Leaders suggest no buffets, masked interactions if families choose to gather for Thanksgiving

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WARREN COUNTY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – As Thanksgiving approaches, Warren County has seen an uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases, many of which are due to travel. On Tuesday, the county health services office was joined by representatives from Glens Falls Hospital and Hudson Headwaters Health Network to talk about the risk factors of visiting home for the holidays in the time of coronavirus.

Warren County Public Health Director Ginelle Jones said that she and her department were concerned by the possibility of gatherings on a level that could pose a serious risk of spreading the virus. She pointed to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s guidance, that Thanksgiving gatherings not exceed 10 people.

“I’m kind of asking that we avoid gatherings of non-healthful people,” Jones said. “Perhaps you can do a visit to a family member, rather than share a meal.”

The sharing of the meal was a point of concern for Jones, as well as for Dr. William Borgos, chief medical officer at Hudson Headwaters; and Dr. Sean Bain, a practitioner with Glens Falls Hospital’s inpatient wing who works with local coronavirus patients in the hospital. Both joined her in the virtual conference.

Sharing Thanksgiving dinner at a table means close proximity without masks, all indoors; whether it’s 10 people or just 2 or 3. Doing things buffet-style, as many families do for the holiday, adds to the risk.

“I don’t know if food sharing is a good thing with people from different households,” Jones said, “but if you are trying to do the buffet-style scenario, where you have everybody gathered in one area in a line, waiting to serve their food, you’ve gotta kind of think, ‘How can we limit exposure?'”

Jones also expressed concern that even if the gathering is under 10 people, social distancing might go slack. One suggestion on that came from Dr. Borgos, who suggested staying masked up when not eating.

“If you’re going to gather, trying to stay separate as best you can, you can still have a nice conversation from 8, 10, 12 feet away,” Borgos said.

Dr. Bain expanded on that to emphasize discretion when it comes to non-family members, or people who have traveled farther. Socializing with fellow household members is one thing, but guests from other towns, counties or states need to be taken into account as well.

School’s out, but students stay in

Thanksgiving break also means a return home for students attending colleges that have held in-person classes this semester. That’s a high number from SUNY students alone, not even taking into account those traveling in from out-of-state.

Warren County cites travel to and from colleges as one of the biggest influences in the uptick of cases since the fall semester began, and said that students need to be careful, starting with travel home for the holidays.

“You’re melding two households that haven’t been under the same roof,” Jones said, “so mask use on the ride home is also a good idea.”

The current state guidance is that travelers take a coronavirus test before heading their in-state destination, then quarantine for three days upon arrival, followed by another coronavirus test. Even if both tests come back negative, college students are advised to take caution when it comes to visiting friends visiting from their own colleges. Jones advised additional tests for students who do so.

Dr. Borgos pointed out that some colleges are testing their on-campus students as frequently as once a week. At SUNY Adirondack, a dedicated testing site is set up at Adirondack Hall, which can process more than the on-campus student body every two weeks.

SUNY Adirondack also has on-campus students one to a bedroom at their residence hall. That’s typical of some schools too, but every campus is run differently.

Dr. Bain weighed in on messaging towards younger travelers in relation to his own kids.

“The biggest thing that I tell my kids, who are young and sometimes maybe sometimes not as responsible as you get older, is to remember the people you might be exposed to,” he said.

The numbers talk

Warren County’s recent spike in travel-related coronavirus cases started two weeks ago, and has ended in double-digit active cases since. As of Tuesday, the county stood at 26 active coronavirus cases.

Glens Falls Hospital has seen the total number of cases per 1,000 double, from the Capital Region into the North Country, all within that time period.

Before Tuesday, all of the active cases – as many as 31 last weekend – were considered mild cases, with no immediate risk of hospitalization. That changed Tuesday.

Dr. Bain confirmed two cases in Glens Falls Hospital, one of which was considered in critical condition and placed on mechanical ventilation.

“As I look back, we’ve not had any patients that ill in six months,” Bain said. “So to me, that’s not a good sign.”

Glens Falls Hospital has gone as far as to restrict visitation in order to limit the potential for new exposure in the hospital.

Bain and Jones both touched on the fact that, even as cases rise, some have become used to the presence of the pandemic above trying to fight it.

“People are starting to let their guard down,” Jones said. “When we’re talking about work exposures, there’s not vigilant mask use; when we’re talking about the gatherings, there’s not vigilant mask use.”

And as residents get more lax – especially during travel-heavy times like the holidays – Jones’ department sees more contacts linking cases.

That was what happened last week, when a family returned to their Warren County home after visiting the Rochester area and being exposed to coronavirus there. Upon return, despite showing symptoms, members of the household visited stores, a fire department meeting, and a school. All four members of the household tested positive for coronavirus.

The good news is that the methods that have been encouraged since the pandemic began are still seen as working. Dr. Borgos with Hudson Headwaters spoke up in favor of face masks and social distancing, both of which have kept cases down.

“We’ve been very lucky, in our region, that our rates have remained very low,” Borgos said, citing use of personal vehicles and benefits from the area geography as additional reasons why.

Hudson Headwaters has seen an uptick in positive cases from testing at their own facilities; roughly 3 percent across all 21 of their facilities, up from 1 percent before the last few weeks. Those facilities cross Warren, Washington, Essex, Clinton, Franklin, Hamilton and Saratoga counties.

Another problem is the gestation period.

“You can test negative and be in that period where, in several days, you could be positive,” Bain pointed out. There is some uncertainty there, which he and Borgos agreed only further stresses the need for handwashing, masks and social distancing; the same things that have worked all along.

The Friday after

Next week is a double-whammy. Many stores have extended their sales or limited their hours to try and cut down on the risk of an explosion of traffic, but one way or another, Black Friday is still coming. And Warren County is approaching it with as much caution as they have jurisdiction over.

“I will admit, I am pretty worried,” Jones said.

Some of the danger posed by Black Friday shopping can be easy to get around, such as crowds at big-box stores.

“If you’re wanting to go shopping at a certain place, and you show up and the parking lot’s full, and there’s lines out the door, then it might be good to try another shop.”

Jones encouraged shopping at off-times, after whatever initial midnight burst, and not socializing too much with fellow shoppers.

She also pointed out the responsibility that lies on the shoulders of stores themselves. Employees at cash registers need to keep their lanes sanitized, especially as traffic gets heavy.

The danger of those large crowds is self-evident. Jones said she would hope stores would enforce strict capacity limits in order to minimize the danger, but is worried about whether that will happen.

“Instead of being ‘policed,’ maybe police themselves to keep their staff safe, their staff’s families safe, and their consumers families and the consumers safe.”

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