How to keep gatherings safer amid COVID-19 surge: 'Omicron is likely coming to a holiday celebration near you'

·6-min read

For yet another year, the holidays are coinciding with a rise in COVID-19 cases — but this year feels distinctly different from the 2020 holiday season. While 65 percent of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the rise of the highly infectious Omicron variant is happening at the same time as dramatic increases in COVID-19 cases across the country.

The U.S. is averaging more than 118,000 new COVID-19 cases each day, a 40 percent increase over this time a month ago, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. And, in certain areas, cases are skyrocketing. Health officials in Philadelphia, which is seeing a sharp increase in cases, are urging people to reconsider hosting or attending indoor parties with other households. “Please do not get together with other households for Christmas,” city Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said during a press conference. “Or if you do, keep those gatherings small, have everyone do a rapid test before they come, and ask everyone to stay home if they feel even a little bit unwell.”

A COVID-19 testing site in Times Square in NYC: People on a sidewalk gather under a pop-up tent next to a parked van.
A COVID-19 testing site in Times Square in New York City. Experts suggest people should rapid test for COVID-19 before attending holiday gatherings. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

A government-created map of New York City COVID-19 cases shows a dramatic increase in diagnosed infections from Dec. 1 through Monday, the most recent date data is available, shifting from a seven-day moving average of 1,928 to 3,709.

Boston is also seeing a huge uptick in COVID-19, with 3,954 new cases diagnosed on Tuesday, per state data, in a wave that’s been surging since Halloween.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical adviser to the president, told CNN on Wednesday that family gatherings for the holidays are OK provided everyone has taken proper precautions. “If you’re vaccinated, your family members are vaccinated, you should feel comfortable in the setting of the holiday season to have dinners and social events at home,” he said. “People should not feel that that’s not safe. Nothing is 100 percent but when you talk about the relative risk when you’re dealing with vaccinated and particularly boosted people, you can feel comfortable enjoying the holidays.”

Of course, plenty of families have children under the age of 5 who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated or may have relatives that have chosen not to be vaccinated or have not gotten their booster dose. To date, only 30.5 percent of people age 18 and up have gotten a booster, per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So what should you do?

Doctors warn that the COVID-19 situation is only going to get worse as Christmas and New Year’s Eve approach. “We’re in between the twin peaks,” Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, told Yahoo Life. “Omicron is spreading rapidly and there will be a bump in cases of Delta, which is still the dominant COVID-19 variant. As people interact for the holidays, cases will pile on.”

A particular concern with the rise of the Omicron variant is that it seems to at least partially evade COVID-19 vaccines, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Yahoo Life. Case in point: Cornell University, which has a 97 percent vaccination rate, just shut down all undergraduate events and moved its finals online after a spike in COVID-19 cases that are thought to be from the Omicron variant. Cornell vice president Joel Malina told NPR that “virtually every case of the Omicron variant to date has been found in fully vaccinated students.”

Earlier this month, the CDC released a report of early Omicron cases in the U.S. and found that 79 percent of the 43 people infected during the study period were fully vaccinated against COVID-19. However, data has shown that booster doses of the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) do seem to help offer higher protection against the Omicron variant.

While most breakthrough infections have been mild and produced cold-like symptoms, it’s still understandable that you’d be wary of testing positive for COVID-19 over the holidays, even if you’re vaccinated.

“People should only gather indoors if everyone has been boosted and doesn’t have symptoms,” Russo said. And, if you’ll have unvaccinated relatives or loved ones present, he recommends rethinking your plans or considering taking extra precautions.

“It’s a good idea to do rapid testing the morning of the gathering,” Schaffner explained. That’s especially true if someone in your group is at high risk for severe COVID-19 and if you have younger children who are ineligible for vaccination, he says. And, if testing isn’t an option, masks are, he said.

Given how widespread COVID-19 is right now and how fast the highly contagious Omicron variant is spreading, experts say there’s a chance you could test positive for COVID-19 before you’re supposed to join family for holiday plans. The rules are the same whether you have a breakthrough infection or are unvaccinated, Russo says: You should isolate for 10 days, per CDC recommendations, and not attend any holiday gatherings.

Of course, you’ll need to tell someone that you’re not coming and why — and that’s something you shouldn’t be nervous about doing, etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, author of Poised for Success, told Yahoo Life. “COVID doesn’t carry the same stigma it did two years ago when people didn’t want to tell anybody,” she said. “Now, it’s like saying ‘I have a bad cold.’”

Elaine Swann, a lifestyle and etiquette expert and founder of the Swann School of Protocol, told Yahoo Life that you only need to tell the host that you can’t make it. “It’s really important to get that information to the host as quickly as possible so they can make arrangements or provisions for your absence,” she said.

While Whitmore said a call is considered the most proper, she said it’s also fine to text if that’s how you usually communicate with the host. She recommends saying something like, “I’d love to come over, but I have COVID-19 and don’t want to subject anyone to illness.” Then, thank the host for the invite. “You don’t have to tell everyone — just tell the host,” she said.

If you happen to test positive after a holiday gathering, though, Swann said it’s important to tell the host and anyone else you know who was at the event, provided you have their information. “The host will want to put steps into place to protect the guests,” she said.

Overall, experts recommend going into holiday gatherings with caution and taking precautions to ensure they’re as safe as possible. “Omicron is going to throw a wrench in holiday plans, and it’s going to continue to grow,” Russo said. “Omicron is likely coming to a holiday celebration near you. It’s going to put us two steps backward.”

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