Politics

Thanksgiving anything but normal as coronavirus cases surge

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Kate Parent simply did not have the heart to cancel Thanksgiving this year.

For this Fontana resident, Thanksgiving typically means a whole week with her five siblings and their families, the aroma of homemade rolls, going on long hikes and watching movies together.

“It’s the most important holiday for my family because it’s the one time of the year we all get together and really spend time with each other,” she said.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic, which is ripping through Southern California, spurring a nighttime curfew order from Gov. Gavin Newsom and strict guidelines for the holiday from the Centers for Disease Control, put Parent’s favorite holiday in jeopardy.

So instead of having her family over in Fontana, Parent, her two children and boyfriend, will pack a propane fryer, coolers, kayaks and tents into their pickup truck and set out to Lake Pleasant in Arizona where they will meet up with family members for a “camping Thanksgiving,” a concept that makes perfect sense in 2020.

“It’ll be scaled down,” she said. “We won’t have 20 different sides and appetizers or those homemade rolls. But, we’ll still fry the turkey. We’ll go kayaking. And we’ll get the family together, and make some more memories.”

Heightened risks

On Thursday, Nov. 19, the CDC reported more than 1 million COVID-19 cases nationwide just over the past seven days. As cases continue to rapidly increase and shatter records, the CDC says the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is at home with immediate family members — those who live in the same residence. Getting together with other relatives or friends can increase the risk of getting or spreading the coronavirus, health officials say.

Just how big is the risk?

Georgia Tech released an interactive risk-assessment planning tool just in time for Thanksgiving, which tells people the level of risk they face in their county depending on the number of people in their group.

For example, those in San Bernardino County, where Parent lives, who wish to gather with 15 people, have a 28% chance of coming in contact with at least one person who is COVID-19 positive, according to the latest data available Friday, Nov. 20.

The risk level for those who gather with 25 people in Orange County was 16% on Friday. A gathering with 50 people in Los Angeles County posed a 49% risk and a get-together with just 10 people posed an 11% risk in Riverside County.

In places with lower testing capabilities, the risks may be even higher.

The Russell family, from left, Jerry, 57, Alex, 15, Sareerat Roosakul, 53, and Jathan, 15, at their home in Garden Grove on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. This Thanksgiving, Jerry Russell and his wife, Sareerat Roosakul, will make the holiday meal at home then the family will deliver it to his parents home in Riverside County. Russell hasn’t seen his parents, who are in their 80s, in a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG) 

While younger people can get the virus, but recover well, the holidays can complicate things, said Dr. Jose Mayorga, executive director of UCI Health centers in Anaheim and Santa Ana.

“During the holiday season, these young adults will be interacting with older adults, loved ones, who might be at a higher risk,” he said.

But Mayorga says he understands how difficult it may be for people to stay away from their loved ones during the holidays. Medically, the one thing about COVID-19 that people have trouble grasping, he said, is that there is a delay from when you contract the virus and the onset of the infection. Even though people may not experience symptoms in the beginning, they can still spread the virus, he said.

“You may feel great at a Thanksgiving event, but you may still spread it to family and start feeling the symptoms a couple of days later,” Mayorga said. “I’d hope people would just be mindful. If you want to be with loved ones during this time of the year, you need to commit yourself to being very cautious, wearing a mask and quarantining yourself.”

COVID-19 surge

Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties all registered sharp increases in COVID-19 metrics since past week, according to state tracking data.

The jump was most pronounced in San Bernardino County, where on Monday, Nov. 16, the rate of new cases over the previous week rose from 16.8 to 27 per day per 100,000 residents. The county’s rate of swab tests returning positive ballooned over the same period, from 7.7% to 10.5%, meaning at least one in every 10 people tested is infected.

The alarming statewide resurgence prompted officials to preemptively move most counties into the strictest  of California’s four tiers in its pandemic tracking system, the purple tier.

On Thursday, Nov. 19, Newsom announced a month-long statewide curfew between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. to limit nonessential travel and gatherings in purple-tier counties, which includes all of Southern California. The order, similar to the original stay-at-home order in March, starts Saturday, Nov. 21, and will be effective until Dec. 21.

Some public health officials in Southern California are mulling additional restrictions, while others, expecting residents to partake in Thanksgiving and other holiday festivities regardless of pandemic rules, warn residents to at least keep gatherings small — three or fewer households.

Riverside County officials urge residents to celebrate Thanksgiving in a “smaller, shorter and safer” way to limit possible spread of the coronavirus, while Orange County this week unveiled free do-it-yourself kits to test saliva for the virus, with one county supervisor suggesting self-testing before and after holiday parties.

Meanwhile, public health officials in Los Angeles County warned that negative test results may provide a false sense of security. County leaders on Friday were poised to introduce tougher rules in addition to the state’s curfew, which would include capping outdoor capacities at restaurants, breweries and wineries at 50%.

“Overall, there is no single culprit” for the recent surge in cases, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in a news conference Thursday. “It’s a combination of factors. It’s certainly the colder weather, more mixing, which comes with more opening … . And, of course, greater travel.”

Recent celebrations that inevitably brought people together, such as Halloween and the Dodgers’ and Lakers’ championship wins, also drove new infections.

“All of those things create opportunities for the virus to spread,” Ghaly said. “Activities that you normally do are higher risk today than they were a month ago.”

Those activities include eating, drinking and conversing without a mask indoors, with people outside one’s own household. For many, Thanksgiving dinner ticks all of those boxes.

‘Be mindful’

Some medical professionals say while it’s important to follow safety protocols, getting together during the holidays may be important from a mental health perspective.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on mental health for a variety of reasons including isolation, financial strain and anxiety about the future, said Dr. Cory Spurlock, chief medical officer at El Segundo-based Exer Urgent Care, which operates 18 clinics in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

“We as humans are not meant to be isolated from one another,” he said. “So, being able to get together at least with family members you are close to is crucial for our mental well-being. With most of our social interactions cut off, we tend to rely on those who are closest to us.”

At the same time, Spurlock said it is important to take precautions such as hand-washing, wearing masks and maintaining physical distance. Exer’s clinics have seen a 300 to 400% increase in patients because of COVID-19, and now the flu, compared to the same time last year, Spurlock said.

“Be mindful especially if you are gathering with older family members with risk factors,” he said. “Don’t travel if you have symptoms.”

Tough decisions

Jerry Russell of Garden Grove said he along with his wife and children will visit his elderly parents in Sun City for Thanksgiving after not having seen them for nearly a year. It’s been a tough decision, Russell said.

“Even now, I’m questioning in my mind if we’re doing the right thing,” he said. “But, they haven’t seen my kids in a year. My son, who is 16, has grown 6 inches. They’re going to be like ‘whoa’ when he walks in. My 13-year-old daughter has gotten taller, too.”

This time, Russell and his wife plan to cook the Thanksgiving meal and take it with them to Sun City. All he’s asked his mother to make is potato salad.

“She was like, you want potato salad for Thanksgiving?” Russell said. “But she makes the best potato salad and I haven’t had it in a year. So, I have a feeling she’ll make it. I’m hoping to have the most normal Thanksgiving possible in these times.”

Vivek Lodhi of Anaheim Hills is among those who still is not sure if his family will have a traditional Thanksgiving. Usually his in-laws who live in the Inland Empire and Los Angeles gather along with Lodhi, his wife and children. They typically have turkey and mashed potatoes, but also some dishes from his native India like pulao (rice) and paneer curry, made with Indian-style cottage cheese.

“Since my parents are over 65, we’re still debating whether to meet in person or do a virtual Thanksgiving,” Lodhi said. “I’m watching the numbers. We’re monitoring our health. The surge is cause for concern.”

Finding resolve

A lot of people are tired of the pandemic and it’s likely to feel even more overwhelming during the holidays, said Shira Shafir, associate professor of epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health. She calls Thanksgiving the “perfect storm” when people come together with members outside of their household and may end up transmitting the virus to others.

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