From The Star Press
Rita Ullom was looking forward to her daughter, Ashlee Roffe, and her four grandchildren traveling from Chicago to Muncie this Thanksgiving. But, as for many families, COVID-19 put a stop to those plans.
Due to Chicago’s current Travel Order, Roffe would have to quarantine for two weeks upon returning from Indiana. A single mother, Roffe couldn’t miss two weeks of work, so she and Ullom decided to cancel their plan.
“I have not seen them since August,” Ullom said. “So, we will continue to FaceTime and pray for the virus to leave.”
While Ullom has put her Thanksgiving plans on hold, others have not and remain adamant about celebrating the upcoming holidays with family as usual.
But is it safe to gather in close proximity during this holiday season as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise sharply? While they know it’s difficult, healthcare officials from both IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital and Meridian Healthcare Services told The Star Press it would be best practice to skip Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s gatherings this year.
“At the same time, we understand it’s the holidays, so if people are going to do it, they better do it in a safe way,” said Shuchi Talwar, a family medicine physician at Ball Memorial.
Here’s how to keep Thanksgiving and other holidays as safe as possible this year, if you do choose to gather with other households:
Yes, masks and social distancing are necessary
While Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings typically bring distant relatives and new friends together, the safest way to hold events is to limit the guest number this year.
“Right now, exposure counts as a cumulative amount of time of 15 minutes within six-feet of distance,” Talwar said. “In order to say, ‘this is a safe number,’ that’s hard, but I would say no more than 10 people, for sure. In a closed space, more than 10 would definitely not be advisable during these times.”
Charisse Hinds, infection control and director of nursing at Meridian Health Services, said hosts need to identify people in their social gathering. The holidays should be celebrated with people exclusive to an individual’s “social pod,” like those in the same household. It also might mean excluding others.
Just as stores post social distancing signs to help shoppers stand six feet apart, Hinds said those hosting gatherings should find out what their home’s maximum capacity is, and even put tape down on the floor for guests.
While holiday gatherings are typically celebrated inside the home, Hinds said masks, social distancing and hand sanitizer are still required. Hinds suggests providing all materials in a separate bag for each guest.
Prior to when guests arrive, Hinds said it’s important to explain the social etiquette of the event, including limited physical contact, masks and frequent hand washing. To avoid confusion, seating charts for social pods could be created.
“Limit and go under the normal guest amount. If we don’t go under and do these things for Thanksgiving, Christmas is going to look really bad,” Hinds said. “This could save lives, on how we decide to do this.”
Food safety is key
One major way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is to practice a strict food safety plan. The passing of plates at the table or gathering in the kitchen needs to be limited this year, Hinds and Talwar said.
If food is brought in a carry-in style, only one person wearing a mask and gloves should be serving up plates. Disposable plates, cups and utensils can also help stop the spread, but if dishes are used, they need to be put in the dishwasher right away. Individually wrapped condiments are also a good idea, so not everyone is using the same salt and pepper shaker.
Talwar also suggested, that if possible, to eat your meal outside. If it must be indoors, make sure it is in a well-ventilated area with windows open.
“The CDC says if you want to have a gathering, even getting people to bring their own food and drinks is good,” Talwar said. “So that each person is handling and dealing with their own stuff and not everybody else’s, and is not in everybody else’s way.”
For those with travel plans during the holiday season, remember that confined spaces puts you at more of a risk, Talwar said. But if boarding a plane or taking a train is necessary, preparation is key.
Have a good supply of hand sanitizer or Lysol wipes to disinfect whatever materials touch other people’s things, like airplane seats or tables. Masks are also essential, and need to be worn correctly.
“That’s the big thing. It has to be worn so that it covers your mouth, as well as your nose, completely,” Talwar said. “If it’s covering one and not the other, then it doesn’t serve its purpose.”
Avoid touching your face, eyes and even hair while traveling, and choose a method of travel that allows you to social distance. Driving is still the safest, Hinds said. Before leaving, check to see if your city or state has any travel restriction orders and what is required upon returning.
Talwar said if someone is in a position to quarantine before or after a gathering for the 14-day period, it can helpful, but it needs to be done correctly.
“It doesn’t mean just not going outside to a work place or a closed environment,” Talwar said. “It also means really truly making sure you’re not exposed to things like grocery stores, which is really hard to do.”
Other ways to celebrate
Instead of bringing family together into one room to share a meal, the Centers for Disease Control suggests other activities to plan for on Thanksgiving.
To show gratitude to friends, the CDC also recommends safely preparing traditional dishes and delivering them to family and neighbors in a contactless fashion, like leaving dishes on the porch.
“With COVID-19, I feel like it’s really pushed us to think of more innovative ways to do things,” Talwar said. “There’s so many board games, music things and other things you can do online, interactively, with your family.”
Hospitals expecting a surge
On Thursday morning, IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital had 65 COVID-19 inpatients. Within the entire IU Health system, ventilators were being utilized at 36% and ICU beds at 74%.
After each holiday, healthcare officials at both Ball Memorial and Meridian are expecting a surge in COVID-19 cases.
In anticipation of a shortage of supplies, Hinds said Meridian has collected its own stockpile of masks, gloves and medication for the next few months.
“They don’t realize the science. I could look fine and feel fine, but if I’m not wearing a mask, then I’m not containing my source,” Hinds said. “I’m really worried about that five- day window after Thanksgiving, and where our resources will be. There are so many repercussions.”
Going forward, Talwar said the biggest worry is hospital capacity and staff capacity. As more people are getting exposed, more healthcare workers are having to quarantine.