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Frank Veltri Thanksgiving Dinner going mobile for 2020; volunteer drivers needed

The Frank Veltri Thanksgiving Dinner, a Charleston tradition dating back 54 years, will go on this year despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

There will be no mass gathering on Thanksgiving Day for the dinner this year. Instead, a team of drivers will deliver meals to those in need on Saturday.

When Veltri started this tradition in 1966, he wanted to ensure that every senior, shut-in or vulnerable resident would eat a Thanksgiving meal with no questions asked. For Traci Strickland, executive director of the Kanawha Valley Collective and a longtime lead organizer for the Veltri dinner, there was zero chance this tradition would be killed by COVID-19.

“Even knowing it looks very, very different this year, people are going to have Thanksgiving food for Thanksgiving,” Strickland said.

First and foremost, she said, more volunteers are needed to make it happen. On Saturday beginning at 9:30 a.m., delivery drivers will hit the streets — but organizers still need more drivers to make sure every meal gets delivered, Strickland said.

For those looking to help, there is a short volunteer sign-up sheet on the Veltri dinner’s Facebook page.

Six hundred bags containing four Thanksgiving servings each will be delivered Saturday.

Volunteers will spend Thursday and Friday preparing and packaging the meals, which include turkey breast, ham steak, green beans, corn, cranberry sauce, instant potatoes, stuffing, mini pies and bread.

COVID-19 made planning the dinner quite difficult, Strickland said. The most dedicated volunteers started asking her in June if the dinner would happen at all.

“For some of us, myself included, that was just really not a possibility as long as it’s possible to do,” she said. “So many people are not only used to it, but there’s people that rely on this dinner.”

Now, with the day nearly here and West Virginians dying from COVID-19 at a rate faster than at any other time during the pandemic, Strickland said it was the right call to take the dinner mobile.

“Here we are right now, seeing this uptick in COVID-19 cases, so we really know we made the right decision — that we weren’t too conservative,” she said.

People expect the Veltri dinner to look the same every year, Strickland said, which also complicated the planning process.

“Planning an event that is really a Charleston institution and a Thanksgiving tradition for a lot of people is difficult,” she said. “People don’t like seeing change.”

Volunteers for the dinner date back to the days of Veltri himself, who died in 2001. Strickland said the volunteers have turned the dinner into a “well-oiled machine,” with the cooking and prep process becoming choreographed. Strickland has worked on the dinner for the past 15 years.

“My extended family know they’re not going to see me until 2 or 3 in the afternoon because I’m doing the Veltri dinner,” Strickland said about normal Thanksgiving Days.

Strickland still delivers to the high-rise her grandmother used to live in before she died. She said that, like many other longtime volunteers, it’s the people who always bring everyone back.

“The sweetness and the gratitude of the people that I get the privilege to deliver Thanksgiving dinner to is just amazing,” she said.

The hope is that, by Thanksgiving 2021, all will be back to normal and the dinner will return to an in-person gathering, Strickland said. Whether that’s possible, she added, only time will tell.

Regardless, the Veltri dinner is happening in 2020 because of these dedicated community members — gathering or no gathering.

“It’s not something that just happens,” Strickland said, “it’s something our community members and volunteers are invested in.”

Kanawha County wraps up Operation Drumstick with nearly 2,500 COVID-19 tests, prepares for post-Thanksgiving events

After four straight days of events scattered across the county, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department wrapped up its combined COVID-19 testing/flu vaccination drive Thursday at the Schoenbaum Center on Charleston’s West Side.

The events, dubbed Operation Drumstick, were held as residents prepare for next week’s Thanksgiving holiday, which health officials have warned could lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases as families from different households gather to celebrate.

“This is the year to scale back and make sure we’re all being safe,” said Dr. Sherri Young, health officer at KCHD. “We know people want to see their family, but we have to think about it in terms of keeping our families safe.”

Over the four days of Operation Drumstick, nearly 2,500 COVID-19 tests were administered and several hundred people received flu shots. As of Thursday afternoon, there were 5,105 cases of COVID-19 in Kanawha County, 410 of which are probable. Of the positive cases, 1,023 are active, and there have been 130 COVID-19 related deaths in the county.

“We’re seeing 80, 90, 100 cases a day in Kanawha County, when it used to be 20 or 30,” Young said. “That tells us, not only are we in a surge now, but we’re heading toward a bigger surge.”

Kanawha County, home to 10% of West Virginia’s population, recorded its largest one-day increase of COVID-19 cases on Sunday, with 134 reported.

Despite the clear increase in spread, the county was only designated “gold” on the state’s COVID-19 risk map, a classification it also held Thursday. Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said in a Sunday news release that, no matter the county’s status on the map, activity on the ground makes it clear that “Kanawha County is red.”

“When you see this large of an increase in cases, this proves without question that community spread is rampant,” Carper said. “I continue to strongly recommend essential activity only.”

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Young said, the health department has noticed a consistent pattern of increased COVID-19 cases following holidays and long weekends. Over the past month, COVID-19 cases in West Virginia and across the nation have soared. As of Thursday morning, the state reported 37,399 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 11,643 of which are active, with 623 COVID-19 related deaths.

West Virginia has recently set records for the number of new daily COVID-19 cases, the weekly average of new cases and the number of total active cases, as well as the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19, those in intensive care units and those on ventilators.

Hospital capacity across West Virginia is shrinking as more people need care, which means residents should be even more aware of the risks they take to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, Young said.

“We don’t need to have large gatherings, we don’t need to have large service this year,” Young said. “We are seeing so much spread, and a lot of our contact tracing recently is coming from large gatherings.”

Dinners and celebrations should be as small as possible, health officials said. If weather allows, they added, families should try to eat spaced apart and outdoors. Buffet-style serving is not recommended and, no matter what, they warned, if people come together, they should all wear masks as often as possible.

“Please remember to stay healthy,” said Monica Mason, of the Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority. “At the end of Thanksgiving, we want everyone to be able to come back around that table, healthy.”

Young said the health department would not conduct testing events the week of Thanksgiving, but it would continue testing by appointment at the KCHD office. This weekend, Young said, county officials will plan testing events for the week after the holiday, which residents — especially those who traveled or celebrated in groups — should take advantage of.

For an updated list of free COVID-19 testing locations across West Virginia, visit https://dhhr.wv.gov/COVID-19/pages/testing.aspx.

CDC recommends against Thanksgiving travel amid surge of coronavirus cases

With Thanksgiving a week away and coronavirus cases exploding across the country, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday recommended against traveling for the holiday, urging Americans to consider celebrating in their own households instead.

In the agency’s first news briefing in months, officials said they were alarmed to see 1 million new cases reported across the United States within the past week. They spoke of the risks of travel and gatherings in stark terms, warning that, as families get together over the holidays, they could inadvertently bring the deadly disease with them.

“At the individual household level, what’s at stake is basically the increased chance of one of your loved ones becoming sick and then being hospitalized and dying,” said Henry Walke, the CDC’s COVID-19 incident manager.

Beyond that, he said, holiday-related infections could further spread through communities, reaching other vulnerable individuals.

The CDC previously noted the risk of holiday travel and recommended that travelers take steps including checking local restrictions, wearing a mask, maintaining distance and getting a flu shot. The new guidance says that “postponing planned travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year” and offers a list of questions Americans should ask themselves before making a trip.

Among those questions: whether anyone included in Thanksgiving plans is at increased risk of becoming very sick from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and whether cases are high or increasing or hospitals are overwhelmed in a traveler’s community or destination.

Those wanting to travel also should consider whether they or those they plan to visit recently had contact with others and whether they would need to take a bus, train or airplane, where distancing could be more difficult, the CDC said.

“If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes,’ you should consider making other plans, such as hosting a virtual gathering or delaying your travel,” the new guidance says. “It’s important to talk with the people you live with and your family and friends about the risks of traveling.”

The Thanksgiving holiday comes as coronavirus cases have skyrocketed across the United States, with the seven-day average of new cases hovering at more than 160,000 on Thursday, according to Washington Post tracking. The nation’s death toll since the start of the pandemic reached 250,000 on Thursday. On Wednesday alone, nearly 1,900 deaths were reported, marking the deadliest day since May.

The worsening national picture has heightened concern about the effects of Thanksgiving, with public health experts fearful that travel and traditional gatherings could contribute to the surging infections.

Fewer Americans will travel this Thanksgiving, AAA says

HUNTINGTON — Karen Thomas said that, for the past eight years, she has traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to celebrate Thanksgiving with family.

“My son and I are not going to go this year because of the coronavirus pandemic,” she said.

Thomas, of Huntington, was coming out of a Sheetz in downtown Huntington when asked about her holiday travel plans for Thanksgiving.

“We are just going to have something small at our home,” she said.

Thomas will not be the only one staying home.

“Like everything else this year, Thanksgiving in 2020 will look much different than in years past,” Bevi Powell, senior vice president with AAA Travel, said in an email. “Many Americans are weighing their options and considering the advice of health experts before finalizing their holiday travel plans.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans on Thursday not to travel for Thanksgiving, citing rises in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Jeff Miller, executive director of the West Virginia Parkways Authority, said the Thanksgiving holiday is normally one of the busiest travel times of the year on the West Virginia Turnpike.

“Last year, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we had approximately 160,000 vehicles pass through the tolls. And the Sunday after, we had approximately 168,000,” Miller said. “For the year, we are down around 10% overall in our cumulative average.”

But Miller said, looking at current trends, he expects Thanksgiving travel to be down around 2% to 3% from the previous year.

“It’s been hard to do a forecast or give any estimates of how much traffic there will be this year,” he said. “We have been keeping our eye on AAA Travel’s forecast. It is normally pretty close to what we project.”

Miller cautioned motorists traveling the Turnpike for the holiday to be aware of a widening project taking place in the north- and southbound lanes between mile markers 40 and 48 in Beckley.

“We have a lane shift from the outside lanes to the inside lane in an active construction zone with a speed limit of 55 miles per hour,” he said. “That may slow things down a little bit, but we are urging motorists to remember this is an active construction zone, so slow down and obey the speed limit.”

Although holiday travel will be down this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to AAA Travel’s forecast, 50 million Americans are still expected to travel this Thanksgiving.

“The effects of the pandemic, including health and economic concerns, are causing many Americans to opt for last-minute and vehicular travel,” Powell said.

Air travel and other modes of transportation, such as cruises, buses and trains, are the most affected by the pandemic, and 95% of holiday travel is expected to be by car, according to the forecast.

For those traveling by car, the average price of gasoline across West Virginia is five cents higher this week, at $2.156 per gallon, according to AAA East Central’s Gas Price Report.

A new national survey commissioned by the American Hotel & Lodging Association shows that many Americans are not expected to travel this holiday season. Results show that 72% of Americans are unlikely to travel for Thanksgiving and 69% are unlikely to travel for Christmas, compounding the challenges for the hotel industry during this public health crisis.

Business travel has been even more affected. Only 8% of Americans say they have taken an overnight business trip since March, and just 19% of respondents who are currently employed — or 8% of all adults — expect to travel for business within the next six months.

“This holiday season will be an especially difficult time for all Americans, and our industry is no exception” Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, said in an email. “Fewer people will be traveling and business travel remains nearly non-existent. For those who are considering traveling for the holidays, hotels will be ready to welcome you. Through our Safe Stay initiative, hotels have enhanced our already rigorous cleaning protocols to be more transparent and give travelers even more peace of mind.”

Travel spending in the United States is expected to finish the year 45% down from 2019 levels, and will still not have returned to its pre-pandemic strength by 2024, according to the latest figures released by the U.S. Travel Association.

The new 2020 projected travel spending figure of $617 billion is slightly worse than U.S. Travel’s previous forecast, released in July, of $622 billion, and is a steep drop from the $1.13 trillion spent on travel in the United States overall in 2019.