Just weeks since its discovery, the new highly transmissible omicron coronavirus variant is now rapidly spreading in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, omicron’s prevalence jumped sevenfold in a single week, and its case numbers appear to be doubling every two days.
While health experts predicted a winter surge, “it’s higher and faster than anyone anticipated,” says Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
As colleges send students home and professional sports cancel games, should people consider changing their holiday travel plans as well? We asked six public health professionals for their advice.
‘Things are changing so quickly’
Daniel Rhoads, section head of microbiology at the Cleveland Clinic, saw that cases were already high in the United States, and “then this week came,” he says. Now he’s dealing with cases doubling, and half of the samples are omicron.
One of Rhoads’s major concerns is that rapid spread will lead to a substantial part of the population being sick at the same time. Huge numbers of people stuck at home at once could have detrimental impacts on the workforce, especially health-care providers who are desperately needed as the surge continues.
At this time, Rhoads is still planning on traveling for the holidays, but “things are changing so quickly,” he says. What is happening today may be different tomorrow.
‘Every individual and every family is different’
Beyrer’s advice on holiday travel isn’t one-size-fits-all because, as he says, “Every individual and every family is different and has a different dynamic.”
Families with children under 5 who can’t get vaccinated should exercise extra caution, as well as families with seniors or immunocompromised members. Beyrer recommends that people have an over-the-counter rapid antigen test to use before gathering with anyone vulnerable. (However, it may be difficult to find rapid tests for purchase.)
Beyrer says its also important to keep in mind the pandemic’s emotional and mental health toll.
“We need to balance that people really do need to be with their loved ones with appropriate risk-mitigation strategies,” he says, encouraging anyone gathering to spend as much time as possible outside.
Before traveling internationally, Beyrer says people should be mindful that each country’s rules are subject to change at a moment’s notice.
“Things like travel insurance and changeable tickets - all of those matter,” he says.
If you’re concerned about the financial toll of getting stuck abroad longer than planned because of a coronavirus infection, “you should probably stick to domestic travel,” Beyrer says.
‘Who are you interacting with?’
Anthony J. Santella, professor of health administration and policy at the University of New Haven, says how we respond to the current surge doesn’t change just because we have a new variant.
“Our public toolbox is still the same,” Santella says. This includes wearing a mask when you’re spending time indoors with others, practicing good hand hygiene, limiting large gatherings, getting vaccinated and boosted, and seeking health care if you’re feeling unwell.
For vaccinated travelers who are following precautions and are not at high risk for severe coronavirus infection, getting on a plane or train isn’t a huge concern to Santella. What’s more important is what happens on your trip.
As you assess your risk tolerance, Santella says travelers can consider questions like: “What are you doing on the other side? Where are you going? Who are you interacting with?”
‘Just about everyone should be prepared to get infected during this wave’
Given omicron’s breakneck transmissibility, Ohio State University chief quality and patient safety officer Iahn Gonsenhauser says, “Just about everyone should be prepared to get infected during this wave, even if you’ve been vaccinated.”
Gonsenhauser is seeing more and more people get infections of all kinds (novel, breakthrough and reinfection), but those who are fully vaccinated and boosted should be protected against significant symptoms.
Travel does introduce people to higher-risk environments. Still, for those who aren’t predisposed to serious infection, “I don’t think this changes much when it comes to travel and travel expectations,” Gonsenhauser says, reminding travelers to take the same precautions as always.
Gonsenhauser agrees that rapid testing can help lower your risk of spreading the coronavirus to people you’re visiting or seeing when you return from holiday travel. While the accuracy of rapid tests is significantly lower if you’re asymptomatic, they are helpful if you have symptoms or a known exposure.
‘A tolerable risk’
If the emergence of delta and omicron have taught us anything, it’s that we can expect new coronavirus variants to keep cropping up.
“It’s not like we’re going to get over surge and it’ll be 2019 again,” says Jonathan Baktari, a pulmonary and critical care expert and CEO of e7 Health. “It’s more than likely that [the coronavirus] will mutate again.”
Baktari says that based on current research, it’s safe to say the public should see coronavirus vaccinations as a three-shot series. Eventually, Baktari says, we can expect to need updated coronavirus vaccines annually, just like the flu vaccine.
For people who’ve had those three shots and who are not in a high-risk category considering holiday travel, “if you take the general precautions, I think that’s probably a tolerable risk,” Baktari says. Those who do not meet that description should reconsider travel.
‘Is the benefit [of travel] worth the risk?’
In Jeff Weinstein’s work as the medical operations supervisor at Global Rescue, which does medical security and evacuation services, he’s seen an uptick in covid-positive customers, and “that seems to be increasing in the recent days,” he says.
Those cases have included fully vaccinated and boosted travelers. Most of the patients are experiencing low-severity flu-like symptoms.
Weinstein says that just because omicron is more transmissible doesn’t mean other variants aren’t still in circulation. You’re still at risk for getting a different coronavirus mutation that could lead to more severe infection than omicron.
Before you travel, ask yourself if you can risk getting sick with any of the variants.
“Talk with your family, Weinstein says. “Is the benefit [of travel] worth the risk?”