Dave Fravel and his wife invited several relatives to their Cape Cod home for Christmas to share food, gifts and the togetherness they craved during the lonely days of the pandemic. They were also eagerly awaiting a vacation sightseeing trip to New York.
But the coronavirus has ruined all of those plans. With the increase in cases in their state of Massachusetts and the super-infectious variant of the omicron circling the world, they feared spreading the virus even before Fravel’s 18-year-old son Colin fell. with COVID-19.
Rich England has been there before. In the summer, as the delta variant increased, he said no to Christmas holidays with his parents and sister’s family in London and Scotland. But he, his wife and 2-year-old daughter are keeping plans for a four-day trip from their home in Alexandria, Va., To Miami on December 31.
âThe safest thing to do would be to say ‘OMG we have to cancel’,â he said. âBut there are a lot of letters in the Greek alphabet – there will be variations after omicron. You can’t just answer every variation by closing.â
For the second year in a row, the ever-evolving virus presents would-be revelers with a difficult choice: cancel gatherings and vacation trips, or find ways to move forward safely. Many health experts are begging people not to let their guard down.
The Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, put it bluntly this week when he said “a canceled event is better than a canceled life”.
But pandemic fatigue is real. And while travel restrictions in some places have forced cancellations, many governments have been reluctant to order more lockdowns, increasingly leaving the decisions on who to see and where to go in the hands of individuals.
The mystery surrounding the omicron complicates matters. Scientists now know that it spreads quickly, perhaps up to three times faster than the delta variant. It also appears to be better at evading vaccines, although boosters do boost protection, especially against hospitalization and death. But a crucial question remains: does omicron cause less severe disease than delta? Some research suggests it does, but the studies are preliminary.
Even though it’s milder, omicron could still overwhelm hospitals due to the large number of infections. This makes it difficult to know how far to lower the dial during the holiday season.
In the United States, infections average around 149,000 per day, and authorities announced this week that omicron has dethroned the delta as the dominant variant. In Britain, where an omicron-fueled surge is seen as a harbinger for many other European countries, daily cases topped 100,000 for the first time on Tuesday. France, Spain and Italy are also experiencing peaks of infection.
Fravel and his wife, Sue Malomo, who are both software developers and have six children between them, are concerned about omicron and delta. Fravel, 51, said they canceled their trip to New York City because “the thought of being in these big crowds didn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”
The fact of having a lot of people at home either. Typically 20-25 people filter between New Years Eve and Christmas Day. But this year, only the children will come and not all at the same time.
âRight now, the plan is for everyone to kind of stay in smaller circles or do FaceTime,â Fravel said.
England, an energy lobbyist, has also weighed its options – and decided a trip can be taken. He and his wife have both received boosters, which reassures him, despite his daughter being too young for the vaccine.
âWe chose Miami in part because we could eat out exclusively and then spend time at the beach and the pool,â he said. But even he is still covering up: Tuesday night, they were “80/20”.
Julieta Aranguren, originally from Colombia, has already started her journey. The 18-year-old was on a layover in Madrid on Wednesday on her way to Dubai, where she planned to spend time with loved ones. She spent thousands of dollars on flights and hotels – booked nine months ago – so she said she wasn’t considering canceling.
But she still faces the unknown. His group plans to go shopping, dine out and visit the Dubai World Expo, so “it wouldn’t be fun at all if there were more restrictions,” Aranguren said.
It is still not clear which route most people will take. Ryanair, Europe’s largest airline, lowered its passenger forecast for December from 11 million to 10 million, chief executive Michael O’Leary told The Guardian last week.
Several airlines in the United States remain quite optimistic.
For the period December 17 to January 3, Delta Air Lines plans to carry around 8 million people, more than double the holiday season last year, but below 9.3 million passengers in 2019. American Airlines plans about 5,000 daily flights between December 19 and January 1, compared to 3,700 at the same time last year. But there were many more – 6,300 – during the 2019 vacation.
Both airlines noted that international travel was the most affected by the omicron variant.
This rings true for Alex Wong. The Toronto-based freelance journalist and radio producer canceled a flight to New York City in mid-December that would have been his first trip since the start of the pandemic. He feared he would be stuck in quarantine upon his return, which would leave him unable to see his family during the holidays.
“I feel like I made the right decision and feel better every day,” he said in a text message. He receives a reminder on Wednesday and sees his parents, who live nearby, this weekend.
This is the kind of balanced calculation that many experts recommend.
Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said people should consider taking a rapid test for COVID-19 on the day of a rally or, better yet, a more accurate PCR test 24 hours in advance. But experts warn that testing is not a firewall against infection.
âIt’s a good idea to kind of rethink big travel plans or get together in big groups,â he said.
Small groups of less than 10 people can gather safely if they make sure everyone is vaccinated, wear masks indoors, and encourage those most vulnerable to serious illnesses to stay at home. Other experts suggest opening windows to improve ventilation and staying outdoors as much as possible.
âFor me, the holidays are a time to think about others. It often comes through gifts, charitable donations or volunteering,â said Binnicker. “But this year, there is another great way to think about others, and that is to take precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19 and the flu.”
Associated Press editors Mae Anderson in Nashville, Tennessee, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Emily Schultheis in Vienna, and Kelvin Chan in London contributed to this report.
The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.