Infectious disease experts urge people to stay home for holidays
With the coronavirus resurgence in many parts of the state and country, area infectious disease experts strongly urge Sonoma County residents to stay home over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays rather than travel for gatherings of family and friends.
Traditionally, people hit the road or fly out of state to visit relatives and close friends at this time of the year. If local residents do that amid the raging pandemic, medical and public health experts fear that upon return they could sharply increase Sonoma County’s already widespread COVID-19 transmission.
And, they say, that could unravel the county’s monthslong public health efforts that have led to stretches of success slowing the virus and put many people at risk during the upcoming winter.
Dr. Gary Green, an infectious disease specialist with Sutter Health, worries about a “perfect storm” causing a public health disaster from holiday travel to any part of the country where the virus is out of control, where cold weather forces people indoors and with flu season at our doorstep.
“I’m very concerned about the mixing of the population in public places like airports and gas stations for those driving, convenience stores,” Green said. “And I’m also worried about family mixing. Kids coming home from college, for those that are at college. ... Families might let down their guard and it may really escalate into a second wave of this pandemic.”
Two weeks before Thanksgiving, Green and other local infectious disease physicians are pleading with their patients to hold virtual family holiday celebrations. For those who absolutely must travel, they say people must be extra vigilant about their exposure to others, including extended family members.
“COVID hasn’t gone anywhere and it’s actually the opposite, it’s in crisis numbers in a number of parts of the upper Midwest and Midwest,” said Dr. Michael Vollmer, a regional infectious disease physician at Kaiser Permanente.
Vollmer said he’s urging patients to make it “literally, truly a home for the holidays period. Meaning stay home, stay with your immediate family.”
Those who choose to attend holiday events outside their family bubble, he said make sure they’re outdoors, wear a face covering, keep sufficient physical distance and frequently wash your hands.
Although virus spread in Sonoma County is among the Bay Area’s worst, the local transmission level stands at 11.5 new daily infections per 100,000 residents — far less than rampant transmission rates in Midwestern states that exceed 100 new daily cases per 100,000 people.
Still, California on Thursday surpassed 1 million coronavirus cases during the pandemic that began in March, joining only Texas with that many total infections. That number and the recent uptick in hospitalizations statewide provide stark reminders holiday travel even within the county and state will escalate public health risk.
Nationally, new cases topped 100,000 for the ninth day in a row Thursday, underscoring the grip the deadly pandemic has on the United States.
Dr. Tiffany Ngai, medical director of infection control for Providence St. Joseph Health, Sonoma County, strongly advises patients with underlying health conditions and deficient immune systems to look closely at COVID-19 transmission rates in counties they plan to visit before going there over the holidays.
“If the cases are on the rise, I really strongly urge them to reconsider traveling to these places,” Ngai said. “But if they absolutely have to travel, it’s the basic things: face masks, social distancing, hand-washing and carry hand sanitizer around with them.”
Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase reminded local residents that nonessential holiday travel should be avoided. If that’s not possible, she said, residents must take additional precautions.
For example, Mase said driving your own car, rather than flying or taking a bus, is the safest way to travel in terms of avoiding virus exposure. Also, people can get tested for COVID-19 before and after a holiday trip.
She also urged local residents with holiday travel plans to get a flu shot before leaving.
Green, the Sutter Health infectious disease specialist, agreed.
“It’s a great time before travel to get the flu shot,” he said. “The flu shot takes two weeks to really kick in.”
A recent study from Brazil showed that people who got a flu shot had a better chance of surviving the contagion, the physician said. While the vaccination does not establish specific immunity to the coronavirus, it could promote innate immunity.
“It kind of tunes up your immune system to better handle anything that comes through the front door,” Green said.
Besides getting informed about virus outbreaks where they’re going to visit during the holiday season, Vollmer recommended Kaiser patients check with their doctor about getting tested roughly seven days after returning home even if they don’t have any virus symptoms.
Ngai of St. Joseph Health said area residents who go to an area with a high level of virus spread should monitor themselves for potential COVID-19 symptoms while away and after returning to the county.
“If they are concerned that they may have had exposure to somebody, or if they hear that a family member at the (holiday) gathering was sick or has symptoms, then I urge them to get tested and then continue to quarantine at home,” Ngai said.
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @pressreno.