An increase in COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations in Yakima County and statewide has unfortunate timing as people prepare for Thanksgiving.

Case counts have been increasing, with state officials reporting string of records during the last week, reaching 2,589 Tuesday. Yakima County also has seen numbers increase, with 132 new cases reported Friday, the highest since July.

As of Wednesday, Yakima County has reported 13,917 cases of COVID-19, with 255 deaths.

“We are very concerned that disease transmission will only grow over the next few weeks with the holidays coming up,” said Secretary of Health John Wiesman. “We need everyone in Washington state to take action now to stop the spread.”

Dr. Teresa Everson, Yakima County’s health officer, said the safest way to celebrate this Thanksgiving and support community safety is by spending the holidays with immediate household members only and by connecting with others virtually.

New state guidelines limit outdoor gatherings to five people, and prohibit indoor gatherings unless people strictly quarantine, starting now. People who gather outside should still wear masks, maintain 6 feet of distance, wash their hands frequently and limit indoor activities, she said.

“With Thanksgiving coming up and other winter holidays following shortly after, all of which are typically celebrated with family indoors, there is a concern that we will see a further increase in disease activity in our community,” she said. “Every single unnecessary interaction that we have can put yourself, your family members, and the community in danger.”

While Yakima residents are aware of the recommendations and warnings, many said in-person time with their families during the holidays was worth the risk.

“We intend to have our holidays the same as we always did,” said Wapato resident Steve Hester. “The government should not interfere with family.”

Moxee resident Randy Sperle also plans to spend the holidays with family traveling from out of state.

“We aren’t going to change anything about Thanksgiving during the COVID pandemic,” he said. “None of us will be wearing a mask or social distancing. We are just giving thanks to the Lord and will be enjoying each others’ company in a normal setting.”

But for other Yakima residents, side-stepping local and state health-related recommendations isn’t an option.

Shane Moore, pastor at the Wesley United Methodist Church, said his family has decided to cancel in-person celebrations with extended family.

“We are looking into finding ways to connect virtually,” he said.

Yakima resident Susan Buchanan said she and her sisters, who live in Tacoma, Seattle and Maine, won’t be getting together this Thanksgiving. But they’ve found a workaround, inspired by Halloween.

“Since we haven’t seen each other in almost a year, my sister sent us packages with tea, snacks and table decorations,” she said. “We had a Facetime Zoom Halloween tea party. It was great. I think we will do the same for Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

Safe celebrations

Seniors in the county’s multiple long-term care facilities will remain quarantined from their family members during the holiday season, during an ongoing isolation that continues to challenge staff to find new, creative ways of maintaining morale.

Andy Lennon, the activities director for Good Samaritan, said staff are working to observe as many “special” days as possible for residents. So in addition to upcoming special Thanksgiving meals this year, residents received treats on National Chocolate Covered Pretzel Day, National Chocolate and Vanilla Cupcake days, and National Nacho Day.

They’ve also become pros at a new thing called “hallway bingo,” where they sit in their doorways while staff call out bingo numbers down the hallway.

“It’s not perfect or normal, but the residents love it, and that’s what truly matters,” Lennon said.

The most recent surprise for residents came from an outpouring of community support, when people sent in cards related to Thanksgiving.

“These kinds of gestures make a big difference in how the residents feel and makes them feel grateful,” Lennon said.

Staff at Highgate Senior Living in Yakima have two Thanksgiving-themed opportunities to connect seniors with their loved ones. A virtual dining experience will allow residents to virtually connect for dinner with their families, and a “Drive-by for a Hi” option allows family members to drive through the parking lot while staff take pictures to capture the moment.

Highgate has handmade gratitude baskets to hand out to each family. Residents also will connect with third-graders at Christ the Teacher School via Zoom to make gratitude journals.

Prestige Care will be hosting virtual Thanksgiving events for the residents. Residents will get to choose their favorite type of pie from a menu, and then staff will coordinate a video call with residents’ loved ones so they can enjoy the treat together — virtually. Residents also can write down what they are grateful for, and those notes will become part of a display.

Eva Lounsbury, the director of resident services for Living Care Retirement community, said residents will dine on traditional Thanksgiving meals and other holiday treats.

Lounsbury echoed health district recommendations encouraging people to celebrate the holidays safely.

“One of the best ways the community can support us right now is by being safe themselves,” she said. “Don’t unnecessarily put others at risk. Also, have patience with and show kindness to health care workers who are exhausted and working hard to protect your loved ones.”

Quarantining now

The state has recommended that those who plan to gather with family members outside of their immediate households should start quarantining — now.

Everson said that anyone who experiences symptoms of COVID-19 should be tested immediately.

“If you get symptoms from now until the day you get together, get tested immediately and stay quarantined until you get your results,” she said. “If the day of the holiday comes and you are not feeling well, please just stay home.”

Lilian Bravo, also with the Yakima Health District, said health officials are not recommending testing for people who have no symptoms of COVID-19 unless they believe they were exposed or were identified as a close contact.

“Given current disease activity, we want to ensure there is enough testing capacity for those that are close contacts or are symptomatic to get tested,” she said. “People should instead quarantine beforehand, and if they were not able to complete the two week quarantine, seriously consider not gathering at all.”

Despite the increasing case counts and hospitalizations, and the hundreds of deaths in the community related to COVID-19, Everson said there’s still reason to be grateful.

“This season, I think we can be more thankful for the health care workers, and the public health workers, working tirelessly to keep our residents and our communities safe, and all of our educators and families working to make sure our students are continuing to learn,” she said. “Let’s do what we can to support these heroes by limiting further spread this holiday season.”

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