But maybe not in April 2021

Edit: definitely not in April and maybe not in June, definitely not indoor events in June.

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San Antonio Express-News Photo: Kin Man Hui / Staff file photo.

For those not in San Antonio, Texas, Fiesta is an annual, officially 10 day but unofficially nearly month long celebration of the life and culture of San Antonio. Fiesta also serves as a major source of fundraising for many non-profits as well as the city. It has an economic impact of $340 million each year for San Antonio. And not just that, it’s a significant part of our culture and community. Fiesta is where we gather with friends and family, make new friends and family, and much more.

It was canceled in 2020.

And I’m going to earn the ire of many fellow San Antonians when I say this: Fiesta 2021 must be postponed.

A few months ago, with the arrival of vaccines, I was hopeful, but I’ve also been following the trends and variants and know my pandemic history.

To use the wildfire analogy: If you can contain a wildfire, you keep it from spreading, even while it burns out. We’ve never gotten below the necessary threshold to have COVID-19 contained. If COVID is not contained, we risk another surge.

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San Antonio AIDS Foundation’s annual WEBB party at The Aztec

Before I get to the data, let’s talk about Fiesta. We’re less than 3 months away. Most organizations start planning 10–11 months prior. While the many expert planners can pull off a great party, non-profits invest a lot of precious funds in planning, securing deposits, etc. The return on investment must be worth the cost. It’s not just about time to plan, but can we really host Fiesta as we know it? Will a scaled down Fiesta be worth the investment to already struggling non-profits?

The data.

Here are the number of cases per 100,000 people in Bexar County, per day. We knew then, but it’s obvious now, the July surge was just a warm up for COVID-19. San Antonio was slammed in July. Cases have been steadily increasing since November. We’re now in January and still on the rise.

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*July lab reports adjusted for date of onset due to large data dumps and backlog. More recent lab reports reflect onset within 14 days of report.

Ah, but most cases are mild or asymptomatic, you say! True, except for those that aren’t. By now most people are familiar with the strain on the hospital system and how that impacts public health. Early in the pandemic, often even mild cases were hospitalized as a precaution. If you had significant co-morbidities, your risk of severe illness was great and therefore you’d be hospitalized. Now, we understand more about the disease and our hospitals are strained, so we’re not hospitalizing preemptively. We can’t. We don’t have the space. Hospitals are full, and they’re full with sick people.

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I am a fan of Dr. Tom Frieden’s Resolve to Save Lives alert system. Different organizations determine different thresholds, so that red line may move, but the story is the same. Remember containment? To contain the virus, we need to get below that threshold. AND STILL TAKE PRECAUTIONS. We never did get below the threshold.

It’s fun to blame Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year…but cases were already on the rise in early November. There wasn’t one big event, but normal exponential growth. Throw in a big event or two and it sky rockets beyond control.

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*July cases based on day of onset to adjust for backlog

The vaccines have been in play for about a month now. Roll-out is slow, there are many logistics involved and we can discuss that later. The reality is, even with a ramped up vaccination rate, we’re not going to have herd immunity by April. We’re not even sure if the vaccines reduce transmission (probably, somewhat). That they reduce severe disease is huge, because that means our hospital systems can stay in front of this pandemic. But that is also dependent upon the number of cases. With an average of about 2000 cases per day, even a 5% hospitalization rate is too much for our systems to bear.

By late August we were approaching the desired threshold for containment. About 10 weeks later, we were heading into a surge. Even if our current surge starts to drop in the next 4 weeks, and even with the vaccine in as many arms as possible, we are not going to get below that threshold before April.

So back to Fiesta. I’ve long been a proponent for mitigation strategies. I’ve advised organizations and schools on how to host a small gathering (outdoors) or keep schools open. It requires incredible diligence, and gets increasingly more difficult with the size of event.

Can we still Fiesta? Sure, but it’ll look different.

On what would have been King William Parade and Fair Day in April 2020, the neighborhood quietly put together a local parade. No crowds, little fanfare, but it kept the spirit of Fiesta. And it was beautiful.

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Photo: Angela Martinez

One local restaurant had a “Chicken-on-a-stick” event for curbside pickup, with cars lining up for a mile. There’s a need in our community to recognize and honor our traditions.

I expect to see many such small events pop up. A number of neighborhoods are already planning “House Floats,” styled after NOLA’s Mardi Gras. There’s a lot we can do to celebrate, but it won’t be the Fiesta we know, and we must accept that.

We can limit the spread of COVID-19 using multiple tactics. One of those tactics is not hosting large scale events, and that includes Fiesta.

Edit: For those not in San Antonio, and even for those here, of course canceling seems a no-brainer, and I hope most agree it’s the right thing to do. But that doesn’t mean it’s the easy thing to do. It’s more than a party:

According to a 2017 UTSA study, Fiesta San Antonio:

  • Contributed $340.1 million in sales to the local economy (compared to $284 million in 2007).
  • Supported 3,464 full-time-equivalent local jobs.
  • Provided $206.3 million in value added to the area.
  • Generated sales tax collections of $3.6 million for local government
  • Generated $188.0 million in spending by non-local visitors, which supported more than 1,840 full-time-equivalent jobs, $111.8 million in value added and $2.0 million in sales taxes for local government.
  • Attracted 2,512,489 event attendees.
  • Mobilized 75K volunteers.

Dr. Rohr-Allegrini is an epidemiologist and tropical disease scientist currently working to prevent diseases through immunizations.

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