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Kansas Citians struggle with how to celebrate Christmas safely as COVID threatens another holiday season

 Sisters Leena and Insiya came prepared for the cold weather at Holiday Swing, the merry market at City Market, on Dec. 18, 2021.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Sisters Leena and Insiya came prepared for the cold weather at Holiday Swing, the merry market at City Market, on Dec. 18, 2021.

With the holiday weekend approaching and COVID cases rising fast, Kansas City health officials are warning people to get vaccinated and gather only in small groups in order to prevent more hospitalizations and deaths.

City Market filled with the sound of Christmas carols as hundreds of shoppers perused rows of booths Saturday, the final weekend of the Holiday Swing merry market.

“I feel like Christmas feels like Christmas again. It’s my favorite season, I love it so much. It just brings us all together,” said Katie Mabry van Dieren, owner of The Strawberry Swing craft fair, which puts on Holiday Swing each year. “I feel like it’s a little different than last year because we were all so, so, so scared of COVID.”

The outdoor merry market required masks last year, and even though they were optional this time around, about half of the customers could be seen wearing them.

Sisters Leena A. and Insiya A. walked with their mother, Sarah Z., on Saturday. Sarah, who declined to give their full last names, said her main priority is to keep her children safe this holiday season by staying away from large crowds and forgoing travel plans.

“Sometimes we would go home to New York, but with the pandemic, and especially in New York right now, the new variant is spreading fast, so we decided to just spend it at home,” Sarah said. “It's not too bad. I mean, with the kids, it's nice to make smaller, chill memories with them, for them to remember when they're older.”

Leena, 7, recently got vaccinated for COVID-19. At 3 years old, Insiya is not yet eligible for a vaccine, but said she’s particularly excited for her mother’s cupcakes.

“We’ll be setting up our Christmas tree, hanging out with our family and making cookies, and making the fireplace,” Leena said. “I think that's it.”

Sarah is optimistic that next year’s holidays will be different.

“I had hoped that by 2021, we would've gotten COVID in hand, but it seems like it's just back to where it was in March of 2020,” said Sarah. “I'm hoping in 2022 that we finally have a plan as a nation, that the government figures something out and puts plans into place so that the whole country can come together and just squash this once and for all, because it seems like this year that it didn't really happen.”

Terra Harris
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Terra Harris, owner of Tu Es Belle KC, poses in front of her natural skincare booth.

‘You are taking a risk’

Doctors in Kansas City have raised alarms about the area’s drastic uptick in COVID cases over the past few weeks, and say local hospitals are filled up with unvaccinated patients. As of Dec. 18, Kansas City reported an average of 255 new COVID cases per day, which is a 35% increase from just two weeks ago.

According to data from the New York Times COVID Dashboard, the ICUs at St. Joseph Medical Center and St. Luke’s Hospital are nearly at 100% capacity right now, while Truman Medical Center ICU is at 77% capacity.

Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, dean of the UMKC School of Medicine, says that if people plan to travel and gather for the holidays, they should avoid groups larger than 10. Everyone should be fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot.

“Even if one wears a mask, if eating and drinking where individuals are removing their masks, you are taking a risk,” Jackson says.

With hospitals across the metro already close to capacity, Jackson warns that celebrating the holidays safely is necessary to avoid another surge in hospitalizations and deaths.

The omicron variant, which is believed to be more contagious than previous variants of COVID-19, is likely already in Kansas City after being detected in both Kansas and Missouri. But Jackson said her main concern is still delta, which first surged over the summer and is still ravaging the community.

“Cases, hospitalization and deaths continue to rise in our region and are largely fueled by delta. And this includes cases within the child population, where we are seeing upwards of 400 cases a week,” Jackson said.

In addition to getting vaccinated for COVID-19, Jackson said there’s another piece to staying safe: flu shots. She said a lot of people put off getting their influenza vaccine, but it’s even more important this year with the flu already circulating in the area.

Rachel Messner
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Rachel Messner of Messner Bee Farm was decked out in holiday apparel Saturday.

Trying to make smart choices

At Saturday’s merry market, Terra Harris ran a booth for their skincare brand Tu Es Belle KC.

In 2020, their holiday plans were canceled altogether. This year they’re back on, but they’ll be going house-to-house and visiting family members in small groups, instead of all gathering in one place.

“We’re going to wear masks, and we’re fully vaccinated,” Harris said. “I did it mostly for the older people in my family, because I respect them, I want them to live and not perish from anything that I can prevent. We’re gonna eat good, laugh a lot, and hopefully keep that holiday spirit going.”

Rachel Messner, one of the owners of Messner Bee Farm, said she and her family are celebrating Christmas like normal this year. Most of them are fully vaccinated, and Messner says she feels it’s important to interact in person again.

“I feel like I have worry fatigue, like I don’t have much more to give,” said Messner. “I’m just trying to make smart choices and not exhaust myself mentally.”

John DePrisco had a booth for his business Naked Neons, which designs custom LED signs — something he called a “pandemic project.”

John DePrisco
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
John DePrisco at his booth, Naked Neons.

On Christmas Day, DePrisco will be at home with his two children as usual. But he has four siblings, and in the pandemic they’ve been unable to get together in a large group.

With his wife, DePrisco also operates The Photo Bus, a mobile photo booth that runs out of a vintage Volkswagen bus. Early in the pandemic, their business had a number of its booked events get canceled — and it’s happening again.

“We’re seeing a second or third wave, whatever you want to call it, this winter and holiday parties are starting to be canceled,” said DePrisco.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.
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