ST. PAUL — Health care leaders this week urged Minnesotans to skip traditional Thanksgiving gatherings to spare hospitals struggling to provide care for all who need it.

A handful of regional hospital leaders on Thursday, Nov. 19, made a plea to the state to take seriously new mitigation measures set to take effect at 11:59 p.m. today, Friday, Nov. 20, and to reconsider traveling for Thanksgiving. Under the new restrictions, gyms, theaters and bowling alleys will close for a month, and bars and restaurants will move to take-out and delivery only.

New state guidance also prohibits social gatherings that include individuals who live outside a person's household, which the state has said it won't enforce. But hospital leaders and doctors implored Minnesotans to stay home.

“You may think that whoever you’re going to eat Thanksgiving dinner with is not infected with COVID but whether they have symptoms or not the chances right now are very high that they carry that virus,” Carris Health President and co-CEO Cindy Firkins Smith said. “We understand that it’s hard not to celebrate Thanksgiving with the people you love … people working in the hospital not only don’t get to celebrate with the people they love, they’re going to be watching people die that day. And they don’t want to watch you die at Christmas. So please don’t.”

The comments come as hospital systems around Minnesota report that thousands of health care employees are sidelined after getting infected with COVID-19, quarantining or taking care of sick family members. And with fewer health care workers to tend to patients, hospitals are struggling to keep up with the growing demand for COVID-19 care as well as typical illnesses and injuries.

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“We are perilously close to not even be able to collectively … take care of everybody that we need to take care of in this state,” Dr. Penny Wheeler, Allina Health president and CEO, said Thursday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week advised against traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday. And Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm on Thursday said even a negative COVID-19 test doesn't provide a guarantee that people can safely gather.

“I’m sorry to say it but that does not take away all the other risks that we know are there unless every single person is not only tested but has quarantined from the time they get tested until the time they gather that risk is still there," Malcolm said. “We are wanting people to get tested but with respect to does that give you a free pass for Thanksgiving? I’m afraid it doesn’t."

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