SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Gary Herbert told FOX 13 he anticipates making recommendations this week for Utahns on how best to handle the upcoming holiday season, starting with Thanksgiving.
"We are a family oriented state. My tradition, I always gather with my family, ever since I can remember. To have a change in that is a little disheartening to me," Gov. Herbert said in a brief interview on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. "So we need to find ways to maybe get together in small groups, or see what we can do. Our health department, we’re looking at our scientists to say what can we do, what are the recommendations how can we handle the holiday season, particularly Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s that are coming up."
The state's new state of emergency and public health orders will expire on Nov. 23 — three days before Thanksgiving (although the governor's office has said they could be extended). The governor's COVID-19 Unified Command and medical experts worry that families could gather in the spirit of the season and turn it into a super-spreader event, further stressing Utah's medical systems.
Dr. Todd Vento, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare said his recommendation is to skip the family get-together.
"This is the year when, unfortunately, there’s 20% positive tests, exponential growth, hospitals are overwhelmed," he told FOX 13 on Wednesday. "The advice from experts would be to not gather."
Dr. Vento recommended Utahns gather virtually, using video-conferencing apps. But hospitals are worried their already full ICUs could fill up again, even if cases start to decline under the new public health orders that include a mask mandate and in-person socializing limited to only those in your household.
On Wednesday, Utah reported another 2,335 new cases of COVID-19 and six new fatalities, bringing the death toll to 678. Hospital capacity for the 16 hospitals across Utah equipped to handle COVID-19 patients was now at 82%.
"There’s a reason why we went and got a state of emergency declaration and had the governor talk to us at 9pm on a Sunday evening," Dr. Vento said. "We have a crisis right now. Our hospitals are near capacity, our health care workers are stressed from taking care of patients, physically, mentally, emotionally. Our deaths have gone up."
Recognizing that some will disregard the advice not to gather and still want to get together, Dr. Vento said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued advice for Thanksgiving and the holiday season. He also suggested people who wanted to attend get-togethers start taking precautions now that include physical distancing, wearing face masks anywhere they go and rigorously washing hands to lower the risk. He also suggested some begin isolating.
"It’s not 100 percent, but it’s better," Dr. Vento said. "But if you’re going to have your family and friends come visit you, then say 'For the next 14 days I don’t want you going out to any parties, I don’t want you hanging out without masks, I don’t want you violating social distancing so when you come here you’re much lower risk.' Then when you do get to the gathering, limiting the duration of the gathering."
The CDC has also recommended that if people hold Thanksgiving dinners, they consider doing it outdoors, with people still masked when they are not eating. That may be difficult in Utah, which has already seen snowstorms and winter move in across the state.
Dr. Vento warned that Thanksgiving during COVID-19 could be "a recipe for disaster."
"I think we run the risk of coming off like the Doomsday folks and like, 'It’s really bad,'" he said. "And the reality is, there’s a reason we say that: It is really bad."