Like most of 2020, the upcoming holiday season will look much different than normal. Traditional fall and winter celebrations that typically include travel and large gatherings with family and friends – like Halloween, Día de los Muertos, Navratri, Diwali, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and New Year’s – pose significant risk for the spread of COVID-19, and health experts warn that we could see a significant increase in cases if gatherings occur in-person.
Interim Benton County Health Department Co-Director Charlie Fautin spoke with the Advocate about his concerns for the upcoming season, and what can be done to prevent a wave of new coronavirus cases in the coming months.
The Current State of COVID in Benton County
Fautin has been monitoring COVID cases in Benton County since the start of the pandemic, and noted that the area was on a low-level plateau through the summer and early fall of around 10-20 cases per week. Then, following Labor Day and the arrival of new individuals in town – including students, faculty, and staff from OSU, the county saw a significant spike.
“That was in a way to be expected, because there was a lot of travel around that time. Fires had displaced a lot of people, we had a holiday – sort of a confluence. And what we’ve seen since then is we’ve seemed to, in the last three weeks or so, been settling into a new plateau,” Fautin said. “So, what we’re seeing now are case rates that are more in the area of 30-35 a week, and we seem to sort of settled into the pattern – at least for the time being – from late September till now.”
As a result, Fautin said the workload has increased, and the new cases are an indicator that there is virus activity in the community. He noted, however, that the increase in cases in Benton County have resulted from small gatherings, rather than large outbreaks.
“We are not seeing large single outbreaks, so no super spreader events. A lot of them are tied to family get-togethers, family gatherings, small group parties – not big mass parties,” Fautin said. “And that leads us to have some concerns, quite frankly, for the holiday season, where there’s a lot more family get-togethers and celebrations going on.”
The Holiday Season COVID Outlook
Fautin anticipates a spike in COVID cases during the holiday season, both due to the colder weather and the likelihood of individuals gathering indoors with friends and family.
“This seems to be a statewide and national pattern – that we’ve seen holiday spikes following every holiday since Memorial Day. So Memorial Day, Fourth of July, then Labor Day – this pattern has continued, and in some cases, been worse with each spike,” he said.
Fautin said he is also concerned about the timeline of the holiday season, with Halloween, Thanksgiving, and end of the year holidays – including Christmas – only weeks apart.
“Because of the incubation period of COVID, we don’t see that jump sort of immediately after the holiday. It’s anywhere from two, three, sometimes four weeks later,” Fautin said. “And that’s actually quite concerning for Thanksgiving, because people get together, and then it’s like, ‘oh, nothing happened,’ and they’ve already made their plans or already started traveling for the end of the year holidays – for Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s holidays – before they and we are really aware of the intensity of what may have happened at Thanksgiving.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that celebrating upcoming holidays virtually, or only with members of your own household, poses low risk for spread of COVID-19, while in-person gatherings – particularly those held indoors – pose higher levels of risk. The CDC website breaks down virus spread risk for a number of upcoming holiday celebrations, including low-, moderate-, and high-risk activities.
Halloween, for example, includes a number of lower risk activities: carving pumpkins outside at a safe distance with neighbors and friends, decorating your own living space, holding your own virtual Halloween contest, or having a scavenger hunt trick-or-treat search with members of your own household. Higher risk activities include participating in traditional trick-or-treating where children go door to door, going to an indoor haunted house, or attending indoor parties.
For Thanksgiving, some of the higher risk activities listed by the CDC include shopping in crowded stores just before, on, or after Thanksgiving, and attending large indoor gatherings with family members or others from outside your household.
“I’m afraid 2020 is going to continue to be a year of disappointment, and I hate to be the public health Debbie Downer that we often are – not to cast any shade on anyone named Debbie – but I think this is a year for Zoom holidays. I really do,” Fautin said. “I think people should think twice about family gatherings. In particular, this is a huge disappointment for Thanksgiving and the end of the year holidays which are traditionally multigenerational. Everyone’s there, from the great-grandparents to the newborn. And that’s sort of the worse idea this year.”
Looking Forward: How to Prevent an End of the Year COVID Spike in Benton County
When asked how to prevent a COVID spike during the holiday season, Fautin emphasized the importance of minimizing travel, social distancing, maintaining good hygiene, wearing a face covering, and opting to socialize virtually rather than attending in-person gatherings. Fautin also urged members of the public to get a flu shot as soon as possible.
“We strongly recommend people get [a flu shot] before Halloween – if you can’t do it before Halloween, get it as soon as possible. You do not want to catch two of these things at the same time,” he said. “The masks and distances will protect from the flu just as much as it protects from COVID. Our hospitals get full and overwhelmed in a bad flu season anyways. We don’t want to increase the burden on our medical systems.”
Ultimately, Fautin encourages members of the community to comply with the recommended health practices and COVID precautions in order to keep the community and others safe.
“I just think people really need to consider that it’s not only those get-togethers, but the travel that everyone participates in to get to those gathers that increases the risk,” he says. “People really need to consider not just themselves, and if they’re young and likely to have a less serious case even if they are infected, but who they will be around, and who around them they are responsible for helping to protect.”
More information on COVID-19 and the holidays can be found on the CDC website.
By Jada Krening