Health experts warn against large gatherings for Christmas

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – and the most contagious.

As COVID-19 cases surge in the New York area, driven by the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus, families and friends debate whether and how to gather for Christmas and New Years .

New daily cases are now nearly double the rate of last winter’s outbreak, with more than a tenth of all tests taken in the city coming back positive for the virus, according to city data.

Still, the public has received mixed messages from various political and health leaders, underscoring wider uncertainty about how quickly the omicron surge may come and go and how many serious infections or deaths it could. cause.

President Joe Biden has said there is no need for vaccinated people to cancel Christmas, even though some health experts advise against gatherings altogether.

New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi said people should consider virtual or outdoor gatherings whenever possible, and base all indoor gatherings on the person’s needs. the most vulnerable of the group, whether it is a child, an elderly person or a person with a pre-existing condition.

“I worry about the risk, but mainly for those most vulnerable to severe consequences,” Chokshi said on NY1 Thursday morning.

For people willing to congregate, the gold standard of safety measures is a tiered approach, according to Dr. David Abramson, associate clinical professor at New York University’s School of Global Public Health.

The first thing, he said, is to make sure everyone gets a booster shot at least two weeks before the rally. They should also have tested negative for the coronavirus with a PCR test no more than 72 hours in advance, and avoid contact with others, even on public transport, in the days between the test and the gathering.

“If you can accomplish that, of course,” Abramson said. “Other than that, if you can’t make all of these things happen, I really don’t think it’s a good idea to come together.”

Even so, Abramson said, breakthrough infections could still occur, though they would likely be mild.

Dr Stephanie Woolhandler, professor of urban public health at Hunter College, added that everyone should take a quick test – or two – as close to the gathering as possible.

“Rapid tests aren’t perfect, and that’s not a guarantee, but the risk should be reasonably low if everyone gets a rapid test and everyone is vaccinated,” she said.

Abramson and Woolhandler both stressed that families should avoid in-person gatherings with relatives who are elderly, have pre-existing conditions or are immunocompromised.

This is doubly true if the gathering involves bringing a child who is unvaccinated or not yet eligible for a vaccine, they said. Studies have shown that young children are often the index or initial case of household-wide infections.

“If you have a very high-risk loved one, now is not the time to visit them with an unvaccinated child, or even a vaccinated person,” Woolhandler said. “We see so many breakthrough cases.”

If families plan to reunite with older people, it is essential to ensure that they are stimulated.

“My father is coming for Christmas. I’m not letting him out the door unless he gets the reminder,” Dr. Ted Long, the city’s Test and Trace program manager, said at a news conference last week.

Health experts and public health officials are clear on one thing: if you are not vaccinated, you are most at risk and should avoid travel and gatherings altogether.

“If you are not vaccinated, you should not travel,” Dr Chokshi told a news conference on Tuesday. “This is for your safety as well as that of others you will come into contact with.”

There is not enough data to know whether the relatively milder disease caused by the omicron variant is true for people who have not received any doses of the vaccine, said Dr. Mitchell Katz, head of the public hospital system of New York, at a press conference on Wednesday. This means, he said, that the risk of serious illness for these people is very real.

Other health experts said it was best to avoid gatherings altogether for now, given the high rate of spread of the virus.

“There are so many unknowns here, and it’s such a moving target, and it’s changing so rapidly,” said Dr. Robyn Gershon, clinical professor of epidemiology at NYU’s School of Global Public Health. “We have no way of knowing, at that time, at that dinner party, without a mask, with poor circulation, who is positive.”

Gershon, who says she is particularly risk averse, noted that gatherings within a small social group, where members have limited interaction with people outside the group, could be safe, especially with testing. and isolation before assembly.

But few people have kept pods that tight during the pandemic, and the omicron variant is so contagious, she said — perhaps three times more contagious than delta — that people could catch it at the grocery store. or in the subway.

“I don’t know how you can eat a meal, have drinks, cups of coffee and cake, and not spread the virus through the air if someone in this group tests positive,” she said. declared.

Woolhandler said she believes now is the time to be more cautious as the virus increases locally and potentially strains hospital resources: an infection that requires hospitalization, but can be treated, could become more deadly if patients are not getting enough attention from an overcrowded ICU or emergency room.

And even though the FDA has authorized a new pill to treat COVID-19 at home, there aren’t enough treatments available right now to keep up with demand.

“Right now, in a way, is probably the most dangerous time for people, partly because there are better treatments to come, but we don’t really have them yet.” she declared.

Sara H. Byrd