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Doctor advises video conferencing over large gathering at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving will look a lot different for Long

Thanksgiving will look a lot different for Long Islanders this month. Dr. Bruce Polsky, chairman of medicine at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island, explained how families can have a safe holiday season amid the pandemic. Credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

Dr. Bruce Hirsch’s Thanksgiving tradition includes gathering with his large family, including his nephew, a gourmet cook. This year, however, a turkey sandwich might be in order.

Hirsch, an infectious disease specialist at New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health, said he will celebrate the holiday on Nov. 26 at home with family via video calls because the risk of spreading COVID-19 is too great. He, along with other medical experts, are recommending his patients do the same.

"I think we ought to write it off," Hirsch said. "It's the year of COVID. If we do gather as large families, and someone gets sick, and God forbid dies, it's a terrible stain on the holidays."

There has been a steady rise of COVID-19 cases locally and nationally since the end of the summer. The United States surpassed 1 million new confirmed cases in the first 10 days of November.

The Long Island region has been reporting more than 500 cases daily this week, and the infection rate has increased to above 3%, according to state figures. The infection rate was consistently below 1% over the summer months, but as the weather has cooled — a surprising early November warming trend not withstanding — cases have risen as predicted.

The rising numbers led Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday to announce that the state would restrict gatherings in private residences to 10 people.

Health experts predict large indoor celebrations such as Thanksgiving will lead to another COVID-19 outbreak, although they also said Long Island wouldn't return to March and April levels, when hospitals were packed with patients and more than 100 people died daily in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

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"Everything we've predicted about the increase that was going to come as we moved through the fall is coming to pass," said Dr. Bruce Polsky, chairman of medicine at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island, the former NYU Winthrop in Mineola. "I'd recommend that you stay in the circle you've been in. Smaller turkey sizes are in order."

Polsky, however, said if families or friends ignore his advice, they should, at the least, quarantine and take a COVID-19 test before getting together.

"That's the best way to be sure," he said, adding that his Thanksgiving will include FaceTime or Zoom meetings with family from throughout the country, including his mother in Michigan.

Polsky isn't alone, according to a survey released in September by Chicago-based market research firm Numerator, which showed nearly 70% of Americans planned to celebrate Thanksgiving differently this year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises family and friends to look at the number and rate of COVID-19 cases in their community and in the community where they plan to celebrate when considering whether to host or attend a holiday celebration. The CDC added that longer get-togethers and larger gatherings are also riskier.

But Dr. David Larsen, associate professor of public health at Syracuse University, said he understands why families and friends might be desperate to get together for the holidays.

"I am not a proponent of complete social isolation and lockdown, because there are mental health and emotional aspects of what we've gone through," Larsen said. "If you're from an area where COVID transmission is low, the gathering is small, the people there are not in high-risk categories, it might be all right. But once you include anyone who is vulnerable, it's a bad idea.

"Unfortunately, this virus is deadly," Larsen added.

Dr. Eric C. Last, a primary care physician in Wantagh, said he is telling patients that if they want to get together with another household, "They need to know what that other household has been doing, because the moment you're spending a long period of time with another pod, you're increasing risk.

"But if you're going to have your Thanksgiving dinner with friends and family anyway, follow all the guidelines for sharing food and serving food," he added.

The CDC said there is no evidence to suggest that handling food or eating is associated directly with COVID-19 spread. However, the CDC said COVID-19 spread could take place by touching a surface or object, including food, food packaging and utensils.

The federal agency recommended that instead of potluck-style gatherings, encourage guests to bring food and drink for themselves and their household only. It also recommended limiting who goes in areas where food is being prepared.

Every household "could also have their own portions and silverware," said Dr. Jason Golbin, chief quality officer at Catholic Health Services, which operates six hospitals on Long Island. "Also keep hand sanitizers everywhere, and in the bathrooms, don't have towels for people to share. Use paper towels, or disposable towels. The less people are touching the same things, the better."

Another way to keep Thanksgiving safe: Celebrate outdoors, according to Arlington, Virginia-based Infectious Diseases Society of America, a group of 12,000 physicians, scientists and public health experts who specialize in infectious diseases.

"If that's possible this time of year, yes, go outside," Golbin said.

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