we will see exponential growth in cases in the first two weeks of ski season,” said Routt County epidemiologists Nicole Harty and Fritha Morrison in an email.
Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith said there isn’t any one thing people should focus on when it comes to Thanksgiving — there are many.
“It is the combination of travel, people getting together and a lot of the things that we traditionally do over Thanksgiving in spending time indoors with people,” Smith said. “It is the cumulative of all of those issues that we are seeing with transmission.”
Smith said people should consider what it will take for people to gather together for Thanksgiving.
“What did they have to go through to get together? Are they traveling from towns? Stopping at gas stations? Will they be going to different venues and interacting with people along their travel routes?” Smith said. “Each individual has to think about the scenarios involved and really limit how many interactions they have.”
New cases attributed to travel have made up less of the share of new cases in recent weeks, but health officials still warn that traveling is risky and nearly impossible to do without risking contracting the virus.
“Traveling brings you into contact with that numbers game, with an awful lot of people,” Bryan said.
Even if a traveler is impeccably diligent about wearing their mask, maintaining social distancing and taking other precautions, Bryan said they will still come into contact with many people at a time when there is such a high concentration of the disease in society.
“I am really worried that with how high the community rate is already, that if people don’t heed that guidance and that advice from the CDC, that we are going to have really overwhelming rates in the hospital in the weeks following Thanksgiving,” Bryan said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance Thursday urging Americans to avoid travel for Thanksgiving amid surging cases of the virus nationally.
“As cases continue to increase rapidly across the United States, the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with people you live with,” the nation’s top public health agency said in its guidance.
But people will still travel for Thanksgiving — an estimated 50 million of them.
AAA estimates people traveling will include about 900,000 Coloradans who will travel 50 miles or more for Thanksgiving, about a 10% decrease from the previous year.
But while airline, cruise ship, train and bus travel is all significantly down this year, AAA anticipates more Coloradans driving this year than last Thanksgiving.
“More people are driving this year than they did in 2019, but that is because they are not taking a plane, they are not taking a cruise, driving is there only option,” said Skyler McKinley, spokesperson for AAA Colorado. “Coloradans who are traveling are traveling in greater numbers by automobile this year, because they perceive it to be safer or they are doing the smart thing and staying close to home.”
If considering traveling for Thanksgiving, the CDC suggests other plans should be made, such as delaying travel or hosting a virtual gathering, if people are visiting someone of increased risk for the virus, if cases are increasing in the community or the destination or if hospitals in either the community or the destination are overwhelmed with patients. People should also research travel restrictions before any trip.
“Look at where you are going,” Bryan said. “Maybe you can make a smarter decision about which side of the family you visit.”
Travelers should consider if they have had close contact with people outside of their household in the 14 days prior to travel or if they plan to travel with people from outside of their household. If so, the CDC advises that travelers make other plans.
If traveling, the agency recommends that people check travel restrictions prior to the trip, get a flu shot prior to travel, always wear a mask, stay 6 feet away from anyone you don’t live with and bring extra masks and hand sanitizer.
Health officials agree the safest way to have Thanksgiving dinner is with just the people you live with. Bryan said that even if there is a lone local relative that usually joins for dinner, maybe bringing food to them on their doorstep is a safer alternative.
“Going forward, vulnerable people, in this time with the amount of disease we have, need to continuously limit their interaction with other people,” said Dr. Brian Harrington, Routt County chief medical officer.
While many will be disappointed because of the pandemic-induced limits to Thanksgiving, Smith said the restrictions could be used to create new traditions.
“Supporting our restaurants by maybe ordering out this year for something different,” Smith suggested.
If going to a Thanksgiving gathering, the CDC suggests people bring their own food, drinks, plates, cups and utensils and avoid areas where food is being prepared.
State health officials suggest dinner be held outside if possible, but this is likely a large task with snow expected early next week. They also suggest picking one person to be a dedicated server of food rather than serving food buffet style.
Bryan also noted that there are still all the normal food safety concerns in play, such as fully cooking the turkey and properly storing the leftovers.
“Don’t share your leftovers,” she said with a chuckle. “Try to be clever with them at home.”
Many families will be welcoming a college student home over Thanksgiving, which leaves families wondering what they should do.
“People need to be cautious about having that person having close contact with vulnerable persons,” Harrington said. “If the college student is coming home, it may be best that they not have direct contact with grandparents.”
Bryan suggests students have their own space in the house where they can isolate from others.
Harrington said having the student quarantine for 14 days is an option, though he doubted many people would go this route.
“I have admit it is a little hard to bring your kid home on Tuesday and tell them they can’t join you for Thanksgiving,” Harrington said.
Having the student get tested before they leave school, or testing them five to seven days after they return, can give some reassurances, but the tests are not perfect.
When it comes to following the recommendations of health officials, Bryan emphasized the strategies they share do work.
She pointed to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published Friday that looked at counties in Kansas that had mask mandates and those that did not.
The case study found that in Kansas counties where there was a mask mandate, new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people decreased by 6%. Counties without a mandate increased by 100%.
“We have really good evidence out there that if you mask and you social distance, we protect our neighbors and our family members who don’t live in our households. It works,” Bryan said.
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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