The 2020 winter holidays were pretty universally different from most other years, with families often staying home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But this year, things are a little more complicated as vaccines, variants, and re-openings all change the risk calculus on keeping people safe. While many people are vaccinated — and kids 5-11 could be fully vaccinated by Christmas — the first case of the Omicron variant was just confirmed in the United States, and with little known about how it will, or if it will, evade vaccines, infect people, and more, parents might be concerned about what might felt like previously safe and set plans.
There’s no one right answer for how you should plan for the holidays this year. But there are some guidelines we can follow when figuring out how to celebrate. Here’s what to know:
Step One? Vaccines.
Gathering in-person this year can be generally safer than it was last year for one big reason – vaccines. No vaccine is perfect, but the ones we have for COVID-19 are all safe and effective at significantly reducing the risk of severe disease and death.
While adults have been able to get vaccinated for months now, younger kids aged 5-11 just got approval, and many could be fully vaccinated by mid-December. This could be huge for many families’ ability to socialize and see relatives.
“I hope it’s a game-changer,” says Dr. Ibukun Kalu, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Duke University Medical Center.
So, step one to create a safe holiday gathering? Get everybody who can be vaccinated. “If everybody can be vaccinated prior to gathering, including the younger kids, I think you’ve probably created a setting that’s as safe as it can be,” Kalu says.
But it takes a few weeks to get through the whole vaccine process, and the calculus is different for families with kids who will be half-vaccinated.
“We know that after your initial vaccine, you already start to mount your protection,” Kalu says. “But the protective level or the fully vaccinated point is at least two weeks after the second dose.”
Meaning – you’re not quite there yet if your kids aren’t two weeks past their second dose. But there are some steps you can take to reduce risk in those situations, or in situations with kids who are still too young to get the vaccine.
Step Two? Get Tested, and Follow Other Guidelines
“Quite a few people, even with fully vaccinated children, have opted to do pre-gathering testing,” Kalu says.
It’s probably a good idea to get tested before you travel to see family members – or even after you travel, Kalu says. She does stress that this can’t completely eliminate the possibility of spreading the disease, however: “It is a snapshot in time. It’s only as good as the moment you got tested, particularly if you’re asymptomatic.” All the same, the information is good to have.
At the same time, engaging in mitigating risk factors — staying outside, or ventilating your space, social distancing, and wearing masks, are all powerful ways to mitigate your risk of catching COVID-19 this holiday season.
What About Omicron?
The Omicron variant threatens to upend our envisioned holiday seasons. How the variant affects your plans might depend on what those plans are, Kalu says. For example, if you’re staying local maybe you’re still ok, but if you’re going to travel, maybe you should keep an eye on the data, she says.
But it’s really hard to answer that question, Kalu adds. “People have made a ton of plans, just with the assumption that things would be a lot better.”
Researchers will learn more about Omicron over the next few weeks, and updated guidelines will likely follow – so stay tuned. Yet no matter what, there probably won’t be any hard and fast rules, just an updated understanding of risk.
How to Think About Risk
Every family is going to have different risk factors when deciding how or whether to see relatives this year. Some families might have the luxury of living near relatives, eliminating the need for lengthy travel on planes or buses. But other families might have members particularly susceptible to potential complications from COVID-19, such as immunocompromised and older people. There’s no right answer for what to do this holiday season, just growing lists of risks and risk management tools, pros and cons, based on your specific situation.
“The reason why a lot more people are talking about risk mitigation is: we are nearly at a two-year point in the pandemic. It is impossible to continue to expect isolation. We just can’t function like that,” Kalu says. “But we also don’t want to remove every protective measure and ignore COVID completely. So, we have to find some middle ground that is based on vaccination, masking, and using mitigations that already work including ventilation, outdoor settings, and sometimes reducing travel if that would be your biggest risk factor.”
Essentially, we’ve got to keep doing everything we can to avoid risk – to a point. But compared to last year, vaccination offers a big addition to the “risk reduction” side of the equation.
So, to have a safe holiday season this year:
- Get everyone as vaccinated as possible
- Think about pre-travel or pre-gathering testing for everybody
- Stick with existing mitigation measures like masks, physical distancing, ventilation, and outdoor gatherings as much as possible
- Stay alert for new guidance as we learn more about the Omicron variant
- Make decisions based on the specific risk factors of your family