Like many people, Matt Richardson is eager to see his family on Thanksgiving during a year when quality contact with loved ones has been so rare.

But in his role as Denton County’s public health director, Richardson said he also fears a troubling possibility: that without proper preparations, gatherings like the one his family is planning could turn Thanksgiving into “a superspreader holiday” in the county and beyond.

The holiday approaches as the number of known active cases of COVID-19 in Denton County reaches its highest mark of the pandemic so far. More than 3,400 residents were known to have the virus as of Nov. 9, according to the county’s coronavirus dashboard.

For his part, Richardson said his family has had “very frank conversations” about ways to reduce the risk of a family member contracting the virus before they gather. In the weeks before the holiday arrives, members of Richardson’s family are not planning other gatherings with people outside their households. They're washing their hands frequently. When they must go out, they wear masks.

“The more of that we can do, the safer Thanksgiving can be,” Richardson told county commissioners at their Nov. 10 meeting. “And if we fail, we’re going to have community spread throughout the nation.”

County Judge Andy Eads said he shares Richardson's concern. The holiday traditionally brings family members from various age groups and different households close together in an indoor environment and often around a table, he said.

“Thanksgiving has me very worried,” Eads said. “Use caution and common sense and wisdom when you’re entertaining or hosting people from outside your household.”

The number of COVID-19 patients being treated in county hospitals has risen back to its highest point since late July.

Hospitals in the county have plenty of general beds and ventilators, Richardson said. But intensive care units have been nearing capacity due to the combination of non-coronavirus patients requiring care and increased COVID-19 case totals.

Richardson said families who want to gather for the holidays should stress the importance of avoiding group gatherings in the weeks before. Regular hand-washing and mask-wearing remain some of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of spread, he said.

“We do want to participate in Thanksgiving with my parents, who are vulnerable,” Richardson said. “So we are being incredibly cautious. ... We are trying to essentially quarantine [beforehand], if you will.”