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'I'm really worried': Connecticut medical experts say COVID-19 cases will spike after Thanksgiving

Despite Connecticut officials’ repeated pleas for residents to stay home and avoid large gatherings this Thanksgiving, local medical experts predict the holiday will bring a spike in COVID-19 cases.

“It’s all kind of this set up that you would expect for a rise in cases: colder weather, communal gathering, indoors and the travel piece of it as well,” said Dr. David Banach, an epidemiologist at UConn Health. “All those factors together would lend itself to increasing cases.”


Connecticut has already seem a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths this fall, with the number of patients hospitalized with the disease rising from 42 in late August to 875 on Monday. Officials and public health experts say small gatherings, such as those likely on Thanksgiving, have been one contributor in spreading the coronavirus.


Gov. Ned Lamont has spent recent weeks publicly asking residents to modify their Thanksgiving plans this year, pleading with them both to stay at home and not to host gatherings with anyone outside of their household. The state currently caps private gatherings at 10 people, but the governor has asked to the public to be even more cautious than that.


“My strong recommendation is that if you’re having Thanksgiving, do it with just your immediate family members,” Lamont said last week.


When he announced the tightened gathering restriction in early November, Lamont specified that it applies to holiday gatherings as well. Connecticut’s travel advisory, which mandates a two-week quarantine or a negative coronavirus test for travelers from most of the country, also applies to holiday travelers.


But medical experts don’t expect those pleas and rules to be enough to get Connecticut through Thanksgiving unfazed.


Dr. Tom Balcezak, chief clinical officer for Yale New Haven Health, pointed to Halloween as an example. State data shows that, while COVID-19 cases were already on the rise, the trend picked up in the week or two after the holiday.


“We definitely saw an uptick in cases beginning right after Halloween,” Balcezak said. “And I’m really worried about what’s going to happen after Thanksgiving.”


Keith Grant, Hartford HealthCare’s director of infection prevention, said that every holiday during the pandemic has resulted in some increase in cases — and Thanksgiving and Christmas are the busiest holidays of the year.


“I would absolutely love for the citizens of Connecticut to prove science and epidemiology wrong,” Grant said. “But based on what we’ve seen in the past and based on the epidemiology and our predictive models, ya, we’re definitely expecting to see an uptick.”


Grant said he expects the spike to begin about a week after Thanksgiving and continue for three weeks or longer after the holiday.


And even under ideal circumstances, where residents take the masking and social distancing precautions seriously, experts have said the state of Connecticut is in for a rough winter. Dr. Ajay Kumar, the chief clinical officer at Hartford HealthCare, said last week that hospitalizations this winter are likely to reach a peak of 1,600 to 1,700 under a “best case scenario.”


In comparison, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic in the spring, there were nearly 2,000 coronavirus patients hospitalized at one time.


Kumar said his predictions are not set in stone, in large part because the severity of the ongoing outbreak depends on the behavior of Connecticut residents and visitors. The peak of the second wave of COVID-19 could be more severe than Kumar predicted — or it could be milder.


Balcezak said the same is true of the post-Thanksgiving spike.


“I hope the message gets across,” Balcezak said. “It’s really in the hands of the public, whether or not we see a big uptick in cases.”
 

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