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Is Omicron Ruining the Holidays?

The new COVID-19 variant is causing canceled plans and stress over gatherings

couple standing at their front door with their grandson and family

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Christmas is coming, but so are the variants of the COVID-19 virus.  

At the start of this holiday season, plenty of people were breathing a sigh of relief. With vaccines, boosters and the endorsement of Anthony Fauci, M.D., of the Centers for Disease Control, families and friends thought they could safely gather — albeit cautiously — to celebrate the season.

Then along came omicron. As the wave of omicron infections builds in the U.S., the uptick of cases has colleges and universities going virtual for the end of the semester, is canceling shows on Broadway and is adding a confusing layer of requirements to holiday travel.

Omicron's surge is making some people rethink their plans, but it’s also making many others worry about being exposed while socializing and celebrating. That stress is casting a pall on the winter holidays.

Candice Criscione, 41, who lives in Italy and is the writer behind the travel sites Mom in Italy and The Tuscan Mom, had invited her U.S.-based parents, who are 73 and 72, for a visit. The plan was to do a holiday ski vacation with the grandkids in the Dolomite mountains.

Criscione was getting her hair done before the trip when her hairdresser casually mentioned that he’d cancelled his own trip to the same area because of the dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases. 

“I immediately started researching online and found that hospitals were filling up,” Criscione says. The omicron variant was spiking in Italy and taking a toll. After reading the news, Criscione decided to cancel the trip. The combination of rising COVID levels, full hospitals, her older parents and her three young children, two of whom are too young to be vaccinated, transformed the trip from fun to stressful.

“We didn’t want to risk being in an area with high rates of the new variant or getting stuck up there if the area became a red zone,” she says.

Lack of clarity around variant

Omicron is the latest COVID-19 variant to raise alarm bells around the world. Omicron went from relative obscurity to become the fifth variant on the World Health Organization’s Variant of Concern list on Nov. 26, 2021. Cases are rising around the world, including here in the United States. Experts are still determining the highly contagious variant’s impact on health, though some believe it may cause illness that is less severe than the delta variant, for example.   

“Right now there's a lot of speculation about omicron,” says Preeti Malani, M.D., the chief health officer at the University of Michigan and a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases. “I remain hopeful that being fully vaccinated and boosted offers protection against severe illness, hospitalizations and certainly death. But we are not going to know specifically about omicron for a while.” 

That lack of clarity is adding to travel confusion with rules changing as scientists learn more about omicron. Constantly evolving quarantine and travel requirements have made it difficult for crime writer Edward Yatscoff, 67, of Edmonton, Alberta, to plan his annual snowbird sojourn with his wife, Gloria, 70.

“Usually by this time we have decided on a destination,” Yatscoff says. “So far, we have had to eliminate a few places due to COVID entry requirements changing yet again.” 

Yatscoff and his wife had originally planned to travel to the Gulf Coast and New Orleans this year. They scuttled that idea, because while they are both fully vaccinated, they didn’t want to risk going inside bars or restaurants — and didn’t want to go to New Orleans without seeing live music. Yatscoff is in a holding pattern, delaying a decision until early next year. “We will wait until after the Christmas fliers return home for a few weeks before booking and see how omicron develops,” he says.

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Forging ahead with holiday plans

While omicron is the newest concern, Malani says the delta variant should stay on the radar when it comes to the coronavirus. “Delta is here and it’s surging,” especially among those who are unvaccinated or have an underlying health condition, she says.

However, Malani, 52, has not stopped traveling or reconsidered her holiday plans, which include flying to Miami to support the University of Michigan football team during their New Year’s Eve game. “You make decisions,” she says, citing the good ventilation and low transmission rates at outdoor venues.

Malani is not the only one staying the course, despite omicron.

“If you're vaccinated and boosted, I wouldn't change any of my plans,” says Peter Chin-Hong, M.D., an infectious disease specialist with the University of California-San Francisco. Chin-Hong, 52, is going to “confidently fly” to see his mother on the East Coast.

“I've given up seeing my mom for too long,” he says. For the larger gathering his family has arranged, he plans to give everyone an over-the-counter rapid test for COVID-19 before joining in the fun. You should "celebrate the holidays,” he says, “because who knows what next year will bring.”

For Chin-Hong, and for many who are fully vaccinated and boosted, dealing with omicron involves a risk assessment: weighing the possibility of contracting COVID-19 versus the costs of social isolation.

Malani knows her family’s vaccination status and that they are taking precautions, like masking, in their day-to-day lives, so for her the benefits of being with family over the holidays outweigh the risk of possible infection.

“If everyone is fully vaccinated and boosted and feeling well and you have a small group, the risk is acceptable,” she says. But a large group and uncertainties about vaccination status or approaches to masking increase the risk. “You could add testing. You could add masks. You could sit outside, if the weather permits.”   

Criscione, however, canceled her ski vacation and instead she and her family are taking day trips closer to home. For her, that was the right choice.

“It’s not the magical Christmas atmosphere that I’d daydreamed of,” Criscione says. “But my boys are happy snowboarding and playing in the snow. And I don’t feel stressed about being in an omicron hot spot.” 

Melissa Locker is a contributing writer who covers lifestyle, home and garden, and arts and culture. She has also written for Southern Living, Time and The Guardian.

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