This article was originally published Dec. 2.
The Transportation Security Administration recorded more than a million passengers traveling through United States airports on the day before Thanksgiving, despite health officials’ nationwide pleas for Americans to spend the holiday at home.
Those million travelers — and the millions of other people who have interacted with them since — won’t know the consequences of their decision for another week. The delay between catching COVID-19 and manifesting symptoms can be up to 14 days.
In the twilight zone between a possible super-spreader holiday and the future, University of Cincinnati Medical Center nurse Megan Adams is tired.
“It feels like we’re fighting this losing battle,” she said Wednesday afternoon, adding later: “I think there’s going to be a really stark wake-up call as we get into Christmas and into New Year's. And I really hope we’re available to meet that challenge.”
Ohio’s hospitals are already struggling to keep up with the state’s rising number of COVID-19 cases. Cincinnati-area hospitalizations have increased 700% over the last two months, according to UC Health president Dr. Richard Lofgren. About a quarter of all patients in regional hospitals have COVID-19.
Speaking Wednesday morning, Lofgren said frontline healthcare workers like Adams are the most critical resource in the ongoing fight against the virus, which has claimed over 271,000 lives since March.
They are also the scarcest. Burnout, stress, quarantine and sickness can all take healthcare workers out of rotation for days, forcing their colleagues to compensate by working even harder. Adams said she and other nurses are stretching past their breaking points to care for the patients coming into their hospitals.
A new surge caused by Thanksgiving travel could be devastating to all of them.
“Even if these nurses sign up to work double shifts, the exhaustion of that and the mental stress, it’s a very real thing,” she said. “And it really affects the quality of care that you’re able to provide. At a certain point of overload, we inevitably reach failure.”
The aftershock of Thanksgiving will arrive only two weeks before Christmas, presenting another conundrum — and another potential catastrophe. If people travel for Christmas at the same level they did for Thanksgiving, the pandemic will likely only intensify.
Adams admits she’s worried and frustrated. She knows some Americans have stopped listening to healthcare workers’ repeated exhortations: Wear a mask, keep your distance, don’t gather with people outside your household.
And she understands how easy it is to rationalize an individual choice as one that won’t affect the rest of the world.
The problem is that it will.
Adams said she hopes Americans will think deeply about the meaning of Christmas and their responsibility to other people around them. In her opinion, the real Christmas spirit is one of service.
“This is a holiday about loving and giving,” she said. “Love people enough, give enough to do the right thing.”