There's no place like home - with or without a pandemic

It's Thanksgiving Day, and while it's the second COVID-19 Thanksgiving, more of us are traveling to celebrate the holiday with family and friends, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

... "Many Thanksgiving travelers see COVID in the rearview mirror and they are looking forward to returning to the pre-pandemic tradition of gathering with family and friends.”

A little less restrictive

Vaccination efforts against COVID-19 have brought eased restrictions on travel and public gatherings. Last November, a surge in COVID cases prompted Meritus Medical Center near Hagerstown to prohibit visitors — with exceptions only for patients with disabilities, mothers giving birth, pediatric patients and end-of-life situations. No visitors were permitted for COVID patients.

Although those limits have eased a bit, visiting hours and privileges have been adjusted in response to local COVID statistics. And exactly a year after announcing those COVID restrictions — and just in time for the holiday — the hospital announced that recovering COVID patients could have one visitor per day.

"Last week, we began including limited visitation into our COVID-19 positive patients’ care plans," Meritus spokeswoman Joelle Butler said in a statement last week to Herald-Mail Media. "By allowing designated loved ones to spend an appropriate amount of time, with the right safety precautions in place, we've noticed a benefit to our patients. Recognizing the importance of how this time helps with healing, we are finding the balance in the safest way possible with the use of personal protective equipment, KN95 masks, social distancing measures and guidance and support from the staff."

With a countywide positivity rate — the rate at which people being tested for the virus are testing positive — above 10% going into the holiday week, Butler urged caution. 

"Just as we continue to take all necessary precautions inside our hospital, we would encourage the community to do the same, especially as we head into the holiday season with gatherings planned," Butler said. "Washington County continues to experience a high rate of positivity for this very transmissible virus. Vaccinations are available to most of our population now, so we strongly encourage you to get your COVID-19 shots. Masking and cautiously distancing when indoors, in small spaces, does offer protection and should continue to be considered when vulnerable or immunocompromised people are present.

"We want everyone to stay safe and healthy this holiday season, both here at the hospital and at home."

Last year, the holiday came in the midst of a surge in COVID-19 cases and before vaccines were available, with Meritus posting what was then a record number of COVID patients on Thanksgiving Day. Following the holiday, there was a further surge in COVID-19 cases both locally and nationally.

That surge continued through last year's holiday season, with Washington County's positivity rate peaking at 18.46% on Dec. 31, according to Washington County Health Department records.

On Thanksgiving Day last year, Nov. 26, the positivity rate had been 10.14%.

Statewide, the positivity rate peaked at 11.7% on Dec. 28. On Thanksgiving Day, it had been 5.98%.

This article first published in The Herald-Mail and online at in November 2021.