“It’s pretty clear that we’re probably at the worst point since last winter,” said Dr Mark Siedner, Mass epidemiologist. General.
At the same time, the latest state data shows vaccines protect the vast majority of people: Almost 97% of vaccinated Massachusetts residents who contracted COVID-19 have avoided serious health problems, such as hospitalization or death, according to the State Department. of Public Health.
So what do the headlines on Omicron, coupled with reassuring statistics for those who get vaccinated, for people hoping to spend? their holidays with friends and family?
We asked infectious disease experts what precautions they are taking this season, if the rise of Omicron has changed their plans, and what advice they have for the holidays. gatherings.
“It really comes down to two things,” said Dr. Sandra Bliss Nelson, infectious disease physician at Mass. General and Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School: Your likelihood of contracting the virus and your individual risk of developing serious illness, taking into account your general health and immunization status.
“The main change with Omicron is the part about the likelihood of being exposed,” said Nelson. “The more diseases that circulate, the more likely it is that all of these one-on-one encounters or any of them could lead to exposure.”
Most infectious disease experts are already cautious enough because they work in hospitals where the risk of infection is high and they frequently interact with patients. vulnerable people.
But as cases increase, some specialists are becoming even more vigilant.
Over the past week, Dr Brian Hollenbeck, head of infectious diseases at New England Baptist Hospital, said he had seen “a sharp increase in the number of cases. . . which continues and persists.
“What this means for my family is that we basically canceled a lot of our plans this week before Christmas, hoping that we are still healthy and can be together on Christmas Day,” he said. declared. .
That meant canceling a basketball game and avoiding large groups so that neither he, his wife, nor his four children were inadvertently infected and quarantined while on vacation.
“We just want to make sure that as we head into the holidays, at least we’re all together,” he said.
For Dr. Sabrina A. Assoumou, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center who Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston recently appointed to his COVID-19 advisory committee, the recent increase in the number of cases has made a decision a little more difficult. easy to take: she decided not to bring her mother over for the holidays.
“I don’t feel comfortable putting her on a plane right now,” Assoumou said, even though her mother is vaccinated and received a booster. “She’s 70 years old.”
She said travel can be safe with good ventilation on the plane, a good-quality, well-fitting mask, and distance from large groups at the airport. But with Omicron’s rise to power, it was a risk Assoumou said she was just unwilling to take.
“We thought Delta was transferable. This one eclipses it, ”she said, adding that Omicron seems to have a doubling time – how long it takes twice as many people to get infected – about two days, compared to four or five days for Delta. “The jury is still out on whether it’s more serious or if it’s milder.”
Many experts reserve the celebrations for their nuclear family
“We have a quiet holiday dinner at home with just me, my wife and two grown children. No large groups of people, ”said Dr Robin Colgrove, infectious disease specialist at Mount Auburn Hospital. “We are all vaccinated and boosted, so we will not mask at home. But when we go to another interior space, we wear masks. And we don’t go to big shows or places where a lot of people congregate.
It is possible to meet safely in small groups – with a few ground rules
Even doctors who planned to meet with people outside their immediate homes had a few rules of thumb: keep the group small, make sure everyone is vaccinated and vaccinated if eligible, perform rapid tests beforehand for s ” ensure that no one is infected and be prepared to cancel plans if circumstances change.
Siedner said his family are planning to reunite with a small group of parents according to these guidelines. Still, “everything from a positive test to a cold could really change our plans and bring things back to distant family reunions,” Siedner said.
Nelson said his family were driving to Vermont on Boxing Day to share a rental with friends, who are all vaccinated and boosted except for his youngest daughter, who is not yet eligible for a recall. .
The group will take rapid tests on arrival and possibly again soon after, and have no plans to eat out.
“It’s a bit of a hybrid. It’s not zero risk, ”said Nelson.
Assoumou, who only celebrates with his immediate family, which includes an unvaccinated 2-year-old, said “we can safely come together on this holiday. We’re not back in 2020.
Vaccines and boosters, rapid tests, masking, and improved ventilation are all essential tools.
“It’s been two long years. And we can do it safely, but we still have to be vigilant, ”Assoumou said.
Rapid tests can be an important tool for safe gatherings
All the experts with whom The Globe spoke strongly encouraged rapid tests before any gathering, in particular to protect people belonging to high-risk groups (the elderly or those suffering from certain health problems).
But Nelson said the tests aren’t easy to find. Many people she knows have spent the past weekend going from store to store looking for them.
Some cities, like Boston, are giving out free rapid tests to people at high risk communities. Siedner suggested looking online where the tests are distributed or available in stores.
“Frankly what I’m doing is nothing more than scouring the web,” he said, lamenting that testing is so rare. compared to some European countries where they are widely available free or at low cost.
“Testing is still only a small part of the answer, but at this point I think we should expect more and hopefully we start to do better,” he said.
It is also much safer to be around other people with extra protections, such as masks, social distancing, limiting time spent in crowded places, and improving ventilation when meeting in the house. outdoors or even by simply opening the windows, Colgrove said.
Large gatherings just aren’t a good idea right now
“I think large gatherings are probably not recommended at this point,” Colgrove said. He said there is no magic number, but a 10 person limit is probably a good start.
Vaccines are our best defense against COVID-19
Especially with booster doses, vaccines are highly protective against serious disease.
“We should really be encouraging people to get it because that’s how we will go to the other side together and can celebrate Christmas next year,” Assoumou said.
The boosters provide a faster immune response than the initial vaccines, taking effect within days rather than weeks, the specialists said.
“If you were to be boosted today, you would already benefit from increased protection by Christmas and a big increase by New Year, so it’s not too late to go get your booster,” Colgrove said.
As immunity wanes over time, even people who are unstimulated are at a lower risk of complications from COVID-19 if they are otherwise healthy, Nelson said.
“They may not be protected against the development of infection, but they are still likely to have good protection against serious disease.”
But the elderly and immunocompromised remain at risk
Even though the vast majority of people with breakthrough infections have mild symptoms, complications are more common in people who are older or have underlying immune vulnerabilities, Nelson said.
“It is the population who, in my opinion, should err in excess of being very careful, minimizing unnecessary exposures, wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings,” she said.
Colgrove said it’s also important for younger, healthier people to be aware of their vulnerable family members.
“We would like to protect ourselves, but we also want to protect all people from us,” he said. “This is something where we all have to help and protect each other. “
At the end of the day, taking precautions isn’t just about your own health and safety.
Limiting the spread of COVID-19 is also essential to protect the healthcare system.
“There is a small gap between what is important to the individual and what is important to society and public health,” Nelson said. “Even though the proportion of people hospitalized is very low, if it is so prevalent, hospitals in the health system could be overwhelmed. The test capacity could be exceeded.
This means that fewer resources are available to treat even non-COVID patients, such as those with a heart attack or a broken leg.
“It’s something where we’re really all in the same boat,” Colgrove said.