Many Northeast Ohioans are forging ahead with Thanksgiving gatherings as COVID-19 cases increase

This Thursday is the second Thanksgiving of the COVID-19 pandemic. While cases are on the rise, many families are gathering together in-person this year and taking precautions, like masking up around vulnerable family members. [Kamil Macniak / Shutterstock]
This Thursday is the second Thanksgiving of the COVID-19 pandemic. While cases are on the rise, many families are gathering together in-person this year and taking precautions, like masking up around vulnerable family members. [Kamil Macniak / Shutterstock]

This Thanksgiving, many families are feeling thankful for some semblance of normalcy.

Lakewood resident Ben King has family members flying in for the holiday. 

His usual Thanksgiving guests have decided to get together in person this year because they are all fully vaccinated and received their booster shots, he said. They’ll also take rapid tests before the gathering.

“I got a bunch of tests from the Cleveland Public Library drive-thru, so we’re all going to take a test or two before, leading up to hanging out as well,” King said.

Thanksgiving is one of the biggest celebrations in his family, King added. Last year, they connected over Zoom, a virtual videoconference platform.

“It was real rough last year not being able to get together because Thanksgiving is really important to us, so this year it’ll be nice to actually hang out with everybody,” he added.

The deadly surge of COVID-19 cases last year around this time forced many to downsize their celebrations or simply not gather at all to reduce the spread of the virus.

Although many Americans are vaccinated this year, COVID-19 cases are increasing again in Ohio and across the country as the holiday approaches.

Many families, however, are zooming away from virtual gatherings and opting instead for in-person get-togethers this year.

About half of Americans plan on attending holiday gatherings of 10 or more people this year, according to a recent national survey.

Locally, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport officials expect the number of air travelers over the Thanksgiving holiday to exceed pre-pandemic levels.

Garrett Westhoven, a software developer in Geauga County, will be keeping things small and simple again this year. He is wary of the recent rise in COVID-19 cases and wants to keep his 2-year-old daughter – who is not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine – protected, he said.

“We know we have some [family members] who are not vaccinated, [and] we have family who is vaccinated but they have jobs where they can’t work from home, so it seems to not jive with how we’re trying to do things here,” Westhoven said.

Traditionally before the COVID-19 pandemic, Westhoven’s family had a big gathering, he said.

“It’s certainly disappointing, but it’s really not worth the risk in our opinion,” he said. “Hopefully by next year … things can hopefully start to return to normal.”

Dr. Joseph Khabbaza, a critical care specialist at Cleveland Clinic, said those who are vaccinated are pretty well protected – even as COVID-19 cases are ticking up in Ohio.

“Thanksgiving gatherings where everyone is vaccinated to COVID-19, you’re going to have very little issue with outbreaks within the household or disease after the holiday,” he said.

He recommends opening a window to increase ventilation, or eating dinner outside - although that might not be feasible with the chilly Northeast Ohio weather, he said. He encourages people to be mindful of vulnerable, older loved ones, and wear a mask around them if possible, he said.

Health officials are expecting to see an increase of COVID-19 cases in the weeks following Thanksgiving, but they are hoping it will be a less deadly surge this year due to more than half of the population being vaccinated, he added.

“I do expect to see a bump this Thanksgiving, just because [cases] are already rising,” Khabbaza said. “Now, will those spikes in cases lead to more hospitalizations? That’s really going to depend on the immunity status going into this Thanksgiving of people in the household.”

Working in Cleveland Clinic’s intensive care unit last year, Khabbaza saw a large number of people die after contracting COVID-19 from a holiday gathering, he said.

In addition to precautions like masking up around immunocompromised or elderly loved ones, staying distant and increasing ventilation, Khabbaza said the best way to ensure protection for this year’s holiday season is to get vaccinated.

 “We’re just really hoping that this year we’re seeing a lot less families lose a loved one as a direct result of a family holiday gathering,” he said. “Using the precautions, and thinking about vulnerable ones in your family, and trying to really get as much immunity as you can before the holidays the easy way would be the best way to make sure that those family members are around for the next set of holidays.”

Anyone over the age of 18 who is six months out from their vaccination is now eligible for a booster shot. Khabbaza recommends getting the booster ahead of the winter holidays.

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