The Omicron variant is sweeping across the US amid holiday gatherings and a new level of COVID-19 burnout.
So, two years into the pandemic, do Americans really need to panic?
We spoke to a doctor about the latest research, tips for holiday travel and how to square fear fatigue with the reality that the pandemic will probably last longer than we all expected.
Here are answers from Dr. Teresa Amato, a New York-based Northwell Health physician gives her advice on traveling for the holidays amid rising COVID-19 cases from the Omicron variant. who specializes in emergency medicine.
Why is Omicron spreading so fast? What’s the latest evidence of its transmissibility?
Early studies show it is more transmissible than other variants of COVID-19. Viruses mutate — that’s what they do. If you were a virus, you would want to replicate yourself quickly and you would want to to make yourself more transmissible, so it’s not surprising.
Can the vaccinated get it?
Yes. But if someone who is vaccinated gets it, they do seem to have milder symptoms.
Is it more deadly? What’s the latest research on how it can be moderate and mild in the vaccinated?
As far as whether it’s more deadly, there is more research that’s still needed — but it doesn’t seem to be worse than other variants of COVID. There’s some evidence that it may be milder.
Do people who are fully vaccinated have less chance of getting it? Do booster shots help?
We do know that people who are fully vaccinated have less chance of getting Omicron, and if they do, their cases tend to be less severe. A booster shot provides even more protection.
How can I get tested easily? Which tests are best?
The tests are very easily available through doctors, urgent care centers and pharmacies for home testing. Rapid tests are about 90 percent accurate, so if you do test positive, don’t assume it’s a false positive.
PCR testing is most accurate but they can take a bit longer to come back.
Which vaccines protect you more?
Right now it, appears that the two mRNA vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer, protect the most against Omicron, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine seems to be less effective. That’s based on the number of breakthrough infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
Should people cancel their holiday plans? Is seeing unvaccinated relatives OK? What about elderly relatives?
With holiday plans, you have to weigh the risk and benefits. If you are vaccinated, get a test before a large gathering or seeing people outside of your household.
I would caution against seeing unvaccinated family members; they’re at a high risk of getting COVID-19, and they put you at a higher risk of getting it.
If you’re fully vaccinated with a booster and the elderly relative is, too, I would say it’s OK to see them. I would still recommend a COVID test beforehand. And because the elderly are at a high risk, I’d recommend a mask and 6-feet distance. Outside is ideal but obviously it’s cold this time of year.
Should I avoid large gatherings?
It’s hard to say. I advise against large gatherings; if you can keep the gathering smaller, it is probably safer. If you can get your booster and get tested, and if you can wear a mask and you can gather outdoors that is best.
Should I cancel travel on planes and abroad?
It’s a great question. Everyone has to weigh risk and benefit. We do know that isolation has had a big impact on mental health, and people want to see each other.
Get vaccinated and get your booster shot, and speak to people you’re visiting to make sure you’re on the same page as far as boosters and testing. If you’re not, and they’re not vaccinated I would recommend not going.
How should we square the degree of fear and panic people may be feeling with the fact that we all have to figure out how to live with the pandemic — and that it’s not going away?
One of the things people are struggling with is that we thought the pandemic would start and end. And it doesn’t appear that that’s going to be the case.
COVID is going to be woven into the fabric of our health care and our lives for a very long time. And so it’s important to learn how to live with it without panicking.
At this point, we have to try to work together to keep [COVID-19] at bay, while still living our lives. We have to balance having respect for the virus without living in fear.