As Omicron spreads rapidly across the United States, the new coronavirus variant has replaced Delta as the dominant strain.
dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday that Americans should prepare for a difficult few weeks.
The Omicron variant is the dominant strain of coronavirus in the United States today, accounting for over 73% of new coronavirus cases last week, according to data released Monday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With Christmas, New Year, Kwanzaa and other winter holidays just around the corner, many people are wondering what to do. Is it time to cancel holiday gatherings? How safe is it to travel? What extra precautions should be taken if you decide to leave?
For guidance, I spoke to CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, who is an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management in the School of Public Health at George Washington University’s Milken Institute. She is also the author of the new book Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health.
CNN: You said that two weeks ago People shouldn’t change their vacation plans because of Omicron. Is it still like that?
dr Leana Wen: A lot has changed in two weeks. At this point it was not yet clear how widespread the Omicron variant would be here in the United States. Now we are seeing skyrocketing omicron cases in some parts of the country. It has become very clear how contagious Omicron is.
All in all, I don’t think people should cancel all of their vacation plans. I think it’s wise to re-evaluate them and do a risk/benefit analysis based on each family’s circumstances.
CNN: What factors go into this risk-benefit decision?
Whom: First, what is the medical risk of your household? Based on what we’re seeing so far, Omicron appears to cause mostly mild symptoms in vaccinated individuals. If everyone in your household is vaccinated and up to date and generally healthy, I believe the risk of serious illness caused by Omicron is low.
Second, what is the value of the special vacation plan for you? Many people would say that being with loved ones is really important. An office holiday party might be less important. Remember that risk is cumulative. You might decide to go to one event and not to another.
Third, how risky is the actual meeting? A small dinner party where everyone is vaccinated and boosted and tests are required on the same day is relatively low risk. The risk is even less when you know that everyone at the event is being careful in their daily lives, always masking up in public and never going to crowded restaurants or bars. The risk is higher when testing is not done, when vaccination status is unknown, or when some people have higher exposure.
CNN: There are reports of events where everyone is vaccinated but people still contract Covid-19. Should people feel safe going to indoor gatherings even if they have proof of vaccination?
Whom: Very few activities are entirely free of Covid-19 risk. The risk of contracting the virus is certainly lower when you are around people who are also vaccinated as they are less likely to infect themselves and therefore less likely to transmit it to you.
I equated the vaccine with a very good raincoat. It protects you very well when it’s drizzling. But you can still get wet during a continuous thunderstorm. When there are many viruses around us, as there are in most communities in the United States, we need extra protection.
What I’m proposing is a “two out of three” rule. Indoors, when there are many viruses, you need two layers of protection out of three: vaccination, Covid-19 testing and masking. (Outdoor stays very safe.)
If you want to go to an indoor gathering where people are eating and drinking – and therefore unmasked – and it’s an area with high virus spread, you need proof of vaccination and tests on the same day. When tests aren’t available, keeping the mask on provides that extra layer of protection. When vaccination is not required or when unvaccinated people are present, masking provides protection in addition to testing.
CNN: How safe is it to travel? Should people cancel their travel plans?
Whom: The journey itself is not my main concern. For example, masks are compulsory on airplanes and airports and you can protect yourself by wearing a quality N95 or KN95 mask at all times. My biggest concern is what people do after they travel. If they only spend time with a small group of family members who are all vaccinated and tested, it’s still a relatively lower risk. On the other hand, if there are plans to go to many indoor restaurants and attend holiday celebrations with unvaccinated individuals, that is a much higher risk.
If you travel, make sure you have a plan for what happens if you test positive. If you plan to come back and visit vulnerable people – such as an aunt or uncle in a nursing home – also make sure you self-quarantine for at least three days and then get tested before seeing anyone who is medically infirm. And if you’re flying internationally, follow travel regulations carefully so you don’t get bogged down by new quarantine or testing rules.
CNN: What about people with young children who are too young to be vaccinated?
Whom: I am in this situation with two children under the age of 5 who are still not eligible for vaccination. My daughter is under 2 and cannot mask herself reliably, so we do not travel by plane or go to places where she may be surrounded by unmasked and unvaccinated people.
We don’t yet know the effects of Omicron on young children, but what we do know is that this is an extremely contagious strain – more contagious than we’ve seen with previous strains. Young, unvaccinated children and all unvaccinated people are at greater risk than ever of infection. That’s a reason to take extra precautions for people with unvaccinated family members.
CNN: How will you celebrate the holidays?
Whom: My husband and I will be going to several holiday meetings, some with and some without our children.
The main event is a Christmas party with a few dozen people, which requires vaccinations and booster shots in addition to tests. Vaccination cards and test results are checked at the door and everyone is at low risk in other aspects of their lives. The children do not go to this event as only those who are vaccinated are admitted.
We will also visit two more holiday meetings with our children. You’re only outdoors when the weather permits. The other is with another family fully vaccinated and refreshed who will all be testing for Covid on the day of the event as will we.
All of these precautions will help reduce the risk. They don’t completely eliminate risk, but the level of risk is something we’re comfortable with because of the value of these events to us. At this point in the pandemic, we need to find strategies to help us live with Covid-19, including the threat of Omicron.