It’s going to be up to us to help stem the COVID-19 surge, and that starts with celebrating Thanksgiving differently [editorial] | Editorials

THE ISSUE

The United States passed a terrible milestone last week: More than a quarter of a million Americans have died because of COVID-19. In Lancaster County, COVID-19 cases increased alarmingly. And, as the week ended, Pennsylvania neared the 300,000 mark in cases, and Lancaster County’s total case count exceeded 13,500. More than 460 COVID-19 cases have been reported at Lancaster County schools.

You may be tired of the pandemic. We are tired of the pandemic, too.

Tired of writing about it.

Tired of thinking about it.

Tired of worrying about it.

As U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told NPR recently, pandemic fatigue is real — and, unfortunately, it’s leading some people to ease up on essential COVID-19 prevention efforts: social distancing, mask-wearing, thorough hand-washing.

COVID-19 doesn’t care that we’re tired of thinking about it.

It is, as Adams described it, “incredibly unforgiving.”

It is, as we noted last Sunday, a vicious and capricious disease, sparing some but devastating others. It can rob a family of one spouse and leave the other. It can take the life of a child and spare the child’s parent.

We need to diminish the opportunities it has to harm us.

Because if we think we have pandemic fatigue, we need to consider the doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and other medical workers who are exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally by the battle they are waging against this deadly virus that won’t quit.

The next couple of months are going to be brutal for them — and for us, too, if we aren’t careful.

Hospitals “will increasingly have to battle the novel coronavirus on two fronts: first from without, with patients seeking care, and then from within as staff gets sick and infected,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Nicole C. Brambila reported Wednesday.

Neither WellSpan, which has a hospital in Ephrata, nor UPMC, which has a hospital in Lititz, “disclosed how many staff have been infected nor whether nurses and doctors have been sickened,” she reported.

But in an email to her staff Nov. 13, Jan L. Bergen, president and CEO of Penn Medicine Lancaster General Heath, acknowledged that “some 50 employees were quarantined each day” that week because of exposure in “community settings.”

Last week, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine warned in a news conference that “hospitals and health systems and their chief executive officers need to be working now through our health care coalitions and other partnerships to review and prepare now how they will support one another, should we get to the point that a hospital could become overwhelmed.”

That point is coming, we fear.

As Brambila reported, “The University of Washington School of Medicine model used by the White House Coronavirus Task Force projects the rise in cases will drive up the need for ICU beds in Pennsylvania, exceeding what is available in mid-December.”

That is just weeks away.

The darkness looms

Last Tuesday, Levine announced new “targeted efforts” to help limit COVID-19’s spread.

Anyone who visits Pennsylvania from another state now must have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to entering the commonwealth, or they must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. (Other states have had this requirement for months.)

And masks now must be worn inside public facilities even if physical distancing is possible.

One tragedy of this pandemic has been the politicization of mask-wearing. Mask resistance has hampered our ability to beat the virus. It cannot continue.

We know some people bristled at some of the sweeping measures imposed by the commonwealth in the spring. The language didn’t help: It may be easier to embrace a safety measure than a restriction.

But wearing a mask is such a simple thing. And medical experts now say that a mask — worn properly, covering the nose as well as mouth — not only protects other people, but the wearer, too.

A mask reduces the emission of the respiratory droplets that spread the novel coronavirus, and the inhalation of such droplets by the mask-wearer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Coronavirus is raging not just in our state, but across the country. As The Atlantic magazine noted in an article last week, understanding where we are in the pandemic “requires grasping two thoughts at once. First, the United States has never been closer to defeating the pandemic. Second, some of the country’s most agonizing days still lie ahead.”

In the long term, “the view has never looked brighter,” that magazine reported, pointing to the news that two COVID-19 vaccines — one from Pfizer, the other from Moderna — have been found to be at least 90% effective. Some health care workers “could be vaccinated by New Year’s,” the article continued. “Most Americans can expect to receive a shot in the spring, according to Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease expert. Yet in the short term, the outlook is unavoidable: The country faces several weeks of mass suffering and death.”

Somehow, we need to get through the looming darkness to the brighter spring. That’s going to require that we make some sacrifices — wearing masks and celebrating the holidays differently.

As the CDC declared last week, “Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year.”

There’s simply no other way.

Recipe for disaster

“Holidays are a recipe for personal, family, and community COVID-19 disaster,” Dr. Leon Kraybill wrote in a column in last Sunday’s Perspective section. “Once COVID-19 gets into a home, recent studies show that more than half of household contacts will also become infected.”

The chief of LG Health’s geriatric division and post-acute care, and medical director at Luther Acres in Lititz, Kraybill wrote, “There will eventually be a time when we can gather joyously in community to share food and fun. That time is not now.”

He advised that “most traditional family and social gatherings should not occur. Most families should significantly change their holiday meal plans.”

The safest strategy is to celebrate with friends and extended family members via videoconference.

A Zoom Thanksgiving may seem like a sad substitute for the real thing. But it won’t be as sad as a funeral. It won’t be as bleak as the interior of a hospital intensive-care unit.

As Dennis B. Downey, Millersville University professor emeritus, notes in a column in today’s Perspective section, “The feeling of absence and loss this Thanksgiving … is palpable.”

He paraphrases a post that’s been circulating on social media: “We isolate now, so when we gather again no one is missing.”

Lancaster County doesn’t have a public health department to help local hospitals through the weeks ahead. County Commissioner Josh Parsons — who was so upset about Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic measures in the spring — doesn’t seem to be offering detailed new strategies for handling the current surge. U.S. senators went home last week rather than working toward a compromise stimulus package.

There is no cavalry coming. Each of us has to accept responsibility and try, as Kraybill put it, “to see the big picture of risk without letting (our) understandable wish for normalcy cloud (our) choices.”

We can do this.

We must do this.

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