Only weeks ago, many Americans pictured safe, fully vaccinated or boosted holiday gatherings with family and friends. Now with the arrival of the Omicron variant, many people may be questioning the safety of gathering even with those who are fully vaccinated against COVID, but haven’t yet received a booster shot.
“We’ve seen cases of Omicron among those who are both vaccinated and boosted and we believe these cases are milder or asymptomatic because of vaccine protection,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during Friday’s White House COVID-19 briefing.
So ... to gather or not to gather? Yahoo News Medical Contributor Dr. Lucy McBride provides some guidance into the holiday season this year as Omicron is expected to become the dominant strain in the U.S. in the coming weeks.
[Some responses have been edited for clarity.]
Yahoo News: For starters, how does Omicron affect the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines?
McBride: It looks like Omicron is a highly contagious variant of SARS-CoV-2. It also, in preliminary data, looks to be less severe, but it also looks like the immunity we get from vaccination is a little bit less effective. In other words, we’re more susceptible to infection, but the vaccine still protects us against the worst consequences from COVID-19. ... So we’re recommending that all eligible adults get boosted to optimize their protection and restore their immunity against Omicron back to where it was in the first two doses.
What should Johnson & Johnson vaccine recipients know?
Patients who received Johnson & Johnson as their primary shot should definitely get a single dose of an mRNA shot, either the Pfizer or the Moderna. Whether or not people should get a second mRNA shot is really up to the discretion of their physician and should be a shared decision between the patient and doctor. I am recommending for my high-risk patients in particular to get two of the mRNA shots after the primary J&J vaccine.
Are holiday gatherings safe?
Patients are asking me every day, “Is it safe to do X? Is it safe to do Y?” And my job isn’t to tell them whether it’s safe or not to do something. It’s to reframe that question: “What are the intrinsic risks and benefits in the proposed activity?” And I’m telling my patients this: Once they have been vaccinated and boosted, if eligible, they have taken the very best step towards protecting themselves, their families and their communities against COVID-19. That said, mixing with unvaccinated people certainly does pose a risk, because unvaccinated people are at the highest risk, not only for COVID, but for transmitting the virus to other people. ... So we know that even people who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 can still transmit the virus to others, but it’s significantly reduced compared to the risk of transmission from an unvaccinated person. So one of the best ways to prevent COVID-19 transmission within a gathering at the holidays, for example, is to make sure you’re getting your vaccination and booster shots, and to take a rapid antigen test the day of your gathering to pretty much ensure that you’re not carrying infectious levels of virus at that moment. A negative rapid antigen test is sort of a day pass and helps us gather with loved ones without the fear of transmitting the virus to other people.
What about gathering with people at higher risk for poor outcomes from COVID-19?
The answer is there’s no right or wrong answer about how to live your life. There’s risk inherent in everything we do. But the risk is mitigated when the vulnerable people are vaccinated and boosted, when the grandchildren are vaccinated and boosted, if they’re eligible, and when people spend time outside. And if they’re inside, they are taking precautions like wearing a mask. If they’re at particularly high risk, getting a rapid negative antigen test the day of the gathering, cracking windows and doors to improve ventilation, and then realizing the benefits of social togetherness, given that everything we do carries risk.