Even though we’re two full years into the pandemic that’s uprooted every sense of normalcy we’ve ever known, it seems like we’re experiencing yet another setback just in time for the holidays. In fact, New York City COVID cases surged by a whopping 28 percent mid-December, which was the highest rate of positivity since April 2021. Of course, New York isn’t the only area affected. According to the CDC, many parts of the country are experiencing “substantial or high levels of community transmission of COVID-19.” It’s all giving us 2020 vibes—a year that we all thought was well in our rear-view. So, what’s going on exactly, and should you consider changing your holiday plans? Here’s what experts say.
The reason for this setback? Yet another variant called Omicron. First detected in early November in South Africa, it was quickly determined to already have found hosts in other countries and is now spreading at a rapid rate all within days of Christmas and New Years—two holidays so many people hoped to spend with friends and family, some for the first time since 2019.
Why Omicron is so worrisome?
At this time, there are unfortunately still many unknowns, but researchers believe that Omicron is more contagious than other variants, which may help explain how it’s spreading at such a rapid rate. “For reference, the Delta variant, which is the highly contagious and predominant variant in the U.S. today, had a reproduction number of 7 — meaning every infected individual had the potential to infect seven contacts,” explains Ellen Eaton, MD, assistant professor with the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Division of Infectious Diseases. “For Omicron, it is estimated that the reproduction number is 10, meaning each newly infected individual may infect up to 10 contacts.”
This is concerning on so many levels, but especially with it being winter and the holiday season, when large indoor gatherings are the norm. “With the exponential spread we are seeing, we anticipate that a large number of individuals in communities with low vaccination rates will end up ill and need testing, clinical care, and hospitalization, which is a problem as many hospitals operate at or close to full capacity during cold and flu season,” says Dr. Eaton.
Even the fully vaccinated—and the boosted—aren’t out of the woods, as there have been a significant amount of breakthrough infections recorded recently. Fortunately, however, most of the patients with breakthrough infections experience only mild symptoms. One new study out of Massachusetts found that vaccines prevented severe illness, hospitalization, and death in nearly 97 percent of all breakthrough cases.
Should you cancel your holiday plans due to Omicron?
All of this to say, it’s no surprise if you’re feeling a little (or a whole lot) anxious and unsure of whether or not to carry out your original holiday plans now that Omicron is among us. In short, most experts agree that if you are fully vaccinated, including the booster, wearing masks in public places, and using common sense, you should feel comfortable enough to carry on with your holiday plans.
“If you and your family and friends are vaccinated, you absolutely can still enjoy seeing your family and friends for the holidays this year,” says Vivek Cherian, MD, an Internal Medicine physician affiliated with the University of Maryland Medical System. “You just want to be really careful when you start talking about large public indoor spaces where there can be a lot of people crowded into a smaller area and you don’t know the vaccine status of everyone around you.”
If at all possible, Rusha Modi, MD, a physician in internal medicine, gastroenterology, and hepatology and assistant professor of Clinical Medicine at Keck Medical Center of USC, suggests selecting a space for your holiday gathering that allows for guests to spread out—i.e. avoid congregating groups around food and beverage stations. “Guests may have underlying health conditions as well as various preferences regarding their exposure risk, so consider reflecting changes in seating arrangements among other things,” he says.
Additionally, Dr. Eaton recommends sending the message to friends and family that, should they be feeling under the weather at all, they should avoid coming to your holiday gathering. “If your attendees are unvaccinated, ask them to take a home antigen test a few hours before they come,” she says. “If you have any chronic medical conditions or are immunocompromised (or if anyone in your family is), ask everyone to test before the event—even the vaccinated.”
While we were all hoping for a “normal” holiday season, unfortunately, the pandemic has other plans. The best thing we can do is to follow safety guidelines set out by the CDC, get vaccinated, encourage our loved ones to get vaccinated, and try our best to enjoy the season in the safest manner possible.