Before every holiday since the Covid-19 pandemic started in early spring, health authorities have warned against large gatherings without social distancing and masks. Each holiday saw many people ignoring that advice, with Covid-19 rates increasing after Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and Halloween. Now, authorities are begging people not to hold traditional large Thanksgiving gatherings with families from multiple households.
Recently the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement gave a press conference called, “Give thanks, not Covid,” with recommendations for scaled- down gatherings that don’t fuel the pandemic.
ACHI President and CEO Dr. Joe Thompson said their board has concerns about “exponential spread of the virus.” He said no one wants to invite Covid to the table, so ACHI has come together with prevention strategies for families and leaders across the state to apply the best logic.
The current third wave of Covid has hit rural areas that previously were largely spared. Thompson said hospitals in rural communities are sounding the alarm across the state and running out of capacity to treat the rapidly increasing number of Covid patients who require hospitalization.
Thompson said Arkansans are particularly at risk because 50 percent of the population has underlying chronic disease conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and obesity that place them at higher risk for complications, including death, from Covid-19. While the highest risk group is those aged 65 or more, younger people are also becoming ill. Pregnant women are also at higher risk.
ACHI recommends meeting by Zoom, Facetime or other types of teleconferences. But Thompson acknowledged that many families are going to get together despite the risks, and offered some strategies to reduce the risks.
One includes a week in advance making sure the family has a plan. Family members should be tested for Covid-19 by the Monday prior to Thanksgiving.
Eliminate unnecessary activities that might expose you to Covid for the week before Thanksgiving. Limit groups to ten or fewer. Anyone with cold-like symptoms such as fever, cough, headache and particularly loss of taste and smell should not attend. Safeguard people with chronic conditions. If weather permits, consider eating outside. Ventilation is a critical component, and homes sealed for energy efficiency don’t get much turnover of air. Open windows and turn on vent hoods.
Don’t share serving utensils. Have one person with a mask and gloves serve the others. Limit the length of event. Maintain as much distance as possible. “We are letting our guard down around our friends and family, and this is not good,” Thompson said.
With new cases in the state going up recently from an average of 1,000 to more than 2,000 a day, this turns into real risk.
“We are all going in the wrong direction with rapid spread in our rural communities,” Thompson said. “We are up to three percent of the population newly infected in the past couple weeks in some zip codes. We had 54 school districts in the green zone the first of October, and now have only 13. These are infections in the community that put the schools at risk. The risks are broad and widespread.”
There has been some good news that death rates are now estimated in the U.S. at only .65 percent of those infected. But the death rate isn’t the entire picture. Thompson said in addition to breathing problems, about 30 percent of patients have negative impacts to their hearts. It can also result in memory loss and mental illness. He said all that means that the potential for long-standing health impacts negate any Thanksgiving get-togethers.
“Vaccines are several months away,” Thompson said. “For now, we know what works: Masks, gravity, social distancing and good hand hygiene. We are not to trying to take away Thanksgiving but take away Covid infections. I wish I had better news of where we are, but we have to recognize the risks.”
The governor of Utah has been asked by the Utah Hospital Association to ration ventilators. Thompson said Arkansas doesn’t want to get into a situation of rationing healthcare, deciding who gets a chance to live and who doesn’t.
“Our hospitals and schools are at risk if we don’t become more compliant with what we know works,” Thompson said.
Asked what he uses to define loss of control of the virus, Thompson said that is a positivity test rate above ten percent. That is currently being seen in most counties in the state. He said not only has the U.S. lost control of the virus, but it is accelerating quickly.
Carroll County was at 13 percent positivity for the first two weeks of November. The county is up to 1,117 known cases of Covid-19 with 21 deaths.
“Pump the breaks and pause,” Thompson said. “The risk is far greater than it was in March. Clearly the risk is growing. We are sailing into uncharted waters. Hospitals are asking for help. When you are out and about, wear a mask. If you are in an establishment where masks are not being worn, vacate those facilities.”
ACHI provides information and insights on the pandemic, including local-level data, at achi.net/covid19.