Family means togetherness, especially during holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. But as college students head home to be with their families, the pandemic is forcing them to navigate different options to celebrate.
The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) said contact tracers find the number one cause of infection is small gatherings of family and friends. That’s even ahead of congregating at bars and restaurants.
Jen Ehresman, an Illinois State University graduate student from Gridley, describes her family as super close. Normally, they celebrate the holidays by gathering to make such favorite Thanksgiving dishes as turkey and corn casserole. On Christmas day, they go to church, make brown sugar glazed ham balls, and bake cookies for their community. But Ehresman is in a family that falls into a high-risk category for COVID-19 complications, including herself.
She has a medical condition that affects blood circulation. She can get seizures, rapid heartbeats, and sometimes she faints. Because of her condition and the symptoms of COVID, Ehresman said it mean the family likely won’t have a traditional holiday.
“That's scary, thinking about how that could mess with me," she said. "I know somebody who had a seizure after corona. That's something that scares me, especially having a history of seizures. We got to be really careful with that.”
Instead, Ehresman may go to Colorado to be with friends and test regularly to stay safe.
But health officials even discourage traveling this holiday season.
ISU junior Aliyah Muhammad said her family tradition also is to make dinner and eat together. She said this year, her immediate family will celebrate the holidays and substitute a movie outing for Netflix at home. She said the rising case numbers and new mitigations are disappointing because families cannot enjoy the holidays as they’ve done in the past.
“I feel like we're back in the same place that we were at the beginning of all of this," she said. "We’re supposed to be staying inside and getting better so that one day we can all go outside. It’s like no one wants to listen, and that we’re back at square one.”
Before the recent spike in COVID cases, the IDPH released safety tips for families to increase the odds that they can safely enjoy the holidays. Those include limiting the number of guests, having activities outside as weather permits, and opening windows to increase air flow.
Now that hospitalizations and positivity rates have soared to record levels, state officials recommend avoiding traveling home if possible.
Dr. Katie Eichenger, medical director of ISU's Student Health Services, said college students who do go home should limit activities and get tested before leaving. She said families can communicate online on Zoom. If they do gather, Eichenger said they should keep the number of people to 10, spread out tables for social distancing, wear masks, and have guests come up one by one to get food to avoid crowding.
“It has been easily spread at these gatherings," she said. "So there is a risk there that if a family decides to go forward with their usual celebration and getting a number of families together, yes, there is that risk that the virus may spread.”
Eichinger said if anyone starts feeling symptoms while around family, tell the rest of the family as soon as possible so everyone can isolate themselves and get tested.
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