Have yourself a merry little Christmas, emphasis on little.
That was the message Tuesday from Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker as he urged people to take COVID-19 safety precautions more seriously during the December holiday season than they seem to have for Thanksgiving, and to look for new guidance coming from the Department of Public Health on how to safely celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year's in the midst of a global pandemic.
"It's pretty simple," Baker said of the new DPH guidance. "The safest way to celebrate this year is with members of your own household and to postpone or cancel any travel plans and to avoid gatherings with people you don't live with. Any type of celebration beyond that has real potential, as we saw with Thanksgiving, to spread the virus and hurt the ones we love the most."
The governor made a similar plea to the public ahead of Thanksgiving, but based on his comments Tuesday and the data he presented, it appears that not enough people heeded the governor's warnings last month. He said he hopes more people will alter their traditional holiday plans because "we just saw this movie" and are now seeing the dramatic impacts it had.
"Public health officials and our administration have warned folks for weeks to avoid large holiday gatherings heading into Thanksgiving because when folks are at home with family or friends, they do tend to let their guard down. That's where the virus thrives and over Thanksgiving in Massachusetts, it clearly did," Baker said. "More people are sick, our hospital system is feeling the strain, more people need hospital-level care, and health care workers are being pushed, once again, to their limits to take care of those with COVID and others."
On Dec. 1, five days after Thanksgiving, the state was averaging about 2,400 new COVID-19 cases each day. A week later, squarely within the 10- to 14-day incubation period for COVID-19 transmission on Thanksgiving, the average number of daily new cases had nearly doubled to almost 4,800, Baker said.
"That's a 96 percent increase in a little over a week. Similarly, prior to Thanksgiving, our positive test rate was pretty stable and had consistently been somewhere in the two-three percent range, under four percent. The current test rate, as most people know, is around 5.7 percent," Baker said.
In the last three weeks, hospitalizations for COVID-19 are up 93 percent, the number of patients being treated in an intensive care unit for COVID-19 is up 73 percent and the number of patients who need a ventilator to breathe has gone up by 104 percent, Baker said. Deaths have increased by 84 percent since Thanksgiving and the virus has claimed the lives of 689 people in Massachusetts since Thanksgiving.
The governor said Massachusetts and its health care system cannot afford to have the December holidays be "the kind of consequential event that Thanksgiving has been here in Massachusetts."
"If our hospitals can't keep up, we have few options left other than more restrictions," Baker said Tuesday.
Melissa Jocelyn, director of nursing at Mass. General Hospital, joined Baker at the State House on Tuesday to echo his message on behalf of the nurses and doctors who have been working hands-on with COVID-19 patients since March.
"On behalf of all of our nurses and health care colleagues, I do want to join with the governor in asking, even begging, each of you to follow the state guidelines, to refrain from gathering for the Christmas holidays," she said. "We are committed to continuing our fight against COVID-19 and caring for each patient who comes to our hospitals. We just ask you to do your part, so you don't end up in the hospital, or worse, be the reason why your loved ones — your grandmother, your niece, your uncle -- end up in the hospital due to COVID-19."
Jocelyn said she and others in the health care world understand that everyone is tired and exhausted of having to comply with COVID-19 safety guidelines, but fears that "the tendency is to simply give up and return to a sense of premature normalcy" as the pandemic drags on and with the vaccinated end of the pandemic within sight.
"In the hospital setting, we are also tired and exhausted. We are tired of seeing people dying on breathing machines. More sadly, even dying alone, where we use an iPad to connect a dying patient to their loved ones," she said.
Jocelyn added, "There is light at the end of the tunnel. But remember, we are still in the tunnel. The sooner all of us adhere to the basics -- not gathering in big crowds, keeping our bubble small, continuing to wear a mask, wash your hands, practice social distancing -- the sooner we will be able to hug our loved ones, celebrate the holidays, and return to our traditions."
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders asked residents to take "the long view" and sacrifice traditional gatherings this year to help ensure that next year's holidays will be joyful and will include loved ones whose health could be jeopardized by large assemblies during the pandemic. Baker also tried to emphasize the temporary nature of the change he is asking people to make.
"I can't emphasize enough that this is not forever. This is once. One time. One month. One year. Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's Eve, really do, and should be different," he said. "Next year we'll probably be able to celebrate those holidays just like we used to. But not this year."