How to Safely Plan a Holiday Gathering During the Omicron Wave

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  • Before the onset of Omicron, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released guidelines in October for a safe and healthy holiday season.
  • As the holidays approach, researchers say not so much is known about Omicron.
  • Experts say that following safety tips and precautions may help reduce the spread of the variant. 
  • Experts say staying outdoors for dinners during the holiday may help reduce transmissions.

As the holiday season hits full swing, a new COVID-19 Omicron variant has come knocking on the door, potentially disrupting plans for many.

The variant was discovered at the end of November, and researchers are still studying Omicron to understand better its transmissibility as well as the effect of vaccines on neutralizing the virus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Experts say the Omicron variant appears to spread far faster than other COVID variants. They remain unsure if it leads to less severe symptoms than other variants.

Despite the rise of the new variant, experts say it’s still possible to celebrate the holiday. But they stress that it is best to take safety measures to protect everyone’s health while enjoying holiday traditions.     

Indoor gatherings or outdoor dinners: What works best with Omicron?

With Omicron, it’s best to take extra steps to keep social gatherings safe.

“The best policy is to limit the size of gatherings to the more immediate family, given the continued high rate of infection with COVID and the bump in infections after Thanksgiving,” said Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum, professor of clinical medicine and infectious disease specialist at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “Regardless of whether this is Delta or Omicron, if people gather inside and eat, there’s going to be more transmission. Outside would be preferable but not feasible in many parts of the country.”

If you’re living in a cold climate and not excited about an outdoor gathering in freezing temperatures, Dr. Janice Johnston, family medicine specialist in Glendale, Arizona, and chief medical director and co-founder of Redirect Health, recommends keeping indoor gatherings to a small number of people and maintain social and physical distancing.

But Johnston said that if people are unvaccinated, you may want to bundle up and stay outdoors.

“If having your holiday dinner outside is an option, you may want to consider that, especially if you have family members that are at risk or unvaccinated,” she added. 

According to Dr. Larry Blosser, family medicine physician and COVID-19 adviser to the Ohio Department of Health, said indoor settings can be safe “if precautions are taken.”

“Consider opening windows if possible. Make sure everyone who is attending is free of COVID symptoms or exposures to COVID-positive individuals. Consider asking everyone to do an at-home test the day of the meal to reduce potential exposure, and encourage everyone to get vaccinated,” he said. “That is still the most important tool we have to reduce exposure risk and spread.”

Can ‘at-home COVID test kits’ detect the variant?

In line with safety guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), millions of Americans gathering with families and friends this holiday should have the at-home test kits handy as a risk reduction measure.

The safety measure goes hand in hand with masking, vaccination, and social distancing. And it isn’t a substitution for any of the three. But as important as at-home test kits are, can they detect the Omicron variant?

“Yes, they do. At-home COVID test kits won’t tell you what variant you have, but they do detect all main forms of COVID,” said Dr. Kate Tulenko, physician, health systems expert, and CEO of Corvus Health in Alexandria, Virginia. “Keep in mind: At-home tests are less accurate than PCR tests and are more likely to give false positives and false negatives.”

There are cases where you may want to seek a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test after taking an at-home test, Tulenko said.

“If you receive a positive result on an at-home test, you should get a PCR test to confirm. If you receive a negative result on an at-home test but are symptomatic or had significant exposure, you should consider a PCR test,” Tulenko explained. 

Safety health tips for the holidays

Here are tips to follow for a safe holiday, according to the CDC:

  • Get vaccinated.
  • Pick outdoor gatherings over indoors (it’s safer outdoors).
  • Wear a mask if you are not fully vaccinated or coming in contact with others who are unvaccinated.
  • Get tested if you have COVID symptoms or have close contact with someone who has.
  • Avoid hosting or attending gatherings if you feel sick or have symptoms of COVID.

The bottom line

The best idea, Fichtenbaum said, is “a small gathering of people that are fully vaccinated, boosted if possible, and with no symptoms. Having big parties over the holiday indoors is likely to result in more infections.”

Dr. Charles Bailey, medical director of infection prevention at Providence Mission Hospital-Mission Viejo and Laguna Beach in California, said, “Even with full vaccination plus a booster, there remains the chance of COVID infection, although most likely a mild illness only.

“If you cannot accept even a small risk of likely mild illness, then you should avoid gatherings regardless of the makeup of the attendees,” he said.

Avoiding high-risk situations such as mass transit — plane, bus, train, large-scale events, and events with singing — can help people stay safe during holiday gatherings, Tulenko said. “As always, wear a mask when not actively eating and drinking, maintain social distance, practice good hand hygiene, and get vaccinated,” she added.

“A surgical mask or N95 type mask is more effective at filtration than a cloth mask or bandana,” said Johnston. “Check the current situation on where you are going to determine if cases are increasing significantly.”  

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