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Health officials’ warnings are put to the test on Thanksgiving

Members of the Hobbs-Brown sit at a table set up on the sand at Bolsa Chica State Beach.
On Thanksgiving eve 2020, members of the Hobbs-Brown family dine on the sand at sunset at Bolsa Chica State Beach in Orange County.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Weeks of warnings and pleas will be put to the test on Thursday as Thanksgiving arrives amid the worst pandemic in America in more than a century.

Federal, state and local authorities have urged people to stay home for Thanksgiving and cancel travel plans. Although airports were far less busy than normal for the holidays, it was clear some people were traveling. But the bigger question comes with the Thanksgiving meal. Officials fear large traditional gatherings indoors may become superspreader events, increasing cases as California is already seeing unprecedented levels of coronavirus spread.

Cases of infection have spiked dramatically in the last month across the state and particularly in L.A. County, spurring new restrictions on movements. Officials have warned that if infections spread further due to Thanksgiving gatherings, more restrictions will likely follow.

As coronavirus cases surge, L.A. officials consider new rules that would allow many businesses to remain open but with limited customer capacity.

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L.A. County was reporting a seven-day average of nearly 4,300 new coronavirus cases a day as of Wednesday, the third consecutive day that number has hit a new high. Unless something dramatic is done to slow transmission, that number is on track to double within two weeks and quadruple in a month, said Dr. Christina Ghaly, L.A. County’s director of health services.

Officials said hospitals could see a shortage of beds — especially in intensive care units — over the next two to four weeks if these trends continued. Hospitals are better equipped now than they were in the spring to handle a surge in cases, treatment for COVID-19 has significantly improved, and hospitals can cancel elective surgeries to make more room for critical COVID patients.

But “that ability for hospitals to be able to surge and open up additional beds is not endless,” Ghaly said.

Over the last week, officials have been urging people to have small gatherings and to avoid travel, even across town.

“The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with the people you live with,” Barbara Ferrer, director of public health for Los Angeles County, said earlier this week.

On Monday, Ferrer verbally recommended that L.A. County residents not hold gatherings with people from more than one household, even if it is outside.

But for those who are holding gatherings from more than one household, here’s some general Thanksgiving guidance, from state and county rules, on how to make it safer:

  • Gatherings should be held outside and involve no more than three households. L.A. County has a separate rule restricting such gatherings to no more than 15 people.
  • The space must be large enough so that everyone can maintain at least a six-foot distance from others who don’t live in their household.
  • Shared items should be minimized, and food and beverages should be served by someone wearing a face covering who washes their hands often.
  • Face coverings must be worn, and removed only when people are actively eating or drinking.
  • Gatherings should be kept to two hours or less. “The longer the duration, the risk of transmission increases,” the state says.

Self-quarantine

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an advisory asking those arriving in California from another state or country to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Ferrer advised that those who decide to travel — such as college students returning home for the next month or two — quarantine in a room alone for 14 days, avoid sharing a bathroom or clean it every time if they do share one, not eat with others in the household, and have people in the home wear masks at all times indoors.

Out-of-state travelers arriving at LAX, Van Nuys airport and Union Station must sign a form acknowledging the county’s COVID quarantine.

If the students haven’t been able to quarantine for 14 days at their destination, Ferrer suggested they not take part in Thanksgiving festivities to reduce the chance of infecting others.

For people returning home to California after a trip, a 14-day quarantine is advised, and that means staying at home as much as possible, and not leaving to go to the grocery store or to restaurants. Instead, people in quarantine should order food to be delivered, Ferrer said.

During quarantine, you can go out for a walk by yourself, said Ferrer, as long as you don’t come into contact with other people. “We don’t want you going to restaurants and sitting and eating outside. And we don’t want you going into retail establishments, either, when we’ve asked you to quarantine.”

“The tighter you can restrict your activities over those 14 days, the better off we all are,” Ferrer said.

COVID-19 testing

A negative result simply means the test hasn’t detected the virus in your body. It’s possible that the virus is actually there and the test just didn’t find it, health officials say. This can happen during the early stages of infection, when virus levels are too low to be detected.

That’s why a negative test does not give you a pass to end the 14-day quarantine early, Ferrer said.

Tests are particularly helpful, obviously, if you start to feel sick. “The quicker people are able to know that they’re a case, the quicker we can do contact tracing for people who may have had an exposure to you,” Ferrer said. Tracing helps warn people you’ve had close contact with that they might be infected and allows them to take steps not to infect others.


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