Virus travel

In this April 9 file photo, a lone airline crew member pulls his bags behind him as he walks through the baggage-claim area at Denver International Airport in Denver, amid the coronavirus outbreak. Many local and state officials are discouraging travel, especially during the Thanksgiving holiday, as cases are rising seemingly everywhere. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the U.S., and the Western Slope is not exempt: recently, San Miguel, Ouray and Montrose counties have all moved to a more restrictive stage on the state’s safer-at-home dial.

Yet Thanksgiving arrives just two short weeks from today. “To travel, or not to travel?” as New York Times reporter Elaine Glusac recently put it. “That is the holiday question.”

When it comes to holiday gatherings, staffers at UCHealth, the network of hospitals and clinics throughout Colorado, are taking their own advice. They see the effects of the coronavirus every day at work, and they’re not taking any chances.

Communications specialist Lindsey Reznicek will “absolutely, only” be spending Thanksgiving with one other family, a group that has been part of her own family’s “pod” since last spring. “We trust their precautions, their mask-wearing, their social-distancing,” Reznicek said. “We’ve stuck with each other for months.”

“Our in-laws wanted my husband and me to join his brother, his wife and their two kids” for Thanksgiving, UCHealth’s infectious disease expert Lauren Bryan said, which would make for a total of three households coming together. “Three households is too many,” according to Bryan. “They have a lot of risk factors: the teenage boy works at Home Depot and has a good chance of transmitting the virus to me. They have a school-age child, who is at high-risk of giving it to me. And then there are the transmission risks to my in-laws, who are both in their 80s.”

When weighing whether to travel during a pandemic — which could be as far as across the street to a neighbor’s home for turkey dinner — it all comes down risk factors, Bryan explained. “You need to look at how likely someone is to transmit the virus to you, how likely you are to transit the virus to someone else,” and the rate of the virus’ spread in the local community.

“It’s a lot to weigh,” she said.

When this reporter pointed out that the entire state of Colorado looks like a hotspot on maps that track the virus, Bryan replied quickly, “Not true. Especially for us in Colorado” — Bryan resides in Steamboat Springs in Routt County — “there are still some rural communities where rates of transmission are different. Jackson County, which is right next to us, is in orange. There’s a terrific website I share with my colleagues: it has transmission rates broken down county-by-county across the U.S., and can be helpful if you’re deciding where to travel. It’s super-handy to see if a county is colored in green, orange or red.” (The website is globalepidemics.org/key-metrics-for-covid-suppression. Click on “state,” and then “county level.”)

But the bottom line, Bryan emphasized, is that communing with any more than one outside household, unless that family is part of your pod (and therefore part of your household) is risky. Nor do experts expect everyone travelling for the holidays to be scrupulously careful. Thus, “I think infectious disease specialists agree: as bad as it is out there right now, it’s going to get exponentially worse after Thanksgiving,” Bryan said. Coronavirus transmission rates are already soaring: “Last week, the number of new cases in Routt County was in the 40s every day. Now it’s in the 90s. We’re doubling.”

“People are really fatigued by all this, and wondering how much longer we have to go on isolating,” Bryan went on, “but the virus isn’t tired of us. We have to” keep masking up, social distancing and assiduously washing hands “until we get a vaccine, and build up some herd immunity. We were told yesterday by the state that first-line workers should be able to receive a vaccine by mid-December. Next in line will be nursing home residents, older people and those with medical conditions” that are a higher risk of death from contacting the virus. “The vaccines will come from Moderna and Pfizer at first, and there’s a huge line of vaccine manufacturers behind them” (as the Times recently put it, “the medical cavalry is coming”).

“But it will literally be months before this happens,” Bryan added. “Until then, we need to take precautions. ‘I don’t want to kill you,’ should be your motto this season. ‘My gift to my family is that I won’t transmit the virus.’”

On Wednesday afternoon, the Telluride Regional Medical Center released a statement pointing out that regional virus-related hospitalizations “are at all-time highs” and that Colorado’s “third wave” is “putting some hospitals at or beyond capacity.”

“It is paramount that every one of us does our part to flatten this incoming curve. We’re asking for extraordinary personal responsibility and austere changes to behavior,” Diana Koelliker, director of emergency services, said.

Dr. Christine Mahoney, the director of primary care, said simply, “Stop travelling. Stop gathering. Stop going to work or school with symptoms.”

If you must visit someone who is not in your immediate family, maintain a distance of six feet, Bryan concluded. It would be safer to visit outdoors, “But that’s not feasible for many people as the weather gets colder.”

“Don’t hug Mom,” she summed up. “There’s a ton of research that’s been done on masking; even cloth masks are effective, and surgical or medical-grade masks are more effective still. Keeping your mask on at all times except when you’re eating or drinking, and keeping your distance, are ways you can more safely navigate the virus until we get a vaccine."