As a wave of the newest COVID-19 variant, omicron BA.5, washes across the nation, many are left without a lot of guidance on how to best protect their families.
The variant, which originated in South Africa, has shown itself to be extremely infectious — so much so that the Food and Drug Administration has directed vaccine manufacturers to include it in the next round of COVID-19 vaccines to be released in the fall.
As an example of how easily the new variant is spreading, Portugal, which has one of the most highly vaccinated populations worldwide, has been seeing a surge in cases this summer.
To get a better sense of strategies families might take during the summer months, TODAY reached out to three epidemiologists, Dr. Graham Snyder, medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at UPMC in Pittsburgh, Stephen Kissler, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s department of immunology and infectious diseases and Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and director of ICAP, to ask what they were doing to protect themselves and their families.
All of the epidemiologists interviewed by TODAY said they continue to mask at work. For Snyder, it’s especially important as a means of protecting the most vulnerable patients coming to the hospital.
Kissler wears a mask when in a room with other people and he continues to take rapid tests any time he experiences symptoms that are consistent with COVID-19. “Between those two things I’m reasonably confident coming in to work,” Kissler said.
Daycare and summer camps for the kids:
“While it’s true that kids are less likely to experience serious complications than adults, it doesn’t mean they won’t,” Snyder said. “I think now that there’s a vaccine for children all the way down to 6 months, it’s changing the calculus of how much we want to invest in measures like masking to prevent exposure.”
For those who want to be extra cautious, experts say children over age 3 can get very good at masking, Snyder said. Those over 2 can learn to mask, but will not always be perfect at it, and for those under 2, masking isn’t recommended for safety reasons, he added.
Kissler has no children of his own. “But I have nieces and nephews and have been talking to family members about how to approach summer with kids,” he said. “First, it’s important to prioritize outdoor activities, especially in parts of the country where it’s possible and not oppressively hot. It’s also important to have a low threshold for holding kids back if they don’t feel well. You don’t want to spread this to kids who might be immune compromised. We’re living in a time where we should all be more cautious.”
“This ends up being a very personal choice,” Snyder said. “We actually took our first family vacation a few weeks ago. Our calculus was that our 2-year-old had not met some of her cousins, aunts and uncles and we decided to accept some risk. We traveled by car which minimized risks as much as possible. Many of the things we did we did as a family. We did eat out twice at restaurants that we chose carefully. For the most part we did takeout and ate together as a family. The real value was time spent as a family.”
It’s important when you’re in airports, bus stations and train stations to wear a mask consistently, El-Sadr said. “And on planes and trains you should wear your mask consistently,” she added.
El-Sadr also suggests getting tested before and after traveling. “You want to make sure you don’t unknowingly transmit to others,” she said.
Kissler, who has been traveling a lot lately and is planning more travel during the summer suggests wearing a high quality mask, like an N95 or KN95, “especially when you’re in airports. You want to wear masks in places where the ventilation is not good, like airports, and shuttle buses.” And while ventilation tends to be better on planes, wearing a mask during the trip is still probably a good idea, he said.
“It’s also important to test and stay at home if you’re not feeling well,” Kissler said. “We actually recently canceled a vacation because of a positive test in the household.”
Indoor dining and parties:
It’s important to get a sense of what the COVID picture is in your community before making decisions about dining out and going to parties, Kissler said. “You can do that with one of the online dashboards,” he added. “If hospitalizations are high, then you might be a little more cautious and not dine out as much and not go to as many indoor gatherings.”
“I have been eating with people indoors in my home and in public settings,” Kissler said. “One of the main drivers of the pandemic has been super spreaders, where one person infects a lot of other people. One way to prevent this is to keep gatherings relatively small and to not do too many in rapid succession.”
For El-Sadr, the best course is to go to restaurants only when it’s possible to eat outdoors. “Fortunately the weather is nice now,” she said.
It’s important to get a sense of what the COVID picture is in your community before making decisions about dining out and going to parties.
Snyder sees a continuum of risk when it comes to indoor dining and parties. “Even in the outdoors you can easily imagine a situation where there is not great air circulation,” he said. “And you can easily imagine low risk settings where there is sufficient spacing and good air circulation.”
Snyder said he’s been judicious about socializing. “My wife and I, over time, have had more and more events with friends or family in small gatherings,” he said. “We might go to a park with friends and their kids and watch them play on the swings. That way there’s little risk of transmission.”