Dec. 15, 2021 -- 'Tis the season -- again -- for holiday travel and get-togethers with friends and family amid the challenges of a global pandemic. Yes, personal and public protection measures remain essential, but that doesn't mean you have to be a Scrooge about traveling and spending time with loved ones.
You can still enjoy gatherings and other holiday traditions if you prepare, remain patient, and remember to consider the comfort level of others, infectious disease experts said at a media briefing Wednesday sponsored by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
"Here's my practical advice for this holiday season … try to match up the risk reduction practices that you can sustain with the activities that you feel are going to sustain you," said Joshua Barocas, MD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora.
Consider layering protections such as masks, testing, moving activities outdoors, and more -- adjusting what you do based on how risky each situation is.
"Ultimately, the higher the risk situation, the more personal protection you need to keep yourself healthy -- and the lower the risk situation, the less mitigation you need," said Barocas, who is also an Infectious Diseases Society member.
The multi-layered approach is particularly important as uncertainty about the Omicron variant circulates across the U.S.
Facts about Omicron are still limited, he said.
"But what we do know is that this variant does appear to transmit more rapidly.
“Its severity is truthfully yet unknown. But here we are," said Barocas.
"We're all sort of waiting to see how this all unfolds," Romney M. Humphries, PhD, said during the briefing. "Many of us are a little concerned, obviously, just to see exactly what the data” shows about how severe Omicron is and how well it can evade vaccines.
It's Also Cold and Flu Season
The holidays are traditionally a time when other respiratory viruses also arrive like an unwelcome stranger at the door. For many who develop symptoms at the end of 2021, the natural first question is, “What do I have?”
"We have a lot of other circulating viruses this season, such as influenza. But also, we're seeing an awful lot of rhinovirus, which causes the common cold," said Humphries, medical director of the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
Dual testing is a valid strategy, she said. "If you do have any symptoms of a respiratory tract infection, the approach these days should really be tested for both of those viruses -- COVID-19 and the flu."
"I have a kid at home, and so I did have a cold last week," said Humphries, who is also a member of the Infectious Diseases Society. She said testing is "certainly worth it, not only for yourself and your own health, but also for all of those around you."
Pack Some Patience and Empathy
Holiday travel can be stressful even in a non-pandemic year. Add COVID-19 to the equation, and well, be patient and acknowledge that everyone is coming off almost 2 years of additional challenges, the experts advise.
"We are all frustrated. We are all tired, we are all just done," Barocas said.
It is important to remember that the person working the ticket counter at the airport, the grocery store employee, the person working at the movie theater -- "they're not the ones making the rules, they're simply doing their job by enforcing them."
"In the spirit of trying to unify, I ask people to try to refrain from taking that immense frustration out on them."
International travel could increase this holiday season after the Biden administration lifted travel bans on 33 countries on Nov. 8.
"I know many of us are considering traveling to see family that we've not seen for, at this point, for several years," Humphries said. "My family is outside the United States, and I have not seen them for over 2 years."
Staying apart has been a challenge, she said. "This is really difficult, particularly for those of us that have aging parents or have very young nieces and nephews -- where a couple of years can make a tremendous difference."
It's more essential than ever to prepare in advance for traveling, Humphries said. With updated requirements that can include a negative COVID-19 test within 24 hours of air travel, for example, ensure that you can get a test.
"As we look towards the holiday season, unfortunately, we are expecting to perhaps see some small surges of COVID-19," Humphries said.
This could affect local testing capacity, how many tests are available, and turnaround time for results.
"If you're needing a test for travel, make sure you prepare for that well in advance,” Humphries said.
Also recognize that a negative viral test is required for re-entry to the U.S.
"So not an antibody test, but a test for the virus itself, within 24 hours of your departure for arrival into the United States by air," she said.
A home test only counts when done in front of a health care provider during a telehealth visit, she added.
And for peace of mind, people can consider taking another test after returning home from traveling.
"But absolutely, if you have symptoms, you should consider being tested for COVID," Humphries said. "Even if you are vaccinated, because we are still seeing substantial circulation."
And whether you’re traveling to see friends or family or hosting a holiday gathering, read the room. It is important to be aware of and respect everyone's level of comfort with the potential COVID-19 exposure.
"We're all at different levels," Humphries said.
Some people, for example, are comfortable going out to dinner if they are vaccinated, but others are not.
New Year's Resolutions
While traditional resolutions like losing weight or exercising more are always to be applauded, an unusual year might call for some unusual resolutions. WebMD asked the infectious disease specialists for their own New Year's resolutions at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic.
"To focus on our mental health more through the next year," Humphries said. "I think we could all kind of acknowledge … it's been a tough couple of years."
She hopes to take the time for self-care and appreciate the importance of mental health "not just for myself, but for my kid that wasn't able to go to school and is still kind of in this weird place."
Spending more time together is another goal for 2022, she said, which includes "making sure that we're taking the time as a family to enjoy each other's company."
Barocas agreed on the importance of spending time with family in 2022 and added two more resolutions.
"One is understanding other people's situation a little bit more. We have very much lost our way, I believe, in in this whole mess,” he said.
Everyone is having a lot of strife and stress at the moment, he said.
"Keeping in mind that the person next to you is suffering in the same way that you might be, might be a good secondary New Year's resolution,” Barocas said.
His other New Year's resolution is a plea.
"If you are unvaccinated, I would resolve to have conversations, open-ended conversations, about the vaccine, about vaccination and the importance of it," Barocas said. "So that perhaps you can move towards vaccination."