The Thanksgiving decision wasn't easy, but it was unanimous during Dr. Marilyn Peitso's weekly family videoconferences. This year, there would be no big gathering at the St. Cloud doctor's home due to COVID-19.
One of Peitso's adult children is staying in Colorado. Another who lives in Minnesota is celebrating only with immediate family. A third, whose job enables him to social distance, will get tested for COVID before coming home. The holiday won't be the same, but the pediatric hospitalist is grateful her family understands that "2020 is a unique year" and they're willing to do their part.
"We have uncontrolled community spread. If we're going to turn this around, people have just got to observe the recommended precautions of masking, social distancing, limiting their gatherings and washing hands. There just is no other way," said Peitso, who is president of the Minnesota Medical Association.
The state's medical society represents over 10,000 physicians. On Thursday, it issued an urgent plea to all Minnesotans, asking them to prioritize COVID prevention as plans crystallize for this month's major holiday. Like the Peitso family, Minnesotans need to do their part. That means hewing to new state guidelines limiting social gatherings to 10 people. Or, forgoing Thanksgiving gatherings altogether.
Almost the entire nation is a COVID hot spot now with the virus at hurricane force and still gaining strength. It took 27 weeks for the state to tally 100,000 cases of COVID-19. It took around six weeks to add the next 100,000. Brakes are desperately needed and ratcheting back holiday gatherings, particularly the looming one, is critical to make that happen.
The reason is that social gatherings are fueling the pandemic. Just over 70% of Minnesota cases have been linked to them, according to new disease metrics released this week. It isn't just people going to bars and restaurants. Private gatherings are high risk, too. The virus can hitchhike just as easily on relatives as it does strangers. Of special concern: young people who are infectious but don't feel sick.
With widespread community transmission, there's a good chance even a small family get-together will have at least one infected, potentially contagious person present. In Hennepin and Ramsey counties, there's a 27% chance that someone at a gathering with 10 people will be COVID positive, according to new COVID risk calculator from Georgia Tech. In Stearns County, it's at 47%. For other counties, go to tinyurl.com/GATechRisk.
Sadly, Thanksgiving traditions heighten the risk that one person could infect many. The holiday centerpiece involves eating, an activity that requires face mask removal. Those who gather will likely do so inside, where there's often less room to stay 6 feet from others, as health officials recommend.
Less airflow indoors may also make it more likely to breathe in droplets from an infected person who is coughing, sneezing, singing or even talking.
Other Minnesota health care providers are also pleading with the public to take precautions for the holiday. "The people who are becoming infected are the grandmas, grandpas, and older folks who I'm seeing in my ICU. We need to think of them and do what's best, so that we can see them next year," said Mary C. Turner, a registered nurse at North Memorial Health Hospital and president of the Minnesota Nurses Association.
Turner pointed to another critical reason to downsize the celebrations. "We have to protect our hospital workers, too. We need them. We need all of them. We're at the point where there are no more staff to help out when one of us gets sick.''
Everyone is weary as this pandemic year comes to a close. Promising vaccines are on the horizon but not ready yet. Downsizing Thanksgiving is a painful but necessary step to protect families and communities until the shot is available.