UNC Health professionals warn holidays could fuel COVID-19 case surge


RALEIGH, N.C. ( WNCN)– North Carolina and the Centers for Disease Control have both published guidelines for the holiday season. As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise, they fear holiday gatherings could be fuel to an already worrisome surge.

“It is dangerous to think that it can’t happen to you. It is circulating in our community and it could happen absolutely anywhere,” said Dr. Emily Sickbert-Bennett, an epidemiologist and expert on infectious diseases at UNC Health.

Dr. Sickbert-Bennett said the traditional Thanksgiving is the ideal place for COVID-19 to spread as mix households sit should-to-shoulder at the dinner table.

“It’s more of a concern to get together a large number of people for a prolonged period of time indoors where they’re not going to be wearing a mask,” said Sickbert-Bennett.

A look at clusters by setting

Contact tracers in North Carolina have found social gatherings have become huge drivers of infection.

However, the loneliness people are already feeling means convincing them to avoid holiday gatherings could be an uphill battle.

“The social isolation and just the unclear timeline is really weighing on people right now,” said Dr. Crystal Schiller, clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the UNC Psychiatry Department.

Schiller recommended making a plan to avoid the holiday blues, whether it’s scheduling a call over the phone, video call to cook together, or whatever safely fulfills your social connection needs.

“I encourage people to be really intentional in finding ways to connect and like I said even taking a walk outside at a distance does seem to be a safe way,” Schiller said.

Whatever your plans, consider the danger to yourself and those you come in contact with during and after your gathering.

“COVID transmission won’t halt for the holidays,” said Sickbert-Bennett.

Rank your risk

Below is the CDC’s risk ranking for a number of Thanksgiving activities

Lower risk activities

  • Having a small dinner with only people who live in your household
  • Preparing traditional family recipes for family and neighbors, especially those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, and delivering them in a way that doesn’t involve contact with others
  • Having a virtual dinner and sharing recipes with friends and family
  • Shopping online rather than in person on the day after Thanksgiving or the next Monday
  • Watching sports events, parades, and movies from home

Moderate risk activities

  • Having a small outdoor dinner with family and friends who live in your community
  • Visiting pumpkin patches or orchards where people use hand sanitizer before touching pumpkins or picking apples, wearing masks is encouraged or enforced, and people are able to maintain social distancing
  • Attending a small outdoor sports events with safety precautions in place

Higher risk activities

  • Going shopping in crowded stores just before, on, or after Thanksgiving
  • Participating or being a spectator at a crowded race
  • Attending crowded parades
  • Attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside of your household
  • Using alcohol or drugs that may alter judgment and make it more difficult to practice COVID-19 safety measures.

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