Supper with chairs spaced 6 feet apart in a well-ventilated space?
A smaller gathering with just the people who live in your home — or wearing masks around people who don’t, even if they’re family?
As Thanksgiving Day approaches, public health officials are asking Virginians to consider safer ways to celebrate the holiday amid the pandemic. Cases of the coronavirus are rising across the country, along with Virginia, pointing to a winter surge.
At a press conference Tuesday, Gov. Ralph Northam said hospitalizations and deaths have been increasing over the past month. There were 1,435 new cases and 13 new deaths reported statewide, bringing the totals up to 194,912 probable cases and 3,726 deaths over the past eight months.
The rate of nasal swab tests coming back positive for the illness has also climbed, now up to 6.2%, according to the Virginia Department of Health. In areas where the virus is spreading more aggressively, such as southwest Virginia, that rate is in the 9% range, he said.
“The message today is for every Virginian,” Northam said. “No region is an island. We all need to step up our vigilance and our precautions.”
Virginia reported its highest count of new coronavirus infections in a single day on Saturday, with 2,103 cases. That tops the last high, recorded Aug. 7, when there were 2,015. But public health officials later said that the August tally was in part the result of a data backlog from earlier in the week. This time, the department is not attributing the caseload to data entry issues.
Public health officials are encouraging residents to get tested before they make holiday plans. Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said 19,000 to 20,000 tests are being administered every day.
State officials announced new contracts with three labs to expand testing capabilities. Calling the partnership the OneLab Network, the labs will assist with outbreak investigations, community screening events and testing in high-risk settings, such as nursing homes.
Sentara Healthcare, along with Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia Medical Center, were awarded the deal in a competitive bidding process, state officials said. The network’s goal is to perform 7,000 tests per day by the end of the year. Right now the state lab is using a hodgepodge of private vendors to help with diagnostic services.
Virginia is also beefing up distribution of antigen tests, a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved method for rapidly diagnosing the infection by identifying protein fragments. These tests have the ability to turn around a diagnosis in minutes as opposed to days.
The state bought 200,000 antigen tests through a multistate compact with The Rockefeller Foundation that will be used primarily in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Another 52,000 of the rapid tests from the federal government are also being deployed, Northam said.
The briefing came one day after major pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced it has developed a vaccine that is more than 90% effective in initial clinical trials. Northam said the news is promising but cautioned Virginians against believing that it could be a magic bullet in the battle with COVID-19. If the vaccine received federal authorization, it would still take months to inoculate the population, he said.
Northam said now is not the time to be complacent about washing hands, wearing masks and keeping a distance of 6 feet from others — key measures to prevent the virus' spread.
“I’m not saying don’t celebrate Thanksgiving,” he said. “Think about ways to do it safely.”