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Scientists warn even small Thanksgiving gatherings could spread COVID-19

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Due to the extremely high virus activity level in Wisconsin, experts say there's no completely safe way to celebrate Thanksgiving with people who live outside your home.

"Whenever you have so many people that are carrying the virus, then even small gatherings are a risk," Dr. Oguz Alagoz, who models infectious diseases at UW-Madison, said.

That risk exists even at gatherings of close family if they aren't part of the same household.

"We have so many people that are already carrying this virus, so it's very likely that one of your loved ones, knowingly or unknowingly, could transmit," he said.

Alagoz said the risk is particularly high because of "silent carriers" -- people who are infected but never develop symptoms, so they might not get tested and know they're positive.

Alagoz said Thanksgiving poses a unique challenge for controlling the virus because people tend to be more comfortable around their family members and might not follow virus precautions as much.

"When it's a family member or a relative that you haven't seen for a long time, I think this is when you let your guard down," he said. "That's a perfect opportunity for transmission."

He said this could have dire consequences because many older people tend to be more vulnerable to serious cases of the virus.

"If you transmit the virus to a vulnerable loved one, think about it," he said. "It's a terrible feeling that, without knowing, you may harm someone that you love."

Possible effect on the health care system

Virus transmission that happens over the holiday could also negatively affect the hospitals.

"We're scared to death about this holiday because we know that if we have normal Thanksgiving, and you know, even if 70% of people follow our advice, but 30% of people don't, that could be the tipping point for us," Dr. Jeff Pothof, UW Health's Chief Quality Officer, said. "We don't have much more room right now. Like, we're barely hanging on."

Alagoz said the possibility of another spike in cases is possible because of how quickly and easily the virus spreads. He said, on average, each person with COVID-19 infects three others, and they each infect three more people. As the pattern repeats, the number of total cases grows exponentially.

"If things go this way, it's very likely we will see a peak in the next six or eight weeks," Alagoz said. "I am really very worried, very concerned and very pessimistic. On [Friday], hospitals had 166 inpatient. Peak means we will have 1000 patients just in Dane County."

However, Alagoz said there is a light at the end of the tunnel because of recent progress in vaccine development.

"We're close to the end," he said. "So another two months is super critical or all those six, seven months of effort is just in vain."

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Caroline Dade

Reporter/Multimedia Journalist, 27 News

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