COVID is the real war on Christmas. (Shutterstock) Staying Safe During the Holidays
COVID is the real war on Christmas. (Shutterstock)

A point-by-point guide to staying safe this holiday season — get your boosters! — amid two dangerous COVID-19 variants.

Omicron is the Christmas present no one wants, but can’t return to the store. 

Is it safe to travel amid the new variant? Will our holiday party put our loved ones at risk? Can we hug our grandparents? Will this ever end?

While it’s all scary stuff and Omicron is expected to be a huge problem in January, state health officials said this week that Delta is still the variant to worry about right now in NC. 

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And while advising caution, officials are going out of their way to remind us that we still have the tools to fight this virus – booster shots being the most potent – even if some of them have somewhat dulled.

To start, the current COVID numbers in NC are getting bad now, but this has nothing to do with Omicron. Yet.

Case numbers and hospitalizations are rising rapidly in the state, and that’s all likely driven by Delta, colder weather, Thanksgiving gatherings and the unvaccinated, Dr. Mandy Cohen, the head of the NC Department of Health and Human Services, said in a news conference on Tuesday. Almost all of the deaths and hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated, she added. That’s all Delta.

“Omicron, which early tests show is by far the most transmissible variant, has been detected in NC, but is not widely circulating as of now,” Cohen said.  “Delta’s here right now. That’s what’s infecting [North Carolinians] right now and sending them to the hospital. Delta is what is on my mind in this holiday season.”

But the current Delta burden and holiday travel season threaten to make the Omicron surge that much worse. 

“We have a more transmissible, rapidly transmitting virus that is coinciding with a time when most of us are spending a lot of indoor time,” Dr. Thomas Denny, the chief operating officer of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, said on Thursday. “It’s creating a perfect storm.”

This is the real war on Christmas. 

Here’s What We Know

Much is still unknown about Omicron, but we have a better picture now than a week ago. 

Here are the things to keep in mind that can help you decide what to do about your holiday plans.   

  • Studies suggest the variant spreads a lot faster than Delta and seems to have a shorter incubation period, which means that you’d be contagious sooner and that a negative test from two days ago might not mean as much.
  • While it’s likely that two doses of a vaccine won’t prevent infection from Omicron, the vaccines are still very likely to reduce the severity of illness.
  • A booster shot of any of the three available vaccines offers robust protection against Omicron. Booster shots are the key to fighting this variant, nearly all health officials say, though it’s unclear how long that protection will last.
  • Several studies suggest that Omicron may not result in more severe illness than previous strains, and early anecdotal evidence shows that in many vaccinated people the symptoms were mild. 

But it’s still too early to tell, and it’s unclear how universal that trend, if true, might be. A mild infection in a young, vaccinated person, for example, may differ from someone who is unvaccinated, older, or immunocompromised. 

It’s a mix of scary and optimistic. But while all these unknowns and warning signs may feel like a return to the anxieties of last year, that doesn’t mean we are back at the beginning.

How Do We Fight It?

Omicron may be a new, dangerous strain, but the tools to fight it remain the same. 

“We’re in a different place as we go into this holiday season,” Cohen said. “Everyone knows what to do.” 

  • Get vaccinated as soon as possible. 
  • Get tested before any family gatherings, and before and after general travel. 
  • Wear N95, KN95 or other high-quality masks in public, regardless of vaccination status, whenever indoors or around large groups of people. 
  • And most importantly, get your booster shot as soon as you are eligible. 

The things to do now are the same things we’ve needed to do throughout. And while the variant is unwelcome news, it was always something that was likely to occur given the relatively low vaccination rates worldwide. 

The other key thing to do, health officials say, is to be prepared for setbacks and keep heart. 

An Omicron winter is coming, in one way or another.  

Though hospitals in North Carolina are currently not as overrun as in other states, Cohen said she was still concerned about how things may change after the holidays.

The Omicron strain spreads so fast that, even if under the best case scenario the illness is less severe for many individuals, the sheer number of infections will drive up hospitalizations. As many have already pointed out, a small percentage of a huge number is still a big number. 

This will yet again put enormous strain on health care workers, businesses, our mental health, and on the unvaccinated, primarily children.

Whatever is unknown about Omicron and vaccines, it is a near certainty that the unvaccinated will bear the brunt of the worst effects, and children, Cohen said, are the least vaccinated age group in North Carolina and account for the highest rate of COVID cases.

“I am concerned about our younger population,” Cohen said. “We saw during the latest Delta surge that it can be hard to predict who’s going to become severely ill and who’s going to experience long-term symptoms.”

Young people who were not vaccinated were hit harder.

Want to protect your children, grandparents, next door neighbor and yourself? Get the vaccine and get your booster, all health officials say.

“If you get your booster,” Cohen said, “it does improve your ability to fight COVID in all forms.” “That’s the message for the day. Get your booster.”