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December 6, 2021

Omicron Is Complicating the Holidays. Here’s How to Stay Safe

Omicron Is Complicating the Holidays. Here’s How to Stay Safe

Did you stick around town for the holidays last year? Then you were among the millions of Americans who chose to limit or avoid travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic. About 30 percent of us celebrated the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s at home in 2020, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

This season, however, around two-thirds of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated and COVID shots have been approved for children aged 5 and older. As a result, experts have predicted more travel and larger in-person gatherings. For many people, it holds the promise of bigger, happier holidays—and perhaps better times to come.

But does the rise of the Omicron coronavirus variant threaten to roll back progress in slowing the spread of COVID-19, potentially disrupting holiday travel plans and get-togethers? Health officials are urging all eligible Americans to be fully vaccinated, get a booster shot, continue to wear masks, and take other precautions to help protect themselves, their loves ones, and their neighbors.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 remains a lethal threat. Approximately 100,000 Americans died between September 15 and November 15 of this year, and tens of thousands of cases continue to be diagnosed each day. About 1 in 6 adults are still not immunized, and people with weakened immune systems or serious illnesses remain at increased risk, even if they’ve been jabbed. Plus, early reports indicate that Omicron may spread even faster than the Delta variant, the chief culprit in this summer’s surge of infections.

Fortunately, you can help protect yourself and your loved ones from COVID-19 by taking a few key precautions. Whether you’re hitting the road or staying close to home, they’ll make your holiday season a safer one.

The number one way to protect yourself and others
Hands down, being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is the best way to lower your risk of infection, severe illness, hospitalization, and death. In August 2021, unvaccinated people were about 11 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than those who had received their shots, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports.

Being up to date on vaccinations may mean getting a booster shot. All adults who got the Johnson & Johnson jab can get another shot at least two months later. If you’ve had two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at least six months ago, you are able to get a booster if you’re age 18 or older.

A “mix-and-match” approach to boosters is allowed. So, if you’re due for a booster, you can choose any one of the three vaccines available: the Moderna, Pfizer or J&J vaccine.

Getting vaccinated doesn’t just safeguard your own health: It helps shield everyone else, as well, especially if you’re getting together with young children, seniors, or other people with a greater chance of becoming ill with COVID-19.

“If you’re vaccinated and your family members are vaccinated...then you can enjoy the holidays,” Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC News in October.

Tips for hosting or staying local
Having people over to your place? Driving to a relative’s house? Feasting with friends at a favorite restaurant? Even if you’re excited to spend time with loved ones, you might feel uncertain about celebrating the season with the pandemic still in full swing. Navigating around high-risk family members or sharing spaces with unvaccinated people may add to your anxiety.

So, when you’re making decisions about holiday events, take your health, comfort level, and tolerance for risk into account. Consider those of other people, too, and take the best safety measures possible, including the following:

Carry a mask. A fitted mask covering both your mouth and nose can help prevent COVID-19 infection. Wear your mask when you’re indoors in public if you are:

  • Unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated
  • Fully vaccinated, but in an area with substantial or high disease transmission, which is currently almost everywhere in the United States
  • Fully vaccinated, but immunocompromised

Outdoor settings usually don’t require masks. That said, you may choose to wear one if you’re celebrating outside in a high-transmission area that’s exceptionally crowded, or if you’ll be doing things in close proximity to unvaccinated people. It's a good idea to check local disease activity when you're gathering with others.

Note that kids younger than 2 years old should not wear a mask.

Go outside if possible. Weather permitting of course, it’s safer to celebrate outdoors than indoors. Ventilation and space are key for indoor gatherings—steer clear of congested settings with little air flow. Open windows and turn on fans to increase circulation whenever you can.

Keep your hands clean. Wash often, for at least 20 seconds, with soap and water. If a sink isn’t available, use hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol. Limit or avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth—especially with unwashed hands—and disinfect high-touch surfaces like faucets and door handles frequently. Don’t forget: Regular handwashing protects against other illnesses like the flu and the common cold, too.

Stay home if you’re sick. Don’t invite people over, either. Get tested if you have COVID-19 symptoms or if you’ve been around someone with the disease.

Plan ahead. Are you gathering with babies or preschoolers, people 65 and older, or the immunocompromised? Does your get-together include multiple people from different households? Is your brunch in a high-transmission area? It’s better to know what you’re walking into than to be surprised. Learn what you can in advance and be sure to take the appropriate steps to protect yourself and others. Know your boundaries, too, and understand it's okay to cancel plans or say no to an invitation if you’re uncomfortable.

Tips for traveling
Being fully vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself on the road, whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally. The CDC strongly recommends staying home if you haven’t had your shot(s).

International travelers should make sure to check your destination’s COVID-19 policies ahead of time; the U.S. Department of State’s travel website is a good resource. Note that many policies shifted following the emergence of the Omicron variant, and they will likely continue to change as details become clearer. Several countries will not allow Americans to visit without proof of vaccination. Some nations require a quarantine period, while others, including Australia, are not allowing U.S. visitors at all.

If you’re flying, note that the CDC requires all international air travelers to present a negative COVID-19 test within one day of leaving for the U.S. You should be tested again three to five days after coming home. If you develop COVID-19 within 90 days prior to returning home, you must have documentation of your recovery from a healthcare provider (HCP); you will not require an additional post-travel test.

For those who haven’t been fully vaccinated, the CDC recommends taking additional precautions for both domestic and international travel. You should be tested for COVID-19 one to three days before you go, and again three to five days after coming home. It’s advised that you self-quarantine for at least seven days once your trip is over, as well.

Wherever you’re headed, make sure to follow all local, state, and national COVID-19 policies. You should also wash your hands frequently and wear a mask on public transportation and in other areas where physical distancing is difficult.

Bottom line: With some smart precautions, you can increase the odds of a happy and safe holiday season for you and your loved ones.

Sources:

Bureau of Transportation Statistics. “Thanksgiving week travel: total number of trips down, long distance trips up over last year.” December 9, 2020. Accessed October 21, 2021.
Bureau of Transportation Statistics. “Holiday Surge in Travel Exceeds Last Year for Trips to Places between 50 and 500 Miles Away, but Is Still Less Than Last Year for Local Travel and Trips Over 500 miles.” January 8, 2021. Accessed October 21, 2021.
Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. “COVID-19 Dashboard.” 2021. Accessed October 21, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID Data Tracker: COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States.” 2021. Accessed December 6, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID Data Tracker: Rates of COVID-19 Cases and Deaths by Vaccination Status.” 2021. Accessed October 21, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19: Who Is Eligible for a COVID-19 Booster Shot?” October 7, 2021. Accessed October 21, 2021.
ABC News. “This Week: Dr. Anthony Fauci” October 17, 2021. Accessed October 21, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19: Holiday Celebrations.” October 15, 2021. Accessed October 21, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19: Use Masks to Slow the Spread of COVID-19.” August 12, 2021. Accessed October 21, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID Data Tracker: COVID-19 Integrated County View.” 2021. Accessed October 21, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19: International Travel During COVID-19.” August 25, 2021. Accessed October 21, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19: Domestic Travel During COVID-19.” October 4, 2021. Accessed October 21, 2021.
U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs. “International Travel.” 2021. Accessed October 21, 2021.
U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Australia. “COVID-19 Information.” October 15, 2021. Accessed November 4, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19: Safer Travel Tips for Families with Unvaccinated Children.” September 1, 2021. Accessed October 21, 2021.
South African COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. “Omicron Spread in South Africa: Growth, Transmissibility, & Immune Escape Estimates.” December 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19: Your Guide to Masks.” October 25, 2021. Accessed December 6, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19: U.S Citizens, U.S. Nationals, U.S. Lawful Permanent Residents, and Immigrants: Air Travel to and from the United States.” December 2, 2021. Accessed December 6, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19: Requirement for Proof of Negative COVID-19 Test or Documentation of Recovery from COVID-19.” December 2, 2021. Accessed December 6, 2021.

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