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If you can’t visit family due to the COVID-19 pandemic, host a virtual Thanksgiving dinner instead.

USA TODAY

The president and CEO of the Lee Health hospital system is urging Southwest Floridian’s to forgo “traditional” Thanksgiving celebrations this year to avoid unnecessarily exposing friends and relatives to COVID-19.

Cases of the novel coronavirus have been increasing in Southwest Florida, and statewide, as officials have lifted restrictions on dining, schooling and visiting loved ones in long-term care facilities.

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Some experts warn that the winter months could be a particularly dangerous time for spreading the virus, which has killed more than 258,000 Americans — including 18,000 Floridians — since the pandemic was declared eight months ago.

While promising vaccines are on the horizon, they are not likely to reach most of the general population for months.

“As the pandemic continues and the number of cases rises in our community, we must temper our desire for traditional Thanksgiving and continue to take steps to remain safe,” Larry Antonucci said in a Tuesday teleconference with reporters.

“Find alternate ways to celebrate with friends and family members, especially those who are most vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19. It’s important to remember that the sacrifices we make now will help contain the virus and ensure that you and your loved ones spend many more joyous holidays together.”

Lee Health currently has 140 patients who have tested positive for COVID- and are in isolation, the hospital system reported. That is lower than the roughly 300 or so patients it reported in the summer when the virus was peaking, but a notable increase from just a few months ago.

Of those patients now hospitalized, 12 are on ventilators and 23 in intensive care units. The hospital system, which operates four acute-care health centers, is now at 88% staffed capacity.

Statewide, nearly 3,800 Floridians had cases of COVID-19 that required hospitalization as of Tuesday afternoon. That’s also sharply up from the roughly 2,100 it counted just a month ago.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that Americans limit holiday celebrations this year. Gatherings should be limited to outside events and should include mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent hand washing, according to the CDC.

The Florida Hospital Association is also encouraging families to be extra cautious this year.

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“It’s critically important to protect our most vulnerable friends and family members. Teens and twenty-somethings who are home from college must take precautions when interacting with their 85-year-old grandparents this holiday season,” said Mary Mayhew, president and CEO, Florida Hospital Association, in a news release this week.

The Florida Department of Health recommends that anyone who feels sick during this season should get tested for COVID-19 and avoid going out in public and being around at-risk people.

Older adults and those with medical conditions putting them at increased risk of COVID-19 complications, or live/work with others at increased risk, should also avoid in-person gatherings with people living outside the households, the department further recommends.

Those visiting loved ones from out of town should also distance themselves from people 65 and older, and those who have underlying health issues, the department says.

Frank Gluck is a watchdog reporter with The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. Connect with him at fgluck@news-press.com or on Twitter: @FrankGluck

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