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Christmas Eve is just a few days away. That was always the highlight of the holiday in my big Italian family, the day we always got together to celebrate, eat a big fish dinner, sing Christmas carols and exchange gifts.

As a child in Brooklyn, the excitement of everyone crowding into my great-grandmother’s apartment, seeing cousins I hadn’t seen in, well … days — we all lived within a 10-block radius of Big Grandma’s house and were together almost constantly — was unsurpassed. It even made my holiday getup of crinoline dress, leotards and patent leather shoes tolerable.

Christmas has changed over the years, as family members passed away or moved to far-flung places (read: Florida) but we’ve hung onto the tradition. I would say it’s been scaled back and quieter — but that’s not exactly true. We may be fewer in number, but we’re as boisterous as ever.

In 2020, though, this beloved tradition hits a hard stop for me. I spend too much time looking at COVID-19 data to pretend it will be okay to celebrate this Christmas with family members outside my immediate household.

I don’t want to get sick and I don’t want to die. It’s that simple.

There is no cure or readily available therapeutic treatment for the novel coronavirus and it is currently spreading out of control in our community.

The number of new cases, even as it’s spiking, does not tell the whole story. It’s only a fraction of the actual number of infections. It only represents positive test results. People who are asymptomatic or only experiencing mild symptoms aren’t necessarily getting tested.

And it only takes one infected person — who may be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic — at a holiday gathering to infect everyone who attends. That scenario made too many Thanksgiving dinners spreader events. And the hospitalizations and deaths data for the month of December tell the rest of the story.

In the first 18 days of December, the number of COVID fatalities in Suffolk County was triple the number of fatalities for the entire month of November — 107 deaths from Dec. 1 to Dec. 18, versus 35 in the month of November.

There have been nearly 900 new hospital admissions in December so far — 898 — compared to 567 new admissions for the entire month of November. That’s just Suffolk County. Statewide, there are more than 6,000 people hospitalized with COVID, 610 of them on ventilators. There were 737 new hospital admissions in New York State — on Friday.

Also on Friday, COVID claimed the lives of 127 New Yorkers, bringing the state’s death toll as of Dec. 18 to 28,474, according to the State Department of Health.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, whose computer models have been projecting infections and deaths since the early days of the pandemic, projects the U.S. death toll — currently 316,202 lives lost — is on track to reach 560,000 by April 1. A rapid vaccine rollout would reduce the death toll to 539,000, according to IHME projections. Deaths could rise to 800,000 if states and communities ease up on mandates for masks, social distancing and gatherings.

Sadly, infections and deaths have so far trended along the upper tier of IHME projections, which are based on different behavioral scenarios — universal mask-wearing, things going along as they are, mandates easing and the newly added rapid vaccine rollout. In March, when the IHME model was first launched, its high-end projections were 160,000 U.S. deaths and 26,983 N.Y. deaths by Aug. 4. On that date, there were 157,665 COVID deaths recorded in the U.S. and 25,170 deaths in N.Y.

IMHE now projects over 50,000 deaths in New York by April 1 — on the current trajectory. With a rapid vaccine rollout, the number of deaths would be reduced to 49,431. With universal masks, the number is reduced further to 48,121. The model’s high-end track puts the number of deaths in this state at 62,366 by April 1.

I love Christmas and I love my family. I miss them terribly. Zoom gatherings just aren’t the same. (Turns out that a bunch of people talking loudly and all at once doesn’t work too well with Zoom.) And I’m as tired of this pandemic as anyone else.

But I don’t want to be a statistic.

We need to get through this holiday season and the month of January safely if we want to be here next year to celebrate the holidays with family and friends and resume our beloved traditions.

We’ve come up with a plan. On Christmas Day, Pete and I will briefly see our kids and their significant others. We’ll bundle up and stay outdoors. We’ll be wearing masks and we’ll keep them on and keep our distance from each other. We’ll exchange presents and food. (We’re each cooking some portion of Christmas dinner, so we can share the holiday meal even if we can’t share each other’s company while enjoying it.) We won’t be exchanging hugs and kisses.

Yes, it’s going to be weird, but I’m grateful we’re able to do this.

I’ve heard friends and family members talk about upcoming parties and holiday dinners with people outside their immediate household. If that describes you, I urge you to open your eyes. Look at the numbers. Talk to some people who’ve had the disease or lost a loved one to it. Talk to a nurse or doctor or other health care worker who’s been on the frontline of this battle.

Please, you need to do everything you can to prevent becoming a statistic.

You’re not immune from this virus. And the next cold you catch may be your last.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.