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Experts warn against multi-household Thanksgiving gatherings as virus soars in McLennan County, nationwide

Experts warn against multi-household Thanksgiving gatherings as virus soars in McLennan County, nationwide

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The list of typical Thanksgiving activities, close gatherings of far flung friends and relatives chief among them, looks about like it was cherry picked from the list of high-risk activities for spreading COVID-19.

So with coronavirus cases soaring locally and statewide, and with almost a quarter million Americans already killed by COVID-19, questions arise for this year’s holiday.

Maybe this is the year to follow the lead of education, business, entertainment and shopping, and go virtual. Maybe this is the year that creativity in finding safer ways to connect becomes something to be thankful for.

This week, Waco and McLennan County health professionals warned that rising numbers of new cases and hospitalizations locally, plus a climbing positivity rate despite increased testing, put the county in “uncharted territory.”

In fact, the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District issued a Thanksgiving public health alert Friday advising against travel or multi-household gatherings for the Thanksgiving holiday and calling on residents to consider the age and health issues of anyone they might be considering visiting. Rather than a gathering with people outside one’s household, it urges alternatives to a traditional celebration.

“We’ve got to get this under control. … Our hospitalizations are the highest since June and July,” health district spokesperson Kelly Craine said. “This is a time to really tighten up. Wear the mask. Avoid social activities beyond the essentials.”

For anyone still planning to travel or attend a gathering with anyone outside their household, this weekend is the time to start self-quarantining and limiting outside contacts, said infectious disease specialist and McLennan County health authority Dr. Farley Verner.

“To those people I’d say, starting today, maximize their effort not to come in contact with others,” Verner said. “Stay at home as much as possible … if they’re expecting to not be infectious when they go see Grandma.”

Anyone who decides not to travel this year will not be alone. The AAA organization expects to see a 10% drop in travel across the country and a 5% drop in Texas this Thanksgiving — the largest one-year drop since the 2008 recession.

Anyone interested in getting tested before Thanksgiving should be aware a test can only report on the short period before it was administered, Verner said. A person could test negative for COVID-19, contract the virus after the test and have it without symptoms for several days, with the greatest risk for spreading it during that asymptomatic period.

Even though masking and social distancing are effective in reducing the spread of coronavirus, no one should presume the risk of catching it or spreading it is zero.

“We were at a bad place prior to Halloween, and people approached Halloween like other holidays,” Verner said. “They were tired of all these restrictions, I guess, and as a result, there definitely has been an increase (in cases).”

For any gathering, someone needs to take the lead in setting and communicating rules and expectations for everyone about wearing masks and social distancing, rather than assume everyone attending will know those rules, Family Health Center CEO Dr. Jackson Griggs said during the city’s weekly COVID-19 press conference this past week.

Playing COVID-19 cop with friends and family may not be easy, especially if some disagree about protective measures, Craine said.

“It’s a lot to keep up with, and everyone in your group has to be part of that strategy,” she said.

Changing parts of a traditional Thanksgiving may provide bits of protection. Rather than cooking a big meal together, order one from a restaurant for curbside pickup or delivery. Use disposable dishes and flatware to minimize cleanup. Seat fewer guests at tables and in multiple rooms. Open windows and doors for increased air flow. And, although Waco’s November weather can be fickle, outside dining and cooking are options.

The Salvation Army’s downtown Community Kitchen and Shelter, in fact, is erecting a 40-foot-by-60-foot outdoor tent that, when combined with its patio and parking lot, will provide adequate space for people to eat with a safe distance between them. Salvation Army spokesperson Diana Barrett said the center’s dining room is too small to accommodate the 200 to 300 people at the traditional dinner, but expanding outside will allow social distancing and management of the group’s size.

The different setup helps protect participants, many who lack access to health care or have underlying health conditions, which could have serious consequences if they contract COVID-19, Barrett said.

“We’re erring on the extreme side of caution,” she said.

The outdoors, plus a grill or firepit, expands Thanksgiving cooking options, said Michele Brown, a Texas State Technical College culinary arts instructor.

A turkey can be broken down and grilled, and sweet potatoes can be wrapped in foil and grilled over low heat. Kids can get into the act by roasting marshmallows, with supervision, that can be used to top the sweet potatoes, she said.

Brown had other tips for inside dining:

Bake stuffing or filling in muffin tins rather than one common dish. Rather than pass around serving dishes, designate one person in the kitchen to serve plates and a second person to deliver them to the table.

Have a laptop or a tablet in the kitchen while cooking so other family members can join the conversation or recipe-swapping without having to be there in person. Have adults connect online for a virtual wine tasting or an offbeat soda-tasting one for teens and children.

Liven up mask-wearing by having everyone write something they are thankful for on the outside of their mask.

What is important is finding ways to connect with others for the holiday, Brown said.

“It’s super-difficult to be alone right now,” Brown said. “Rather than sitting in the dark and being sad about it, get your laptop or your phone and call somebody.”


5 simple pre-Thanksgiving recipes to check out this week


How to have a cozier Zoom Thanksgiving

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