Families adjust as DPH discourages gatherings, travel for Thanksgiving

A long line of cars wait to pick up COVID-19 tests at the Walgreens on South State Street in Dover on Wednesday. The Division of Public Health has administered 24,807 tests since Nov. 11. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

If Delawareans follow the Division of Public Health’s advice surrounding holiday gatherings in the time of COVID-19, Thanksgiving will be very different this year.

“We want to limit gathering to the greatest extent possible, and when we talk about Thanksgiving, gathering with people who already live in your home already is our recommendation,” said Dr. Rick Pescatore, DPH’s chief physician.

“We understand the importance of holiday traditions. I have many in my own family,” he said. “We have to understand that we’re seeing rising levels of COVID, and congregating in groups can both increase transmission within groups and outside of them, as well.”

Dr. Pescatore said people “might identify new and creative ways to get together. That can be from Zoom, FaceTime, to using the technologies that are available to them to maintain traditions.”

Delaware is seeing COVID-19 cases rising again.

On Tuesday, 15.5% of all people who got tested for COVID-19 in the state had contracted the virus, according to DPH. That added up to 198 new cases on that day alone. On Monday, DPH reported 346 new cases.

In total, DPH has recorded 29,552 cases statewide, which is up from 25,333 at the beginning of the month and 20,953 at the beginning of October.

According to DPH’s most recent data, it has administered 24,807 tests since Nov. 11, including 15,831 tests for those who had not been tested before.

At a Curative testing site in Frederica on Tuesday, a lot of people were planning to heed officials’ advice about gathering for the holidays.

“Everybody just seems to be keeping in close quarters,” Harrington resident John Bradley said of Thanksgiving plans in his social circles. “Close friends, whoever’s already been around them.”

He wasn’t getting tested in preparation for a holiday celebration, though. His plans for Thanksgiving were uncertain due to a COVID-19 case in the family.

“My daughter tested positive,” he said of his 3-month-old, Julia. “She’s doing all right. She’s having problems breathing.”

Mr. Bradley had brought the rest of his immediate family to be tested.

“Everybody else has tested negative,” he said.

Regina Grey, pastor at John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dover, said she is also staying home for Thanksgiving.

“My brother, my father and I are going to stay home and cook a turkey dinner by ourselves,” she said at the Curative site. “We’re not going to have any company or go out anywhere. We all live together.”

She said most of her friends and family are doing the same.

“I think everybody who lives in the same houses are going to gather in their houses,” Pastor Grey said. “I don’t see any of us going house-to-house this year. It’s just too dangerous.”

But some people at the testing site had been more mobile.

“We went to Florida,” Lincoln’s Lynn Rathfon said when asked why she was getting tested. “We went to Disney for vacation.”

She and her husband wanted to make sure they hadn’t contracted the virus. It was the 10th time they had been tested.

“I’m having (Thanksgiving) dinner at my house,” Ms. Rathfon said, “with my daughter, two grandchildren and my son-in-law.”

She said she doesn’t intend to wear masks inside with them.

“I babysit for my grandchildren, too, so I see them all the time,” she said.
Dr. Pescatore said he strongly discourages gatherings between different households for Thanksgiving, but he frowns upon traveling to or hosting out-of-staters even more.

“Ensuring that families do not come in from out of state, increasing the amount of potential contact and the potential of asymptomatic spread, is at the top of our recommendations,” he said. “You have to understand that the spread of COVID-19 is in high degrees, both inside of Delaware and outside of Delaware.

“Whenever somebody travels, they raise the risk of moving the virus from one area to another and expanding the number of people they can come in contact with and spread the virus to,” he said.

Dr. Rick Hong, DPH’s medical director, said those who do choose to travel need to take proper precautions.

“Whenever individuals are traveling, whenever they’re in contact with others at any time, we recommend wearing face coverings, which is extremely important,” he said.

“Whenever anybody travels at this time, we recommend that they quarantine from others for a total of 14 days because there’s a possibility they could have come in contact with somebody, whether it be at their destination or at a stop along the way, and they could have contracted the virus,” Dr. Hong said.

Long-distance trips aren’t the only ones that pose a potential threat in the COVID-19 era.

“My mom tested positive for COVID the other day,” Smyrna resident Peggy Cipporone said when asked why she was getting tested in Frederica. “We were with her last Wednesday.”

She said her mother lives with her sister in Swedesboro, New Jersey. For Thanksgiving, Ms. Cipporone is keeping the celebration to her immediate family.

“Me and my husband and our one daughter, we live together the three of us, so we’re planning to just do the three of us,” she said.

“Last year, we had nieces and nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews. All of us, my sisters, their husbands, our kids. There was probably 30 to 35 of us last year,” she said.

But this year, as far as she knows, “everybody’s just planning to stay home.”

Dr. Hong and Dr. Pescatore said DPH is continuing to improve the frequency, accessibility and quality of public testing options available to Delawareans. This push will continue into the holiday season.

“A lot of that increased testing is going to coincide with the holidays,” he said. “Whether that’s intentional or not, I can say that we have continued the march for increased testing.”

Dr. Pescatore said DPH has also been pushing to decrease the amount of time Delawareans have to wait for their results.

“Turnaround time is something we focus on,” he said. “We’re very proud that a number of our testing modalities have narrowed that turnaround time. Curative results often come back within 24 hours or so, and our DPH clinic lab turns around labs in about two days or so.”

However, Dr. Hong said the availability of and the participation in testing are two different but equally important metrics.

“It’s not just having more testing available, but also encouraging people to get tested,” he said. “We need both pieces to fall in place to really get the effect that we want.”

Dr. Pescatore added that participation in testing itself is only one element of the broader fight against the virus in Delaware.

“Testing is only one link in the chain that includes limiting contact with others, maintaining social distancing, wearing face coverings and hand-washing,” he said.

Furthermore, testing is not a preventive measure in and of itself.

“Obtaining a negative test does not mean that you don’t have coronavirus,” Dr. Pescatore said. “I think that’s something we can’t say enough.”

“Negative tests just state that you were negative at the point of specimen collection,” Dr. Hong said. “If you get a negative test in the middle of quarantine, that does not mean you no longer have to quarantine. That test is a snapshot in time, and quarantine should be a full 14-day period.”

Dr. Pescatore said testing can “lull people into a false sense of security.”

Still, he said DPH wants “to ensure that people continue to get tested. It’s one of the most important ways to fight this pandemic, identifying those individuals who are positive and isolating them as soon as possible.”

“We want to make sure the holidays are still a happy time and a time for families to get together. It’s going to be nontraditional,” Dr. Hong said.

“I understand the importance of getting together and the importance of keeping traditions, but unfortunately, we have seen stories in the country where there were happy gatherings that resulted in unfortunate situations, people getting sick and even worse scenarios,” he said.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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