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Arizona, federal health officials offer holiday safety tips as COVID-19 surges

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As federal and local health experts issue warnings and guidance on how to safely celebrate during the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis, some local residents are considering how the resurgent pandemic will change their holiday plans.

Dr. Henry Walke, the COVID-19 incident manager at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, participated in a media tele-briefing streamed Thursday afternoon, during which he warned about increasing infection rates.

“As a country, we are seeing increases in cases, hospitalizations and death because of COVID-19,” Dr. Walke said. “And we know that you are as alarmed as we are by the rapid spread of COVID-19 across American communities. COVID-19 is turning out to be quite a formidable foe. We must unite in our efforts against this virus and now, more than ever, not let down our guard.”

He said the way to combat the virus remains unchanged; but people must be vigilant to reduce the spread.

“There is simply no more important time than now for each and every American to redouble our efforts to watch our distance, wash out hands and, most importantly, wear a mask,” Dr. Walke said. “More and more scientific data is showing that masks can provide some protection to the wearer. These steps combined are our best defense against the virus that causes COVID-19.”

While acknowledging the importance of holiday traditions, he urged continued caution.

“With Thanksgiving approaching, our hearts and minds turn to seeing family and friends as part of one of our nation’s greatest traditions,” he said. “We all need to consider the safest way to celebrate this holiday.”

Local holiday concerns

Some area residents say concerns about the outbreak have forced them to rethink their holiday plans.

Diana Wenners, a recent retiree now living in Surprise, said she will forgo traditional large-group get-togethers.

“Normally, my holiday plans include Thanksgiving dinner in Scottsdale with 40 to 50 people,” Ms. Wenners said. “This year, it will be a much smaller group, partially because so many of the elderly attendees are compromised, or even the younger crowd has turned down the invitation. I am one of those. I turned down the invitation. I would rather stay home and drink bloody Mary’s and put my Christmas tree up.”

Perennial plans to travel over Christmas week are also on hold this year, since friends she wanted to visit are not able to physically distance, she explained.

“A normal Christmas involves traveling to Texas (previously California) to spend the holiday with my best friend of over 40 years and her family,” Ms. Wenners said. “Her daughter works in special ed, pre-K and is teaching in-person. Her son owns a legal firm and is working and his stepson is attending school in-person. So, it’s a no-go this year.”

While she had a plan B in place to avoid travel, even that seems unlikely now, since at least one local friend has come down with the virus, she said.

“My plans were to spend both holidays with a dear friend in Sun City West and her two daughters. As of yesterday, one daughter has COVID, plus I found out she invited a couple of additional people from California, where her second daughter lives. So, I’m thinking I will be staying put, FaceTiming with friends, and enjoying the holidays by myself.”

Though she doesn’t relish the idea of spending the day alone, Ms. Wenners said it’s a temporary problem and well worth it to stay safe and keep loved ones healthy.

“Honestly, I’m not that upset about it, we’ll see what happens when the time actually comes,” she said. “It will also be 10 years since I lost my husband to cancer next month, so it could be a little tough. But I’m up for it, if it means I’ll get to see them all next year and have us all be healthy.”

Carol Czekaj, a retiree living in Sun City Grand, shared her typical holiday plans, which usually involved traveling Back East.

“We moved here permanently in October 2014,” Ms. Czekaj said. “Always had the holidays in Illinois and planned the same here. Thanksgiving, we had about 12-14 people with 4-5 flying in from other states. Others were from Arizona. About a month ago, we made the decision that it wasn’t safe for our family to fly in because COVID cases were already increasing in Illinois and Arizona.”

Like Ms. Wenners, Ms. Czekaj said she and her husband will be celebrating alone at home during the pandemic. But with some of their volunteering opportunities limited this season, they do still hope to find ways to give back to the community.

“It will be our usual meal, just me and my husband with a big plate to our 93-year-old neighbor,” Ms. Czekaj said. “I’m baking to deliver to our local friends. We usually work the week of Thanksgiving at St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix, but because of COVID, those volunteer opportunities are canceled. So, we are doing a major shopping trip and delivering turkeys and basic needs to St. Mary’s Food Bank in Surprise.”

Streaming video will also help them get by as they look forward to next year’s festivities, she said.

“Thursday we will call and FaceTime our friends and family and toast to what will be next year. Looks like the same for Christmas,” Ms. Czekaj said. “I’m not giving up that times will be better in the near future and we can all be together next year.”

Still, it’s not a happy choice to stay home.

“I miss the hugs terribly,” she added.

Holiday safety tips

Arizona’s top doc echoed the CDC’s warnings in a Wednesday announcement, noting increasing rates of infection around the state and the role of social distancing in prevention.

“It’s an unfortunate reality that household gatherings are contributing to the current rise in COVID-19 cases, percent positivity, and stress on our healthcare system,” stated Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, in the Nov. 18 press release. “The holidays can bring together more households and more generations, including older individuals who are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and young adults and children who are more likely to be asymptomatic carriers.”

For those still planning to attend holiday gatherings, state health officials offered the following safety tips.

  • Fresh air: Where possible, celebrate in the open air, such as in a park or setup in the back yard, to reduce chances of spreading or contracting coronavirus. If celebrating indoors, open windows and patio door for increased ventilation.
  • Make it smaller: For those hosting gatherings, keep them smaller than usual. Use virtual meetings to stay connected to those who cannot attend, while protecting older and medically vulnerable friends and family.
  • Don’t let down your guard: Though it may feel inherently safer spending time around close friends and family, it is still important to maintain physical distance, wash hands frequently, avoid touching the face and wear face masks when not actively eating or drinking.
  • Serve smart: Avoid the traditional buffet line; instead, have one person (carefully) serve and use single-serve options, like plastic utensils, as much as possible.
  • Keep hands clean: Wash hands before and after preparing, serving and eating food and provide guests with travel-size sanitizer bottles or sanitizer hand wipes.

As a bonus tip, health department officials recommended avoiding crowded stores on Black Friday in favor of shopping online this season.

Learn more at azhealth.gov/WinterHolidays.

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