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Local hospital leaders promote virtual holiday gatherings

While Gov. Tim Walz recently reduced size limits on social gatherings to no more than 10 people from three different households or less — indoors or out — the effectiveness of these limitations is largely dependent on how well people follow additional public health measures intended to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Photo illustration by Metro Newspaper Service

Lakes area health care leaders are urging people to follow their lead in reconsidering Thanksgiving family gatherings in light of escalating community spread in Minnesota.

“Those need to be reconsidered. If they’re not in your bubble, you probably should … not have those get-togethers,” said Dr. Jon Pryor, Essentia Health’s East Market president, during a Thursday interview. “And I know it’s painful. It’s a thing people don’t want to hear. But this is really serious.

“ … This can have lasting effects on young people that get it, and even if young people have COVID and it’s no big deal to them, when they spread it to people who are older or people who have chronic conditions, it can be deadly. And so everyone in the community has a role to protect their families, their loved ones and their neighbors.”

RELATED: ‘What keeps me up at night’: Health care leaders plead for COVID-19 compliance as hospitals are stretched thin For months of relative calm, area hospitals worked to develop complex and ever-adapting plans for how to handle what may lie ahead in the coronavirus pandemic. Now facing more COVID-19 patients than ever before, an influx of people who’ve delayed care for chronic conditions, and reduced staff due to illness or quarantine, the difficult days that were once hypothetical are becoming more and more frequent. 
Pryor said in a typical year, he cooks for 40 to 50 people on Thanksgiving, his favorite holiday. But with hospitalizations on the rise and health care systems stretched, this year will be different.


Jon Pryor.jpg
Dr. Jon Pryor

“It’s my one holiday that I just, I am in the kitchen for a day and a half, and it’s great,” Pryor said. “I’m cooking for two people this year. Two people. And that’s just the way it has to be because I need to do my role. And the reason is that the hospitals are full.

“I mean, again, it changes on an hour by hour basis — some days we’re like full up to the brim, and other days, not so full. So that’s the way it is, and it will probably continue this way for a long time, kind of ebbing and flowing. But we want to preserve those beds again for people who really need it.”

RELATED: The ground 'shifting beneath our feet,' Minnesotans begged to forgo visitors on Thanksgiving

While Gov. Tim Walz recently reduced size limits on social gatherings to no more than 10 people from three different households or less — indoors or out — the effectiveness of these limitations is largely dependent on how well people follow additional public health measures intended to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from anyone not part of the same household, good hand hygiene and wearing masks as much as possible are key prevention tools, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Risk is reduced but not eliminated by taking precautions such as hosting small gatherings outside, opening windows or doors to increase airflow, asking guests to bring their own food or drinks and avoiding the sharing of utensils or cups.

Those who do not feel well or are at higher risk for experiencing serious symptoms of COVID-19 are advised to stay home. “Invited guests who live with people who are at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 should think about any added risks to their loved ones,” the health department states on its guidance.


Kyle Bauer
Kyle Bauer

CEO of Cuyuna Regional Medical Center Kyle Bauer said his family recently moved an 80th birthday celebration for his father from in-person to Zoom and this can be replicated for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

“It would help us tremendously to slow down the community spread right now,” Bauer said.

RELATED: Brainerd American Legion offers only delivery, pickup of Thanksgiving dinners “So with the COVID situation, she, you know, she has a lot of problems going out in public — mostly since a lot of people are opting not to wear masks in public places. She’s always concerned that, you know, she (a cancer survivor) may get sick, and there could be complications.” -- Simon Weissberg of Baxter
Joel Beiswenger, CEO of Tri-County Health Care based in Wadena, said if people choose to get together they should follow the new guidance. As for his own family, Beiswenger said he and his wife decided they will celebrate just to two of them, separate from their children and grandchildren.

“We would love to get together for the holidays with all of them. In fact, we actually had a trip we were planning as part of our holiday celebration,” he said. “ … We both are again in the more elevated age category and have a few unique health risks of our own, so we’ve already made the decision that she and I will be spending the holidays with each other and we will do a FaceTime connection with the kids and grandkids.”

Beiswenger, Joel.jpg
Joel Beiswenger

Beiswenger said social distancing isn’t really the right term — it should be physical distancing, since technology allows families to remain socially connected. He encouraged people to use programs including FaceTime, Zoom, Microsoft Teams or other virtual meeting technology to keep holiday traditions alive.


RELATED: Crow Wing County reminds residents of COVID-19 precautions
“Some would challenge that, you know, is it significantly different to put together a FaceTime and then have it open or play some games with each other or do the kinds of things you would normally do at the holidays?” he said. “ … Maybe you read the Luke chapter in the Bible as part of your tradition or ‘‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.’ You can do that virtually.

“Yes, it's not the same as if the grandkids are sitting in your lap or you get to hold the hand of your grandmother. … For what I expect to be my, hopefully, roughly 85 years on this planet, I’m being inconvenienced for what is a relatively short time. And you know, I will use that as a solace that there are better days behind, but there’s also better days ahead.”

Safety tips

  • Stay home if not feeling well or are at higher risk for getting very sick from COVID-19. Invited guests should stay home if they have been exposed to COVID-19 in the last 14 days or are showing COVID-19 symptoms. Invited guests who live with people who are at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 should think about any added risks to their loved ones.

  • Keep gatherings small. As of Friday, there is a 10-person limit for indoor and outdoor gatherings. All social gatherings are limited to members of three households or less, including the host.

  • Host small gatherings outside if possible. Wear masks and stay 6 feet away from other guests.

  • Open windows and/or doors to allow air to flow when possible if gathering indoors.

  • Wear a mask indoors and outdoors if gathering with anyone that does not live in the same house.

  • Encourage guests to bring their own food, drinks and treats. Do not share utensils or drinking cups.

  • Always stay at least 6 feet away from people that do not live in the same house.

  • Remember who came to the gathering. Keep a list of invited guests in case one of them gets COVID-19. This list will be helpful if contacted by a health department case interviewer.

Source: Minnesota Department of Health.

Reducing the risk

Lower-risk activities

  • A small dinner with the people who live in the same household.

  • A virtual dinner and sharing recipes with friends and family.

  • Shopping online, rather than in person, on the first Friday and Monday after Thanksgiving.

  • Preparing traditional family recipes for family and neighbors, especially those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, and deliver them in a way that doesn’t involve contact with others.

Medium-risk activities

  • A small outdoor dinner with family and friends who live in the same community. Lower the risk by following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for hosting gatherings or cook-outs, available at https://bit.ly/2UAsEuu .

  • Small outdoor sports events if safety tips are followed.

Avoid higher-risk activities


Avoid these activities to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

  • Shopping in crowded stores, especially just before, on or after Thanksgiving.

  • Attending or participating in crowded races or parades.

  • Attending large indoor gatherings with people who do not live in the same house.

Source: Minnesota Department of Health.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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