Health officials issue guidance for holiday gatherings as COVID-19 surges


Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said during a Nov. 18 virtual press briefing that “staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this holiday season.”

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Indiana health officials during the briefing offered guidance for the holiday season in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state.

Box said the Indiana State Dept. of Health advocates guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which grouped an array of activities into low-, moderate- and high-risk categories ahead of Thanksgiving.

Low-risk activities, according to the CDC, include small dinners with only people who live in the same household, hosting virtual dinners and shopping online instead of in person. Moderate-risk activities include hosting a small outdoor dinner with family and friends. High-risk activities include shopping in crowded malls, consuming alcohol or other substances that could impair judgment and attending large, indoor gatherings with people who don’t live in the same household.

“These are things you can do to save lives, and those lives might just be your own family members’ lives,” Box said. “Holiday celebrations need to look different this year. The CDC has issued holiday guidance that stresses that even with friends and family, people need to be cautious during the holidays so that they don’t add to the trend of increasing cases.”

Additional guidance for the holidays from the ISDH can be viewed at

“Thanksgiving is a time when families traditionally plan to join larger groups or to celebrate together, but travel increases the chance of getting and spreading the virus that causes COVID-19, especially when you look at the high levels of transmission that many states are experiencing,” Box said.

Box also noted that anyone planning to travel to Chicago, which requires a 14-day quarantine, or some surrounding states may need to consider what travel restrictions are in place before leaving Indiana.

“There will be more than 5,000 empty seats at Indiana Thanksgiving tables this year because of COVID-19,” Box said. “Let’s all make those hard choices to prevent that number from growing so Hoosier families are able to celebrate for years to come.”

As community spread has increased across the state and Midwest, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said he is particularly concerned with the state’s hospital capacity, which has been strained since early October. As of press time, more than 3,000 Indiana residents were hospitalized with COVID-19, a record thus far. In the spring, no more than 1,800 Hoosiers were hospitalized at any one time.

“As we see community spread occur and arise, that leads to cases rising. That leads to hospital admissions rising, and, with that, beds are filled,” Holcomb said during the briefing. “And that has an effect on a myriad of things, such as elective procedures being postponed or canceled or cancer patients or heart patients having to reschedule appointments, schools across the state having to go virtual.”

COVID-19 cases have reached record highs in Indiana since the beginning of October. The county’s color-coded coronavirus map, viewable at, shows 21 counties are classified red, one is yellow and the remaining are orange (the map classifies counties with the lowest level of spread as blue, and the rest are ranked yellow, orange or red). As of press time, Boone and Hamilton counties were orange. Box said that if the map only used the number of cases per 100,000 residents to determine a county’s color, every county would be red (the map also uses a county’s positivity rate to determine color).

On Nov. 11, Holcomb announced new gathering restrictions for orange and red counties. Box said she expects all state COVID-19 metrics to trend in concerning directions in the coming weeks, meaning more counties will likely be red.

“We do not expect this to turn around quickly,” Box said. “In the next several weeks, we will continue to see cases climb, individuals hospitalized and, unfortunately, more deaths. That is why the plea now (is) to do those basic, simple things that may seem small and very irritating to you but could make a tremendous difference in the lives of other individuals and the health of individuals and the support our hospital systems are able to provide.”

Dr. Eric Fish, CEO of Schneck Medical Center in Seymour, who spoke during the briefing, said his hospital system is battling the patient surge with substantial staffing shortages and that some staff have been so overwhelmed that they have left the profession. He said personal protective equipment and testing shortages have delayed other medical procedures. He called on the community to follow advice from health experts and to not view mitigation efforts as a political issue.

Sarah Paturalski, a registered nurse and vice president of Nursing and Clinical Services at Memorial Hospital in South Bend, also spoke during the briefing. She said her staff is seeing deaths at an unprecedented level, averaging at least one per day in the health system.

“Death and dying has always been part of health care,” Paturalski said. “We’ve dealt with that the entire time we’ve signed up for these careers. But death in the numbers we are seeing with COVID is not what we are used to. We are seeing death at a much higher rate than we’ve ever experienced before, and it is affecting every single layer of our organization. The emotional toll that this pandemic has created for everyone who works in health care will have a very long-lasting effect.”