Hospital president: Stay home this holiday 

Graphic courtesy City of SalemThe number of new cases reported daily on average has surged in the past two weeks, and the infection has spread in Salem at a higher rate than the rest of the state. That's causing local experts to urge residents to play it safe this coming holiday season and gather with loved ones virtually.

SALEM — There’s one thing the head of North Shore Medical Center wants people to do when planning to visit family this Thanksgiving: don’t.

“My advice is to Zoom — period, end of discussion,” said Dave Roberts, president of the hospital. “The greatest gift you can give to an at-risk relative is celebrating the holidays remotely.”

City officials held a virtual town hall event Thursday to discuss COVID-19 infections in the Witch City, steps officials are taking to help the community get through the winter and more. 

Midway through the event, Roberts used the platform to urge residents to not gather during the holidays this year.

He did so alongside the latest state public health dashboard, which showed that 84 percent of COVID-19 cases from Oct. 25 to Nov. 7 were in people aged 59 or less — and in that, nearly 40 percent of cases were tied to people younger than 30. Meanwhile, the average age of patients hospitalized is 67, and the average for deaths is 80. 

That contrasts to recent spikes in positive cases. Two weeks ago, Salem had an average of 7.1 new cases daily per 100,000 people — 0.9 points shy of falling into red territory under state infection rate guidelines at the time. But after two weeks, that number nearly quadrupled, registering on Thursday’s weekly dashboard update at 25.9. 

The only reason Salem isn’t red is because of a shift in how communities are rated. Salem’s number of tests ending with a positive result is at 2.89 percent — a significant increase over last week, but still shy of the 5 percent necessary to earn a red rating.

Salem is still yellow, but this is hardly a reason for North Shore residents to let their guard down for the holidays, according to Roberts. Alongside that, city health agent Dave Greenbaum said there are more people aged 19 to 39 testing positive than any other age group. 

“They aren’t the elderly we were seeing in the spring,” Greenbaum said. “We’re seeing cases where it’s spread from family member to family member.”

And that, Roberts said, could be a recipe for disaster. The mortality rate for older patients this spring was about 25 percent, meaning “one in four patients died from the disease.”

“We’re worried about these 14,000 people under 49 infecting these people over 60,” Roberts said. “And if they infect these people, the hospitalization rates will take off like a shot.”

Since then, health experts have learned a lot about the virus. Mortality rates have also plummeted, since “the patients who are getting hospitalized now aren’t as sick as they were in the spring,” Roberts said.

The event brought attendees’ lists of suggestions on how to stay safe this holiday season. High-risk behavior shared by Roberts includes eating indoors, being within six feet of others and gathering with people “whose habits are not compliant with guidelines or whose habits are unknown.” 

Roberts added that moderate-risk activities include eating outside and gathering bubble to bubble, highlighting a trend some households are taking to sharply limit the number of people they gather with.

The best option, Roberts said, is to stick to Facetime and Zoom.

The traditional household is “the main source of COVID transmission,” Roberts said. “It accounts for up to 70 percent of cases.”

Grim as this may sound, it may also be unique to this coming holiday season. Roberts noted the strength of vaccine trials playing out now and the possibility for a vaccine with 90 percent efficacy — reported this week from Pfizer — giving society a shot at herd immunity by summer.

In other words, Roberts said, save the turkey for next year.

To read live coverage of this meeting on Twitter as it played out, including data and quotes not used in this story, visit bit.ly/32EBqvM.

To respond to this story or suggest another, contact Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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