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COVID Thanksgiving: How to Host a Safe(r) Meal

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The Centers for Disease Control say no one should travel this year, and Thanksgiving celebrations should be limited to those who live in your household. Kentucky's guidelines say no more than two households are allowed to get together.

Experts say there's no real way to eliminate the risk of transmission in this setting. But you can mitigate the risk if you've chosen to get together with those outside your household. WFPL's Kate Howard spoke with Neysa Ernst, the nurse manager at Johns Hopkins' biocontainment unit for patients with contagious diseases, about her suggested precautions.

Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Can you tell me a little bit about your thoughts about the holidays and how people should treat it, in terms of gathering?

I think people should follow the same advice that was given in 1918 during the pandemic, which was to reduce holiday gatherings, especially during Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's.

Our governor, Andy Beshear, talks about 1918 quite a bit during the pandemic... His guidance has been that no more than two households and eight people should get together. What are your thoughts on that guidance?

So I actually had to send out communication to my employees last Friday that said the hospital recommendations are no travel, no Thanksgiving with any members outside of your immediate family — we refer to it as your bubble. And so in the bubble are certainly people that you've known for a long time, and you're all making the same commitments. And that bubble is really no larger than eight or 10. But [for us], no people outside of your immediate household… and no travel. That was the hospital's recommendation, and that was the CDC recommendation, as well.

I think it's safe to assume that, with the governor's recommendation being up to two households, that many people in Kentucky will get together with another household. What are some things that they can do to do that safely?

You have to remember, first and foremost, the three pillars: mask, social distance and hand hygiene (not mask OR social distance because you need both). And it's really important to mask even with your family members. One of the things that we've learned at Johns Hopkins is that a lot of community spread comes from a situation where you were sharing a meal, and you have your mask removed, and you're not six feet away from someone. In those situations, we found that that's with people that you trust a lot. And you're saying, 'I trust you, I know you're following the guidelines.' But the community spread is so large.

It almost feels like we've we've surpassed the question of trust. If you're doing everything right, you're still at risk.

It is, really. I have employees that come back positive, and they literally sit in my office and say, 'Neysa, I have no idea how this happened.' I will tell you I'm not aware of any patient to employee transmission at the hospital, so the concept of personal protective equipment works. And so in a modified fashion in your home, you certainly don't need to dress like spacemen like we do, but you do need to have a mask. And you do need to stay six feet away from someone, again, just because the risk is so high.

So thinking about how a Thanksgiving dinner usually goes, usually food all across the table kind of serving yourself. What are some ways you can mitigate the risk?

This is the year to make some good plans in advance.

Any good host this year should be including in his or her invitations, 'If you don't feel well, you can call me even at the last minute,' and make that a gracious out for someone. We have to change behavior. If you feel unwell, just call your host or hostess and trust me they will respect that as well everyone else at the party.

And then you say, 'If you're going to come to my home, I've invited six of you. That's all I can accommodate. Don't show up with a lost soul. And my expectation is that you're going to mask and I'm going to have a unique seating arrangement.' And then when someone comes to your home and doesn't participate in that, you have to be able to get comfortable saying you need to put your mask on. You need to walk around with a tape measure because masking, social distancing and hand hygiene are really, until we get a vaccine, lifesavers right now.

I would avoid a buffet if I absolutely possibly could. But maybe one person at a time goes in [the kitchen] filling your plate and then coming back, and sitting at a table that's far away from someone else.

Do things like have a contest for the best mask. Have a contest for the person that really can understand what six feet is. You know, make this fun, especially for children. Write down their memories of Thanksgiving 2020 and make that part of your story. Because it's not going to be this way next year. I hope.

And, you know, the virtual concept — I can't say enough about that. We're setting up a virtual series of virtual calls with both sides of our family… I think the later ones are going to be more interesting as the more alcohol is consumed. But you know, that's the fun of it, right? I mean, this is a weird year, and we have to find some joy in all of this.

So when you're having dinner, hopefully you have them spaced out. People are masking when they're not eating. They're not singing, or doing other things that are higher risk. Most of us don't have hospital-type ventilation, so is it helpful to open windows and turn off the heat?

Yes, it is really helpful. Indoor spaces without good ventilation increase the risk for the virus spread. So yes, opening a window, maybe doing a little bit of entertaining on the porch, if the weather will permit that.

Let’s say you’re going to a home where Grandma and Grandpa are. Even if you have a mask: hugs or no hugs?


Do not hug Grandma and Grandpa.

No hugs for Grandma and Grandpa. Be really careful. I get these statements all the time: ‘Well, I'm a hugger.’ And my response is, ‘Well, not this year.’

Is there anything we haven't talked about that you think it's important to mention?

I think it's important to mention that this is a really tough time for everyone. And that, you know, if you've made the choice to come home, if you made the choice to travel this year, then you need to be really responsible to the other people at that event. And you need to be hyper vigilant, because there is so much spread in the community. Even small encounters with people can cause a spread. The responsibility is really on you to make sure that everybody gets out of this holiday safely.

Kate Howard is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

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