The new omicron variant of COVID-19 has experts urging people to be cautious about their holiday plans in 2021.
There are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to the new variant, such as whether it can evade vaccine protection and whether it's more dangerous than other strains of the virus. The variant has been found around the world, including in the United States, after being first detected in South Africa.
The most effective way to stay safe, experts agreed, is to get vaccinated.
Dr. Nicholas Kman, an emergency medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said that now is a time to be "thoughtful" about holiday plans, but did say things are likely safer than last year for vaccinated people even with the new variant.
"I don't know that it's all doom and gloom. I think for people who are vaccinated and boosted, it's still much safer than what we had last year," Kman said. "But with about 35% of Americans unvaccinated, that's a tremendous number of people who are going to be at holiday gatherings that will pass the virus around."
That unvaccinated group, he said, could continue to cause more variants to emerge.
"The more the virus transmits, the more it can mutate and evolve, which spawns more variants," Kman continued. "Those are the things that have us concerned about the public health ramifications of people gathering over the coming holiday season."
If you're already vaccinated, make sure that you get a booster if you need one. People who received the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine should get a booster two months after getting the shot, while those who received a two-dose Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccine should get a booster six months later. However, just 50 million of 200 million vaccinated Americans have received their booster shot.
"There's plenty of time before the holidays to go grab one," Kman said. "That would be one of the first things we would recommend. Of course, that doesn't trump a first dose: Someone who's not been vaccinated at all getting vaccinated would be even more important."
Think about the safety of your gathering
Kman said that many Americans will likely have to do their own "risk assessment" and account for things like unvaccinated attendees, including young children, or guests who might be immunocompromised or susceptible to a severe case of COVID-19. The more people are at your gathering, Kman said, the harder it gets to keep track of risk.
"What we would recommend is looking at who's going to be in attendance at that holiday gathering, and if there's a lot of people, especially people you don't know, then there's going to be a lot of variables there that are hard to account for," Kman said.
Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, agreed that it's important to understand the vaccine status of guests. It can also help to ask attendees to take a rapid antigen test at home before coming to the party.
"Those rapid tests right before you head to that party are important to just make sure that you're the only one showing up at the party, that COVID is not coming with you," Althoff said.
Think about what you're doing in advance
Both Kman and Althoff said that it's also important to think about the events surrounding a holiday gathering, not just the party itself. If you typically attend multiple parties with different groups of people, now might be a year to limit your social calendar.
"Nobody wants to be sick for the holidays ... And you don't want to be in a position where you go to your work holiday party and then you get COVID and have to cancel the rest of your holiday plans," Althoff said.
Kman said that people should also consider how they're traveling to an event.
"If you travel in a car with immediate family, that would be safer than going from airport to airport ... Public transportation introduces a lot of variables that you don't necessarily (have) when traveling by car," Kman said.
Fall back on old tactics
Gatherings that have a lot of unvaccinated people in attendance should rely on the tools we've used to fight the pandemic thus far, Kman and Althoff said. That means things like going outside, keeping distance and masking.
However, if your guests are vaccinated and test beforehand, gatherings should be pretty safe.
"If you have people doing rapid tests, and everyone is vaccinated and those who are vaccinated and booster-eligible are boosted, you know, then I think you've created one of the safest environments possible," Althoff said.