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Epidemiologist Warns Against Risky Holiday Gatherings As Coronavirus Cases Surge in Ohio

If daily cases continue to increase at the current pace, they could triple by Thanksgiving.
If daily cases continue to increase at the current pace, they could triple by Thanksgiving.

Ohioans are waiting to hear what Gov. Mike DeWine says this evening in a statewide address about the surge in coronavirus cases in Ohio.

It’s not known what new restrictions, if any, he will put in place to slow the spread of the virus.

Kent State University epidemiologist Tara Smith says he has few tools left that have not already been tried. "I mean the the idea was when we reopened in May we would hopefully have enough tests in place to do large population-based testing, and we would have contact tracing available," Smith said.

But she says while that is occurring now, "our cases have been really too high and our testing a little bit too slow to get ahead of that."

She says ideally, those suspected of having the coronavirus would be tested early, isolated and their contacts identified and put into quarantine to reduce the chances of the virus spreading. "That's what they've done in many other countries that have really helped to control this," Smith said. "We've just been behind the curve."

DeWine has indicated he's considering all options if things get "dire."

"In my opinion, things are already dire here in the state," Smith said. "I'm really concerned about what's going to happen in some of our hospitals over the next 3 to 4 weeks, as some of these cases start to get really seriously ill. If hospitals are full, if emergency rooms are full, you're going to have people dying from other illnesses and other injuries that can't be taken into those facilities."

Smith says public health officials applauded DeWine's action early in the pandemic, which she says kept things from getting dire. But with Thanksgiving and Christmas approaching, she's not optimistic about where this is going.

"I only see this getting worse. Unfortunately, I don't think people are changing their behavior yet as we've seen these cases increase, and I don't know what it's going to take to get a large swath of the population to really buckle down on some of this when they haven't already."

Smith says pandemic fatigue is an issue and she's concerned that warnings from the governor are falling on deaf ears. Even people who have been diligent, she says, are beginning to let their guard down.

"And of course, everyone wants to see their family over Thanksgiving. Many people have already sacrificed Holidays at Easter and over this summer in anticipation of maybe being able to do some of these big winter Holidays. But if we're going into Thanksgiving with higher level of cases, higher number of people who are exposed every single day and then bringing all of those people together inside their families in their houses without masks, I mean that's the worst case scenario that we can really imagine, is this extended contact time indoors, unmasked."

Smith says she and her family have decided not to gather with extended family over the Holidays. She advises others to consider doing the same.

"For those who just absolutely will not be deterred, I would suggest that if they can, they all get tested beforehand and do try to basically quarantine themselves for at least two weeks before these gatherings so that you can be sure that you've not been exposed and that you are negative before you bring all those people together. Because no one wants someone to become ill because of their Thanksgiving dinner."

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Tara Smith is an epidemiologist and a professor of public health at Kent State University.
Jeff St. Clair / WKSU
Tara Smith is an epidemiologist and a professor of public health at Kent State University.