More than a year after the vaccine was rolled out, new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. have soared to their highest level on record at over 265,000 per day on average, a surge driven largely by the highly contagious omicron variant.
New cases per day have more than doubled over the past two weeks, eclipsing the old mark of 250,000, set in mid-January, according to data kept by Johns Hopkins University.
The fast-spreading mutant version of the virus has cast a pall over Christmas and New Year’s, forcing communities to scale back or call off their festivities just weeks after it seemed as if Americans were about to enjoy an almost normal holiday season. Thousands of flights have been canceled amid staffing shortages blamed on the virus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious-disease expert, said Wednesday that there is no need to cancel small home gatherings among vaccinated and boosted family and friends.
But “if your plans are to go to a 40- to 50-person New Year’s Eve party with all the bells and whistles and everybody hugging and kissing and wishing each other a happy new year, I would strongly recommend that this year we not do that,” he said.
The picture is grim elsewhere around the world, especially in Europe, with World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus saying he is worried about omicron combining with the delta variant to produce a “tsunami” of cases. That, he said, will put “immense pressure on exhausted health workers and health systems on the brink of collapse.”
The number of Americans now in the hospital with COVID-19 is running at around 60,000, or about half the figure seen in January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
Q&A: Staying safe during the holidays
Is it safe to attend a holiday party?
It depends. Large parties aren’t as safe as small ones. Indoor parties aren’t as safe as outdoor gatherings.
At a large, indoor party, one person without a mask can result in many people infected, said Dr. Celine Gounder of the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
“Some of these are turning into superspreader events,” Gounder said.
Even if everyone is vaccinated and boosted, breakthrough infections can happen, including with omicron, which has shown the ability to sidestep the protection of vaccination in lab tests.
And don’t count on symptoms to tell you who’s carrying the virus, said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer in Seattle and King County.
“Half or more of infections are spread from people before they have symptoms, so symptom screening remains important, but doesn’t identify everyone who can spread COVID-19,” Duchin said.
Masks, opening windows, running an air purifier with a HEPA filter are strategies recommended by health experts for gatherings during the holidays.
Should I trust home test kits?
Home test kits can add a layer of safety by providing on-the-spot results. The tests are not as accurate as the PCR tests done in hospitals and at testing sites. But they have the advantage of giving results within minutes instead of days.
In some places, testing demand is high, rapid tests are hard to find and waits at testing centers are long.
If you’re searching for a home test kit, check online and at drugstores. A box with two tests typically costs about $25. If you have health insurance, save your receipt. You may be able to get reimbursed for the cost next year, although it’s unclear whether new rules about that will be retroactive.
Residents of some parts of the U.S. can receive free home test kits through a public health effort called Say Yes! COVID Test.
“It’s been a phenomenal program,” said Matt Schanz, administrator of the Northeast Tri County Health District in northeastern Washington state, where households can get up to eight tests delivered.
“We’re social people. We want to gather together and have joyous times during the holiday,” Schanz said.
Some health experts are recommending testing twice: Take a test three days before and on the day of a holiday gathering.
“So if you’re gathering Christmas Eve, test a few days before and on Christmas Eve as well,” said Dr. Kiran Joshi, senior medical officer at the Cook County Department of Public Health in Illinois.
Is there any good news?
Kids often catch viruses at school and there’s some evidence with flu that school breaks can slow the spread. So it might be lucky that omicron is emerging during the holidays, said virus expert Elodie Ghedin of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“Going into the holidays where kids are staying home from school is actually a good thing,” Ghedin said. “If this had occurred in the fall, it probably would have been worse with transmission. That’s the one silver lining going into the holidays.”
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
What about traveling abroad
Check the rules of your destination country if you’re planning to travel abroad. Nations are adding new rules in response to omicron.
People traveling by air should be extra careful about wearing masks in crowded airports, Fauci said.
“Wear your mask all the time,” Fauci told a Wall Street Journal podcast. “It will be required to wear a mask when you’re on the plane, but don’t get careless in the airport with all the crowds that are in the airport and take your mask off.”
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