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Omicron is here but 'we are not in March 2020,' experts stress

We have so many tools now that we didn't have at the beginning of the pandemic.

With COVID-19 cases climbing yet again and the new omicron variant in the mix, things are starting to feel all too familiar. But Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, has a reassuring message for those who are wondering whether or not to go through with holiday travel plans.

"We are not in March 2020. We just aren't," Jha told Hoda Kotb on TODAY. Although people may be developing breakthrough infections, we have so many more tools available to us now than we had at the beginning of the pandemic. And we can use those to keep ourselves and our communities safe this winter without completely canceling our plans.

"We have fabulous vaccines," he said. "We have lots of tests... We know about how the virus spreads and we can protect ourselves with high-quality masks. There is so much more that we have going for us at this point that there is no reason to panic."

With all these tools available to us, "We can keep ourselves safe this holiday season and into the new year," Jha said.

How transmissible is the omicron coronavirus variant?

The data we have right now suggests that the omicron variant spreads more easily than previous versions of the coronavirus, including the delta variant.

"It has a doubling time of two days, which is much worse than delta," Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the Food and Drug Administration vaccine advisory committee and director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told Weekend TODAY. "I thought nothing could be more contagious than delta, but this virus is — and it will no doubt take over in the United States."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, echoed that take on "Meet the Press" this weekend. "The one thing that’s very clear, and there’s no doubt about this, is (omicron's) extraordinary capability of spreading — its transmissibility capability," he said. "It is just, you know, raging through the world, really." 

How severe is COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant?

Research is ongoing, but some data has found that cases with the omicron variant tend to be milder than those with previous variants. But with such a high level of transmissibility, there will still be added stress on hospital systems, Fauci said.

"No matter how you look at it," he said, "when you have so many infections, even if it is less severe, that overcomes this slight-to-moderate diminution in severity because our hospitals ... are going to be very stressed with people because, again, we have so many people in this country who are eligible to be vaccinated who have not yet been vaccinated."

The good news is that vaccination — especially with a booster — still provides significant protection against omicron. "Even if you've gotten just two doses of mRNA vaccine, you have a 70% chance of being protected against severe illness," Offit said.

If you're elderly or high-risk for severe COVID-19, how worried should you be about omicron?

"If you are elderly and you're vaccinated, you certainly, absolutely should be boosted," Jha said. And if you do happen to get a breakthrough infection, it will probably be mild, and "you will likely do just fine," he said.

Of course, that's not a reason to abandon all those precautionary measures (like wearing masks or using rapid testing when possible) to avoid COVID-19. But "even in elderly people, if they're boosted, it's turning out to be really mild," Jha said.

What's the protocol for visiting high-risk family members right now?

If you're going to be interacting with family members or friends who are at high risk for severe COVID-19, you should first make sure everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated actually is, Jha said.

On top of that, it "makes a lot of sense" to use a rapid COVID-19 test right before spending time together to make sure that no one is infectious at that moment.

"Then I think seeing grandma, giving her a hug or taking off your mask at that point is a very reasonable thing to do," he said.

What should you do if someone gets a breakthrough infection while you're visiting?

If you're visiting friends or family for the holidays and someone gets a breakthrough infection, "that person absolutely needs to isolate because they are contagious for a while," Jha said. But he acknowledged that it can be "tricky."

“There are ways of still getting through it, especially if there are lots of rapid tests available,” Jha said. “But no doubt about it, the person who was infected needs to isolate.”

Technically, everyone else may also need to quarantine at that point depending on whether or not they're vaccinated, Fauci explained. In that scenario, you don’t necessarily need to isolate yourself or quarantine yourself if you are vaccinated. "But you might want to get a test a couple of days later to just make sure that you have not had a breakthrough infection," he explained.

Fauci advised testing between three and five days after exposure for the most accurate results. He also suggested testing again a few days later just to be sure.

Should you cancel holiday plans because of omicron?

You don't necessarily need to cancel your plans, but you should still be "prudent," Fauci said. "When you travel, there is always a risk of increased infection," he explained, and he advised people who are traveling this holiday season to get vaccinated and boosted and to continue wearing masks in congregate settings, like airports.

"This whole holiday season is so important to people," Jha said, noting that many of us had to skip it last year. "I would say if you are vaccinated (and) if the high-risk people are boosted," gathering for Christmas is a "pretty reasonable thing to do," he said, especially if you have access to rapid tests right now.