It is not too late to cancel your Christmas plans. Your holiday hangouts. Your annual end-of-the-year, multifamily, multigenerational bonanzas. This is a reminder, a plea, an entreaty tossed in the wind with the hope it snags onto a wintry branch of your consciousness and clings there.

I say this because I spoke to you ― or someone just like you ― in the weeks after Thanksgiving. I have continued talking to you with your fever and chills, your persistent cough, your severe headache, your body aches and diarrhea, your loss of smell and taste, your nasal congestion, your “head cold,” your audibly worsening shortness of breath.

I listened to you ― or someone like you ― before and after your COVID-19 diagnosis. I heard about your 40th birthday party in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, in the middle of a global pandemic, which you did not cancel because tickets were cheap. And when you and a half dozen of the people you were with developed symptoms upon your return home, you marveled that this happened even though you “were so careful.”

I counseled you ― or someone like you ― at your grandfather’s house, where you gathered to celebrate his milestone birthday but started to feel sick, wondering out loud whether you should have come because until then you had been “so good overall.”

I bit my tongue when you ― or someone like you ― feverish and scared and isolating from your kids, told me that you and your friend had masks on the whole time you were together but “of course took them off when we ate lunch.”

I ordered the COVID-19 test for you ― or someone like you ― after the Las Vegas family vacation, after which all of you are now sick at home.

I witnessed your incredulity when you said, “But it was just my household and my parents’ household. It was just two families! How could this have happened?”

I sent your COVID-19-positive teenager to the emergency room because he was in his second week of the illness with new onset chest pain.

I absorbed your diabetic mother’s sigh when she explained that she doesn’t blame you for visiting her after your trip to the East Coast because nobody thought you had anything worse than a cold.  

I comforted you as you isolated in one room of your home, staying as far away from the children as possible, while your mother struggled to breathe in a hospital not so far away.

It has been exhausting mustering the compassion, grasping for the expressions of solace, calibrating the exact balance of words that will make you forgive yourself for what you did at Thanksgiving ― or any other time this year ― but not so much that you’ll repeat it at Christmas and New Year’s. “Forgive but don’t forget,” I cautioned. That has been my approach the past few weeks.

I have asked you ― or someone like you ― if you felt comfortable to share your story and be a much-needed public health evangelist. Tell them over your group chat or Facebook, I encouraged. Let them know that all it took was one gathering. Just two families, and now everyone is sick. “Tell your friends,” I said casually, like a salesperson peddling goods.   

I can’t count how many patients needed me to give them an out so they could skip the wedding, the funeral, the Thanksgiving gathering. They knew better but didn’t know how to do better.

One person dies every half a minute in our country right now. We are running out of intensive care unit beds in California. The state has ordered 5,000 body bags and 60 morgue trucks to deal with the COVID-19 dead there. This is not a drill.

I can’t count how many patients needed me to give them an out so they could skip the wedding, the funeral, the Thanksgiving gathering. They knew better but didn’t know how to do better.

My favorite patient in the past month was the one who canceled his Bay Area-to-Los Angeles trip after some COVID-19 shoptalk with me. I said, “Use me as your excuse. Say that you just got off the phone with this intense doctor, and she said you can’t come home for the holidays to potentially kill your parents. Tell them I said so.” I heard your audible, palpable sigh of relief at having this way out.

Now I’m giving it out to you. Please use it.

You can have COVID-19 and not know it. And if you breathe, you can spread it. It is that simple.

I promise you have not been careful enough that you are not a risk to your loved ones. Unfortunately, you are not exceptional. When it comes to COVID-19, none of us are.

I’m also guessing you are not a member of the superelite who doesn’t have to pay the price for their carelessness because they receive top medical care regardless of their actions. If you contract the virus, there will be no guaranteed bed for you, no teams of doctors lining up to administer monoclonal antibody treatments.

I am not an ICU doctor. I do not know the feeling of having a full panel of sick and dying COVID-19 patients. I do not know the trauma of holding phones and iPads up to patients and bearing witness to screen-facilitated final goodbyes. I have not experienced the discombobulating fear and horror and rage of walking off those wards and onto city streets to see maskless throngs gathering at the bars.

But I have sent you ― or someone like you ― to these very hospital colleagues of mine because I immediately noticed your pause, your gasp for air between sentences when you explained your symptoms to me. I noted the wracking cough over the phone that just didn’t stop, and so I sent you to the ER. And I heard your genuine remorse about the indoor, unmasked gathering with loved ones who you thought didn’t have COVID-19.

Every day now, the death toll is worse than 9/11, and we are approaching a half million dead. We all just have a little more ways to go. The light of that vaccine is at the end of this dark, dark tunnel.

Please do not gather indoors with family and friends, and for the love of whomever or whatever you love, please don’t take those masks off.

We live in a failed nation with a vacuum where leaders should be. None of our fates should be left to individual decisions, but apparently they are. Basically, right now, if you don’t live with them, you shouldn’t be seeing them.

Please love your loved ones enough to stay apart from them just a little bit longer so that you can ensure that they will be around for a little bit longer.

Note: Personal details were slightly altered in order to protect the privacy of the author’s patients.

Dipti S. Barot is a primary care doctor in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is also a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @diptisbarot.

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