Following a worrisome infection spike after Canadians celebrated their Thanksgiving last month, U.S. health officials began urging the public to forego family gatherings to mitigate the surge engulfing the country.
Like the United States, Canada entered the fall with rising cases.
Two weeks after Oct. 12, when Canada celebrated its Thanksgiving, daily COVID infections shot up by nearly 400 cases. And two weeks after that, deaths tripled.
Public health officials worry the U.S. will follow suit.
“We are now again nervous,” said Dr. Stephen Gluckman, professor of medicine and an infectious disease specialist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
“We’re again pushing the limits and that obviously will have an impact on everybody, “ he said.
It remains to be seen whether Lancaster County residents will heed the public health warning.
Some are skipping annual get-togethers, while others are pressing ahead.
Carol Lichty said she plans to go forward with her Thanksgiving plans, albeit modified because of the COVID pandemic.
“I’m not going to live in fear,” said the 68-year-old Manheim Borough resident, conceding the recent acceleration in cases is “a little scary.”
Lichty added, “I’m not going to be careless, but I don’t want to be fearful either.”
She comes from a large Lancaster family. Their annual gathering usually draws more than 50 family members. But this year, Lichty said she expects about 35.
While the turkey potluck will be the same, this year’s meal will also include face masks, social distancing, gloved servers and, likely, a shortened period of time to socialize. And, if the weather cooperates, she said they’ll eat outside.
“It’s not going to be the norm, but it’s what you have to do,” Lichty said, “if you want to get together for Thanksgiving dinner.”
‘A Zoom Thanksgiving’
Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine has pleaded with the public to avoid gatherings of any size. Her stay-at-home order earlier this week also requires travelers to and from Pennsylvania to self-quarantine for two weeks.
“They put other people at risk, and that is immoral,” Gluckman said.
Tija Hilton-Phillips, of Wrightsville, York County, isn’t taking any chances.
She’s been hosting Thanksgiving for her sprawling family since the early ’90s. The alarming rise in infections prompted her, though, to cancel this year’s festivities. (She will still make a family favorite: baked macaroni and cheese.)
“It’s my favorite holiday,” Hilton-Phillips said. “It’s all about food and family and being together.
“We’re postponing so that we can hopefully give thanks together next year.”
That’s what public health officials had hoped, with many pushing for a “Zoom Thanksgiving.” Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Tom Frieden proposed a “Zoom Thanksgiving is a lot better than an ICU Christmas.”
The number of people expected to travel this year suggests, however, that either the public health message isn’t resonating or COVID fatigue may be leading Americans to relax the safety measures they’ve practiced for months.
The American Automotive Association, for example, forecasts 50.6 million Americans will travel this Thanksgiving (just a 9.7% decrease from 2019).
More than a million flyers were screened Monday by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, the highest single day since rising cases in March shuttered the economy.
Getting public buy-in — Lancaster General Hospital President and CEO Jan L. Bergen told her board of trustees last week — has proved to be an unexpected challenge.
“We had no idea how difficult it would be to get people to comply with basic public health measures that are in their best interest,” Bergen said.
‘COVID is getting out of control’
For at least the past 15 years, Ebenezer Baptist Church has hosted a meal on Thanksgiving, which attracts about 100 people.
They had planned to do so again this year.
But with records broken near daily, Ebenezer pastor Roland P. Forbes Jr. said, the church will do something it has never done: offer only takeout and delivery.
“COVID is getting out of control,” said Forbes. “We want their health to be more important than anything else.”
Pennsylvania recorded 6,669 new infections — 268 in Lancaster County —on Tuesday.
The percentage of COVID tests that are positive, known as the positivity rate, has nearly doubled since the beginning of the month. While the World Health Organization suggests a rate below 5%, Pennsylvania’s seven-day average is 11.1%. In Lancaster County, it’s 11.3%.
Ideally, health officials say, communities would be going into the winter months and this third coronavirus wave with low infection rates.
The danger is that COVID cases could overrun hospitals and health systems, said Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior scholar with John Hopkins Center for Health Security.
National models already project that next month Pennsylvania could see case counts of 20,000 a day and run out of ICU beds.
“We know we can’t get the numbers to zero, but we have to get them to a level that hospitals can perform other services,” said Adalja, who is based in Pittsburgh.