Gatherings among families, friends are fueling virus spread in Orange County

Residents urged to take precautions ahead of Thanksgiving

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ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Large “super spreader” events are not fueling the rising coronavirus cases across our region but neighborhood gatherings within families and friends are, according to experts.

Alvina Chu, the epidemiology program manager for the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, and her colleagues have said that things like birthday parties, celebrations, BBQs, playdates and similar happenings are the leading cause of local infections.

Chu said she reviews the new cases every day, line-by-line and traces spread within households from multiple generations and then to their neighbors.

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“You can see clusters within households where it’s small children and then parents and the grandparents and then next door neighbors, and then from contact tracing you can identify that the families got together over the weekend to celebrate whatever small gathering,” Chu said. “Predominantly the cases are being driven now, by small groups that we have, there’s not been some large super spreader event necessarily that has propagated. The bulk of our cases here, it’s small family groups. We know that the virus is easily spread from person to person. While you’re living in the same household, there’s a lot of exposures and it’s for a prolonged period of time.”

Chu said once one family member becomes infected, it’s likely the whole household will test positive unless strict isolation protocols are followed.

It’s something Dr. Raul Pino, the director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, has been saying for weeks.

“Our transmission is occurring between people that know each other during a social environment. Normally indoors or outdoors, but very close contact. So that’s why we have insisted in celebrations, family gatherings, and I hate to say birthdays, but birthdays too -- so we have to keep our social gatherings to the smallest number possible while observing CDC guidelines. And again, you have to assume that everyone, everyone has the disease,” Pino said on Nov. 9.

Ahead of Thanksgiving, Chu said anyone who’s sick and awaiting a test result shouldn’t attend any kind of gathering with family or friends. If someone is traveling, it is advised they self-isolate for 14 days beforehand.

She issued a reminder, too, that wearing masks and social distancing are still necessary even when you’re around loved ones. She urged residents against letting their guard down during the holiday weekend.

The leading epidemiologist recalled a recent interaction at a grocery store in which she asked the cashier and bagger whether they’d be celebrating Thanksgiving and if they planned on wearing masks.

“The one guy was like, ‘Absolutely not, it’s my family. Why would I even consider doing that?’ And then the other guy was like, ‘Absolutely I will, because I don’t want to kill my grandma,’” Chu said.

Eating dinner outside was another measure she suggested to make holiday gatherings safer.

Coronavirus cases both in Florida and nationwide have been trending upward in recent weeks.

“There are now a reported 53,384 cases in Orange County, 619 Orange County residents have died as a result of the coronavirus, which is an increase of 15 residents since our last briefing on Monday. To the families and victims, we say to them, our hearts certainly go out to all of you during these difficult times. Nationwide, we have reached another milestone. The country has surpassed 250,000 deaths. This is a sad statistic that hits home in our county, to the families and Orange County residents,” Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said.

The mayor added that he doesn’t like the way the numbers are looking lately.

“Please know that we are safer, stronger together. Our two week positivity average is around 7.8%. The numbers are going in the wrong direction,” he said.

Statewide, 9,085 new COVID-19 cases were reported Thursday.

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About the Authors:

Emilee is a digital journalist for News 6 and, where she writes about space and Central Florida news. Emilee hosts the Edward R. Murrow Award-winning podcast Space Curious. Previously, she was a space writer and web editor for the Orlando Sentinel and a web producer at the Naples Daily News.