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As holidays approach, public health officials warn virus is spreading in small gatherings

young people with masks drinking
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"I thought well, I'm just going to go visit for a few minutes," Rev. Robert Teszlewicz said.

Rev. Robert Teszlewicz was doing everything right. In the spring, he was off work, and followed the stay-at-home orders. When he went out to the store to buy groceries, he took extra care.

“I always wore a mask,” he says. “I wore gloves, I would go at a time when there was very few people there."

But in early May, after being isolated for months, he wanted to see people. It was Mother’s Day, and a few family members were gathering to have coffee and visit.

“I thought well, I’m just going to go visit for a few minutes,” he says. “I think I was there about a half hour and visited four or five friends.”

At the little gathering, among close friends and family, they didn’t wear their masks.

“That was it,” Teszlewicz says.

Within weeks he was in the hospital at Mercy Health in Muskegon, where he says he spent 10 days battling COVID-19.

Each day, he’d ask his doctor “Am I going to be all right?”

“We hope so,” is all she could tell him.

“I have to say it was – kind of messed with my head being there” he says now. “And I think to this day it still does.”

"Small group gatherings of only four or five people are triggering the spread," Dr. Darryl Elmouchi said.

Small not the same as safe

Since the beginning of the pandemic, public health officials have warned against gathering in large groups. Big events were canceled early on. Under the current emergency order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, all indoor gatherings of more than 50 people are banned. Gatherings of more than 10 people are discouraged.

But as a surge of new confirmed coronavirus cases overtakes the state, doctors and public health officials warn even smaller gatherings seem to be driving infections.

“We’re finding that small group gatherings of only four or five people are triggering the spread, because people might assume that social distancing guidelines aren’t as necessary,” said Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan, in a video update last week.

Spectrum Health is one of many hospital systems in the state that’s having to cope with rapidly rising numbers of coronavirus patients. As of Tuesday, Spectrum reported 274 coronavirus patients, a 36% increase from just one week ago.

In Kent County, which accounted for more than 1 out of every 10 cases reported by the state over the weekend, health officer Adam London says both cases and deaths continue to rise.

“Many of these cases are linked to social gatherings,” London said in an update last week. “Things like birthday parties, funerals and sports."

London and other health officials note that schools do not seem to be a major source of the spread of the virus in communities.

Even in cases where students or staff are infected, health officials say most of the infections have been happening off school grounds, in social settings. In those social settings, small isn’t the same as safe.

"We personally have changed our Thanksgiving plans as a result of what we're seeing," Dr. Darryl Elmouchi said.

“The virus can easily spread when you’re together with anybody from a different household,” says Kristina Weighmink, of the Ottawa County Health Department. “When you’re pulling together two or more households, it becomes a greater risk, especially as we’re going into the holidays.”

Holidays a risk

The upcoming holidays are one reason many people working in health care expect cases of COVID-19 to keep rising in Michigan.

“The likelihood that this will be diminished enough to make Thanksgiving quite safe as a gathering time is pretty much close to zero,” says Dr. Elmouchi, of Spectrum Health. “I can tell you that my family, we personally have changed our Thanksgiving plans as a result of what we’re seeing.”

For those who do choose to gather, health officials emphasize the importance of wearing masks indoors whenever you’re with someone who lives outside of your household, even if you’re only meeting in a small group for a short time.

Six months after his own infection during a family gathering on a holiday, Rev. Teszlewicz is out of the hospital, but still experiencing symptoms. He’s often short of breath, he says. And he’s been having intestinal problems.

“I’ve been back in the emergency room two or three times,” he says. “They’re always very apologetic, it’s like ‘You know, we don’t know what to tell you. There’s nothing we can give you that’s going to help, and hopefully these symptoms will go away.’"

He’s still waiting for them to go away. And still wishing more people will take the virus seriously enough to stop the spread.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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