It’s too early for Americans to cancel holiday plans due to the Omicron variant of COVID-19, physician and health policy expert Dr Leana Wen told CNN on Thursday.
While Omicron’s capacities to spread more quickly and evade some protection from vaccines are causes for concern, Wen said that the Delta variant is still by far the dominant strain in the U.S.
The Omicron variant has been identified in 21 states as of Thursday, and public health officials say it is actively spreading in communities across the country.
To protect against this variant, experts recommend getting vaccinated – including a booster shot, for those eligible – utilizing tests, and wearing a mask in public, indoor settings.
In making decisions about holiday gatherings, Wen recommended considering the medical circumstances of one’s family, precautions being taken at the event, and its personal value.
While the Omicron variant is cause for concern, it’s not yet spreading in the U.S. to a degree that should lead Americans to cancel holiday plans, one expert said on CNN. (File image)
The variant has been identified in 21 states as of Thursday, and is likely already beginning to spread in communities across the country
The Omicron coronavirus variant was first identified in South Africa and Botswana in late November.
Since then, the variant has spread quickly in South Africa – with cases increasing 111 percent between the week ending November 29 and the week ending December 5.
Early data suggest that Omicron may be significantly more contagious than the Delta variant, and that vaccines are less effective at protecting against it than against previous strains.
Still, studies so far indicate that existing Covid vaccines will protect against severe disease and death from Omicron.
Omicron was first found in the U.S. last week, and has now been identified in 21 states.
This wide range of Omicron cases indicates that the variant is already spreading in communities across the country, experts say.
Still, the U.S. is not at a point where people should cancel holiday plans because of this variant, Dr Leana Wen told CNN on Thursday.
Wen is an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
When asked if people should change their holiday plans, Wen said, ‘Not at the moment, no, at least in the United States.’
‘That’s because the dominant US variant, by far, is still the Delta variant,’ Wen said.
‘Omicron has been spreading rapidly in South Africa, but it has not yet outpaced Delta here; though it’s possible this could occur in the coming weeks and months.’
Wen echoed remarks from Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at a press briefing on Tuesday.
‘I want to reiterate that our updated Nowcast from late last week continues to demonstrate that over 99 percent of sequenced cases in the United States continue to be from the Delta variant,’ Walensky said.
The Omicron variant has been detected in over 50 countries, and is spreading rapidly in South Africa, the U.K., and elsewhere
While not as alarming as Omicron, the Delta variant still provides plenty of reasons for concern, Wen told CNN, as cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all trending up in the U.S.
As of Wednesday, the country is reporting about 120,000 new Covid cases a day – the highest level since this past summer’s surge.
‘People attending holiday gatherings should certainly be aware of the risk of Covid spread whenever they are around others, in indoor settings,’ Wen said.
To better protect against Omicron, Wen and other experts recommend getting vaccinated – including a booster shot, for those eligible.
At-home rapid tests may also be a useful tool for holiday gatherings, as these tests can provide quick and convenient information about whether someone is infected with Covid.
In addition, masks are an important safety measure in indoor, public settings.
‘If you stopped using masks indoors after getting vaccinated, now is a good time to mask up again,’ wrote former CDC Director Dr Tom Frieden on Twitter earlier this week.
‘If you’ve been wearing cloth masks, consider upgrading to more-protective N95/KN95 masks.’
Dr Leana Wen, a physician at George Washington University, spoke to CNN about considerations for holiday gatherings this year. Pictured: Wen during her medical residency in Boston, August 2012
When deciding whether to attend a holiday event, Wen recommended considering the medical circumstances of people in one’s household.
‘If everyone in your household is fully vaccinated and boosted, that’s a very different situation than if no one is boosted and some family members, like younger children, are unvaccinated or have only had one dose,’ Wen told CNN.
In addition, Wen recommended considering which precautions are being taken at the event – including vaccinations, testing, and masking.
‘I’d feel a lot more comfortable if everyone is required to be vaccinated, and ideally is also boosted, and if proof of vaccination is asked at the door,’ she said.
If events are indoors, hosts can increase safety by requiring masks or testing, such as rapid tests for all attendees.
Ideally, hosts should communicate these precautions in advance so that guests can prepare, she said.
Wen added: ‘One important caveat to keep in mind is that events serving food and drink may say that they require masks, but unless you plan to keep your mask on the entire time, regardless of what others are doing, you should treat this as if the event does not require masks.’
Wen also recommended considering the personal value of an event.
Events such as family reunions and weddings may be important enough that some degree of risk could be worthwhile, she said.
Keeping an eye on Covid case numbers in a community can also be useful if one is planning or attending holiday gatherings, experts say.
If Covid cases in a certain community reach a certain threshold, such as the CDC’s high transmission threshold, this could trigger a higher level of precaution.
‘Stay flexible,’ Wen told CNN. ‘Check the COVID-19 infection rates in your area, just as you would a weather forecast.’
‘Keep an eye on Omicron and, importantly, Delta. Be ready to modify plans, though I wouldn’t cancel on account of the new variant just yet.’