April 19, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Fears of a COVID-19 Christmas surge are not stopping travel

Airports are seeing steady increases in travelers determined to spend Christmas with family and friends.

Coronavirus testing centers are seeing brisk business, including from some people who want to know whether they have the virus before attending holiday events.

And last-minute shoppers are still out looking for that perfect gift.

To the alarm of California health officials, Christmas is looking an awful lot like Thanksgiving, when where social gatherings put an already unprecedented surge of the coronavirus into overdrive. The Thanksgiving “super-spreader” events helped fill hospitals with COVID-19 patients, forcing more restrictions on businesses and pushing the healthcare network to the brink.

But even the most dire public health warnings seemed to have failed to sink in. And in some cases, they are no match for the basic human need to spend time with loved ones, maintain family traditions and turn to others for support during challenging times.

Officials have already said that hospitals will likely have to make difficult decisions in the coming weeks about which patients will get the critical care that could mean the difference between life and death. The further spread of COVID-19 during Christmas gatherings would only prolong the crisis, officials said.

“We really can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of Thanksgiving. … Another spike in cases from the winter holidays will be disastrous for our hospital system, and ultimately will mean many more people simply won’t be with us in 2021,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Monday.

“Our hospitals are already over capacity, and the high quality medical care we’re accustomed to in L.A. County is beginning to be compromised as our frontline healthcare workers are beyond stretched to the limit.”

But that message was not resonating at airports.

Hanna Dixon of West Hollywood, and her dog, Pepper, a Yorkie, make their way into Southwest Airlines at LAX. Dixon was heading to Cleveland, Ohio to attend a service for her Aunt who passed away.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

“Almost no one has caught COVID on a plane,” said Andrew Connors, who stood in a security line at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday morning with his daughter, Meikah.

All around them, the terminal buzzed as masked passengers queued up for security pat-downs, airport employees wiped surfaces with fervor and roller bags rumbled across the floor.

Connors said Meikah, 11, was preparing to travel alone to Marysville, Ohio, to spend Christmas with her mother. Although he was initially reluctant to put his daughter on a plane, he said he felt reassured after reading up on safety protocols and air-filtration methods onboard.

“We’re probably going to make a snowman when I get there,” she said.

She joins more than 3 million passengers who have passed through U.S. airport security checkpoints in the last three days, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration.

The agency reported just over 1 million people each day — on Friday, Saturday and Sunday — compared with 501,000 nationwide passengers on a single day two weeks ago. Prior to Friday, the last time the agency passed the 1-million mark in 2020 was Nov. 29, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The burgeoning influx of travelers is likely to increase as Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year’s Eve draw closer.

“Over the last few days, those numbers have started to grow, much like we saw ahead of Thanksgiving,” said LAX spokesman Heath Montgomery, who noted that the airport is expecting an average of 920 flights a day through Jan. 4, up from 846 daily flights around the Thanksgiving holiday. The overall numbers are still down substantially from last year, however.

Some at LAX knew the risks.

“My grandma is getting old, and she has some health problems, so we wanted to see her,” said Diego Cee, a 21-year-old Pasadena resident preparing for a flight to Mexico City.

Donned in a face mask and shield, Cee said he was extremely nervous about his journey. He plans to quarantine for a “few days” after he arrives before visiting his grandmother, he said.

Ahmad Atif-Rea and his 12-year-old son, Iyad, said they were traveling from their home in Santa Barbara to Park City, Utah, where they were looking forward to hitting the ski slopes. The family skis every December, Atif-Rea said, and they didn’t want to miss out on the tradition this year.

“We’ll be careful, of course,” he added. “We don’t want to get sick.”

The disconnect between the warnings of health officials and the reaction of those who decide to travel and enjoy holiday gatherings sometimes seems difficult to bridge.

For every cold statistic there is an equally human justification. From canceled weddings to deferred graduations to birthdays celebrated alone, 2020 has been a uniquely challenging year, and many say they long for a taste of normalcy and comfort. Many are anxious and feel alone. Others have suffered financial losses. In times like these, it feels natural to connect with loved ones for support.

Those are difficult impulses to ignore, some passengers said, even as conditions in hospitals deteriorate in terrifying ways and the COVID-19 death toll spikes.

L.A. County has reported nearly 15,000 new coronavirus cases every day over the last week, nearly eight times the comparable figure from six weeks ago. L.A. County has also reported an average of 84 COVID-19 deaths a day over the last week — six times the comparable number from six weeks ago.

ICU occupancy effectively maxed out last week, and as of 9 a.m. Sunday, a point-in-time survey found that there were only 30 available ICU beds in this county of 10 million people. A tally last week found 69.

L.A. County Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said emergency departments are slammed across the county. Over the weekend, one hospital struggled to care for both a high number of COVID-19 patients and a large family with critical injuries after they were struck by a suspected drunk driver, Ghaly said.

“We’ve all seen images of people out and about. Lots of people in parks. Images of busy shopping centers and retail centers. And we are very worried about what this could mean in the days and weeks to come,” Ghaly said. “If you’re still out there shopping for your loved ones for this holiday season, or you’re planning a holiday get-together, then you are missing the gravity of the situation that is affecting hospitals across Los Angeles County and California and this nation.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he is frustrated by people not following pleas to stay at home, wear masks and avoid gatherings.

“If you gather for the holidays, our hospitals will be overrun,” he said. “This is not a good sign. And it’s a recipe for a Christmas and New Year’s surge…

“This is a warning for you. This is about your family. This is about your loved ones. This is about your plans,” Garcetti said. “Your choices will save lives, or they will lead to more deaths.”

Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, UC San Francisco chair of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics, said L.A. County’s numbers “are looking really quite scary right now.”

“We are clearly in that period of exponential growth. Things are just going up so fast that it is really hard to get them back under control,” Bibbins-Domingo said.

Unfortunately, “we keep doing the things that we want to do. It’s Christmastime; going out shopping; being with the people we were with last month. But this month, it’s riskier,” she said. “And I think when you look at the hospitalizations, the capacity in L.A., it’s a dangerous combination, especially heading into a time when people just want to be doing those things even more. So, it’s dangerous.”

At Union Station on Monday, Jim Price, 71, sat on a bench outside as he waited for his son’s train to arrive from Phoenix. They would spend “an hour or two together” at the station before his son continued on to his final destination in Seattle.

Price, who lives in San Clemente, said that he had some cardiovascular issues but that he wasn’t worried about the visit from a health perspective.

“We’re taking all the right precautions, and we’re outdoors,” he said. “I know things are out of the ordinary with the spike, but I want to see my son.”

At the coronavirus testing kiosk near the station’s entrance, about a dozen people waited in line to swab their mouths and pass the sample to a healthcare worker through a secure submission box.

Kaley Mahoney, 31, was getting tested so she could spend Christmas with her friends.

“I am concerned, but I’ve been isolated so I feel OK,” said Mahoney, a food delivery driver. “It gets worse when you listen to the news.”

Times staff writers Jennifer Lu and Casey Miller contributed to this report.