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Hartford Courant

Should I go to that crowded Thanksgiving dinner? With Connecticut’s COVID-19 metrics creeping back up, here’s what you need to know to stay safe this holiday season

By Alex Putterman, Hartford Courant,

Storrs, Ct. - 11/09/2021 - Fans in the UConn student section of Gampel Pavilion cheer during the introduction of UConn players during tonight's UConn men's basketball opener. Photograph by Mark Mirko | Mark Mirko/The Hartford Courant

In some ways, life in Connecticut is beginning to look a lot like it it did before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students are in school, residents are happily eating at restaurants, thousands of fans are packing the stands at concerts and sporting events. For many people, COVID-19 has again faded to the background, especially as Connecticut’s coronavirus numbers have settled at lower levels than the state experienced in August and September.

Quietly, though, COVID-19 metrics in Connecticut and across the Northeast have begun to increase again, perhaps signaling the start of a cold-weather uptick some experts have long predicted. Though unvaccinated people remain far more likely to test positive and to develop serious illness, vaccinated people face some risk as well, including as vectors of the disease.

It’s possible the recent numbers represent a blip. And experts say a large surge on the scale of what Connecticut experienced last winter is highly unlikely given the state’s high vaccination rate.

Still, Connecticut appears to be at another inflection point.

“There’s some reason to be cautious about the next few weeks and months, especially heading toward the winter when people will be indoors,” said Dr. David Banach, an epidemiologist at UConn Health. “The next few weeks are going to be important for predicting what’s going to happen in the winter, so we’ll have to look closely.”

Here is what to know about what Connecticut may or may not be in for.

What precautions should you be taking?

So if Connecticut may face some increase in COVID-19 transmission but is unlikely to experience a full-on surge, how should residents respond?

Should they accept COVID-19 as a fact of life and continue with their plans? Should they cancel gatherings the way many were forced to a year ago? And if the answer falls somewhere in between, how can they strike the right balance?

Local experts agree that the first thing people should do is get vaccinated, if they haven’t already. And those who are already vaccinated should seek a booster shot, particularly if they are at high risk. Beyond that, they say, residents worried about COVID-19 should avoid large gatherings and continue wearing masks in public places.

Dr. Tom Balcezak, chief clinical officer at Yale New Haven Health, compares COVID-19 precautions to safety measures in a car.

“Think about it as layers of protection,” he said. “If you’re going to go drive, if you wear your seatbelt that’s one important layer, if you have antilock breaks, if you are on a road that’s not wet or icy, if you obey the speed limit, all of those are important layers. None of those guarantee that you’re not going to have a car crash that injures you, but with each successive layer you’re better protected.”

Though many local towns and cities have recently repealed the mask mandates they imposed over the summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still advises residents in all of Connecticut’s counties but Fairfield to wear face coverings in indoor public places. Keith Grant, Hartford HealthCare’s senior system director for infection prevention, said he continues to wear a mask to the supermarket and recommends others consider doing the same.

Sometime soon, Connecticut may reach the point when COVID-19 is endemic — meaning it is found regularly in the population but isn’t an acute threat, similar to flu today. But for now, Wu said, the disease remains prevalent enough that people are justified in cutting back on their socializing.

“People are going to maybe not go out to eat, or they won’t have that gigantic party, or they’ll switch from a party that was going to be open to a vaccine-only party,” said Dr. Ulysses Wu, an infectious disease specialist at Hartford HealthCare.

“Or maybe they won’t visit grandma and grandpa this year.”

What should people know as they plan Thanksgiving?

The conversation about how much precaution is currently necessary is particularly timely as families plan Thanksgiving and other holiday gatherings. Experts interviewed by The Courant said people should feel free to meet for Thanksgiving but should consider certain safeguards.

“Thanksgiving is very important to people, so you have to tread very lightly when it comes to it, but my recommendation is that everyone should be vaccinated,” Wu said. “You can have Thanksgiving, but everyone should be vaccinated.”

Banach also recommended requiring vaccination at Thanksgiving. If that’s not possible, families may consider additional precautions such as masking and physical distancing if around vulnerable residents, he said. If it’s practical to gather outdoors, that is ideal.

Balcezak said precautions should vary depending on who is invited to a gathering.

“If you’ve got people that are all vaccinated and young and healthy, then you’re probably safer to have folks indoors and not wear masks,” Balcezak said. “But if you’ve got the elderly and the vulnerable coming, I think you should be really careful about mandating vaccine for people to come to your event, and I think you may want to think about getting folks tested a day or two before you’re there.”

What is the latest with Connecticut’s COVID-19 numbers?

The good news is Connecticut continues to rank among the states with the fewest recent COVID-19 cases per capita. The bad news is that might not last too much longer.

This past week, Connecticut’s seven-day COVID-19 positivity rate — the share of tests that have come back positive — has increased from 1.82% to 2.68% in just seven days. Hospitalizations are up as well, from 197 on Nov. 5 to 225 a week later.

Connecticut’s daily average of new cases has begun to increase as well, and regional trends suggest that figure will only increase from here. After a summer in which the southern half of the United States was the center of COVID-19 transmission, it appears to be the northern half’s turn.

Other Northeastern states, including New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, have seen cases increase sharply in recent days, mirroring upticks in parts of the Midwest and in regions of Europe.

No state — and certainly no Northeastern state — is currently experiencing as much COVID-19 as earlier in the pandemic, before vaccination. And vaccinated people remain less likely to test positive than unvaccinated people. Still, the disease is spreading.

“We should be concerned, and not just because we want to clutch our pearls,” Wu said Thursday. “We should worry about it so that we can change our behavior and make [the numbers] go down.”

So what happens next?

Opinions remain mixed about how significant a spike Connecticut might be headed for.

Balcezak said Yale New Haven Health doesn’t expect its COVID-19 hospitalizations to climb much higher than where they stand currently. Pedro Mendes, a computational biologist at UConn Health, projects Connecticut will peak between 230 and 250 hospitalizations this winter, up only slightly from the current number.

Others, though, worry that Connecticut is at the front end of a larger surge.

“Connecticut tracks very closely to the UK, and the UK is having a significant uptick right now,” Grant said Thursday. “So that’s something that we’re very concerned about.”

One thing experts agree on is that Connecticut, given its high rate of vaccination, will not experience the type of devastating surge the state saw last winter, when several thousand residents died and many more were hospitalized. The more people who get vaccinated, they say, the better off Connecticut will be heading into the winter.

“Vaccinations, particularly in a highly vaccinated state like Connecticut, will prevent a surge equivalent to what we saw last winter from happening,” Banach said. “Even with highly contagious variants like the delta variant, the vaccines will help mitigate that level of impact and spread.

Alex Putterman can be reached at .

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