The Recorder - My Turn: Please stay home this season

“It’s my choice,” says my family member during our phone call on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. “I resent that you are lobbying me.” Out...

“It’s my choice,” says my family member during our phone call on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. “I resent that you are lobbying me.” Outside, it is a cold, damp afternoon, and the headache I have been fighting all day is getting worse as we talk.

I have been polling my family to see whether they intend to follow the Massachusetts governor’s, CDC’s, and other health experts’ pleadings to avoid holiday get-togethers this year to help halt the spread of COVID-19. And, if not, I calmly make the case why, as one health official recommended, we should think about celebrating Thanksgiving next July — along with other upcoming winter holidays — so as to limit the likelihood of our personal gatherings becoming superspreader events.

Estimates put the percentage of people who stayed home for Thanksgiving this year at just under three-quarters of the population. But tens of millions ignored public-health guidance, and between the Tuesday and Saturday after Thanksgiving, over 1 million new COVID cases were confirmed in the U.S., 1/14th of the total U.S. cases to date. On Dec. 9, the U.S. saw greater than 3000 COVID-19 deaths, more than four times the number from just one month earlier and the highest number of daily deaths to date in the pandemic. By Dec. 14, total U.S. mortality passed 300,000 deaths, more Americans than died in combat during World War II, while the Massachusetts death toll had climbed past 11,000.

To those of you who are sacrificing your usual festivities in order to keep your family and associates safe, I salute you. But for those who choose to gather socially with non-household members without universal, prior 14-day quarantines — which minimize but do not eliminate transmission risk — and it the potential hazard stopped there and didn’t, of course, spread way beyond your personal get-together, and if our health care system was not already overloaded — well, a part of me says, knock yourself out. Perhaps you’ll be one of the lucky ones, although, of course, it is impossible to predict with certainty who will, and will not, suffer significant, lethal, or sometimes long-lasting effects from contracting the novel coronavirus.

But the issue is not simply personal risk. It is also the risk that this choice poses to others, such as our essential workers. Or the risk to poor people, the elderly, people of color, the un- and underinsured, and those with underlying health conditions, all of whom suffer disproportionately higher death rates. Or the risk to our overwhelmed healthcare workers and facilities, some of which are nearing the breaking point. Or the risk to our small, brick-and-mortar businesses, many struggling to survive.

Clearly, not every holiday gathering will result in the spread of COVID-19 — it requires the attendance of an infected person, after all — but for those that do, every new case carries the potential to kill someone downstream. As Boston’s Dr. Abraar Karan put it, “Every choice we make could mean someone else’s life, weeks from now.”

On the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, I returned to my part-time workplace. Every co-worker I ask had a story of a holiday gathering with non-household members. My colleagues do not know my otherwise-healthy neighbor who ended up on a ventilator and now sometimes chokes on her food because of it, or my friend with an underlying health condition who struggled to breathe for 10 solid weeks after contracting COVID in March, or my 24-year-old neighbor who now has post-COVID diabetes. Or, perhaps, they simply can’t bear the thought of skipping a tradition.

As a health care provider who began practicing at the height of the AIDS epidemic, I learned a simple rule: Assume everyone is positive. We would do well to adopt a similar approach during this pandemic. Up to 45% of carriers are asymptomatic; more can be contagious but not yet show symptoms. Even with testing, a negative test result has limited usefulness: along with a significant false-negative rate, someone can test negative one day and be positive the next.

For the foreseeable future and this holiday season, please forgo indoor social gatherings outside your own household, as health officials and state leaders implore us to do. I know it sucks, but try to find solace in a quieter holiday, as many have. We owe it to those who are more vulnerable than we may be — poorer, older, sicker, those on the front lines — to do what we can to avoid becoming vectors for community spread.

The life you save may be someone you will never meet.

Nancy Grossman of Leverett works in health care.

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Newsrust: The Recorder - My Turn: Please stay home this season
The Recorder - My Turn: Please stay home this season
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