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How to Handle Omicron Surge Over the Holidays: a Guide

How much does life have to change because of Omicron?

This is the question on everyone’s minds lately, and unfortunately there’s no simple answer. It appears that because of the fast-spreading Omicron variant, the United States is headed for a big surge in coronavirus cases over at least the next month or two. Here’s some advice from the experts for thinking about the risks, navigating the holidays and taking steps to stay safer.

If you’ve been on the fence, now is the time. Booster shots are available to everyone 16 years or older. While two vaccine doses will still protect you against serious illness, your best chance of avoiding a breakthrough infection is to have a booster. The protection will kick in just a few days after the shot and continue to grow over the next several days. And if you’re worried about young children who aren’t yet eligible for vaccines, remember that children’s risk goes down when the adults around them get boosted and take precautions.

Every decision you make for socializing during the holidays should start with protecting the old, frail or immune-compromised people in your life. Think about what you would have to do to protect an older grandparent from coming into contact with an infected person at your gathering, and then you’ll have a pretty good idea if the event should go forward with some extra precautions, get scaled back or be canceled. Family gatherings are really important, and if everyone is willing to do what’s needed to protect the most vulnerable, you can still gather relatively safely.

“I think, in my mind, we have to shift from ‘What can we do to prevent infections?’ to ‘What can we do to protect particularly high-risk people?’” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “The biggest thing we need to be doing is making sure high-risk people have as much protection as possible.”

Omicron spreads fast and is highly contagious. Even if you’re vaccinated and boosted, it’s a good idea to use home tests before you gather indoors with others. Testing is essential if an older or immune-compromised person will be joining you, though home tests are hard to find. If you have tests, use them on the day you plan to spend time together. Ideally, you would take the test about an hour or less before the visit.

If you’re having trouble finding home tests, you can still be tested through a lab. Lines can be long and appointments hard to find in some places, but if you can, time your test as close to your gathering as possible. And then limit your contacts between the test and the event, so you aren’t exposed to the virus in the interim.

Now more than ever, a good-quality medical mask is needed. N95, KN95 and KF94 masks are no longer in short supply. Find a style you like that fits snugly on your face and use it.

Omicron spreads very easily, which means that a 15-minute contact with a stranger is riskier than it used to be. Mask up in stores, and keep your shopping trips shorter than usual. Outdoor contact is better than indoor, but keep your distance, and mask if you’re in close conversation with someone who isn’t vaccinated or boosted.

If you’re gathering for the holidays or over New Year’s, ask everyone to limit activities before the event (no hanging out at bars or packed holiday parties). When we’re in a surge like this, we need to think about priorities a little more. Consider skipping the movie or restaurant so it will be safer to spend time with friends on the weekend or visit older parents.

It’s easy to get depressed about Omicron. It’s certainly going to be disruptive for the next few months, but this is not March 2020. Today we can get vaccinated and boosted. Home tests can help us lower risk even more. (The tests are hard to find, but keep trying. The Biden administration promises that more are coming soon.) New medications to treat Covid infections have just been authorized. And all indications from other countries are that the Omicron surge will be significant, but relatively short.

In talking with the experts about what to expect over the next few months, a consistent glimmer of hope has emerged: that the emergence of Omicron may signal the beginning of the end of the pandemic. “Might this actually be a step toward Covid becoming endemic and less virulent?” said Mara Aspinall, an expert in biomedical diagnostics at Arizona State University who is also on the board of OraSure, which makes rapid Covid tests. “I look at that as potentially good news.”

Read more:
A guide to testing and Omicron.


More from the Well Newsletter

Starting Jan. 3, I’m going to lead readers on a four-week Eat Well Challenge in special Monday editions of this newsletter. We’ll be exploring why restrictive diets don’t work, offering advice for coping with cravings and sharing the latest science on how to retrain our brains and reshape our daily eating habits so we feel great every day.

If you’re reading this newsletter, you don’t need to do anything new to receive the Eat Well Challenge; it will show up in your inbox. But as a bonus, we’re offering a new text message feature during each week of the challenge, for those who want to sign up. The text messages will offer additional support, coaching and tips, and you’ll be able to share your experiences and ask me questions.

I’ll be reading what you send, and though I can’t promise a personal response to every message, I may respond in future newsletters. We may also continue the texting service after the challenge ends. (And don’t worry, we won’t flood you with texts, and you can stop receiving messages at any time.)

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Stay well!

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