Vaccines and treatments are certainly making the upcoming holidays safer, but the emergence of the omicron variant and the ongoing pandemic means we must remain vigilant.
We have already seen a spike in cases due to Thanksgiving get-togethers and increased indoor activities. Most states, including New Jersey, are already in the red zone, meaning community transmission remains a problem, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As you probably know, most new COVID cases are among people who have not been vaccinated. The metropolitan New Jersey-New York area does well: Close to 70 percent of the population has received two doses of the vaccine, but we need boosting to protect against waning immunity, especially against omicron. Only 30 percent of the U.S. population has been boosted so far.
Preliminary data from South Africa is showing that omicron is more transmissible than delta or earlier variants. If you have not gotten your COVID booster yet, it is time. Everyone in the United States over age 16 is eligible to receive a booster, and scientists are studying the use of boosters in children ages 5 to 17.
During the upcoming holidays, here are some general guidelines to follow:
Get vaccinated – and boosted - against COVID-19 ASAP. Although the vaccination does not offer 100 percent protection, it does shield the vast majority of people and generally reduces symptoms if a so-called breakthrough infection occurs. There are now better therapies and anti-viral medications to treat COVID, but the vaccine is the first and best defense against getting the disease. (Click here to schedule a COVID vaccine at one of Holy Name’s four community sites.)
Get a flu shot too! Because we were so isolated last year, non-COVID respiratory infections were less frequent. Now that people are out more, we’re seeing a lot of respiratory viruses. Remember, flu can cause serious and sometimes deadly complications. Get your seasonal influenza vaccine. (Click here for more information about getting your flu shot at Holy Name’s PharmaCare.)
Keep indoor holiday gatherings small. Make sure your guests are fully vaccinated. It’s better to stay local rather than gathering with different households, especially if members may have traveled from areas where transmission is higher.
Assess your relative risk. Those who are immunocompromised, elderly or have other conditions that make them vulnerable to severe COVID (ex. obesity, high blood pressure, lung disease) should take extra care. For example, stay out of close proximity to people who are unvaccinated, including many children at this point, and avoid large indoor crowds. Those at higher risk might want to consider wearing masks even in a smaller gathering of vaccinated people.
Continue hygiene and distancing protocols. Hand-washing and social distancing are necessary. Stay home if you are sick, and get tested for COVID if you have symptoms.
Keep masks handy and wear them correctly. Even if you are vaccinated, mask-wearing is advisable in crowded indoor settings, particularly if you have chronic illnesses, are immunosuppressed or live with someone who is. Well-fitted masks are prudent if you’re in a place with high community transmission (everywhere, basically) or if you don’t know if the people around you are vaccinated. Wear masks indoors when shopping, attending holiday shows and religious activities or other events. Mask up when traveling on planes and other public transportation.
We’re not out of this yet, but with some care and common sense we can safely enjoy the holidays.
Suraj Saggar, DO, FIDSA, is board-certified in internal medicine and infectious disease. As chief of infectious disease, he spearheaded efforts to combat COVID-19 at Holy Name. Dr. Saggar has conducted clinical research at the National Institutes of Health and as a Merck Research Fellow and is currently an investigator in several on-going trials of COVID-19 therapeutics for Gilead and Regeneron. He has been a leading voice in getting information out to the public during the pandemic.