The holiday season is here – and so is a global pandemic that continues to put lives at risk.

Regional One Health leaders are imploring everyone to play it safe: avoid travel and gathering with people outside your immediate household, wear facemasks and be vigilant about handwashing.

Help protect yourself, your loved ones and health care capacity in our community by being part of the COVID-19 solution.

For the past ten months, Amber Thacker, MD and her team in our COVID-19 unit have cared for coronavirus patients with confidence, compassion and expertise.

Their growing knowledge and new therapies have made it easier to treat the virus, but the reality of losing patients to the deadly pandemic will never become less difficult.

“I’ve been the last face people see. I don’t want to be the last face anyone else sees,” Dr. Thacker said. “This virus is very serious – it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before in terms of what it does to patients young and old. Patients can get very sick, and some of them die.”

With coronavirus cases rising locally and nationwide, Regional One Health leaders are imploring members of the public to rededicate themselves to wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding large gatherings, and washing their hands frequently.

“The numbers are concerning, and they continue to grow. It’s something we should all be aware of as we enter the holiday season,” Regional One Health President and CEO Reginald Coopwood, MD said. “We are in a very concerning time. If we don’t flatten our curve, we will probably overrun our health care systems here locally.”

For many people, the main question is whether to attend holiday gatherings with extended family or friends. Unfortunately, said Cyrilyn Walters, MD, medical director of ambulatory services, there is no way to be certain you or someone at your event isn’t infected and spreading the virus.

The safe way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is to gather with your immediate household and connect virtually with extended family and friends.

“The biggest recommendation this holiday season is not to get together,” she said. “The only way to reduce risk of transmission is if everyone quarantines for 10 to 14 days prior. That means staying home and not being exposed to anyone who is not part of that group.”

Dr. Walters, who leads our Follow-Up COVID-19 Clinic, said getting tested before a gathering doesn’t fully address risk and might create a false sense of security. “You can have a negative test one day and three days later be positive, because before you have symptoms the viral load in your body may not have built up enough to have a positive test,” she explained.

She suggests limiting physical gatherings to your immediate household and connecting virtually with other friends and family.

Dr. Thacker agreed, noting large indoor holiday gatherings qualify as the sort of “close contact” that is driving community spread. Close contact is defined as being within 6 feet of one or more people for more than 15 minutes, and it greatly increases the chance of transmission.

“The primary mechanism of spread is droplet transmission – if someone is infected, when they breathe, talk, sing, cough, they produce tiny droplets that carry the virus,” Dr. Thacker said. “Those droplets travel through the air and can land in the eyes, nose, month of someone else, and they can become infected.”

Staying 6 feet from others minimizes the chance of a droplet carrying the virus reaching you, and wearing a mask creates a physical barrier. The same is true in reverse: if you are sick – or an unknowing asymptomatic carrier – you are less likely to spread the disease if your respiratory droplets are contained behind a mask and you keep your distance from others.

Be part of the solution this holiday season! The best protection against the spread of COVID-19 continues to be wearing a facemask, social distancing and hand hygiene.

Along with following COVID-19 guidelines, Dr. Walters encourages everyone to protect their health in general, as winter is also cold and flu season.

“Eat healthy, stay active and protect your mental health by getting outside and by connecting with others virtually,” she said. “Drink plenty of fluids, and take vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc, which are all good for your immune system.”

Also, when a COVID-19 vaccine is available, take advantage of the chance to protect yourself.

“I would expect these vaccines to be as safe as any other vaccine,” Dr. Thacker said. “And remember: to gain immunity by infection carries the risk of death. I would tolerate the very small risk from the vaccine because the benefit of preventing infection far outweighs the risk.”

Regional One Health is preparing for vaccine distribution, which will be led by federal and state governments. Dr. Coopwood noted it appears Tennessee will receive a product that must be kept at a very low temperature, so the health system is working on obtaining freezers for storage.

Until vaccination is widespread, though, the best advice remains what it has been for some time: Wear a mask. Avoid large gatherings, even over the holidays. Wash your hands.

“People have gotten lax, and hopefully this spike will get everyone’s attention that we’re dealing with a serious virus that has killed some 250,000 Americans,” Dr. Coopwood said. “If you don’t consider this to be serious, talk to those families. This is real.”

For more coronavirus information, visit