Thanksgiving gatherings concerning to local health experts as COVID case rates rise

Local Coronavirus Coverage

TRI-CITIES, Va./Tenn. (WJHL) – During any normal year, families across America would be buzzing with excitement to gather around the dinner table to carve some turkey. This year, on the holiday that actually exists to celebrate being around others, health experts are concerned.

Turning a blind eye to the pandemic simply because of being sick of it – the sensation more commonly known as “pandemic fatigue” – might prove deadly in the weeks to come, Mount Rogers Health District’s Population Health Manager Breanne Forbes Hubbard said Wednesday after Southwest Virginia’s COVID cases doubled overnight.

“It’s just incredibly demoralizing. Every time we feel like we’ve turned a corner and we think ‘okay, maybe now things are gonna get a plateau, a manageable level.’ I go ‘nope, it’s back up again,'” Forbes Hubbard said.

“It’s exhausting. We know it is for everybody else too. But it just feels like we can’t get ahead of it,” she said. “It’s very frustrating, of course. It’s concerning. You know, we worry about the people that are going to get sick and be hospitalized and die, and we hate it because it’s preventable. If people would get vaccinated, we would see such a decrease in all these numbers.”

After a surge due to the delta variant, the region saw a dip in COVID cases throughout October, but November brought with it a rising number of cases in Northeast Tennessee.

In Southwest Virginia, cases are nearly double that of the Commonwealth, and the percentage of the population fully vaccinated remains far below the state average.

As low vaccination rates persist and cases continue to climb, Forbes Hubbard warns the holidays will look different this season.

“It might mean that you know, you can’t travel for the holidays because your child’s sick or because your child’s in quarantine or something like that,” she said.

She said people being indoors and gathering together is always a concern when it comes to respiratory illnesses.

“If people are gathering together and they’ve got a significant number of unvaccinated people among them, it would be wise to perhaps consider rapid tests the morning of for people who are not vaccinated, just to make sure that you’re not going and taking disease to your loved ones. Wearing masks if you’re going to be indoors. I know, of course, when you’re eating that’s not really that plausible. Keeping windows open or gathering outside if you can,” she said.

Thankfully, Forbes Hubbard pointed out, the region is fortunate enough to sometimes have fine weather for the Thanksgiving holiday. She said she hopes the weather is nice so families who are largely unvaccinated can stay outdoors for the holiday and keep each other safe.

She advised that even getting a shot a week before the holiday will offer more protection than not getting a vaccine at all.

But it’s not just COVID-19 to worry about this Thanksgiving.

“We are seeing some indicators that we are probably not going to have the very quiet flu season that we had last year. There’s, regionally and nationally, there’s already some substantial flu spread, and it’s pretty early in the season for that to be happening, which is a little bit concerning,” Forbes Hubbard said.

She urged that families follow COVID-19 mitigation protocols practiced last holiday season – like wearing masks, social distancing, and having good hand hygiene – to help curb the spread of the flu in order to keep hospitalizations low.

“A lot of those COVID precautions are not in place or not being adhered to, to the same degree they were last year. So we’re definitely expecting a return to a more normal flu season. Hopefully, it will just be a normal flu season and not a supercharged flu season. So it is really important for folks to go ahead and get that flu shot if they haven’t already,” she said.

The question of whether health leaders expect to see a rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths following the upcoming holiday season remains.

“If you have a high vaccination coverage, you’re still going to have some breakthrough cases just because that’s how disease patterns work, but you’re probably not going to see the level of severity,” Forbes Hubbard said.

She explained that people within 90-days of contracting COVID-19 or people who are fully vaccinated might still contract the virus but would be safer against severe disease, hospitalization, and death than those who remain completely without antibodies – either natural or derived from the vaccine.

“The other flip side of that is that we might have really high hospitalization and death rates again, and which of course we don’t want to have,” she said.

“I say it all the time, but vaccination is the best way to have a more normal holiday season. If you don’t want to open windows and gather outside and wear masks. Being vaccinated gives you the best protection to feel like if you’re going to drop some of those other mitigations, you can feel more comfortable with that if you’re vaccinated. So I would really just encourage people to, even if they’re not as concerned about the disease transmission for themselves personally, just make the actual practicalities of your life easier and get vaccinated.”

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