With the semester at a close, students are looking forward to returning home for the holidays. But, with the novel coronavirus still at large – and cases exploding across the country – these jovial gatherings could take a deadly turn.

Over the past week, new COVID-19 cases have spiked to about 150,000 a day in the U.S., more than doubling the previous high of around 60,000 cases per day from the summer. Medical professionals warned that the late fall and winter months would be dangerous for a number of reasons — most notably that the colder weather would force gatherings to be held inside. 

For students who live in the South, family gatherings may prove to be somewhat easier since there is a much milder winter. The Shelby County Health Department has compiled a list of tips in order to prevent a super-spreader event within Memphis households. At the top of their list are the safest ways to host dinners and gatherings. 

“Have a small dinner with only people who live in your household,” the website led with. “Host a virtual dinner and share recipes with friends and family. [To do so,] schedule a time to share a meal together virtually.” 

Virtual meeting softwares, such as Zoom, have dominated the semester for many students, teachers and individuals working from home. However, holidays – such as Thanksgiving – tend to be a time for families to see each other face to face, making some prefer to go a classic route and host dinner together. In order to safely spend time together, the website also lists a few ways to meet without the use of Zoom or Facetime. 

“These options still present some moderate risk, however staying outdoors helps minimize risks,” the Shelby County Health Department said. “Bring your own food, drinks, plates, cups and utensils. Use single-use options, like salad dressing and condiment packets and disposable items like food containers, plates, and utensils.” 

For students who live further north, in-person gatherings are much more risky. Since the winter months are significantly colder, having an outdoor gathering is much less realistic. Melissa Gleason is a clinical resource nurse at the University of Rochester in New York. She works with patients who have heart failure, a unit that cannot afford to host patients with covid-19. 

“We have patients who have heart transplants and their immune system is compromised,” she said. “We can’t expose them to COVID because they could get really really sick. It has gotten really bad to the point that we had to re-open our COVID units and dedicate areas strictly to COVID patients.” 

Similar to the Shelby County Health Department’s recommendations, Gleason believes that the best way to prevent the spread of the virus is to host digital family gatherings. 

“My suggestion for people up north is to try to have people cook and plan to eat at the same time, but to do it separately in their own houses,” Gleason said. “This way everyone can get on Zoom or Facetime while eating so they can still talk and see each other, but not be together. I would suggest the same thing for Christmas. You can drop off gifts, or mail them, then you can be on Facetime while opening them.” 

Home has become synonymous with safety since the coronavirus pandemic has continued to decimate the traditional way of life in America. From the stay-at-home orders to quarantining, medical professionals have continuously asserted that remaining at home is the easiest way to avoid becoming infected. Although this has generally been true, families have gotten together thinking that they were safe only to become infected with the virus. 

“The biggest problem is that people trust their family and think that they won't get it from their family members,” Gleason said. “Even though you trust these people, they are around others, and you don’t know how careful they are. By exposing yourself to them, you are allowing yourself to potentially put yourself – or other family members – at risk.” 

In the midst of a pandemic, the CDC has redefined what a home – or, in their own words, a household – should be seen as. 

“Your household is anyone who currently lives and shares common spaces in your housing unit,” according to the CDC website. “People who do not currently live in your housing unit, such as college students who are returning home from school for the holidays, should be considered part of different households. In-person gatherings that bring together family members or friends from different households, including college students returning home, pose varying levels of risk.” 

With the recent uptick in cases, the CDC has found that a significant contributor are family gatherings. They might feel safe, but as Gleason mentioned, they could end in disaster if the proper precautions are not taken. States have already taken action to combat the rising case numbers. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio have already issued a statewide lockdown and curfew, respectively. To some, it may feel as though the virus is on its way out the door, but in reality it is as prevalent and dangerous as ever, in fact more dangerous than it was even a week ago.

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