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Baylor College of Medicine

Our Three Holiday Contagions

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Nov. 18, 2020

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Dear Members of the Baylor College of Medicine Community,

We enter this holiday season at a difficult time. Cases in the U.S. continue to balloon at an alarming rate; we love to break records, but not the ones we are shattering on a regular basis – new cases, hospitalizations, deaths.

The numbers for the Houston area are climbing, albeit more slowly than many areas of the country. It appears our slow, steady upward climb is beginning to accelerate. Consistent with national trends, regional hospitals in less urban settings are being hit the hardest, while center city Houston has ample, but slowly shrinking, hospital capacity. Add to this backdrop of accelerating cases, holiday travel, students returning from university, and generalized pandemic fatigue, and the situation is concerning.

The emerging vaccine news is good and encouraging and provides an important ray of hope – as many are correctly saying, "the beginning of the end." However, we are still under siege by a dangerous invader, and the relief troops – safe and effective vaccines administered to enough of the population to generate herd immunity – are still months away.

It should give us great solace that help is on the horizon. That comfort is real, but will not provide relief during the holidays. There is much to be thankful for, but things will get worse before they get better.

Much of our personal and professional time and energy over the past several months has been focused on mitigating the health, societal and economic impact of SARS-CoV-2. As we enter the holiday season, keep in mind we are facing not one, but three contagions. All are insidious. All cause damage in different ways. We can keep all three from overshadowing our gatherings.

The first and foremost is the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a adage, attributed to many, "hope for the best, and plan for the worst." I would modify this for our holidays: If all we do is hope for the best, we will experience the worst. I will not repeat prior holiday guidance, and refer you to Build Your Own Holiday Bubble and Take Control of Your Holiday. Review these messages carefully and share them.

Think about what is best for you and your family. Have conversations about how you will approach the holidays. You can celebrate and remain safe, but only with deliberate action. Regardless of whether you will celebrate with your household only, engineer a gathering with strict attention to masking or distancing, or commit to the work of forming a Family Holiday Bubble, the most important thing is you have a plan. Absent a high degree of personal responsibility, the holidays will create a major opportunity for viral spread.

The second contagion is more insidious – the contagion of discord. One of the most disappointing aspects of our pandemic experience has been the divisive nature of public debate. We had a national opportunity to link arms and unify against a common enemy. For many reasons, that opportunity was largely lost. It appears many of us try to emulate the breathless chum-in-the-water television pundits. We want to find the single right piece of data that will deal a withering blow to our opponent and cause their arguments to collapse like a house of cards. We want to win.

We cannot control the internet, the echo-chamber of social media or the insatiable, drama-fueled 24-hour news cycle. However, as we enter the holidays, and prepare to spend time with people we care for, but with whom we may not agree, we can commit to respectful discourse instead of divisive discord. Who is more effective at winning the hearts and minds of others? The street preacher shouting "repent!" or your friends quietly living lives consistent with their beliefs? Your loquacious co-worker who makes certain their opinion is known to all, or the one who takes time to listen to you and understand your point of view? How many Dallas Cowboy haters have converted to fans by listening to the rantings of their overly-enthusiastic brothers-in-law? Zero.

In The Argument Culture, Deborah Tannen notes it is easier to have an argument than to make an argument. Anyone can have an argument. Making an argument requires you take the time to understand the issue, and you invest time in understanding opposing points of view. Making an argument requires you listen to others, and acknowledge their beliefs have value. When it is clear real dialog is not possible, sometimes it involves walking away. It almost always involves talking less and listening more. During the holidays we will celebrate with people with many opinions. Let us use this opportunity to build bridges, not tear them down.

The third contagion is despair. In the best of times, for many the holidays and winter months are a time of heightened stress, anxiety and depression. There is no reason to think the pandemic edition of our holidays will be any different. We have incurred enough damage already from COVID-19. Let us try to avoid even more suffering by attending to our collective mental health. Take care of yourself. Eat well, get enough rest, engage in activities you enjoy. If you need help, seek help. Your primary care physician is a good place to start.

Remain sensitive to those around you. These are people you care about – people you know better than anyone. Be alert for signs of emotional distress. Changes in mood or habits, poor sleep, irritability, withdrawal. Changes in alcohol use. If others appear to be suffering, help them seek help.

As we launch into this most unique of holiday seasons, colored by fear but tinged with the certainty this pandemic scourge will pass, I wish everyone a (thoughtfully constructed) safe and happy holiday. Let us use this opportunity to physically distance, but emotionally draw even more closely together.

James T. McDeavitt, M.D.
Senior Vice President and Dean of Clinical Affairs

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