Rethinking Thanksgiving

Rethinking Thanksgiving

A newly formed group of local leaders and the CDC are urging citizens to get creative to have a safe holiday during the pandemic.

by scott barker • November 20, 2020
State Sen. Dr. Richard Briggs in the Knoxville Recovers Thanksgiving video.

With COVID-19 case counts rising at a rapid rate and Thanksgiving fast approaching, a group of local political, education and civic leaders are  urging residents to take extra precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Knoxville Recovers aims to be a trusted voice during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Knoxville Recovers, which was formed last month, issued a public service announcement video on Thursday morning that has been distributed across social media platforms. 

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, state Sen. Dr. Richard Briggs and University of Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman emphasized the need to follow health guidelines during the holidays. (Also on Thursday, UT announced Plowman had gone into quarantine after finding out she had come in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.)

They focused on the five core actions — wearing masks, practicing physical distancing, washing hands, cleaning surfaces and staying home when sick — that health officials recommend to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“Follow these simple precautions, and we can all have a healthy and happy Thanksgiving,” Kincannon said in the short video.

Coincidentally, the public service announcement launched on the same day that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance for Thanksgiving.

Taken together, the advice warns against the traditional Thanksgiving dinner with multiple generations of family members from a number of different households gathered elbow-to-elbow around a dining table to share the holiday meal. Instead, officials are urging the public to find creative ways to celebrate the holiday.

The CDC noted that 1 million new COVID-19 cases were identified in the United States during the past seven days. In Knox County, 1,538 new cases were reported in the same time period. Three of the county’s highest single-day increases have been recorded in the past week. There were 2,270 active cases in Knox County on Thursday.

Hospitalizations, both in Knox County and across the region, have soared. There were 83 Knox County residents in area hospitals with COVID-19 on Thursday, down from the high-water mark of 91 reached on Wednesday. Two more people have died from COVID-19 complications, bringing the total for the pandemic to 140. 

During a press briefing on Thursday, Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, showed a depiction of a hypothetical Thanksgiving gathering in which one person has COVID-19 but is asymptomatic and others are either at risk themselves or have contacts with at-risk populations. According to the CDC, 40 percent of infected people are asymptomatic.

“It only takes one infected person to spread COVID-19,” Buchanan said. “This is a very contagious disease. You often may not realize the connections around you.”

The new CDC guidelines advise against travel in many instances, including going to or from places where cases are on the rise. The agency also has tips for those who insist on traveling, such as following the core actions, getting a flu shot and staying away from people who do not live in the same household.

The CDC recommends limiting the number of guests at Thanksgiving dinner, serving meals outdoors, and asking guests to bring their own food and utensils. People should also consider hosting virtual meals. 

Health officials advise that hosts consider all family members who do not share their household to be potential carriers. That includes grandparents, who are more at-risk if they are seniors, family members who live elsewhere and college students on break.

Knoxville Recovers was formed by Kincannon and Plowman after a News Sentinel editorial in September called for local leaders to speak out. 

In addition to Kincannon, Plowman, Jacobs and Briggs, the members include UT President Randy Boyd, former Gov. Bill Haslam, UT Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Keith Gray, UT-Knoxville Student Government Association President Karmen Jones, Knoxville Area Urban League President and CEO Phyllis Nichols, Knox County Schools Chief of Staff Renee Kelly, and Knoxville Chamber President and CEO Mike Odom.

The group has no legal authority to implement any measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 — that resides with the Knox County Board of Health — but members say they want to use their positions to clearly articulate best practices to the public during a time when conflicting information or misinformation is rampant.

In recent interviews, Knoxville Recovers members agreed that it’s important for trusted community leaders to cut through the noise.

“Our intention is not to take over the authority of the Board of Health, the County Commission, the mayors or anybody else,” said Briggs, a semi-retired heart surgeon. “We would like to be a group the public would trust.”

Members of the group have different concerns. Briggs said Haslam has expressed a worry that the state’s gains in education during the past few years will be eroded. The adverse effects of the pandemic on businesses weigh heavily on Briggs’ mind, but he said improved health measures are a prerequisite for economic recovery. 

“I think businesses would do better if we get the pandemic under control,” he said.

Kincannon said that public health officials are asking people to do things they’re not used to doing — wearing masks, for example, — and some of the public health messages got entangled with divisive election-year politics. 

She said Knoxville Recovers hopes to establish trust in the public health message. “We all share the same sense of purpose — to fight a common enemy, which is the virus,” Kincannon said.

Nichols, the Urban League president and CEO, said there is a historic lack of trust in the African-American community that needs to be addressed. “Because there are disparities in healthcare, there’s suspicion,” she said.

Jacobs, who as a member of the Board of Health has opposed imposing restrictions on individuals and businesses, sees a vital role for the Knoxville Recovers initiative to protect both health and economic concerns. “The formation of this group shows the value of uniting behind the common goal of community health,” he said in a statement. “Together, we can help mitigate the impact of one on the other.”

Thanksgiving 2020 might seem unfamiliar for many, but the members of Knoxville Recovers are holding out hope that the rapidly developing and promising vaccines that could be widely available in the spring will restore a sense of tradition to next year’s holiday.

“All we’re trying to do is keep this under control until we develop a vaccine,” Briggs said. “Things won’t get back to normal until we get a vaccine.”