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UW Virology head: ‘Every additional person around that table adds risk’ at holiday gatherings

Abbas Al Haj Ahmed talks with his cousin Adam Bazzi over a video call while their family shares a meal and breaks fast on the first full day of Ramadan on April 24, 2020 in Dearborn, Michigan. Due to the social distancing guidelines being enforced to combat the spread of the coronavirus, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan was observed differently this year amidst the pandemic. (Photo by Elaine Cromie/Getty Images)

With coronavirus cases rising nationwide and locally, members of the medical community are recommending that families avoid big holiday gatherings this year, including Thanksgiving.

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Dr. Keith Jerome, University of Washington Medicine’s head of Virology, told Seattle’s Morning News that big, indoor celebrations just aren’t safe right now, even if everybody wears a mask.

“It’s certainly not the year to have a big event,” he said. “… Everything here is kind of a numbers game, and every additional person around that table adds risk to you. It adds risk to them.”

Jerome says if your family has kids coming in from college for the holidays, you should consider asking them to be careful and even to self-quarantine at least the week before they come home.

“Really the best thing to do is if people can avoid those gatherings as much as possible, that’s probably the safest thing to do,” Jerome said. “And folks are going to have to balance their desire to get together with their family with that risk. But it’s a real risk, and people need to take this seriously.”

If families do plan to host an event, there are precautions that can help to limit the spread of the virus, but Jerome warns that nothing is perfect.

“If everybody wears an N95 mask all the time, and they stay kind of far apart, and there’s good ventilation in the house, all those things will help,” he said. “It’s not perfect, doesn’t mean there can’t be an infection.”

“We’re going to have dinner, right? And we can’t keep the masks on while we have dinner,” he added. “So none of these things are perfect, and his is going to be a tough time. And there’s going to be infections. People really need to take as many precautions, and layer those precautions on top of each other as much as they possibly can.”

The more you can do outdoors, the better, Dr. Jerome says. If you must be indoors, try to keep extra windows open and have everyone put on a sweater if it’s cold. Together, all of these precautions can help minimize exposure to the virus.

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Unfortunately, Jerome says it’s hard to predict if this will be the last surge of COVID-19 cases.

“I feel like we could have done more to prevent this autumn surge,” he said. “… While some preparations were made, I mean, certainly we’ve spent in our lab all summer getting ready to have the availability of more testing. But as a nation, I’m not sure that we have really yet … learned the lessons that we could from this.”

There are still debates over wearing masks, he pointed out, and people keep holding or attending large gatherings indoors, often without masks.

“These are all mistakes that we seem to keep making over and over,” he said. “And what this means is the virus has never gone away. We’ve always had a little bit, and when we let our guard down like this and we start bringing people into these situations, you get these outbreaks.”

“Our level of infection now is as high as it’s been ever, since this started,” he added. “We just set a new record a couple of days ago, and there’s no evidence it’s slowing down yet. … I hope this is the last big wave, but there’s no way to be confident.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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