The fast rise of the omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 caught many off guard. And now, with Christmas less than a week away, many families are left pondering the same question: Should we stay or should we go?
According to the latest forecast from AAA, more than 109 million people were set to travel 50 miles or further for the end of year holidays, including Christmas and New Year’s. That’s up 34% from last year, and just 8% below the levels seen before the COVID-19 pandemic.
And many more families were planning to fly this year. AAA expected that 6.4 million people would travel by plane, nearly triple the number of people who traveled that way last year.
Yet, the emergence of the omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has many questioning their holiday plans, especially as there’s been more evidence that people who are vaccinated against the virus can still contract the omicron variant. As of Dec. 19, there were over 72,000 new COVID-19 cases reported nationwide, according to the New York Times COVID tracker. The number of new cases has steadily risen throughout December, and hospitalizations are also increasing.
“‘The truth is the safest thing with COVID is to stay home, if that’s the only consideration.’”
To avoid getting friends and family sick during this time of year — and vice versa — the most fool-proof strategy would be to skip the holiday get-togethers and trips. But the decision on whether or not to follow through with these holiday plans isn’t so cut and dry, infectious disease experts said.
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“The truth is the safest thing with COVID is to stay home, if that’s the only consideration,” said Dr. Preeti Malani, an infectious disease physician and chief health officer at the University of Michigan. After nearly two full years of a pandemic, though, avoiding COVID isn’t the only consideration given the impact the crisis has presented to people’s mental health.
“There is a huge risk to not getting together this year,” Malani said. “People have been isolated, and that is every bit as much of a risk. You can manage the risk of COVID through a layered approach.”
Here are the steps families should take before moving forward with any end-of-year plans to ensure everyone is safe and healthy:
Step 1: Get vaccinated (or boosted)
Public-health experts across the board recommend getting vaccinated to protect against COVID-19, even though it’s possible for vaccinated people to contract the illness due to the omicron variant.
“Whatever you’re planning on doing, that will decrease the risk of the activities you engage in,” said Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of the Department of Medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau and a spokesman for the Infectious Disease Society of America.
For those who were already fully vaccinated — meaning they had received both of the two doses of the Pfizer
vaccines or the single dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine
— getting boosted over time is equally important.
While all three vaccines maintain their authorizations, Glatt advised that patients consider the two-dose mRNA vaccines if possible.
Step 2: Review all possible health risks
For those who are fully vaccinated, the risk of having a severe case of COVID-19 is low, according to health experts. But as has been the case since the start of the pandemic, risk varies based on people’s health and lifestyle.
“Each person has to decide what level of risk they’re willing to take,” Glatt said. People who are immune-compromised or have other serious health conditions, for instance, should be extremely careful about opting to participate in holiday gatherings that might increase the likelihood of contracting COVID-19.
But COVID itself isn’t the only reason to consider the potential health ramifications of traveling right now. With hospitalizations due to COVID rising, getting access to health care for other conditions is once again becoming a challenge.
“God forbid you fall and break your leg — everything is going to be harder to take care of,” Malani said. Reviewing the status of medical facilities — both where you live and in your destination — should be part of the planning process.
Step 3: Consider how you’re traveling
Some forms of transportation inherently pose more risk than others, which could increase the potential for getting sick. For instance, driving to visit family for Christmas will reduce your exposure to others.
“Going in a car with only your immediate family that you’re unmasked together with all the time poses zero risk” from a COVID-19 perspective, Glatt said, but he added that driving itself can be risky. According to the National Safety Council, holidays throughout the year are associated with a higher rate in car crashes that cause injuries and deaths due to the roads being more crowded and more people driving under the influence of alcohol.
“‘Going in a car with only your immediate family that you’re unmasked together with all the time poses zero risk.’”
Health experts said that being on a plane itself is not necessarily very risky. Passengers are required to wear masks, and the air-filtration systems on planes remove virus particles from the air. Instead, the risk comes with what happens before and after getting on the plane.
“A taxi cab or that Uber ride — whoever’s picking you up could be someone that introduces risk to you,” Malani said. Similarly, eating inside the airport can be risky due to COVID. She recommended eating before heading to the airport if possible, and while at the gate distancing from anyone who isn’t wearing a mask.
Step 4: Once you arrive, take the proper precautions
All gatherings aren’t created equally from a COVID-19 perspective. Ideally, that family gift exchange or dinner would take place outdoors and be distanced. But in colder parts of the country, that may not be feasible.
For larger gatherings, staying masked will be helpful to prevent transmission. “Up until now I personally have used a surgical mask, but I I just ordered some KN95s for some travel that my family is going to do,” Malani said. In general, masks should be tight-fitting and cover both the nose and mouth to be most effective.
If everyone needs to eat inside, health experts recommended spreading people out as much as possible and to consider eating in a staggered fashion so everyone isn’t unmasked in close quarters. For those who have access to at-home rapid COVID-19 tests, testing everyone as they arrive can be another way to avoid transmission.
Finally, make sure to set a standard for everyone who’s coming. For instance, one way to mitigate risk further would be to limit the amount of exposure in the days leading up to the trip or gathering, Malani said, by isolating as much as possible. If a family chooses to do this, but has a cousin who has continued going out to unmasked spaces, then they may want to rescind that cousin’s invitation to keep everyone safe, Malani said. That sort of tough conversation could keep many people safe.
Step 5: Think about getting tested after your trip
Upon your return from your holiday sojourn, you may want to consider taking yet another COVID-19 test, though as with everything this depends on the level of risk at hand.
For someone who simply traveled, stayed in a hotel and attended a single masked get-together with their family but did little else, routine testing isn’t necessary, Glatt said.
“But if that person went someplace where there was potential, significant exposures — they were indoors a lot but other people didn’t wear a mask and didn’t know who the surrounding people were — then it’s certainly reasonable to get tested,” he added.
Post-trip testing might also be a smart move for people who have pre-existing conditions that put them at a higher risk of having a more severe COVID-19 case. That way, on the off chance someone does test positive, Malani said, they can avail themselves of treatments like monoclonal antibodies more quickly and hopefully stave off worse symptoms.