Weighing the risks of holiday travel during Omicron: what the experts say

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With Christmas less than a week away, what does all this mean for people travelling to see family and loved ones? We turned to four experts in the field to get their take and find out how they're handling this year's holiday season.

With Covid-19 cases on the rise in many parts of the world and the new Omicron variant spreading quickly, holiday travel suddenly seems a lot more complicated than it did a few months ago.

The good news is that early data suggest vaccines still provide good protection. While initial evidence indicates that Omicron may be more contagious and better adept at evading vaccines, it so far appears unlikely to cause severe disease among people who are vaccinated. 

The less-good news is that there's little real-world data about the highly mutated variant. That not only makes the true risks of Omicron hard to assess, but it has also made international holiday travel more difficult: Many nations have implemented new travel restrictions to contain the strain, creating a confusing patchwork of rules and regulations.

So with Christmas less than a week away, what does all this mean for people travelling to see family and loved ones? We turned to four experts in the field to get their take and find out how they're handling this year's holiday season.

Jessica Justman, Columbia University Medical Center epidemiologist 

What  is the risk of holiday travel right now?

The current situation with Omicron is moving fast, and data from many places, including the U.S. and South Africa, look concerning. The critical indicators are going to be trends in hospitalisations and deaths as well as hospital capacity and percent positivity.

As for the specifics, I think it's possible to go through an airport safely by wearing a well-fitted mask, even double-masking, and maintaining distance from others as much as possible when going through security or boarding the plane. If you have been going grocery shopping in the supermarket, then the risk in an airport is not likely to be that different. If you are someone who has not been vaccinated and does not wear masks, then supermarkets and airports are going to be risky. If you are vaccinated and boosted and wear a mask most of the time, you should be OK.

In hotels, I would avoid indoor dining in crowded settings because you have to take your mask off. While crowded elevators might make you nervous, usually the ride is brief and most people are masked. In taxis, keep your mask on and you will likely be fine. For family gatherings, have people do a rapid self-test as they arrive (or before leaving home) to make sure they are negative before they join the larger group.

It's all about risk assessment. How important is it for you to travel over the holidays? Can you possibly manage with a post-holiday visit?

Has the current wave made you reconsider your own holiday plans at all?

Yes, I'm reconsidering. I plan to reach a decision by this weekend. Everyone should think about factors such as family members who are older and/or have underlying medical conditions as they assess the risk. 

William Schaffner, Vanderbilt University epidemiologist

How should people be handling holiday travel this year?

They should hang their stockings with care. One of the ground rules I would suggest is that you're entitled to come to the celebration if you are vaccinated and boosted. But if Uncle Frank, as much as we love him, is not vaccinated, we have to tell him he can't join. We'll Facetime him, but he'll have to unwrap his presents by himself. If you're doing any kind of group activity—worship, a party—wear your mask. We have to go back to social distancing and really reconsider indoor gatherings. It's better to rent a movie than go to the movies. And rapid-test the day before you all get together. If everyone is negative, that just adds another level of confidence. 

What about getting to the holiday gathering if you live far away?

If you can get there by car, that's obviously safer. You can control every aspect of your travel, like eating at drive-thru restaurants. If you can't, just be as careful as possible. Do a lot of hand hygiene. Stay away from people wearing their masks below their noses. Stay away from people sneezing and coughing.

What are you doing for the holidays?

My son just flew in from Germany last night for our Christmas gathering. But we haven't seen him yet—we have a vulnerable person in our house, so he's staying with another relative until he gets tested.

Monica Gandhi, infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco

What's your advice for people who are thinking about changing their travel plans?

I just think we're in a super different place than we were in last year. There is a new variant, and I know people are panicking. But if you are vaccinated, we have to trust the power of the vaccines. Get a booster and go on your way. Wear masks on a plane and in other crowded spaces, but otherwise enjoy your holiday. 

Omicron is more transmissible. That's definitive. But infections also seem more mild, whether that's because of the variant or population. There seems to be less antibody response, but B-cell and T-cell immunity seem to be working just fine. Those three things to me do not suggest anyone needs to be canceling travel plans. 

Are you planning to travel for the holidays?

I am going to travel with my two boys. My dad is newly immunocompromised because he is going through lymphoma treatment, but we're all vaccinated, so we will likely all be together. If one of us did not feel well or if someone was unvaccinated, we would rapid-test before gathering. 

Emanuel Goldman, Rutgers University microbiologist

What's your advice for people reconsidering holiday travel?

My thinking is at the point that no one should change plans, but we may need to add masking to our plans. The early reports indicate if you are vaccinated with a booster, that still offers good protection. So at this point, I wouldn't change travel plans, but I would make sure to mask up in public places. If you're vaccinated, planes, trains and taxis are fine as long as you're careful with your masking. If you're unvaccinated and you don't want to catch Covid, you'll want to be very careful. There's a lot we still don't know about it. 

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