By Anne Blythe

You hear it more and more as the holidays approach.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” public health leaders assure us while touting vaccines on the horizon.

That glimmer of light is still months away, and at the moment North Carolina and the rest of the country are going through a perilously dark patch in this pandemic tunnel. COVID-19 case counts are rising rapidly and health care systems are groaning from the strain of caring for so many sick people.

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Thanksgiving has to be different this year, public health leaders admonish. Keep gatherings small, forgo travel, they recommend, and preferably limit celebrations to people within your immediate household.

If local turkey farmers are a bellwether, many families are heeding the public health advice and planning smaller gatherings with smaller birds.

At Fickle Creek Farm in rural Orange County, manager Noah Ranells opened a large refrigerator on the property eight days before Thanksgiving and showed the last of his free-range flock this year.

The Broad Breasted Whites, raised on the farm since they were day-old poults, are sold fresh, never frozen, Ranells said.

Smaller birds in the 10- to 16-pound range have been in great demand this year. Generally, Thanksgiving planners suggest counting on a pound or a pound and a half of meat per person when deciding what size turkey to cook.

“We’ve had people who have canceled orders because they decided not to do a large celebration,” Ranells said.

Man in a green shirt, heavy sweater and blue jeans holds a large turkey
Noah Ranells, manager of Fickle Creek Farm in rural Orange County, gets his turkeys ready for Thanksgiving celebrations. Photo credit: Anne Blythe

Pandemic pivots

Darren Seifer, a food and beverage analyst with the NPD Group, a marketing research organization, said two-thirds of adults polled planned to spend Thanksgiving in their own homes.

“Up from 58 percent last year,” Seifer said in a YouTube post.

That means smaller turkeys have been in demand, causing turkey farmers to pivot as they have throughout the pandemic.

At Fickle Creek, that meant setting up an online shop and doing deliveries, as well as continuing to sell at farmers markets and in the Farm Stand on Tuesdays.

At Bull City Farm in northern Durham County, Samantha Gasson raised 200 Bronze Broad Breasted turkey, birds that range freely in the pasture and settle at night to classical music, soothing sound to deter predators.

Bull City sells its turkeys frozen. Gasson noticed early that people were ordering smaller turkeys and adjusted the processing schedules to meet that demand.

Though some small farms have had to alter business as usual during the pandemic, Gasson has reaped benefits from more people cooking at home and wanting to support local farmers.

Bull City Farm offers pre-ordering, pickups at the farm and home deliveries.

“In general, my sales are way up,” Gasson said.

Zoomsgivings better than ICU Christmases

While turkeys might be on the menu at some people’s Thanksgiving gatherings, keeping a tradition alive, the holiday might be a mournful and blue day for many missing loved ones they have not seen for months or mourning the absence of friends and family who succumbed to COVID-19.

“It’s really important to start from a place of acceptance that this year is going to be different and reflect on what makes the holiday special for your family and then try to make a plan to emphasize the things that make the holiday special for you,” Crystal Schiller, a psychologist at the UNC School of Medicine, said during a briefing with reporters earlier this month.

In many families, preparing food together in the kitchen is as enjoyable and occasionally more so than sitting down at the table together.

“In my family, we all enjoy cooking Thanksgiving dinner together,” Schiller said. “So this year, we’re going to be doing that in a different way on Zoom, and cook, and spend the time socializing in that way so that we can all be safe.”

So many families plan to Zoom on Thanksgiving that the hashtag #Zoomsgiving has been trending on Twitter with such pleas as “stay home,” “cozy is better than COVID,” and “a Zoom Thanksgiving is better than an ICU Christmas.

“It is dangerous to think it can’t happen to you,” Emily Sickbert-Bennett, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who studies infectious diseases. “What we’re seeing now is it is happening in these close gatherings.”

Despite the cautionary tales, some families include COVID-19 naysayers. They might still think masks are unnecessary and that their risk of getting sick or sickening others is low.

“A lot of people are really concerned about negotiating safety precautions with family, especially because of the heated political climate,” Schiller said on Nov. 10. “This comes up in almost all of my sessions with patients in the last several weeks.”

Her advice?

Make sure you convey to family members why you are concerned and either make a specific request of that person, opt not to join them or present an option that could allow a safe visit, perhaps outdoors.

“Maybe not have the meal together and go on a walk,” Schiller said.

‘We have reasons for hope’

As the pandemic wears on and fatigue weighs heavily on many, Schiller suggests communication plans that can help the disconnected feel more connected.

Some might enjoy Zooming. Others tired of Zoom meetings for work might find a simple phone call or FaceTiming more meaningful.

“The social isolation and lack of a clear timeline is really weighing on people,” Schiller said. “It’s important for people to have a plan in order for people to feel connected with others and that will depend on the person and the relationship that they have.”

As Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said Friday during a briefing with reporters: “With the holidays fast approaching, we want to spread joy, not this virus.”

“We have reasons for hope,” Cohen added. “Promising news on the vaccine front was made public over the last couple of weeks and we know that this pandemic will end. Until then, remember that we see high levels of virus across our whole state, that our hospitals see high levels of COVID patients. We want to be, not part of the spread, but part of the solution. North Carolina needs to do what we’ve done through this whole pandemic: Take care of one another.”

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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.