As Mainers adjust to an autumn with no high school football, agricultural fairs gone virtual and an Election Day that’s stretched out over a month, it’s hard to focus on what else 2020 has in store for us.
But a quick glance at the calendar shows that Thanksgiving is only five weeks away, and as COVID-19 is raging across the country, Maine families will have to start thinking now how they plan to celebrate.
Packing a house with friends and family, especially if some of them have traveled a long way, might be a classic image of what Thanksgiving looks like, but this year it also describes a good way to spread a virus that is both deadly and unpredictable.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the most senior public health official on the president’s Coronavirus Task Force, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” last week that he has canceled his family’s plans, and thinks others should consider theirs. “If you have vulnerable people, the elderly or people that have underlying conditions, you better consider whether you want to do that now or maybe just forestall (gatherings) and wait,” Fauci said.
His comments followed new warnings from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which identified small private gatherings as an increasing threat. People are doing a better job observing safe practices in public, but they let down their guard in private settings, gathering indoors without social distancing or wearing masks. These are the perfect conditions to spread an airborne virus.
These warnings come as Maine has been hearing relatively good news about our coronavirus response. Although the daily number of new cases have been trending upward, the number of known cases is still among the nation’s lowest. And the state has hit a milestone, recording that fewer than one-half of 1 percent of the people tested for coronavirus have been found to be infected by the virus.
Public health experts say that a low positivity rate indicates that a testing regime is giving an accurate picture of how much virus is in a community. States with high positivity rates are probably missing cases and not containing the spread. The World Health Organization recommends recording a positivity rate of less than 5 percent for 14 days before reopening businesses. States that are seeing the most explosive growth of new COVID cases also are recording high positivity rates – 22.9 percent in Wisconsin, 35.5 percent in South Dakota and a head-scratching 100 percent in Mississippi.
But that doesn’t mean that Maine is immune from coronavirus. There is a new wave of virus spread as close as New Hampshire, and people from other states continue to visit Maine. And people leave who leave Maine to visit Florida or Arizona could bring the coronavirus back with them, just as surely as a visitor to China or Italy could have imported an infection back in March.
Maine has reopened most of its economy since the initial shutdown last spring. We are only two weeks away from the lifting of restrictions on bars and indoor dining. More than ever, containing the spread of the virus comes down to individual choices about observing the public health guidelines.
It doesn’t help that prominent voices are still claiming that low risk means no risk, or even spreading the preposterous idea that we would better off if more people were infected with the virus, developing herd immunity naturally. Since we know that about 2.5 percent of the people with known COVID infections in Maine have died, this strategy would be catastrophic. To achieve herd immunity through mass infection, almost 30,000 Mainers would be expected to lose their lives – a very high price for not having to wear a mask in public.
Fortunately, most Mainers don’t buy this crackpot theory. The recent omnibus poll by Pan Atlantic Consulting found that 74 percent of Mainers said they were very or somewhat concerned about themselves or someone close to them getting COVID, and only 7 percent saying they were not concerned at all.
The year 2020 is not done with us yet. Until a vaccine is in wide distribution, everyone is going to be forced to make decisions about how much risk they are willing to assume, guided by the best available science.
And for many, it will mean thinking of new ways to give thanks.