The holiday season is usually a time of gift giving and celebrations with friends and family. However, like celebrations of 2020, this year we might have to reconsider our holiday plans to keep ourselves and loved ones safe and healthy during the pandemic.
Though pandemic travel surged during the Thanksgiving holiday, the recent detection of the Omicron variant in the United States is a reminder we are not out of the woods yet. We asked Dr. Rashid Chotani, IEM Health Chief Medical Director, to share how holiday festivities can be celebrated safely to prevent a surge in case numbers this winter and protect individuals from the emerging variants.
What precautions should individuals take when celebrating the holidays?
Individuals should continue to follow federal health and safety guidelines when congregating this holiday season. Masks and social distancing may be needed depending on where festivities are being held and the vaccination status of the individuals celebrating. The single most important thing anyone can do to minimize their risk to COVID-19 and protect their friends and family is to get vaccinated. Vaccines are not only safe, but highly effective against the virus and the emerging variants. If individuals are fully vaccinated, it is imperative they also get the booster shot to better protect themselves from the virus and its emerging variants.
Is it safe to travel?
Thanks to vaccines, pandemic travel skyrocketed over the Thanksgiving holiday. While traveling during the pandemic has its risks, if you are vaccinated and boosted, and are traveling with others who are vaccinated and boosted, the risk of transmission is low. However, precautions are still recommended for fully vaccinated individuals when traveling due to the potential of breakthrough infections, making social distancing, masking, and hand hygiene important. If you or others are unvaccinated, serious precautions should be taken when traveling. Masks are required on public transportation for all individuals regardless of vaccination status. When making travel plans, it is recommended to research local public health restrictions and case trends so you can make informed decisions when packing and protecting your health on the go.
Do we need to worry about the new variants spreading?
Viruses naturally mutate over time and produce variants. As the coronavirus pandemic has spread across the country and the world, we have seen various strains emerge, including the predominant Delta variant and the recently identified variant, Omicron. Fortunately, scientific data shows that the vaccines work to prevent those infected from experiencing severe symptoms associated with the Delta variant and help keep individuals out of the hospital. Studies are being conducted to assess the effectiveness of the current vaccines against Omicron.
Scientists are still studying the Omicron variant, first discovered in South Africa on Nov. 24, to determine if it is more transmissible and if our current vaccines are effective against it. Omicron has a higher number of mutations, which may cause it to reinfect individuals at a higher rate. This is especially concerning going into the holiday season as people congregate and travel, making Omicron more likely to spread and infect individuals. While the Delta variant is currently the predominant strain in the United States, the scientific community feels strongly that Omicron will likely become the dominant strain over the next few months. Omicron should not cause panic, but rather encourage individuals to be more cautious about how they celebrate the holidays. Face coverings, social distancing, and hand washing are precautions everyone should keep in mind to protect against infection. Omicron poses the highest risk to unvaccinated individuals. Getting fully vaccinated and receiving a booster shot (if eligible) is highly recommended to protect against the virus and the new variants.
Should vaccination status be taken into consideration when traveling or gathering for the holidays?
Those who are unvaccinated are the most at-risk of contracting the coronavirus this holiday season, even if they celebrate with vaccinated individuals. This also includes children (under the age of 5) who are not yet approved for the vaccine and immunocompromised individuals. If your festivities include these individuals, it is recommended you get vaccinated or wear a mask to protect their health as well as yours. Even fully vaccinated individuals need to take precautions when celebrating and traveling to lessen the risk of contracting a breakthrough infection.
Is it safe to congregate indoors?
Small indoor celebrations with vaccinated individuals are safe. Masks may need to be worn if celebrating in public indoor settings or if you or others are unvaccinated. Outdoor celebrations are best if you are attending a public or large gathering event, but such crowded events, especially if in areas experiencing a high transmission rate, still pose health risks. Be mindful of your health before and after choosing to celebrate with others: if you experience symptoms of COVID-19, opt out of festivities, and get tested if you come into contact with someone who has COVID-19.
Should we expect an uptick in COVID-19 cases this winter?
Many parts of the country are already reporting surges in coronavirus case numbers, with some observing the highest COVID-19 positivity rates since last winter. The surge in positive case numbers is largely due to Thanksgiving travel and people spending more time indoors due to the cold weather. We can expect case numbers to continue to rise as holiday travel increases and the weather gets colder. It is critical that everyone takes precautions this winter, whether vaccinated or not, to reduce the spread of the virus so we do not experience the level of transmission and hospitalizations we had last winter.
How can we better protect ourselves this winter and into next year?
The best way to protect our health is to get vaccinated. The virus will continue to produce variants and spread into next year, which could potentially drive transmission rates and spikes in hospitalizations. Vaccines are the best line of defense against infection and greatly reduce the chance of having severe symptoms. Booster shots are also recommended to better protect your health this holiday season and into the new year.
In addition to the pandemic, we are also in the midst of flu season. Last year’s flu season was mild, but this year it could be worse, especially as people experience COVID-19 fatigue and prevention measures relax. The flu shot is important to protecting yourself and family.
Getting vaccinated, wearing face coverings, and practicing good hand hygiene will all be important this winter and into 2022 to keep everyone safe and healthy.
Please, celebrate the holidays and so with caution.