The winter holidays are here again — and they’re not feeling very merry, thanks to the coronavirus, which is once again on the rise in Massachusetts. The Delta variant is propelling a surge in COVID-19 cases, while the impact of the Omicron variant remains uncertain.
It’s normally a time of parties, concerts, big meals, and good cheer, but how careful should we be this year, considering the lingering threat from the unpredictable virus?
We asked a handful of experts about their plans for holiday celebrations, and found most remain cautious, saying they’ll attend only small gatherings where everyone is vaccinated, and will use rapid, at-home tests to make sure no one is infectious. We also asked how they felt about travel this season, and about having an unvaccinated person at a holiday gathering. Here’s what they said.
Will you host or attend a holiday gathering?
“We’re just having a small gathering with my nuclear family. My mom may come to visit and join us, but it will only be her if an additional member comes,” said Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center and assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine.
She and her husband, who are fully vaccinated and boosted, have a 5-year-old who will be fully vaccinated. Their 3-year-old is too young and that’s affected the family’s plans.
“Christmas is really big in our family,” Assoumou said, noting she will miss the larger extended-family gatherings of past years where she could see her cousins and where children performed in a talent show. “It started 30 years ago, and I used to perform,” she said.
Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician who is the hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, said she had just celebrated Hanukkah over the weekend and was hoping to do something with her husband’s family over Christmas, with possibly a dozen people attending.
She and her immediate family are all fully vaccinated and have gotten boosters, and the holiday gatherings are the payoff. The vaccines are “really, really good against severe disease, hospitalization, and death — especially if you get the booster. That’s why you do it. You don’t get the vaccine and booster so you can sit home alone. You get it so you can interact with other human beings, especially so you can interact with the most important people in your life, your family,” she said.
Recalling last year’s grim holiday season, when a deadly surge was underway and the vaccines were not widely available, Doron said, “I think that forgoing gatherings with your family for the holidays is the kind of thing you only do once.”
What role do you see for rapid, at-home tests?
A number of experts said the tests figured in their plans for safe holiday gatherings — even if the people being tested were already vaccinated and boosted.
Assoumou said that even though her mother has gotten all her shots, she will likely give her two rapid, at-home tests 36 hours apart when she arrives in town to make sure she’s COVID-free.
Dr. Paul Sax, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said he would not attend a family gathering if rapid tests and vaccinations were not required.
“I have already heard of several instances where people have tested positive on rapid tests before attending a holiday gathering, and were able to stay home and not risk infecting others,” Sax said.
Testing is especially important for children, teenagers, and young adults, he added, because they have the highest infection rates and very young children aren’t eligible for vaccinations.
Matthew Fox, a professor of epidemiology and global health at Boston University School of Public Health, plans to attend a gathering of vaccinated and boosted relatives — and will be asking them to get tested.
“We are in a period where there is a surge and the holidays and get-togethers increase the chances of increasing transmission. So testing helps keep us all safe, even if it doesn’t perfectly protect us,” Fox said, noting that improving ventilation would further decrease the risk.
Will you invite any unvaccinated people to your gathering?
Most experts said they were planning to gather only with vaccinated and, if eligible, boosted people.
Acknowledging that his social circle as an infectious disease doctor might be different from ordinary people’s, Sax said, “it’s become quite common among my friends to say for any social get-together . . . vaccination-only.”
Doron said she was facing a difficult decision because some of her potential holiday gathering guests were unvaccinated. “Are we saying we want to not see them forever? I don’t think the answer is yes,” she said. If unvaccinated adults do come, she said, “that’s when I would try to encourage the rapid tests. I’m not sure how that will go over.”
Doron said her concern was more about the unvaccinated person becoming ill than about the other guests who are vaccinated. She also noted that if an immunocompromised person is attending a gathering, it would be important to test everybody to protect that person.
Would you go to a holiday religious ceremony or concert?
“Not this year,” said Assoumou. “We like going to Christmas Mass but not this year. I think this year, given all the uncertainty, we’re just going to stay at home and avoid large gatherings of any form.”
Fox said: “I don’t plan to, but I might attend a religious ceremony if it is an event with everyone testing and vaccinated and there is good ventilation and no singing.”
Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good at Boston College, said he might go to a holiday concert where his daughter is performing a solo. “Whether I go will depend on the trend line for new cases and what we learn between now and then about the Omicron variant, especially whether or not it can evade the current vaccines,” he said
Would you go to a holiday movie in a theater?
Fox won’t be watching the latest blockbuster at the cineplex.
“There, we don’t have everyone testing before so I can’t ensure the risk is low enough. Doron, confident in her vaccination plus booster, said she would go to a movie, though none of the holiday offerings had drawn her interest.
Will you eat out at a restaurant?
Doron said she has been dining at restaurants. Sax, on the other hand, was more cautious. “Indoor dining, as much as I miss it, is still highly risky, especially now that case numbers are so high,” he said. “We stopped indoor dining at the beginning of the pandemic. That’s the thing that my wife and I miss the most.”
He said he would also avoid “gyms, concerts, and other settings that might involve crowds and rooms with poor ventilation.”
Will you travel for the holidays?
Sax said that he would be traveling, and that air and train travel are generally not very risky. But he suggested people “basically try to avoid crowded settings with poor ventilation,” not on the plane so much as in the airport. He suggested stepping away from the packed gate with low ceilings, and trying to keep a distance from others. And, “It doesn’t hurt to invest in an N95 or KN95 mask for travel.”
Doron said she didn’t have any problem with travel, but noted the “potential for headaches” with the possibility of new restrictions and getting stuck in some other place.
What’s your general advice for people celebrating this holiday?
“Keep a close eye on the case data and the hospitalization data and on the evolving Omicron story. Be prepared to curtail your plans if the numbers are not good, and especially if it turns out that Omicron can evade the current vaccines,” Landrigan said.
Assoumou urged people to “use all the tools in the toolbox,” including getting the vaccine and booster shot, wearing masks in indoor public spaces, getting tested, and ensuring there is good ventilation.
Doron said vaccinations and booster shots should keep people safe “certainly through the holidays.”
However, she said, “If you’re not vaccinated, this is absolutely the time. We are headed into a real danger zone from Delta and a very uncertain period from Omicron. If you’re unvaccinated, you’re really not safe.”
Martin Finucane can be reached at email@example.com.