Omicron during holidays: Turn to boosters, rapid tests, distance

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

“This variant is so much more contagious, that the speed with which this wave is going to come and wash over us, it's going to be a lot faster,” says UCLA epidemiologist Anne Rimoin about the Omicron variant. Photo by Shutterstock.

COVID-19 cases are on the rise across the U.S., as variants continue to spread. Colleges are moving final exams online, Broadway shows are being canceled, and professional athletes are testing positive. Meanwhile, some families are preparing to travel and gather for the holidays next week. 

The Omicron variant is expected to overtake the Delta variant, says UCLA epidemiology professor Anne Rimoin. 

“I think we'll anticipate seeing this happen over the next couple of weeks. I think what's a little bit different in this case than what we've seen in the past … is this happening so much more quickly,” she tells KCRW. “This variant is so much more contagious that the speed with which this wave is going to come and wash over us, it's going to be a lot faster.” 

Cornell University closed its Ithaca campus on Wednesday due to more than 900 new COVID cases detected within a week, many of which were Omicron. The majority of those students were fully vaccinated and many were boosted. Rimoin says it’s a perfect example of how contagious this variant is. Fortunately, she says it appears there are very mild cases at Cornell. 

How protective is a booster shot?

It’s hard to say how long a booster would last, according to Rimoin. Without one, she says vaccine efficacy against systematic COVID infections lies around 33%, citing recent data from Pfizer. With a booster, that protection jumps to almost 75%. Despite uncertainty over how long they can provide protection, Rimoin emphasizes the importance of booster shots and other preventative measures. 

“The bigger point here is that vaccines are gonna keep you from severe disease, hospitalization, and death,” she explains. “But it's all those non-pharmaceutical interventions that are going to keep you from getting COVID in the first place. And so that goes back to … using really high-quality masks, being socially distant from people where you don't know what their status is, and really prioritizing the things that you want to do.”

She adds that if you spend time with people who are vulnerable or unvaccinated — or fall into the vulnerable category yourself — then you might want to reconsider your activities and add more protection. 

Rethinking holiday plans? 

“It's gonna come down to people's risk threshold, and what it is that they feel personally is going to be in their best interest,” says Rimoin. “Because frankly, for holiday plans, that train has literally and figuratively left the station. People are en-route. They're going places, they're visiting their families. And there are very big benefits to being able to see people. But I think we all have to be very mindful about what we're doing, who we're doing it with, what our level of protection is, and what we can do to improve our capacity to stay safe.”

She says she’ll make sure her family members are boosted, and they’ll take as many activities outside as possible.

She also recommends spreading out at holiday gatherings, not mixing households, and taking rapid tests within the hour before getting together. 

“If the rapid tests can reduce the probability of that, we'll all get to feel a lot better, but just recognize there's no zero-risk scenario here. And you should just think about what you're doing and … what matters to you, what you're willing to risk, and how you're going to enact a plan where the risk meets what your philosophy is.” 

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