Omicron Variant spike may rearrange holiday gatherings and travel. Photo credit: Andrea De Santis on Unsplash

‘Tis the season . . . to be cautious. Omicron variant ravishes the world

The newest COVID-19 variant could change how, and if, we observe holidays with family and friends.

Typically, December is the month people get together with friends and family to celebrate one of the three popular holidays during this month: Hanukkah, Christmas, and the African-centered Kwanzaa.

Each holiday involves group festivities, such as dinners or opening presents. But a year ago, holiday celebrations were canceled or held virtually on Zoom to reduce the possibility of spreading the COVID-19 virus. In 2020, COVID-19 cases increased nationally and worldwide. So did virus-related deaths.

Vaccines were developed and distributed last December to healthcare facilities in every state.  According to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus  Resource Center, 62 percent of the U.S. population, or 204.8 million Americans, have been vaccinated as of December 23. The Coronavirus Resource Center updates its data several times a week.

For a while, it seemed that it was safe to enjoy holiday celebrations until another variant of the virus called Omicron–first reported by scientists in South Africa–came along. Since, it has threatened a surge to other countries, including the U.S., where new cases have been reported in every state.

Infectious disease experts are determining if Omicron is more dangerous than other variants such as Delta, and whether it is safe to celebrate the holidays in person, or only virtually. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has offered a qualified “Yes.”

“Just as I said and I’ll say it again, if you have a vaccinated situation, enjoy the holidays with your family in a family setting,” said Dr. Fauci, at a recent CNN “town hall” event concerning the virus and its newer variants. 

Presently, some report Omicron being ten times more likely to infect people who already had COVID-19, although it is less likely than its Delta counterpart in resulting in hospitalizations. Having pushed past the latter’s peak infection rate, Omicron has added about one quarter of a million new cases to the total 51,574,787 cases the U.S. has had thus far. There have been more than 800,000 fatalities since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, and 1,522 new deaths augmenting said total.

More stores are requiring face makes per the local government mandate. Photo credit: Uriel Mont on Pexels

If you want to visit Grandma, get vaxxed and masked up

The CDC agrees that vaccines and booster shots are the most effective protections against COVID-19 and its Delta and Omicron variants. Breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people can occur, the CDC said in a recent report. Yet, vaccines protect individuals from virulent symptoms which lead to hospitalizations and deaths. “Vaccines remain the best public health measure to protect people from COVID-19, slow transmission, and reduce the likelihood of new variants emerging,” read the report.

According to the CDC, wearing a mask in public indoor settings is still an effective defense against the virus, as is testing to determine if one has the virus. Some infectious disease experts advise wearing the thicker N95 or KN95 masks to block the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Those planning on visiting relatives should be tested before traveling, explained NBC News medical correspondent John Torres. “I talked to an expert this week, and she did remind us that those rapid tests are only good for about six to 12 hours so they’re just a snapshot in time, but they can help right before that party,” said Dr. Torres.

Dr. Torres recommended people avoid holiday parties if possible, since the virus thrives on closed and crowded indoor spaces. If one is in such a space, he said, ventilate the area by opening doors and windows. 

For travelers, they should research the number of hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 in cities and states to determine if they are safe enough to visit, said Dr. Torres. “If [COVID statistics are] going back up, you might want to scale back a little bit on the size of your gathering and make sure everybody stays safe,” he said. “And everyone who can be vaccinated should be vaccinated.” 

Those planning air travel should make sure their flights aren’t canceled due to the Omicron surge. United and Delta recently canceled more than 200 flights.

People who are “immunocompromised” should avoid holiday travel, said Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine professor of infectious diseases, Robert Murphy. Recently, the director of the university’s Institute for Global Health told NPR immunocompromised individuals include “people over 65, people who are obese, people with diabetes, people with underlying cancer. . . I think these people should not be traveling anywhere.” He said overseas trips should be postponed or canceled.

Travelers take precautions during the holiday as another variant spikes. Photo credit: Anna Shvets on Pexels

Omicron and religious holiday services

Religious leaders vary on whether and how congregants should observe holy days. Father Peter Grace of St. Ann Catholic Church in Raleigh, North Carolina told WRAL that he would hold a Christmas-themed event which draws hundreds, and celebrate Mass every Sunday, Omicron notwithstanding. “It’s like saying, ‘It’s your mother’s birthday, stay home.’ No, we’re not going to stay home. We’re coming, but we will be careful.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many churches have been holding in-person and virtual services. At St. Ann Catholic Church, congregants attending in person wear masks and sit on one side of the sanctuary, while those without masks sit on the opposite side.

“Ultimately, each individual has to weigh the data and make their own choice,” said Father Grace. “We’re trying to respect that and yet also realize that we’re dealing with a pandemic, and we have to consider other people.”

Otherwise, the CDC’s general guidelines regarding COVID infections apply to the Omicron variant. 

  • Self quarantine for 10 days. 
  • Limit contact with other people. 
  • End the self-imposed quarantine only if one has gone 24 hours without a fever (and without taking fever reducing medications) and symptoms have lessened.
  • If unvaccinated, get vaccinated as soon as possible. 
  • Take the COVID test if symptoms are present, or if one was recently exposed to the virus. 

In response to the rise of infections, The Biden administration has purchased a half billion at-home COVID test kits and will mail the free tests to people who request them. While anti-COVID vaccines don’t always prevent breakthrough infections, they can make the virus similar to a severe cold or flu. Infectious disease expert Rebecca Wurtz of the University of Minnesota indicated recently that breakthrough infections will become the new normal, and “we have to learn to live with them.”

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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