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'This Virus Isn't Taking A Holiday'; Illinois Issues Holiday Season Safety Tips As COVID Cases Continue To Tick Upward

CHICAGO (CBS) -- With the COVID-19 infection rate in Illinois climbing over the past week, Gov. JB Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health on Wednesday announced a number of tips on how to safely celebrate the upcoming holidays.

The announcement came as IDPH reported 2,862 new confirmed cases of coronavirus disease in Illinois, as well as 49 additional confirmed deaths. That's the most COVID-19 deaths reported in a single day since June 24, when IDPH reported 63 deaths.

The new COVID-19 cases reported Wednesday account for 5.4% of the 52,669 tests reported in the past day. The statewide seven-day average positivity rate in Illinois now stands at 4.6%, up from 3.5% one week ago. The governor noted all 11 regions of Illinois have seen an increase in positivity rates over the past week.

Hospital cases of COVID-19 also have been trending upward this month, with 1,974 people hospitalized with the virus in Illinois as of Tuesday night. That's the most daily hospitalizations from COVID-19 in Illinois since June 12, when IDPH reported 2,117 virus patients were in the hospital. Over the first 13 days of October, Illinois has averaged 1,727 patients hospitalized per day, compared to 1,542 per day for the first 13 days of September.

Since the start of the pandemic, Illinois has reported a total of 327,605 virus cases, including 9,074 deaths.

"To date, Illinois has had relative success in keeping this virus at bay, and we're still doing better than  many of our neighbors, but we can't let up, and these numbers are indicating a concerning direction," Pritzker said.

With the Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year's holidays all coming up over the next couple months, Pritzker and IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike urged Illinois residents to continue taking proper precautions to avoid spreading the virus at family gatherings.

Pritzker said the CDC recently noted that small family gatherings are one of the most common ways COVID-19 is being spread.

"There is no free pass in this season of giving when it comes to COVID-19. When confronted with decisions about the upcoming holiday season, many people who have erred on the side of caution might face new temptation to let their guard down, but let me be blunt. This virus isn't taking a holiday. It only wants to find new hosts," Pritzker said. "If you think it's okay to let your guard down because some people seem fine after they got COVID-19, I'll remind you that many young people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s are experiencing long-hauler symptoms of this virus: pulmonary issues, monthslong breathing and coughing issues, exhaustion. Even for healthy young people, that's not a walk in the park, so don't treat it like one."

Ezike said the safest way for you to celebrate the upcoming holidays with your household is to connect virtually with people outside your home.

"But I know, we all know many people will be gathering and getting together with family and friends," she said.

To help people do that more safely, Ezike recommended several tips for celebrating the holidays. She noted traveling by any means can increase the risk of spreading the virus.

Traveling by plane, train, or bus can mean standing in long lines, and sitting less than six feet away from strangers for long periods of time, and even traveling by car can mean making frequent stops for gas, food, or a bathroom break, and coming into close contact with others.

"All of these forms of travel can be made safer if you use your mask, and continue to wash your hands," Ezike said.

For anyone hosting a holiday gathering, Ezike said they should consider limiting the number of guests, and have as many outside activities as the weather permits. While indoors, she said you should increase air flow by opening windows as much as possible, and encourage guests to wear masks when not eating and drinking.

"Be reasonable when you're thinking of the planning in terms of how many people you can safely accommodate," she said.

Ezike also suggested planning seating arrangements so people in the same household are seated together, and if possible, at a distance from other households, perhaps by spreading out tables in different rooms. She also suggested avoiding buffet-style or potluck settings, and consider having just one person serve all the food, so multiple people are not handling serving utensils. If you do opt for buffet or potluck, make sure everyone washes their hands before handling any utensils.

IDPH also recommending limiting your activities in the two weeks before a family gathering, to minimize your exposure to the virus.

As for holiday shopping, Ezike recommended either shopping online, and using delivery or curbside pickup. If shopping in person, plan ahead to minimize your time inside stores, and make as few trips as possible.

Bottom line, Ezike said if you feel sick during the holiday season, don't travel or attend gatherings.

"We all want to be around our family and friends during the holidays, but if you are sick, please please understand that you need to stay home. Don't assume that your symptoms are not serious, don't assume that they are not COVID, don't assume that you're not contagious. Take the better decision and, if you are sick, please stay home," Ezike said.

Last month, IDPH released specific guidance for Halloween. While haunted houses are not allowed in Illinois this Halloween due to the pandemic, public health officials said trick-or-treating, pumpkin patches, hayrides, and other holiday festivities can go forward with some changes to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

IDPH recommendations for Halloween include maintaining social distancing while trick-or-treating by leaving individually-wrapped candy out on a table on your driveway, or in front of your walkway, sidewalk, or other area outside your home where six feet of distance can be maintained.

Ezike said anyone wearing a costume should still wear a cloth mask, as a costume mask is not an acceptable substitute. If you or your child wears a cloth mask under a costume mask, Ezike said you should make sure it won't impair breathing. If it does, you or your child should wear a cloth mask alone, and set aside the costume mask.

Trick-or-treaters also should stay in groups that include only members of their own household, and stay six feet away from other groups.

Ezike said people also should avoid crowded costume parties at bars, and shouldn't hold large parties at their own homes.

Rather than haunted houses, people should consider visiting open-air, one-way haunted forests, or going on ghost tours where they can stay six feet away from others.

As for festivities like pumpkin patches, hayrides, and orchards, IDPH said people should wear face coverings at all times, observe social distancing, and use hand sanitizer before handling pumpkins, apples, or other produce. Hayride capacity should not exceed 50%, and each party should be spaced at lest six feet apart.

For more holiday safety tips, go to the IDPH website under guidance.

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