Home Social gathering With omicron looming over the holidays, here’s how to stay safe

With omicron looming over the holidays, here’s how to stay safe

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Maria Smolnitcaia, 52, is a singer living in a tuberculosis ward in Balti, Moldova. Smolnitcaia says, “When we take the pills we feel worse. I am losing my hearing a bit. I have pain in my bones, all over my body.”

Katherine Streeter for NPR

Here we go again.

Just when you thought it was safe to return to near-normal times, a new, highly mutated variant of the coronavirus has emerged in the United States.

Scientists say it’s still too early to know whether the omicron variant causes more or less severe disease, although early evidence suggests it’s better at evading the immune system than previous strains. And, omicron has raised several red flags that suggest it may be the most transmissible variant to date.

All of this makes many people wonder if it is time to change our behavior for the sake of safety.

The good news is, you don’t need to hibernate like it’s 2020. Experts note we’re in a very different place than last winter, with COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots. now widely available. There is good hope that current vaccines will provide protection against serious disease with omicron.

That said, if we have learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that when you don’t know what you are dealing with, “we should invoke the precautionary principle,” says Dr Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician at the Center. ‘Stanford University.

In other words, don’t panic, but think about the risks you want to take.

We spoke to several infectious disease experts for advice on living in the age of the omicron. But remember: things change quickly, so stay alert. Public health advice may change as we learn more.

Do I have to mask myself again indoors, even in places where masks are not required?

If you are not vaccinated, mask yourself indoors – and please get vaccinated, experts agree. For the vaccinated, you should wear masks if you’re at higher risk for serious illness due to your age or underlying health issues – or if you spend time with vulnerable people. We know that vaccines are not always so protective in the elderly and the immunocompromised.

“The things that we are fed up with doing, we have to keep doing them, especially hiding in indoor places,” said Dr Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This advice would be true even without the omicron variant, says Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, “because we still have [delta] case circulating in this country. “

While you usually don’t need to wear a mask outdoors, it makes sense that you’re in a crowd and not knowing the immunization status of those around you, said Dr Julie Vaishampayan, President. of public health. Committee of the Infectious Disease Society of America, during a press briefing Thursday.

Should I upgrade to N95, KN95 or a similar highly protective mask?

While three-ply fabric masks or surgical masks prevent the wearer from spreading infectious particles if they are properly fitted and also provide the wearer with some protection, many experts believe it would be best to use a respirator. N95 or KN95 in crowded places. indoor public spaces.

This is especially important if you are at high risk. “If the people around you are not wearing masks and you are older or have a weakened immune system, you should consider increasing your mask set and using an N95 mask,†says Frieden.

Karan of Stanford University suggests that people with other underlying conditions that put them at higher risk, such as obesity, lung disease, or poorly controlled diabetes, should also consider switching to a high quality N95 or KN95 mask.

And, if you live with people at risk, consider upgrading your mask as well, Karan says. Double masking with a surgical mask topped with a fabric mask will also enhance your protection, Gandhi notes.

Should I cancel my vacation travel plans?

Not necessarily right away, but be very thoughtful about them, says Dr. Henry Wu, director of the Emory TravelWell Center and associate professor of infectious diseases in the Emory University School of Medicine. “Anyone planning to travel should take a break and consider both your own risk, as well as some other practical issues regarding your destination.”

For starters, the United States is now requiring all travelers entering the United States, including returning Americans, to be tested for the coronavirus no more than a day before departure. If you are in another country, you will need to make sure you know where to take an eligible test within this timeframe, which could be a logistical headache.

And remember, the situation on the ground is changing, so watch out for CDC travel advisories. “You definitely want to avoid traveling to countries that are in crisis and potentially have overwhelmed health systems. You certainly don’t want to risk needing to go to a crowded hospital if you have your own health issues. COVID or not, â€Wu says.

Domestic travelers are not required to test before flying, but it is always a good idea to do so before departure and after arrival, especially if you are visiting someone from a high-risk group. That’s what Wu plans to do when he visits his elderly parents in Hawaii next week. “I will, although it is not mandatory, test myself before my trip and I think I will bring some self-test kits when I get home, just to be even more sure that I am not contagious to that time, â€he said. said.

If you’re unvaccinated, over 65, or have health conditions that put you at a higher risk of serious illness with COVID-19, you should seriously reconsider whether it’s time to travel, Wu says.

And of course, if you are flying or taking public transport to your destination, wear a high quality, well-fitting mask like an N95 or KN95.

With all the fear that Omicron may escape our vaccines, should I bother to get a booster?

The Biden administration came out this week again urging people to get a booster to help protect against omicron. The recommendation is in line with recent science showing that boosters increase your antibody levels.

A recent prepublication study even showed that getting a third dose of mRNA vaccines could “generate a much broader immune response,” says Dr Kavita Patel, a non-resident researcher at the Brookings Institution and primary care physician. . This could give broader coverage against a variant like omicron, she says, “that’s why I think you hear a number of us, many doctors, public health officials, scientists say that boosters are important “.

Paul Bieniasz is a virologist at Rockefeller University who studies how the immune system’s response widens over time, and he agrees. “I am someone who has been vaccinated three times, and I think this is absolutely the right way to go,” he says.

“I think anyone who is around people who are immunocompromised absolutely needs to be assured that they are boosting,†Gandhi said. “I actually wasn’t going to get a booster because I was protesting the global fairness of vaccines. And I just got one because I have to be with my immunocompromised father.”

Is it safe to have a large social gathering indoors, like a Christmas party? Do all guests have to test ahead?

Safety is important, but getting together with loved ones is important this time of year too, and there are steps you can take to reduce the risk for everyone. “What we need to do is add more layers of protection,†says Vaishampayan.

First, Karan says, make sure everyone present has received a COVID-19 vaccine and a booster if they are eligible.

If you have access to rapid antigen testing, ask your guests to do one, especially if they are from other parts of the country. “It’s a great way to keep an infected person from coming in and infecting someone else,” Dr Carlos Del Rio, infectious disease specialist at Emory University, told reporters this week.

As Karan notes, “the test is really a snapshot in time,” so make sure guests test on the day of the gathering, if possible. This is because if a person has just been exposed and the virus is still incubating, a person can test negative one day and positive the next.

Rapid antigenic testing does not come cheap, however. Even the cheapest will set you back around $ 12 per test, if you find one. The Biden administration this week announced plans to address the problem: People with private health insurance will now be able to be reimbursed for the cost of home tests, and health clinics will offer free tests to the uninsured. In the meantime, if you have to ration, Gandhi suggests prioritizing testing for anyone who is unvaccinated or vaccinated but has symptoms.

If the weather permits, it wouldn’t hurt to move the party outside, Vaishampayan says. At the very least, think about ways to improve indoor ventilation, such as opening windows when the weather permits.

And if you’re an immunocompromised guest, stay in well-ventilated areas and mask yourself unless you’re eating or drinking, Gandhi says. Or consider skipping large gatherings, Karan says. “If you have a high risk person in the house, now is probably not the time to have a large gathering because the vaccines here don’t completely stop transmission, they just reduce the risk of it happening,” Karan said.

Should I not eat indoors in restaurants?

There is no clear answer for everyone or for every situation, Wu says. “I really assess every situation individually,†he says. You should consider the levels of transmission in your community, whether there is good ventilation, and most importantly, your level of risk or that of the people you live with or spend time with.

Wu says that when he has a social date at a restaurant, “I quickly assess how crowded it is, how good the ventilation is, and if it seems risky, and I can move on, I certainly will. “

Karan says if you really want to play it safe, avoid indoor meals until scientists know more about omicron. If you do decide to dine indoors, he says, be reinforced for extra protection. But his best advice? “Be conservative right now.”

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