Dear Omicron Variant, Please Don’t Ruin Our Holiday Plans

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 

For a moment there, it felt like we could breathe a very small sigh of relief. Maybe because slowly but surely we’ve gained a better understanding of COVID and how to treat it. Maybe because the COVID vaccines became available to children ages 5-11. Or maybe simply because cases began declining in many parts of the country. Though the pandemic certainly wasn’t over, things were beginning to feel a little more normal. Many of us even began to plan for the future again—or at least for the upcoming holidays.

And then came omicron.

Before most of us had finished digesting our Thanksgiving meal, which we ate surrounded by family and friends, a new, highly transmissible variant appeared.

Suddenly a new, and unfortunately familiar, layer of uncertainty was added to all those holiday plans. Layered between questions about omicron’s severity and ability to evade vaccines was this: What do we do about our carefully made plans? With omicron beginning to circulate in the U.S. and around the world, is it still safe to move forward with holiday get-together and travel plans?

The answer, unfortunately, isn’t a simple “yes” or “no.” It depends on where you’re going, who you’ll be seeing, and a variety of other factors. Here’s what we know.

Should Omicron Make Us Cancel Travel Plans?

Since COVID began circulating, testing requirements, cancelations, and raging tempers have made travel … tricky. Add to that the busy-ness of the holiday season, and we were no doubt in store for some difficult holiday travel this year. Now with omicron making the rounds, we need to ask ourselves whether we should travel at all.

Dr. Henry Wu, director of Emory TravelWell Center and an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, doesn’t think we should cancel our travels plans just yet. No doubt that’s a relief to hear, but it’s not as cut and dry as it sounds.

In an interview with NPR, he noted that “Anyone who’s thinking of traveling should pause and consider both your own risk, as well as certain other practical issues about your destination.”

Those issues include testing requirements (which have been tightened thanks to omicron), infection rates at your destination, and the risk profile of the folks you’ll be visiting.

Courtney Niebrzydowski, an international travel risk analyst at the University of Denver, took a slightly more cautious approach in an interview with The New York Times. She encouraged travelers to consider all the potential (nightmare) scenarios—including canceled flights, positive COVID tests, and expanded quarantine requirements—and to think through contingency plans for those. That includes considering the potential costs and possible missed obligations that could result in travel gone wrong.

With those considerations in mind, she believes many folks will have “less appetite for travel.”

If you do decide to go forward with your holiday travel, getting vaccinated (and boosted), masking, and testing can make travel safer.

Are Holiday Get-Togethers Safe?

After missing holiday get-togethers last year, many of us were excited to be in the same room as family and friends this year. And we can be—arguably even should be, for our mental and emotional health.

Experts agree that holiday get-togethers can be done safely, in ways that lower the risk for everyone involved. “What we need to do is add more layers of protection,” said Julie Vaishampayan, chair of the public health committee of the Infectious Disease Society of America, during a media briefing.

The first layer is vaccination. According to Dr. Fauci, if everyone is vaccinated (and boosted), the question of whether or not to get together for the holidays can be answered with a simple “yes.”

If there are unvaccinated folks—due to age or choice—get-togethers are still possible. In that case, testing, masking, and good ventilation could help keep everyone safe.

The caveat to all of that is if you have a high-risk person at home. In that case, “this is probably not the time to have a large gathering because vaccines here don’t completely stop transmission, they just reduce the chance it can happen,” according to Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician at Stanford University.

Canceling is undoubtedly safer than not canceling, but canceling is also … canceling. We’ve all had to cancel so much in the last two years, and choosing to cancel again certainly takes a mental and emotional toll. Whether to pay that toll is a nuanced choice that will likely look different for each person. It might even look different in the coming weeks as we creep closer to those holiday plans, and we learn more about omicron. (The latest news that omicron might cause milder infections is super exciting, but we need more evidence before we can celebrate that fact.)

The good news is this isn’t our first pandemic holiday season. We do have vaccines. And boosters. And strategies that we know help to minimize the risk. As long as we take advantage of the many options available, listen to the experts, and keep in mind that flexibility is key when planning (and re-planning), we may still have the holiday season we were planning on.

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