Healthy Body

Omicron is Here—Does That Mean I Should Change My Holiday Plans?

Photo: Stocksy/ Luis Velasco
As COVID-19 cases surge and the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 descends upon the country at worrying speed, the 2021 holiday season seems an awful lot like last year when people took great care to gather as cases of COVID-19 rose worldwide.

What does this mean for your upcoming holiday plans? Preliminary research suggests that the Omicron variant is two to three times more contagious than the Delta variant. While vaccines prevent severe illness and hospitalization, they are less effective at preventing COVID-19 overall. This means that being fully vaccinated and boosted remains incredibly important, but it doesn’t replace tried-and-true prevention strategies like masking and social distancing.

“I would say hang up your stockings with care,” says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.  So, as you prepare to deck the halls of your home with faces of family and friends, read these expert tips for keeping things safe.

Vaccination and masks remain important

Even with all the uncertainty about Omicron, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says getting vaccinated remains the best public health measure to protect people from COVID-19 and mask-wearing offers protection against all variants.

The CDC is still investigating just how protected fully vaccinated people will be against infection, hospitalization, and death from the Omicron variant, they recommend that everyone 5 years and older get vaccinated as soon as possible. The CDC also recommends that everyone ages 18 years and older get a booster shot at least two months after their initial Johnson & Johnson vaccine or six months after completing their primary Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccination series.

“If we’re all getting together, let’s all be vaccinated,” Dr. Schaffner says. “And if Uncle Frank is not vaccinated, let’s excuse him from the family gathering. I know that can be difficult, but I think we can do this diplomatically.”

If any family members are still not vaccinated, encourage first dose and boosters for those eligible. Dr. Schaffner also suggests COVID-19 testing before gathering and talking about social distancing practices. “It’s not a perfect solution,” he adds. “But none of these things are perfect.”

Keep gatherings small (and preferably outdoors)

If you were hoping for a huge holiday bash, it’s likely time to rethink your plans. Think about how large the groups will be, with an eye toward keeping numbers low, says Michael Saag, MD, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious disease at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Also we should be aware of the vaccination status of those in the group. If it’s a large group, especially if folks in the group are unvaccinated, we might consider breaking down the group into smaller groupings.”

If you can take your gathering outdoors, that is ideal. If you can’t, enhance ventilation indoors as much as you can. Vulnerable family members should avoid contact with unvaccinated people, avoid large groups, and wear a mask when out in public, Dr. Saag says.

Is asking people to be vaccinated a good idea? “Yes, especially if vulnerable folks are present—older people, those with immune-compromised conditions, those on chemotherapy or immunotherapy,” he says, adding that he recommends avoiding indoor settings for a while, at least until more is known about Omicron, like how much serious disease it causes, especially in the unvaccinated.

Many people want to go to religious gatherings; however, it might be best to consider attending virtually. “You want to see people and say hello and give them a hug and exchange the greetings of the season and good cheer,” Dr. Schaffner. “But if you’re frail and you’re older, just try to do this all in as careful a way as possible—am I sounding as though I’m turning back the clock to last year? I am.”

Reassess travel plans

Traveling over the holidays gets very dense,” says Dr. Schaffner. “So…I think you need to give that an extra thought. Do you want to take that risk?”

Dr. Saag thinks everyone should consider rescheduling visits that can be put off until we know more about how to manage and treat the Omicron variant. If you must travel, these experts advise that you socially distance as much as you can, make sure you are fully vaccinated, including getting a booster, and wear a mask on your journey.

How long the Omicron variant will remain with us, how serious infections will be (especially among those who are unvaccinated), whether an Omicron vaccine will be needed, and when and where the next variant will strike all remain unknown, Dr. Saag says. Still, there’s one thing we can pretty much bank on: Cases will go up after people gather this holiday season.

“We’re seeing some of that already from Thanksgiving and we’ll see more for the turn of the year holidays,” Dr. Schaffner says. “Particularly with Omicron just picking up speed.”

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