Getting a negative coronavirus test doesn't mean it's OK to gather for Thanksgiving, Illinois' top doctor warned Thursday, one week before the holiday.
"Just remember a negative test does not get you a free pass to celebrate Thanksgiving in person," Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said. "The safest way to celebrate with your loved ones and your cherished elderly relatives is to do it virtually."
Ezike noted that exposure could lead to a positive test any time within 14 days of that exposure.
"That only works if you haven't exposed yourself to anyone in the 14 days from when you got tested to when you meet up with your friends and family," she said. "When you are around other people you could be exposed to the virus at any time."
Her comments mark the latest warning from Illinois officials surrounding the holiday, and come just hours after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving.
Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC's COVID-19 incident manager, said the CDC is "alarmed," adding that the country has seen an "exponential increase" in cases, hospitalizations and deaths recently.
"One of our concerns is that as people over the holiday season get together, they may actually be bringing infections with them to that small gathering and not even know it," he said.
Roughly 30% to 40% of Covid-19's spread is driven by people without symptoms, he said.
"From an individual household level, what's at stake is basically increased chance of one of your loved ones becoming sick and then hospitalized and dying," Walke said. "We certainly don't want to see that happen. These times are tough. It's been a long outbreak."
Illinois hospitals are preparing for the potential that Thanksgiving and Christmas could lead to increases in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations as metrics continue to surge leading up to the holidays.
Several Illinois hospitals are now reporting more coronavirus patients than during the spring peak as medical professionals warn of trying months ahead, information provided by multiple hospitals reveals.
"Thanksgiving dinners have the potential to be super spreader events," Dr. Robert Citronberg, executive medical director of infectious disease and prevention for the Advocate Aurora Health hospital system, said Monday. "It's so critically important that we do not do that. The numbers are devastating right now. Our health care system cannot absorb doubling or tripling of those numbers. It might happen if we have many super spreader events arising out of Thanksgiving."
Chicago and suburban Cook County are under stay-at-home advisories, effective Monday and continuing for 30 days, urging residents to avoid gatherings with people who don't live in their home. The Illinois Department of Public Health issued similar stay-at-home recommendations statewide as the entire state braces for heightened Tier 3 mitigations to begin Friday, closing several businesses and imposing new limitations on others.
"If we wait to take action until our hospitals are full, it will be too late, and countless patients – COVID patients as well as those with all the other ailments and injuries that bring people to the hospital – will die unnecessary deaths because there aren’t enough beds or people to staff them," Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker warned Monday. "So we are keeping in close touch with hospitals on an individual, system-level and region-level basis to monitor who is at risk of running out of staff or ICU beds in the next three weeks. But I want to be clear. We can’t create new staff for a hospital that’s filled to the brim. We can’t staff more ICU beds if a hospital’s personnel get sick outside of work because people in their communities refuse to wear a mask or follow any of the mitigation rules."
"We can expect much worse to come if mitigation measures aren’t followed leading into Thanksgiving," he added.
Ezike echoed those claims Thursday, saying she fears "cases, hospitalizations and deaths will spike even further in the weeks after Thanksgiving because people spent that holiday together mixing households."
"I don't want anyone to have to look back and say, 'If only we didn't have people over for Thanksgiving such and such or so and so might still be here for New Years or Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa," she said. "Twenty-twenty is definitely a year like no other and as such this Thanksgiving holiday has to be celebrated like none other, but it's not forever. I'd like to remind everyone that this is a time-limited sacrifice."
Even still, stopping a holiday surge may not be enough, doctors warned.
"Even if we don't have a surge after Thanksgiving, it's still going to be very taxing on our healthcare system, the sheer numbers of people who are infected," Citronberg said. "If Thanksgiving turns out to be super spreader events, if Christmas turns out to be super spreader events, we're going to see numbers that we couldn't even possibly imagine. So pretty confident, unfortunately, that the next couple of months are going to be bad no matter what, it's just a question of how bad."
Doctors have expressed optimism over news of a potential vaccine, with both Moderna and Pfizer reporting promising trial findings, but many noted that the concern remains for the weeks and months ahead.
"The next two to three months are going to be very difficult no matter what, but there clearly is light at the end of the tunnel and that light is the vaccine news," Citronberg said. "It is very likely that by this time next year, we will be looking at COVID-19, at least the pandemic, in the rearview mirror and that is just fantastic news. But the next two to three months are going to be very difficult - lots of hospitalizations, lots of deaths, unfortunately. Just have to meet one more big push to get through it."