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Safe to gather? Tampa Bay doctors share their pandemic holiday plans

Most have called off Thanksgiving and Christmas. Others say they’re making special arrangements to celebrate safely.

To gather or not to gather? That is the question this holiday season as the coronavirus pandemic rages across Florida, including in the Tampa Bay region.

Health experts and physicians in the area, coming from multiple hospitals and various disciplines at the University of South Florida, say they are either canceling or significantly tweaking holiday plans to protect their loved ones from COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended against travel for Thanksgiving, saying it could lead to an even steeper spike in cases.

Dr. Andrew Myers, head of inpatient COVID-19 care at Tampa General Hospital

Dr. Andrew Myers, director of COVID-19 care at Tampa General Hospital and an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine.
Dr. Andrew Myers, director of COVID-19 care at Tampa General Hospital and an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine. [ Tampa General Hospital ]

Every Thanksgiving, the Myers family gathers in Pensacola. But not this year.

Myers, a 36-year-old doctor and associate professor of internal medicine at USF, can’t take the risk of bringing the coronavirus to his parents.

They’re both in their 60s and diabetic, and Myers’ mother has some lung and slight neurological issues. All of that puts the couple at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

“It makes me nervous to go home,” Myers said. “Doing the work that I do, taking care of COVID patients every day, it wouldn’t be the right thing to do to potentially expose them.”

Thanksgiving is the only time all year that he sees extended family and his 32-year-old brother, also a physician who practices in Louisville, Ky. When they were young, all the cousins would stay up late and play Nintendo. Now adults, the holiday serves as a time to “get together and reflect on the year,” Myers said.

His parents were disappointed when he told them they should cancel, and they’re expecting the same feeling at Christmas. The holidays usually bring their sons home, a great comfort as they grow older.

“They’re upset about it,” Myers said. “But really, they understand.”

Dr. Kevin Sneed, senior associate vice president of USF Health, dean of College of Pharmacy

Dr. Kevin Sneed, senior associate vice president of USF Health and dean of the 
College of Pharmacy
Dr. Kevin Sneed, senior associate vice president of USF Health and dean of the College of Pharmacy [ USF Health ]

Dr. Sneed will spend the holidays with only those who live in his house. He’s not leaving room for the coronavirus to spread through his family.

“As I have said to many, if we want to have a wonderful holiday season together in 2021, let us responsibly stay separated in 2020,” he said.

Normally, Dr. Sneed’s large family gathers for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Everyone contributes their favorite dishes. They watch sports on television. They catch up on how much the children have grown and share appreciation for the elders that have led the family.

Luckily, everyone is on the same page about how dangerous COVID-19 is, Sneed said. And they’ll meet together next year when it’s safer.

Dr. Laura Arline, primary care physician and chief quality officer for BayCare

Dr. Laura Aline, primary care physician and chief quality officer for BayCare Health System
Dr. Laura Aline, primary care physician and chief quality officer for BayCare Health System [ BayCare Health System ]

Dr. Arline’s family is still meeting together for the holidays, but they’re tweaking their regular plans to make gathering less risky. And if anyone has known exposure to the coronavirus, everything is off.

For Thanksgiving, her sister-in-law’s family, also from Tampa, will come to her house. The two families, both with middle-school children who are learning from home, have shared a social bubble through the pandemic.

Other than Dr. Arline, all the adults work mostly from home. Everyone follows health guidelines, like wearing masks and regular hand-washing, Dr. Arline said. “We don’t have many opportunities for exposures to other people.”

At Christmas, the Arline family will drive to Virginia to stay at Dr. Arline’s parents’ house. Her sister’s family, including two children, will travel by car from New York to meet them there.

They’ve agreed on the same safety habits and will be sure to stay in their social bubbles, plus be cognizant of any potential exposures to the virus, in the weeks leading up to the holiday. Anyone who feels sick or has been around someone who is sick will not go, Dr. Arline said.

While together, the families will social distance indoors and try to spend time outside, especially while eating, as weather permits. During meals, one person will wear a mask and make plates to bring to everyone else, Dr. Arline said.

She doesn’t plan to get tested before the trip. “I’m just going to stick to all of the things I know that work. I wear a mask, I socially distance, I hand wash.”

Usha Menon, interim dean and vice dean of research, USF College of Nursing

Usha Menon, interim dean and vice dean of research, USF College of Nursing
Usha Menon, interim dean and vice dean of research, USF College of Nursing [ USF Health ]

Usually, there are as many as 10 people at Menon’s Thanksgiving lunch. This year, there will be three.

She also typically holds a dinner for post-doctoral and nursing students who don’t travel out of town for the holiday, but the pandemic makes that impossible, he said.

Menon’s Christmas tradition on traveling to Chicago to visit elderly parents is canceled, too. Instead, she’ll set up a video call where they can open gifts over coffee together.

All Menon’s family and friends agree on the seriousness of the virus and the need to follow risk mitigation measures to keep it from spreading, she said. Her hard conversations about the pandemic have happened mostly with neighbors and strangers.

“It usually starts off with someone not wearing a mask or making fun of my mask,” she said. “From there, I try to keep it very focused on the science of risk mitigation and how the virus spreads. I have little luck in changing anyone’s mind, though. Most of the responses I get are something like, ‘I don’t believe it’ ... ‘they say it’s all made up’ … ‘it’s just like the flu and we don’t mask up for the flu.’”

Dr. Larry Feinman, chief medical officer of HCA Healthcare West Florida Division

Larry Feinman, chief medical officer of HCA Healthcare's West Florida division.
Larry Feinman, chief medical officer of HCA Healthcare's West Florida division. [ Courtesy of HCA Healthcare ]

Before last week, Dr. Feinman intended to fly to Pittsburgh to spend Thanksgiving with his son’s family. His daughter-in-law just gave birth to a baby boy.

Dr. Feinman, 64, was there for the delivery a couple of weeks ago, as was his wife, who is still in Pittsburgh. He came home to work ahead of the holiday, planning to return. But now he’s canceled his flight.

“When you couple the biggest travel day of the year ... with worrisome spikes in COVID cases across the country, I think the risk of me inadvertently carrying something to the family up north, plus the risk of me coming into contact with someone who is asymptomatic but still positive, is just too high,” he said.

Dr. Feinman pointed out that it’s not just his family he would be putting at risk, but the hundreds or thousands of others he would come into contact with during travel.

So the family in Pittsburgh, along with Dr. Feinman’s son in Orlando and daughter in Cleveland, will gather together over Zoom on Thanksgiving, he said. It’s disappointing to not be together, but everyone in the family understands, having watched Dr. Feinman’s work through the pandemic.

His family is Jewish and doesn’t celebrate Christmas, though they do still use the holiday to get together at his house. That won’t happen either. The hardest part will be not seeing his 87-year-old mother, who lives in Sun City.

“Despite all of the evidence — in newspapers, on TV — we continue to have people that will deny science, not wear masks, not follow guidelines that were set out by scientists,” Dr. Feinman said. “And that’s why we are where we are now. And if we don’t wake up and all participate in this, it’s going to be a long winter and a long time before things get better.”

Dr. Paul Nanda, chief medical officer of Tampa General’s Fast Track Urgent Care

Dr. Paul Nanda, chief medical officer of Tampa General Hospital's Fast Track Urgent Care
Dr. Paul Nanda, chief medical officer of Tampa General Hospital's Fast Track Urgent Care [ DANIEL WALLACE | Tampa General ]

This holiday season is going to be a bit different for Dr. Nanda and his family. He’s usually in Ohio for Thanksgiving, then with his elderly parents for Christmas.

As coronavirus cases tick up across the country, he has changed course. He’ll be celebrating both holidays with only his wife and children.

“The most responsible thing to do is not see anyone outside of your own home,” Dr. Nanda said. “That’s challenging. … But right now, the way the numbers are trending, the risks outweigh the benefits.”

Most of his extended family was on the same page about staying apart for the holidays, he said. But a couple of outliers forced some challenging conversations. Some family members wanted to visit from out of town, but Dr. Nanda canceled on them when they declined to quarantine before the trip, he said.

His biggest defense in changing plans has been sharing his own experience working as a doctor. It helps that his sister-in-law is a nurse, caring for coronavirus patients in Cincinnati. She sees people die every day, he said.

“I can talk to family about what I’m actually seeing,” Dr. Nanda added. “I think that carries more weight than what they see on the news and may believe or not believe.”

• • •

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