Health officials issue new holiday guidance amid surge in COVID-19 cases

(KSTP) – The Minnesota Department of Health is urging families to "think carefully" about their Thanksgiving plans with 10 days to go before the holiday and climbing COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations across the state.

Unlike last year, MDH is not issuing a statewide recommendation for people to stay home.

Instead, health officials are encouraging a "layered mitigation approach" in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on holiday gatherings. People who are eligible should seek out the COVID-19 vaccine, and those who aren’t fully vaccinated or live in an area with substantial or high levels of COVID-19 transmission should wear well-fitting masks over their nose and mouth.

The following is especially important if a member of your household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated:

  • Remember that outdoors is safer than indoors.
  • Avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.
  • If you are sick or have symptoms, do not host or attend a gathering.
  • Get tested if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or have close contact with someone who has COVID-19. Click here to find a testing location in Minnesota.
  • The CDC still recommends delaying travel until you are fully vaccinated and provides testing recommendations for those who are planning to travel.
  • Masks are mandatory on public transportation, including buses and airplanes.
  • If you are gathering with a group of people from multiple households and potentially from different parts of the country, consider some additional precautions prior to gathering (e.g., lay low before you go, avoid crowded indoor spaces, get tested) to further reduce risk.

The Thanksgiving holiday comes in the midst of what health officials call a "COVID blizzard" in Minnesota, with "alarmingly high case levels" and a statewide positivity rate near 10%, which is the state’s threshold for "high risk."

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota are also the highest they have been all year, according to state data.

"I do think people should be a little more cautious approaching this Thanksgiving," said Dr. Abinash Virk, an infectious disease consultant at Mayo Clinic.

She recommends hosting smaller holiday gatherings, wearing masks around elderly and immunocompromised family members, and limiting possible exposures before the holiday by laying low over the next 10 days.

"We’re at very similar numbers as we were last year and as you know, last year this was kind of the beginning of our winter wave. So how is this going to go the next few weeks? Hard to say. I think we’re still concerned numbers will go up," Virk said. "I am concerned because it is winter. We will be indoors more than outdoors. We know that respiratory viruses like coronavirus and influenza get worse in the winter, so I am definitely worried. We are not out of the woods."

If you are planning to travel for the holidays, Mayo Clinic created a map that forecasts COVID-19 hotspots. You can search by date, by state, and by county and make travel decisions accordingly.

"It helps to know if there are increased number of cases in that state to make sure you’re taking extra precautions or maybe not going," Virk said. "We’re not asking people to not meet this year, as we did last year, but I think people should be cautious about large gatherings."

5 EYEWITNESS News asked the Minnesota Department of Health if it plans to update its Thanksgiving guidance, given the current COVID-19 numbers in Minnesota. A spokesperson provided this statement:

"The recommendations discussed last week during the briefing and that are on our website remain our guidance for the upcoming holidays. It is critically important that Minnesotans take this guidance to heart and take steps to protect themselves and their families and keep their gatherings safe. When the virus is circulating as widely in our communities as it is and with the Delta variant as transmissible as it is, we are concerned about potential increases in cases anytime people gather in larger groups, in close contact with one another for longer periods of time, especially if they are unvaccinated. To a large extent, however, what happens after the holidays depends on what Minnesotans do during the holidays to limit the spread of the disease."