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Is that runny nose a cold or COVID-19? Better to skip Thanksgiving than risk spreading the virus

Tanner Davies receives a COVID-19 vaccination at a NOMI/TestUtah vaccination site in Lindon on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021.
Tanner Davies receives a COVID-19 vaccination at a NOMI/TestUtah vaccination site in Lindon on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Got the sniffles? Just not feeling well? You may want to skip Thanksgiving gatherings this year in case it’s COVID-19.

“I think the first thing families ought to do is set that expectation, that if you have sick family members, (they should) sit this one out. We’ll bring you some turkey at home,” Dr. Brandon Webb, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician, told reporters during a virtual news conference Wednesday.

Making sure people around the dinner table who are vulnerable to the virus stay safe is more important than sharing the holiday meal, Webb said, especially as COVID-19 cases remain high and patients continue to fill Utah hospitals at the same level as the start of the worst of the pandemic a year ago.

What’s new this year is the reemergence of other respiratory diseases like influenza, croup and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, that all but disappeared last winter because of masking and other precautions taken to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Webb said it’s important that Utahns recognize the symptoms of COVID-19 can mimic those of other respiratory diseases, especially among the vaccinated, so a runny nose or sore throat may not be a cold. His advice? “Test early and test frequently” for the deadly virus.

“We can’t afford to follow the pattern that we’ve traditionally followed, where if you get the sniffles or kind of feel off, you let it run its course and see how you do. It’s really important to get tested. See if you have COVID-19,” the doctor said, adding that “if you’re sick, stay home.”

Utah remains one of the nation’s hot spots for the coronavirus with a seven-day average of well over 1,500 new cases daily, along with Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and several upper Midwest and Northeastern states, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Unlike some states that saw huge spikes in COVID-19 cases and then a decline, Utah’s count is still too high but on “a more stable trajectory,” Webb said, at least so far. He said about 80% of the COVID-19 patients being hospitalized in Utah are not vaccinated against the virus.

Among Utahns who got the shots but have died from a breakthrough case of COVID-19, Webb said there was a “very high rate of medical complexity,” with an average of at least four chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, obesity and heart disease, often along with a compromised immune system.

For Utahns who are getting together for the holiday, Webb said masks are still encouraged indoors when social distancing isn’t possible, so it’s best to sit down to dinner someplace where there’s plenty of room between a limited number of guests. As for Black Friday shopping, he suggested avoiding crowds by buying online.

Hospitals are “bursting at the seams,” said Webb, who will be on call during the Thanksgiving holiday. He said he’s grateful for Utahns who chose to be vaccinated. “In Utah, we can continue to lead out in doing the right thing, doing things that protect not only ourselves but others,” Webb said.

The Utah Department of Health also offered advice for Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season.

“The most important thing people can do to keep their holiday gatherings safe is to get vaccinated or get their booster dose if they’re eligible,” state health department spokesman Tom Hudachko said. Just over 55% of all Utahns are fully vaccinated.

The shots are also at the top of the list for celebrating holidays safely on the state’s COVID-19 website, coronavirus.utah.com. Being fully vaccinated means it’s been two weeks or more since a second dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the single dose of Johnson & Johnson.

“Getting vaccinated is especially important to protect older and more vulnerable members of our families, and younger children who can’t get vaccinated yet,” the post states, pointing out that anyone 5 and older can now be vaccinated, and booster shots are available to all adults.

Tips for gathering safely from the state include wearing a mask that covers both nose and mouth for those who aren’t fully vaccinated, and even for those who have gotten the shots if they’re headed to a crowded, indoor public setting that puts everyone at risk for being exposed to the virus.

Extra precautions, such as avoiding crowded indoor spaces and testing before traveling, should be taken if holiday plans include guests from outside a household or who aren’t vaccinated, especially if they’re coming from a different state or even country.

Anyone feeling sick or who has been in close contact with someone already infected is urged to get tested for COVID-19. And a positive test result, or symptoms of COVID-19, mean holiday gatherings are a no-go, the state health department said.