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RI HEALTH

R.I. public health experts say you can gather for the holidays. Here’s how to do it more safely

“Now is the time to be cautious, not to panic,” said Brown University’s Dr. Philip Chan. “I think people can celebrate the holidays and have fun with loved ones as long as they use the tools we know that work.”

Luma Samara embraced her best friend Els Godyn as she arrived airport.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — The plane tickets are stashed in your wallet or app, the rental is booked, and there’s no way you’re telling grandma she can’t see the kids again this year. But the omicron variant is spreading rapidly. What should you do?

Family reunions, Christmas gatherings, and New Year’s Eve parties largely took place on Zoom last year — and for good reason. The majority of America didn’t have access to COVID-19 vaccine, hospitals were filling up, and cases were rising in nearly every New England state.

This year, the highly contagious omicron variant, which has caused several high-profile breakthrough cases among those even with a booster shot, has become the dominant strain the US.

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But does that mean you should cancel your plans?

“There’s a lot out there about omicron. And there’s a lot that we still don’t know. But I’m advising everyone I know that now is the time to be cautious, not to panic,” said Dr. Philip Chan, a professor at both Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School and School of Public Health. “I think people can celebrate the holidays and have fun with loved ones as long as they use the tools we know that work.”

We asked local public health and infectious disease experts about their take on gathering — and traveling — over the holidays.

I’m on the fence about gathering with family. What should I do?

Are you fully vaccinated? Have you received your booster shot? If so, you should feel comfortable gathering with loved ones, says Kirsten Hokeness, chairwoman of the science and technology department at Bryant University.

“It is true that vaccinated individuals can spread the virus, rapidly in the case of omicron, but the vaccines and booster are working as breakthrough infections have been relatively mild,” said Hokeness. “That said, we should also be vigilant.”

What can we do to be vigilant before gathering?

If you have symptoms of infection, then stay home and get tested, advices Dr. Kerry LaPlante, the pharmacy department chair at the University of Rhode Island.

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“If you can get your hands on one, rapid antigen tests can be quite helpful especially as we continue to see long wait times for PCR tests to come back,” said Hokeness.

Chan, who is also a consultant for the Rhode Island Department of Health, advised those who have not yet received a booster shot to get one. Everyone 16 and older is eligible for one in Rhode Island. Schedule your booster shot in Rhode Island here.

Dr. Philip Chan addresses the media at the weekly COVID-19 press conference in Providence, R.I.Gretchen Ertl/The Boston Globe

I’m not vaccinated. Can I still travel or go to a party?

“I would just urge those that are unvaccinated to be cautious this year with who they are gathering with and where. Omicron has proven to be quite difficult for unvaccinated individuals. This is where we are seeing the highest rates of severe illness and hospitalizations, so it makes sense to be careful,” said Hokeness.

She also advised those who are “highly immunocompromised” to also be careful and assess what would be best for their personal situation in these circumstances.

Do you think it’s important for people to gather this year?

“We are currently battling a mental health crisis, where social isolation and loneliness are very concerning and have been throughout COVID,” said LaPlante. “It’s important that you see your family members. Just do it safely.”

We have young children not yet eligible for the vaccine. Should we go to a holiday gathering?

While COVID-19 is not typically as detrimental to children, experts say the long-term effects of infection are still unclear.

Dr. Denise Coppa, a family nurse practitioner and professor at the University of Rhode Island examining a young boy while he sits with his mother prior to the pandemic.Nora Lewis at the University of Rhode Island

Dr. Denise Coppa, a family nurse practitioner and professor at the URI, said a year ago, before she received a COVID-19 vaccine, she contracted the virus. She told the Globe recently that she ended up passing it onto her 9-month-old grandson. He was only sick for about two days. But when he went to the doctor for his 12-month exam, his white blood cell count was “much lower than what it should have been.”

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“That’s just one anecdote. But are they getting really sick? The answer is no. They are getting sick for a few days with a fever and what you expect,” said Coppa. “But, we don’t know the long-term effects. I’ve seen pediatric patients where six months after they’ve had COVID-19, they still have a cough.”

We have a newborn baby. Should we go to a holiday gathering?

Coppa said there are two newborn babies in her own family that are not attending her family’s Christmas gathering because “it’s just too risky.”

“Their immune system isn’t organized enough to fight the fever and fight the virus,” said Coppa. “Why would you want to put that small baby at risk? Because typically, when those babies are at family gatherings, all the relatives are hovering all over them wanting to touch them and hold them. It’s just risky.”

OK, I’m going. How can we stay safe at the gathering?

“When you’re with your family, still try to keep your distance. Open ventilation as much as possible,” said LaPlante, who is also a member of the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee, which is an advisory board housed at the state health department.

Coppa said kids who are over the age of 2 should try to wear a mask.

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Is it safe to eat inside at restaurants?

Chan, a father of young children, said he is eating indoors and is only avoiding “overly crowded restaurants.”

“I wear my mask right to the table and wear it again while I’m going to the bathroom or heading to the door. I think it’s relatively safe as long as the restaurant is well ventilated and there’s some distancing between tables,” he said. “It can be done safely, and we’ve been doing it safely in Rhode Island.”

We were invited to a New Year’s Eve party. Should we go?

Coppa recommends that people not hug or kiss, try to social distance, and to bring their masks “just in case you feel like you need it.”

“But you should absolutely go if you’re fully vaccinated. It’s why we have the vaccine,” she said. “There’s really no need to panic. This isn’t 2020 anymore. Go out, and have a good time.”

She added: “And when you don’t have feel safe, you pull your mask out of your pocket or purse and put it on.”

Both Chan and Coppa said to try to avoid very large indoor gatherings (such as 250 people or more) where many or all people are unmasked.

Are public health experts gathering for the holidays this year?

LaPlante: “Yes, I will be traveling to Buffalo with my kids for the holidays to be with my mom and the rest of the family. I have boxes of screening tests to bring since we have some older adults in our family that are older than 65. Everyone is boosted, but my mom has a small home so we’re doing everything we can to protect each other.”

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Hokeness: “We are gathering with family this year. It has been another difficult year and celebrating the good that has happened with loved ones is important. We can’t get this time back. We are however seeing family members decide to stay home from our Christmas Eve celebration as that is how they feel safest. And that is how it should be: gathering in the way that you and your family feel is best for you.”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.