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Thanksgiving 2020: Safety advice and the year to find new traditions

Liz Freeman
Naples Daily News

The COVID-19 pandemic is not taking a break over Thanksgiving and nearly everything about a traditional holiday gathering is a no-no this year to keep safe from the virus, area health experts cautioned.

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Gone should be the potluck-style gatherings with food being passed around to a large group of family and friends. Instead, masks, social distancing and hand-washing among a smaller group are the new norm.

There is a bright side for Southwest Florida residents.

"Here in Southwest Florida, we have the luxury of having comfortable weather so that our community can make it a much safer holiday by considering an outdoor feast this year (and) safely distanced from each other, of course," said David Lindner, medical director of the coronavirus team at the NCH Healthcare System in Collier County, in an email.

That's in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you can’t be outside, the CDC says to improve ventilation by opening windows.

NCH Healthcare System RN Beth Davis looks over a patient, Friday, April 17, 2020, at NCH Baker Hospital's emergency room in Naples.

It's all part of the tips for staying healthy this holiday season.

The CDC estimates COVID-19 deaths nationwide could reach as high as 282,000 by Dec. 5.

In Southwest Florida, October brought a dramatic uptick in new cases and November has been no different.

Lee County reported 3,073 COVID-19 cases in October, 67% more than the 1,843 confirmed in September.

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More recently, Lee's seven-day new case average was 225, which is 70% higher than the same seven-day average of 132 cases for the week of Nov. 1, according to state data.

Collier reported 1,836 COVID-19 cases in October, 60% more than the 1,145 cases in September. 

The seven-day average in Collier the second week of November was 90, which is nearly 10% higher than the average of 82 on on Nov. 1.

In mid-October the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, sounded alarms that Americans needed to forego Thanksgiving customs as the nation confronts a winter surge of new infections and hospitalizations.

 “It is unfortunate because that’s such a sacred part of American tradition – the family gathering around Thanksgiving,” Fauci said. “But that is a risk.”

The safest way to celebrate is only with people in your household, according to the CDC. A household member is someone who lives in your home every day.

College students who’ve been away and coming home are considered outside of your household by public health standards, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians.

Gatherings involving people who have traveled through airports or other means with high exposure chances is dicey, experts say.

A host should limit guests and consider how many come from different households and who are able to stay at least six feet apart, according to the emergency physicians’ organization.

“Even a small gathering of family or close friends can still contribute to the spread of the virus,” Dr. Mark Rosenberg, president of the organization, said in a news release.

Besides the mainstay recommendations of wearing masks, social distancing and frequent handwashing, the CDC says people who attend a gathering should bring their own food, drinks and utensils.

Guests should avoid going in areas, like the kitchen, where food is being served or prepared.

"Limiting your exposure to others who do not live in your household and taking the necessary precautions we are all familiar with by now – hand washing, social distancing, mask wearing – will help to ensure that the holidays are as happy and healthy as they can be in spite of the pandemic," Lindner said.

Florida’s Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees issued a public health advisory in July that gatherings of 10 or more should be avoided and that still stands during the holidays, according to Kristine Hollingsworth, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health in Collier County.

A better option is a small dinner with only household members or a virtual dinner, she said.

 “Community level of COVID, exposure during travel, and location of gatherings should be taken into account this holiday season,” Hollingsworth said.

While the holiday season often leads to heightened anxiety and stress, experts warn of added stressors this year from COVID-19 and fatigue over the virus.

Feelings of grief may be especially pronounced from the loss of loved ones from COVID-19, loss of employment and cancelation of events like weddings, said Georgina Hilinski, a counselor with SalusCare, a mental health center in Fort Myers.

“This year has already been isolating for many and now, with the holidays coming up, that can feel like more loss and isolation,” she said.

“I know many people are getting exhausted by video calls, but it is still a great option to connect with family and friends.”

People are getting creative by decorating cars and doing drive-by visits, and the same idea works with decorating bicycles for socially-distanced parades, she said.

Jessica Liria, a mental health expert at the David Lawrence Center in Collier, emphasized Zoom visits and forging new traditions.

“While some traditions may not be possible during this time, reflect on what changes can be made to the usual routine,” she said. “Establishing new traditions is a great way to improve family bonding time and to focus on something fresh and unique.”

News-Press journalist Dan DeLuca contributed to this report.