December looks as if it may turn out to be the deadliest month of the pandemic here. Lancaster County’s COVID-19 dashboard indicates that there were 627 deaths in the county related to the disease as of Thursday — 44 deaths in just the seven calendar days from Dec. 11 through Dec. 17, for a total of 116 so far this month. Pennsylvania’s death toll had risen to 13,608 by Friday. More than 312,000 people in the U.S. had died of COVID-19 by Friday evening, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center.
The arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine in Lancaster County last week provided a much-needed injection of hope into a year marred by sorrow and uncertainty.
The image of Dr. Joseph Kontra, chief of infectious diseases at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, getting the first COVID-19 vaccine to be administered here was a thrilling sight to behold.
But it will be months before most of us are able to get a COVID-19 vaccine. So, we’re going to need to continue to practice social distancing, careful hand-washing and mask-wearing. And please, let us not repeat the mistakes of Thanksgiving, which worsened already surging COVID-19 infection rates.
Please stay home this Christmas. And please restrict your in-person celebrations to members of your own household.
The very idea, we know, is antithetical to what Christmas means to most of us, and we feel like Scrooge or the Grinch — choose your seasonal villain — making this plea. Even classic holiday songs urge us to go home for Christmas, where there will be some snow and mistletoe and presents under the tree. There’s no place like home for the holidays, we’re told.
But we can’t go home to our older relatives this year. And we can’t open our homes for family gatherings. We can’t have faithful friends who are dear to us, gathering near to us. It is simply too dangerous.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that high “or increasing levels of COVID-19 cases” in the place we live make gathering risky. And we know that community spread of COVID-19 in Lancaster County, and across Pennsylvania, is high.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said he and his wife won’t be spending the Christmas holidays with their three grown daughters for the first time since their daughters were born.
“The Christmas holiday is a special holiday for us because Christmas Eve is my birthday,” Fauci told The Washington Post. “And Christmas Day is Christmas Day. And they are not going to come home … That’s painful. We don’t like that. But that’s just one of the things you’re going to have to accept as we go through this unprecedented challenging time.”
Fauci told that newspaper that in-person Christmas celebrations could create an even more catastrophic spread of the virus than Thanksgiving gatherings.
“The problem that we’re in now — today and tomorrow and the next day — is that the level of community spread is extraordinary,” Fauci told the Post. “Each day, we have another record where it rains between 200,000 to 300,000 new cases a day. We have over 2,000 deaths per day. … I mean, these are things that are data that you can’t run away from.”
And the situation has worsened even since that Fauci interview last Monday. The United States had multiple days with more than 3,000 COVID-19 deaths per day last week.
The 116 COVID-related deaths in Lancaster County so far this month put December on pace to be the county’s deadliest month since the pandemic began.
As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Nicole C. Brambila reported last week, only “two other months have had three-digit death counts since the novel coronavirus emerged in Pennsylvania 10 months ago: April with 183 fatalities and May with 113. In comparison, November saw 62 COVID deaths.”
We still have 11 days left in December. And two of those days — Dec. 25 and Dec. 31 — are generally celebrated with gatherings of friends and family.
But not this year.
Please, not this year.
According to The New York Times, Lancaster General Hospital — this county’s largest hospital — was at 90% of its intensive care unit capacity last week.
And as we’re written before, capacity isn’t just a matter of ICU beds, but skilled medical personnel to staff those beds. Many of those hospital employees will be working over Christmas. They won’t be with even their immediate family members because they will be caring for other families’ loved ones.
They’re already shouldering the crushing burden of this health crisis. We must not add to it.
Of course, it didn’t have to be this way. An adequate federal response at the onset of the pandemic might have spared us some of this pain. Some of the more than 312,000 people who have died of COVID-19 might be still alive today.
Had we worn masks consistently, had our elected leaders set the example, we might be looking forward to a very different Christmas. But we’re not.
Unfortunately, too many of our elected officials view this crisis only through the prism of its economic cost, and lack the courage to say what needs to be said.
So we look north to the Manitoba province of Canada, where Premier Brian Pallister recently issued an urgent plea to people there.
“So I’m the guy who has to tell you to stay apart at Christmas, and in the holiday season you celebrate with your faith or without your faith. That you celebrate normally with friends and with family, where you share memories and build memories. I’m that guy, and I’ll say that because it will keep you safe,” Pallister said, his voice cracking with emotion. “I’m the guy who’s stealing Christmas. To keep you safe.
“Because you need to do this now. You need to do the right thing, because next year we’ll have lots to celebrate.”
Pallister said he hoped the citizens of his province might respect him “for having the guts” to tell them “the right thing. And here’s the right thing: Stay safe, protect each other, love each other, care for each other. You got so many ways to show that, but don’t get together this Christmas.”
The truth is, Christmas cannot be stolen. But lives can. And COVID-19, as we keep writing, is a vicious and capricious disease, sparing some and devastating others.
There will be other Christmases. The worst thing of all would be to be the reason someone else isn’t around to enjoy them.