The latest direction — OK, pleading — from health experts, top elected officials, and others has been clear and overwhelming. And “heartrending,” as the presidents of St. Luke’s and Essentia Health in Duluth wrote in an op-ed this weekend in the News Tribune.
“Please avoid holiday gatherings,” St. Luke’s President and CEO Kevin Nokels and Essentia President Dr. Jon Pryor wrote, in blunt echo of guidelines for Thursday issued around the Midwest the past few days.
They and others recognize the enormity of what they’re asking. Thanksgiving is a day for family, that one day a year set aside for the sometimes-cringy but always-important reconnecting of loved ones — free of the commercialization, religion, and expectations of candy or gifts that complicate other holidays.
Regardless of how we feel about it, we all can recognize how different this year is, however. Rather than abating, the deadly and frightening coronavirus-fueled pandemic that has been turning our 2020 upside down for more than eight long months now is actually strengthening. Practically daily, records are set for new cases and COVID-19 deaths, here in Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as across the country.
So the unthinkable request to stay apart on Thanksgiving — our “most painful ask,” as Pryor and Nokels wrote — had to be made.
“Infections, hospitalizations, and death rates are soaring. St. Louis County reports hundreds of new cases daily. Small gatherings, even among family and friends, are driving much of this surge,” they said. “Health care providers like Essentia and St. Luke’s are strained. Our resources already are stretched thin as we confront shortages of staff and beds. A continued increase in hospitalizations could compromise our ability to care for people.”
The pandemic’s surge dramatically and suddenly altered messaging these past few days from state and local officials. Just a week ago they were advising scaled-back Thanksgiving celebrations with limited numbers of households. Now, with 10,000 new COVID-19 cases per day in Minnesota’s Turkey Day forecast, it’s your own household only at dinner, please.
“As tempting as it is to stick with our cherished traditions this year, we need people to reconsider and not gather with other households,” Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters. “Adjustments we make to our holiday plans are a short-term temporary sacrifice. … (But) a big one, to be sure.”
"We understand that it's hard not to celebrate Thanksgiving with the people you love," Dr. Cindy Firkins Smith, president and co-CEO of Carris Health in Willmar, Minnesota, said, according to a CBS News report last week. "We don't get to either. The people working in the hospital not only don't get to celebrate Thanksgiving with the people they love, they're going to be watching people die that day, and they don't want to watch you die at Christmas."
The unknown is the rub. As Pryor and Nokels pointed out, while many of us might come through unharmed if infected, we could easily and unwittingly spread the virus to others — including others we love — who may not respond as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those who are COVID-positive infect more than half the members of their household. Those who are COVID-positive also can infect others long before they experience symptoms or have any clue they’re sick.
So as tough as it may be, please heed the plead this Thanksgiving. In addition to what has become the usual drill — face masks worn over mouths and noses, handwashing like never before, social distancing, and avoiding parties and crowds — stay home and celebrate this holiday only with your own household. Do a Zoom call instead of reconnecting in person. Write an old-fashioned letter. But take this seriously to keep yourself, those you love, and our health care facilities healthy.