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Dr. Bryan Johnston, a family physician working on the North Side of Milwaukee, returns again to offer advice on navigating the pandemic.
With COVID-19 looming, nobody I’ve talked to is feeling good about their holiday plans. Over a million Americans tested positive last week, with many more likely infected. As of this writing, Wisconsinites are testing positive at the fifth-highest rate in the country, a rate greater than any country in the world.
Hospitals and ICUs in many areas of the state are full and dozens of residents are dying each day. The pandemic’s second wave, which may last through the winter, looks to be far more devastating than the first. This is not the holiday season we had hoped for.
And yet this is a time we need what the holidays represent more than ever. We need the presence of community, mutuality and love. We need to feel grateful, to feel others’ gratitude. We (I) need a helping or two of my mother’s green bean casserole. Traditions are powerfully important, and many of us can’t imagine a Thanksgiving without family and friends gathering together in the same room for a meal.
As Dr. Anthony Fauci reminds us, COVID-19 doesn’t care about our weariness. It doesn’t care how much we value the image of satisfied faces around a turkey, or how difficult our planning has become. It is a relentless virus that waits for any opening. And what is the risk, exactly? According to a risk assessment tool created by Georgia Institute of Technology and based on local COVID-19 testing data, a gathering of 10 people in Milwaukee County has a 41% chance to include someone who has COVID-19. A gathering of 25 people has a 73% chance.
Many, many families are going to gather this holiday season, and many, many people are going to get sick.
I believe there are ways to enjoy the most important parts of the holiday season safely. Here are a few tips:
- Get personal: What are the most meaningful parts of the holiday season for you and your family/community? Talk to your family members about this! I’ll bet many are possible to experience safely—and even remotely.
- Get creative: How can you use technology? How can you shift activities outdoors? How can you incorporate masking and hand hygiene? How can you limit travel, or make travel plans safer?
- Be inclusive: What’s best for you might not be what is best for an immunocompromised family member or someone who feels more comfortable celebrating remotely.
- Lay down safety rules: If anyone has experienced symptoms of COVID-19 in the last 10 days (especially cough, headache, trouble breathing, fever or chills, body aches, sore throat or change in smell or taste) they cannot gather. If anyone has been a close contact of someone testing positive for COVID-19 or suspected to be infected within the last 14 days, they cannot gather. If someone has been tested and is awaiting results, they cannot gather.
- Contingency plan: With current rates of community spread, people who you hope to be with over the holidays are likely to become exposed, be tested or become infected with COVID-19. Make a plan for their participation (or anyone who wishes to join remotely) beforehand so you’re not caught off guard. Drop off a plate of food. Use technology to give them a “seat at the table”.
The Milwaukee Health Department and CDC have more guidance and resources—check them out. If you’d like to talk through options with a health professional, call your healthcare provider or the Milwaukee COVID-19 hotline, available through 2-1-1.
This winter is going to be a long one. The strain of missing out on holiday traditions can feel like the breaking point. There is a very human tendency to want to make an exception to months of careful precautions or choose to listen with a more optimistic ear. I am worried about this tendency. The vaccine news in the last few weeks has been incredibly positive. There is a good chance that in the coming year we will be able to have a holiday more in line with our traditions. I want you to see everyone at your table then. Please take care this holiday season.