Just when parents thought it was safe to travel for the holidays, the new Omicron variant emerged. Evidence suggests that Omicron may be twice as transmissible as Delta, and it’s spreading rapidly in some areas of the U.S., particularly in the Northeast. Although Omicron currently makes up less than three percent of all COVID cases in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s threatening to rip its way through the U.S. in the coming weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts are warning that we should expect a fifth wave of COVID. In this sort of limbo period, how should families approach the winter holidays?
Realistically, few people are going to totally bail on plans this close to Christmas. Unlike 2020 when a lot of families chose to stay home for the holidays, a better understanding of COVID and wide vaccine availability provide more options than last year. So when it comes down to holiday plans, “it’s really based on risk tolerance,” said epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina, PhD, who runs the popular Your Local Epidemiologist account on Facebook, on a recent panel. “How important is this trip to your mental health as well as your family’s mental wellbeing?”
To help parents recalculate COVID precautions and acceptable risk over the coming weeks, Scary Mommy recently hosted an episode of Live.Work.Thrive that focused on How to Be Festive in a Pandemic: Tips and Facts to Hack Holiday Drama. Experts on the panel included Jetelina, New York Times COVID reporter Apoorva Mandavilli, pediatrician and professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine Kate Connor, MD, and disease transmission chemist and professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder Jose-Luis Jimenez, PhD. Below are the best tips and most useful information from the panel families can use to reexamine their winter holiday plans.
Ventilation Is an Underutilized Tool in COVID Prevention
When it comes to making holiday parties safer, an underutilized but effective tool for preventing COVID spread is ventilation. “I think of it like cigarette smoke in a room,” Jetelina said. “If you have stagnant air, SARS-CoV-2 can stay up in the air for up to 16 hours. If we get the air moving and ventilated and filtered, the risk of getting infected decreases substantially.”
Purchasing an air purifier is an easy way to increase ventilation. But if the holiday tradition of running short on money is in full effect, this may not be a possibility. Luckily, there are cheap and easy ways to move air. Jetelina suggests constructing one of the simple yet effective DIY air filters that can be found online.
Even cracking windows a couple of inches and running fans can improve air flow enough to make a difference. “If you can do that, the transmission and risk to the entire family is as minimal as possible,” Jetelina said.
The Outdoors Is Still the Most COVID-Safe Environment
While not practical for regions that are likely to experience a white Christmas, moving gatherings outdoors is still one of the best ways to lower the chances your family passes COVID around. “That doesn’t mean that you can’t get infected outside, but the chances are much lower,” Jetelina said. Transmission is about 20 times lower outdoors when compared to indoor environments.
Planes Are Relatively Safe While Flying, But Parked Planes and Airports Are Iffy
When it comes to the safety of air travel, it’s a mixed bag. National Geographic reports that 40 percent of the cabin’s air is recycled through HEPA filtration systems that are 99.97% effective at removing virus particles the size of SARS-CoV-2. The other 60 percent is taken from outside. Air in the cabin is completely replaced every three minutes on most planes. When the plane is in flight, your family is relatively safe, especially if everyone onboard is wearing a mask.
“Now that’s when the air filtration system is working, which is when the plane is in the air,” Jimenez said. “But when you’re boarding or in the terminal, often the ventilation is much worse.” Boarding last to shorten the time you’re in the cabin while the filtration system is off, finding spaces in the terminal where social distancing is possible, and sending most of the family outside on arrival while one parent retrieves baggage are all ways to decrease potential COVID exposure.
“Understand that traveling on an airplane through an airport has moderate risk,” Jetelina said. “So if you decide to go on a plane, what you need to do is minimize that risk as much as possible.”
COVID Testing Is Helpful…If Used Correctly
Families may consider COVID testing to ensure that family members who are infected don’t show up to holiday gatherings. Rapid tests are available for home use and are also administered at some pharmacies, drug stores, and clinics. This is in contrast to PCR tests, which are less widely available and cannot be processed at home.
Although access and speed make rapid tests appealing, they do carry a higher probability of delivering a false result. “Rapid testing is not perfect,” Connor said. “It’s most accurate when you take multiple tests in a row.” The tradeoff with PCR testing is that it’s more accurate than rapid testing, but results can take two or three days to come through.
“The important thing is you want to be reducing risk between the time you take the test and the time you go to visit someone,” Connor said. This highlights one of the main benefits of a rapid test, which is that you can take it right before a party to check that you’re not infectious in that moment, rather than two to three days ago.
The best way to think about testing is as a snapshot of whether the virus can be detected at the time the test is administered. So if your family is going to be together for multiple days, taking tests every 48 hours is advisable. Yes, testing can be uncomfortable, especially for kids. Luckily, there are options for non-invasive COVID testing that are much more bearable for small children.