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KPBS Midday Edition

Why You Should Stay Home On New Year's Eve

Medical staff administer COVID-19 swab tests at the drive-through Aquatica San Diego testing location, Dec. 8, 2020.
Jacob Aere
Medical staff administer COVID-19 swab tests at the drive-through Aquatica San Diego testing location, Dec. 8, 2020.
"What is very likely to happen is people who were celebrating on Christmas are now going to go, be asymptomatic, celebrate with potentially different people than they were with at Christmas and infect a whole new group of people," epidemiologist Dr. Rebecca Fielding-Miller said.

It’s official. State leaders said Tuesday the coronavirus stay-at-home order for Southern California will be in effect into the New Year.

But extra-vigilance may be needed even at home if New Year’s Eve brings the typical parties and celebrations. The fear is New Year’s get togethers, as described by Gov. Gavin Newsom, may produce "a surge on top of a surge, arguably, on top of, again, another surge,” and swamp California hospitals.

Dr. Rebecca Fielding-Miller, assistant professor in the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health at UC San Diego and the Division of Infectious Disease and Global Public Health, joined Midday Edition Wednesday to discuss the risks of attending in-person New Year's celebrations. The interview below has been edited for clarity.

Q: New Year’s Eve parties are described in a CNN story as a "COVID-19 dream." Why would that be the case?

There's a lot of things that are going on for New Year's. For one thing, they're in this perfect window to sort of re-infect a whole new cadre of people after those who were potentially infected from Christmas. We also want to hug and kiss people on New Year's. We want to drink and eat and we'll be taking our masks down to drink. And even if we're being very careful, alcohol can make us a little bit less careful than we might mean to. So, it's a confluence of a lot of things that make it a very dangerous evening.

Q: Can you explain what the governor meant when he said we’re in danger of seeing "a surge, over a surge, over a surge?"

So, a lot of us who have been thinking about COVID-19 for a while, which is 11 months at this point, have been really worried about what the holiday season is going to look like. And that's why you've heard a lot of us kind of waving our arms around about where the base numbers were from the summer. So, what's happened is people have gone and even if they were careful, they have celebrated Thanksgiving with family. So, they've been in close quarters with no masks, with family and loved ones. And that has brought our numbers up quite high, as we've seen. And then a lot of folks went and did the same thing for the Christmas holiday. And again, there's a lot of eating being in close quarters, hugging, being with people we love those really natural behaviors. And so we haven't even really begun to see the effects of Christmas yet. People who were infected are probably just starting to feel crummy and test positive. And so what is very likely to happen is people who were celebrating on Christmas are now going to go, be asymptomatic, celebrate with potentially different people than they were with at Christmas and infect, a whole new group of people. So, you have sort of an infection seeding over the Christmas holidays and then going out into a whole bunch of new clusters of people for New Year's.

Q: What if you get a COVID-19 test and it comes back negative, are you OK then to go to a party?

That would be great, but unfortunately not so. COVID-19 tests are most accurate between five and eight days after you are exposed or infected. So even if you go, you get the fastest test possible. You get a test like five minutes before that New Year's party. You haven't seen anybody since Christmas. You could still be infected and get a negative test. The window is just too short for accurate testing. There's literally no way to know. So, there's no way to to test your way to a safe New Year's.

Q: If California hospitals become overwhelmed by an influx of COVID-19 patients in January, how do you think that will affect the death rate from the disease?

I mean, this is the thing that we've been trying to avoid this whole time when we've been saying flatten the curve, it was never about we're going to eradicate COVID-19. It was about we're going to have a functioning health system. And that's the thing that we are losing right now. And so our health care providers, nurses, doctors, support staff have been working so hard for so long. And when you overwhelm hospitals, when you overwhelm ICUs, it's not just about equipment, it's about staff. And so, when you are calling up people who maybe don't have ICU experience, they're experts in other things, but they're doing their best to pitch in. You are not getting the care of a well-rested expert who has time to look and think and perform at their absolute peak. You have an exhausted, overstretched person and you have too few of them. So, you have this overstretching of staff, you have a lack of ventilators, you have a lack of beds and you just have a lack of space. And my biggest concern is that we're going to get to a place where we start actually having to think about triaging and rationing care, which is never a thing that we really have to think about in the U.S. if we are wealthy and have health insurance. And so, there's going to be a moment potentially when doctors and nurses and providers have to start thinking about "who do I treat first?" The elderly grandmother who just wanted to see her kids for Thanksgiving or the 25-year-old teacher who just wanted to see their friends for New Year’s? And that is the bad thing to have to be thinking about. But it could come.

Q: What you and other health experts are saying is that New Year's Eve parties could become super-spreader events, but is there any way for people to safely celebrate? For instance, is it safe for people to celebrate outdoors?

It is safer to celebrate outdoors, certainly. You can think about a risk spectrum, right, if you absolutely must be with friends or family, and I would genuinely beg you not to, but if you absolutely must, please go outside, please wear a mask. Please be at least six feet apart from one another at all times. But just remember that that's really hard to maintain. We’re human, we’re people — it's hard to stay six feet apart the whole time again, especially if champagne is involved or anything else. But outside is safer. Masked is safer, fewer people is safer.