Chef Cheetie Kumar from Garland in Raleigh looks over to her colleague Jason Smith, who also appeared during a press briefing on COVID that took place at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh on Friday afternoon. Kumar and Smith are both participants in the Count on Me NC program that helps restaurants function in a manner that would reduce the chances of spreading COVID to customers and staff alike. Screenshot courtesy: UNC TV

By Anne Blythe

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, plans to practice what she has been preaching about Thanksgiving gatherings.

North Carolina’s recent daily-case milestones of more than 3,000 and 4,000 have been no cause for celebration.

As the number of cases balloons across the state and country, public health officials in North Carolina and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are urging people to curb travel plans for the holiday.

“I had planned to travel out of state with my family,” Cohen said during a briefing with reporters. “I have celebrated Thanksgiving with my family every single year of my life. This will be the first one where I am not joining them for Thanksgiving.

“It’s awful. No one wants to break those family traditions. But we just have to. This is a different year.”

Cohen brought in two noted Triangle chefs on Friday to share tips for families that despite public health pleas to keep gatherings small and outdoors when possible, will celebrate Thanksgiving with people outside their immediate households.

Cheetie Kumar, a chef, guitarist for Birds of Avalon and co-owner of Garland restaurant in Raleigh, and Jason Smith, chef proprietor of the 18 Restaurant group, stressed the importance of masked servers, airflow, regular cleaning and keeping tables an appropriate distance from each other.

“Wear gloves to pre-set your tables,” Kumar suggested. “Pre-determine seating arrangements and place members of the same household together at tables six feet apart.

“Just like we do in our restaurant, don’t be afraid to break out the tape measure.”

Do a little gut check’

Gov. Roy Cooper issued an order more than a week ago with the holidays in mind, limiting indoor gatherings to no more than 10 people. He strongly recommended that people avoid travel. His public health team recommends getting tested ahead of any travel while cautioning that any negative result only represents a moment in time.

Outdoor gatherings can be a bit larger than 10 people, but the chefs cautioned against the hugging that traditionally occurs when extended families get together for the holidays.

“Do a little gut check,” Kumar said. “It’s easy to forget that you can be carrying and contagious while not feeling any symptoms. So try and act like you are contagious. That really changes how you do everything. It also makes you think twice about taking unnecessary risks.”

Smith suggested that one person should do all the serving, using tongs, gloves and a mask.

“Avoid self-service or buffet-style serving of food,” Smith suggested. “Consider using disposable plates and utensils to reduce contact with dirty dishes. Or you can have your sink filled with a bleach solution, in addition to soap and water, and make sure only one person is handling the dirty dishes while wearing gloves.”

shows a man in a white chef's jacket standing at a podium where he's talking about COVID
Chef Jason Smith from Triangle-based 18 restaurant group appeared during a press briefing on COVID that took place at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh on Friday afternoon. Smith shared recipe a recipe for oyster stew on the website of Count on Me NC program that helps restaurants function in a manner that would reduce the chances of spreading COVID to customers and staff alike. Screenshot courtesy: UNCTV

Banana leaves, chutney and oyster stew

At Garland, Kumar has used a creative prevention measure for plating food.

“As much as I hate it, we’re using disposable plates right now,” Kumar said. “Everything that’s plated is on a banana leaf in our restaurant. We’re only seating outside and the banana leaf keeps it from particles entering our kitchen after somebody’s eaten off of a plate. We can just dump that compostable leaf into the trash and the person who’s handling the dirty dishes doesn’t have to handle utensils or plates. Anything that food has been plated on is easily washed without them being exposed to that surface.”

Kumar and Smith shared a couple of recipes for holiday get-togethers through the Count On Me NC campaign to keep restaurants and diners safe during the pandemic.

Kumar’s Cranberry Chutney uses winter spices, fresh ginger, an orange and its juice.

Smith’s oyster casserole is whipped up and flavored with lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, oregano, thyme, nutmeg, salt, pepper and a dash of Texas Pete hot sauce.

Dire warning signs

Throughout the week, Cohen has sounded the alarm about North Carolina’s COVID-19 trends and metrics.

“I am very concerned,” Cohen said Friday. “We’ve hit two unwanted milestones in the span of just eight days.”

On Nov. 11, more than 3,000 new lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported in a day, a historic high at the time. On Thursday, more than 4,000 new cases were reported.

The percentage of tests that are positive has risen from 7 to 9 percent, further troubling Cohen. The number of people showing up at emergency departments with COVID-19 symptoms has increased.

shows a map of North Carolina with many counties colored in yellow, some counties colored in orange and a handful of them red, to denote critical levels of COVID activity
A new mapping tool created by the Department of Health and Human Services looks to highlight which parts of the state are seeing critical increases in the number of COVID-19 cases balanced against hospital capacity. This screenshot from DHHS shows the report from Nov. 17. Red counties have “critical” community spread, orange have “substantial” and yellow have “significant” community spread.

Hospitals also are seeing a record number of people with severe illness related to the novel coronavirus. On Friday, the state reported the highest number of people in intensive care units with COVID-19.

“We’re seeing warning signs in our trends that we need to heed to keep our family and friends from getting sick and ensuring our hospitals are able to care for those that have serious illness — COVID and not COVID,” Cohen said.

No ‘phew’ for yellow counties

This week, North Carolina rolled out a new color-coded COVID-19 alert system that highlights viral hotspots across the state.

When counties are classified as red, the most dire situation, the state encourages elected leaders, retailers and others to tailor plans that might include curfews and other restrictions beyond statewide orders to curb the “critical spread” of the virus.

Counties designated as orange have “substantial spread” of the virus. Cohen cautioned on Friday that residents counties marked yellow should not be breathing huge sighs of relief.

“I’ve been hearing folks in yellow counties saying, ‘Oh phew, I’m in a yellow county,’” Cohen said. “No, no. Yellow is still a state of concern for us. We have viral spread across our state. I am concerned in all parts of our state.”

“There are certain counties that are even more concerning,” Cohen added. “And we are trying to highlight that with this color system — red, orange and yellow.”

Cohen stressed how quickly the metrics and trends are moving in the wrong direction and her growing concern about that.

“The concern is really everywhere,” Cohen added.

That could lead to new executive orders and more restrictions, Cohen added.

“The governor and I continue to evaluate those trends,” Cohen said Friday. “We may need to take additional action. No one wants to go backward, and I think there are things we can do right now to try to prevent that from happening. But we are going in the wrong direction and additional state action may be necessary. We continue to look at all those options.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Friday afternoon:

  • 4,979 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 328,846 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those,1,571 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with COVID-19 infections on a given day and does not represent all of the North Carolinians who may have been in the hospital throughout the course of the epidemic.
  • 276,132 people who had COVID-19 are presumed to have recovered. This weekly estimate does not denote how many of the diagnosed cases in the state are still infectious. Nor does it reflect the number of so-called “long-haul” survivors of COVID who continue to feel the effects of the disease beyond the defined “recovery” period.
  • To date, 4,819,029 tests have been completed in North Carolina. As of July 7, all labs in the state are required to report both their positive and negative test results to the lab, so that figure includes all of the COVID-19 tests performed in the state.
  • People ages 25-49 make up the largest group of cases (40 percent). While 15 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 81 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 422 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,480 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 901 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital. As of Friday, 284 suspected COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.

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Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.