It’s the most infectious time of the year.

With COVID-19 numbers in the United States soaring and the holidays right around the corner, those in the most vulnerable age bracket are deciding to skip traditional visits with family this year, or at least waiting to see if things improve before pulling the trigger.

“Two of my children live in Virginia,” said Loretta Klinger, 80, of Brookhaven. "One lives in Virginia Beach and the other lives in Richmond.”

Klinger said she and her 81-year-old husband, Joseph, usually drive to her daughter’s house in Richmond, then their son and his family drive from Virginia Beach for Christmas Day. Those plans have not changed as of now, Klinger said, though she noted she and her husband would be tested before making the trek to ensure they are not bringing the virus with them.

“You still have to live,” said Klinger. “That’s the way I feel. Just hanging around here all the time is depressing.”

Joseph sounded less convinced, however.

“We really can’t make the commitment,” he said. “There’s a lot of iffyness. … The whole shebang is up in the air over what we say we’re going to do and what we do. It wouldn’t take me much convincing to say, ‘Ok, we’re going to avoid it this year.’ I’m afraid of the spike. How high is it going to?”

Update on numbers

Delaware County Council on Dec. 4 issued an update on coronavirus numbers that showed an “extremely high” spike in COVID-19 cases across the county and state in the week after Thanksgiving, when millions of Americans ignored pleas from health experts not to gather for the annual feast.

“During the early months of the pandemic, the county’s highest count of COVID-19 cases for a single day was 232,” the release stated. “The 7-day incidence rate as of today is 318 per 100,000 and the 7-day PCR positivity rate is 12.7%. To put that into perspective, 30 days ago, on Nov. 6, the incident rate was 149.3 per 100,000 and the 7-day percent positivity was 6.5%.”

There were 21,290 positive cases in the county as of Dec. 4 and a “dramatic increase” in deaths, bringing the total toll to 873, the release said. Statewide, the Pennsylvania Department of Health confirmed 11,763 additional positive cases of COVID-19 Dec. 4, the highest one-day total since the pandemic began. As of Dec. 7, more than 426,000 Pennsylvanians had contracted the virus and 11,373 had died statewide, the vast majority of them ages 70 to 94.

“As human beings, we want to be around people, but you can be around people in a lot of different ways,” said Olivia Thorne, 77, of Nether Providence, who has a background in nursing with mental health. “The thing that I see being most difficult right now is that people are so depressed and they are depressed largely because their lives have changed without their having any control. And that’s perfectly natural and there’s nothing abnormal about that, but you need to have something else that you can do that’s going to cheer you up. And I think we’ve gotten to the point of thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners as being essential.”

Thorne has one brother in South Carolina who is not able to travel as it is, so she was not expecting to see him anyway without going to visit him. Her daughter in Massachusetts is a schoolteacher, said Thorne, and that state has a plethora of travel guidelines and rules about quarantining that make visits during the pandemic difficult, though not impossible.

“As far as Christmas goes, my daughter desperately wants to come, but the question really comes down to ‘Should she come?’” said Thorne. “She didn’t come down for Thanksgiving, mostly at my insistence because I didn’t want her to come down here for 36 hours and then having to shelter in place when she got back.”

Extended school holiday

Christmas is a little different because of an extended school holiday, said Thorne, so her daughter might be able to spend a few days before returning and going into quarantine ahead of schools reopening.

But Thorne said with Pennsylvania in worse shape than Massachusetts, there is a risk that her daughter could come here on her own, get sick, then take that back with her to her own family. Nothing is set in stone, but Thorne does not think it’s worth the risk.

Instead, Thorne said she believes people will have to simply have to get a little more creative this year about what “seeing” family for the holidays really means.

“I have a granddaughter who seems to be incredibly good at FaceTiming and talking on the phone and making you feel like you’re sitting next to her,” said Thorne. “Right now she’s in St. Petersburg in Florida at college, so she just walks along the beaches and says, ‘Do you want to see a sunset?’ and things like that, and it’s great, but I keep saying maybe we should do that, maybe that would be the smartest thing.”

Thorne said there is one person in her bubble, a son of friend who died, that she thinks will likely come over for Christmas. He is also a teacher, she said, so the same transmission concerns exist for this family as Thorne’s daughter, but she said he would not come by unless he feels it is absolutely safe.

“It’s a funny Christmas for those of us who are retired, because the immediate thought is that you want to do things because you might not get to do it again, but on the other hand, do you really want to risk somebody getting sick, or making somebody else sick?,” she said. “I think the answer is that I’d rather make it to 2022 or late 2021.”

More to gain by waiting

Thorne noted she has no other underlying health issues, so she has a lot more to gain by waiting rather than being impatient, but she said she understood the longing parents of adult children might have to see their children if it’s only once or twice a year.

“We want to get over this virus and not have it affect our lives in so many other ways, so giving up a Christmas dinner or a Christmas visit isn’t the end of the world, but I do think it’s going to be hard for some people,” she said. “I do think it’s hard if you’ve got somebody in the family who is sick and you’re not sure whether they’re going to make it another year.”

“I’m staying home,” said Virginia Graham, also of Brookhaven. “I have two grandchildren and a daughter and her husband, and they’re kind of concerned. They don’t want to expose me to anything, because I’m 75, almost.”

Graham said that in years past, her family would celebrate a pre-Thanksgiving gathering called “Grahams-giving” that attracted about 30 family members. Not this year, though, and Thanksgiving itself was celebrated via Zoom.

“That’s basically what I’m going to do (for Christmas),” she said. “I’m going to do a drive-by to drop the gifts off and that’s about it. It’s terrible. I hate it.”

Graham said it is tough because her family usually sees each other a lot, with a big Thanksgiving dinner and Kwanzaa celebration. But some younger members of the family have been exposed to COVID-19, she said, and there is an additional worry with her multiple sclerosis that she is in yet another vulnerable bracket.

Marita Green, 80, of Swarthmore said her children and grandchildren who live in different states also will not be coming over to her house for a traditional breakfast and gift exchange, nor will those living nearby.

“I will mail out the recipes for what we usually made for breakfast and send presents to the Pollyanna,” said Green. “We’re going to do a ‘Secret Santa’ thing, people drew names for it and they’re supposed to text or send pictures or a Christmas card to kind of make it a little bit more fun. But we won’t be getting together.”

Green said she has 14 grandchildren who get along, so it is normally fun to have them all gathered for the holidays. But fears of virus transmission, quarantine restrictions and other considerations have nipped that in the bud this year.

"Best gift ..."

“The best gift you can get is to live through it and not get COVID,” she said. “That really is the best gift. Suppose you had to go to funerals instead of parties, you know?”

Thanksgiving for Green was likewise sidelined. She and two other households in the area made fancy deserts, took them to one of the houses with a covered porch, took pictures of them, cut them up and took them home, she said.

“We didn’t eat them there or anything, so it was very safe,” she said. “We had fun with it though.”

Green said she has made “a bubble” with a daughter who lives nearby so she is able to go to her house from time to time and plans to spend at least part of Christmas Day there. She hopes that maybe by next summer more family members will be able to accompany her to the shore or some other destination, but that all depends on a vaccine.

“I don’t really think this is going to be over until people start listening to what they’re saying about wearing masks, keeping social distance and all that other stuff,” she said. “I’m trying to adhere to what they’re saying about avoiding gatherings, but I think this is going to be around for quite a bit of time. I don’t even think the vaccine is going to do anything because I wonder how many people are going to get it.”

The United Kingdom has already begun administering doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, with a reported 95% efficacy rate, and expects to have up to 4 million doses available by the end of December, according to CNN.

That vaccine requires strict temperature and handling controls, and must be delivered in two doses three weeks apart. The UK's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is recommending the first recipients be residents of care homes, followed by those over age 80, and health and care workers, CNN said.

“I’ll wait until the spring to get the vaccine,” said Graham. “I’m kind of nervous. I want some other people I know to get it and then see how it is. I’m not really that anxious to get it. I listen to the scientists, I don’t listen to politicians, I listen to the scientists to see what they have to say about it. I probably will get it, but I’m not going to do it right away.”

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