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CDC, Wake leaders urge families to reconsider Thanksgiving travel, gatherings

Posted November 19, 2020 7:49 a.m. EST
Updated November 19, 2020 7:48 p.m. EST

— A week before Thanksgiving, federal and local officials on Thursday urged people to reconsider their holiday travel plans as coronavirus cases reach new highs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that people celebrate Thanksgiving at home, citing the more than 1 million new coronavirus infections nationwide over the last week.

"As cases continue to increase rapidly across the United States, the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with the people you live with," the CDC stated. "Travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year."

North Carolina set a record Thursday for new infections, at 4,296, marking the first time more than 4,000 new cases were reported on a single day. The state also continued a string of daily records of people in hospitals with the virus, at 1,538.

Over the last week, North Carolina has seen an average of 3,101 new cases each day, shattering the mark for highest daily average, which was set Wednesday, by more than 200.

Dr. Linda Butler, chief medical officer at UNC Rex Healthcare in Raleigh, said it's easy to spread a virus over the holiday.

"You can’t eat with a mask on, and you can’t drink with a mask on, and the weather is colder,” Butler said, noting people will likely be together indoors.

Coronavirus cases could spike in the weeks after Thanksgiving, she said. UNC Rex Hospital is treating 23 patients with the virus right now, but that could double after Thanksgiving, she added.

“It looks like it could be comparable to what we saw in July,” Butler said. "[The infected patients] are very sick and admitted for a long period of time.”

To prevent that from happening, Wake County officials unveiled the "Healthier Holidays" campaign on Thursday to encourage people to limit gatherings to immediate family.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Greg Ford said the county recently surpassed 25,000 infections.

"These are staggering numbers," Ford said. "They will continue to grow and more people will get sick if we don't take the right steps over the Thanksgiving holiday to keep each other healthy and safe."

The campaign goes beyond the "three W's" of wearing masks, washing hands frequently and distancing from others by waiting at least 6 feet apart that public health officials have preached for months.

Dr. Nicole Mushonga, an epidemiologist with Wake County Public Health, said people should celebrate only with those they already live with, or no more than 10 people at an indoor gathering.

"The smaller the group, the lower the risk of spreading COVID-19," Mushonga said, suggesting that extended family can join the celebration virtually.

At the holiday dinner, she recommended using several small tables where people who live together can eat at least 6 feet away from others. Also, provide plenty of hand sanitizer for guests, give each person a disposable cup with his or her name on it and have one person dish out and serve the meal.

On Black Friday, Mushonga recommended that people shop online or use curbside pick-up or delivery instead of camping out outside stores and waiting in long lines inside.

"No one wants to see a loved one contract COVID-19 over Thanksgiving. No holiday celebration or door-buster deal is worth that kind of risk," she said.

"Every choice we make matters right now," Ford agreed.

Stephen Dutton, who was buying food for the holiday on Thursday, said he plans to spend it with a small group of friends while taking precautions against the virus.

"It is sinking in," Dutton said. "People are starting to listen to it now because it is a serious problem. So, we have to abide by what the scientists are saying.”

"Hopefully, everybody plays it safe. That is what it’s all about," agreed Lori Battle.

Battle said her Thanksgiving tradition is to gather at her mother’s house with family. She will do that again this year, but it will be different.

"We are going to do it and make sure everyone is safe – got to have the hand sanitizer, wash your hands, have your mask on,” she said.

North Carolina State University student Alan Wessel said he usually visits relatives in New York for Thanksgiving – not this year.

"This year, we are keeping it smaller," Wessel said.

Earlier this month, Gov. Roy Cooper reduced indoor gathering limits from 25 to 10 people in an effort to encourage families to keep celebrations small. Despite backlash from some, health experts continue to encourage people to gather only with people in their households.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said limiting travel and interaction with anyone outside your household is the best way to protect everyone. If you must gather with extended family, eating outdoors, maintaining social distancing and wearing masks is highly encouraged.

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