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For the second year in a row, a worrying new coronavirus variant has scuppered holiday plans around the world.
This year, it’s the Omicron strain that has scientists and governments concerned – in just a matter of weeks, it has become dominant in multiple countries and put hospitals on alert for a possible fresh wave of patients.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization’s Director-General suggested it may be time to rethink some holiday plans.
“There is now consistent evidence that Omicron is spreading significantly faster than the Delta variant. And it is more likely that people who have been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 could be infected or reinfected,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
“An event canceled is better than a life canceled,” he added. “It’s better to cancel now and celebrate later, than to celebrate now and grieve later. None of us want to be here again in 12 months’ time, talking about missed opportunities, continued inequity, or new variants.”
Some countries have already imposed measures to halt the spread of Covid either before Christmas, or beginning immediately after the holiday.
The Netherlands has introduced a strict new lockdown, allowing a maximum of two guests at any indoor gathering aside from around Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when four guests will be allowed. The Canadian province of Ontario has placed new limits on indoor gatherings, cutting the number of people allowed to get together from 25 to 10.
France has banned big outdoor events and gatherings on New Year’s Eve, with Paris scrapping its traditional fireworks display. And in South Korea, the government reversed its phased plan to ease restrictions last week, instead reinstating stringent social distancing measures, including a nationwide 9 p.m. curfew for restaurants and cafes.
But many countries have not brought in rules over the period. So if you’re planning to go ahead with your festivities, there are some steps you can take to ensure they are as safe as possible.
Firstly, it’s worth evaluating how risky any meeting is – including whether there are any unvaccinated or at-risk people attending.
“Think about your vaccine as a very good raincoat,” CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, said last week.
“If you are going out into a drizzle, you’re probably going to be well protected and not get wet. “But if you’re going into a thunderstorm, there’s a higher chance of you getting wet, despite that very good raincoat.”
There are mitigation measures you could put in place if you’re concerned about your gathering. If the weather allows, you might consider eating dinner outside – and if not, it’s worth ensuring your room is well ventilated. Asking attendees to take instant tests before coming is another option.
In assessing your own risk, it’s worthwhile thinking about the level of infection in your loved ones’ communities, Wen said. And look at whether they are taking other precautions like avoiding crowds and wearing masks indoors, she added.
It’s also important to look at the social dynamics of the gathering, added Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a psychologist based in Connecticut. “What is the host doing? What boundaries are they setting? Why are you going to Uncle Bob’s house where nobody believes in vaccines? They don’t even think (Covid-19) exists,” she said. “That’s not really a great choice.”
CNN’s Madeline Holcombe contributed reporting.
YOU ASKED. WE ANSWERED.
Q: How effective are booster jabs in battling Omicron?
A: Getting a top-up vaccine significantly increases your protection from a severe case of the new variant, according to a mounting pile of research.
Moderna announced Monday that preliminary data suggests its half-dose booster shot increased antibody levels 37-fold, compared with the levels seen when a fully vaccinated person does not receive a booster.
That followed similar findings from Pfizer/BioNTech regarding their vaccine earlier this month.
“We believe that with the two doses, you still have relevant protection for severe disease, but clearly the drop in antibodies is substantial,” Dr. Mikael Dolsten, chief scientific officer at Pfizer, told CNN.
“However, the good news this morning is that our data show convincingly when you get your boost – the third boost – the antibody levels rise 25-fold and are now similar to the originally two dose boost that protected well against ancestral strains as well as Delta.”
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READS OF THE WEEK
Changing the definition of ‘fully vaccinated’ could be difficult
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention might consider redefining what it means to be “fully vaccinated” against Covid-19 to include a third dose of vaccine – but the question is when the definition could change.
Such a change is “on the table and open for discussion,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Friday.
“That’s certainly on the table. Right now, it is a bit of semantics,” Fauci told CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin on “Squawk Box.”
Fauci was referring to the definition of “fully vaccinated” for the purpose of regulations or businesses that may require vaccination. “But there’s no doubt that optimum vaccination is with a booster,” he added.
“I’m not sure exactly when [a change] will happen,” he said. “But I think people should not lose sight of the message that there’s no doubt that if you want to be optimally protected, you should get your booster.”
What it means to be “fully vaccinated” against Covid-19 is starting to play a big role in most Americans’ lives – and being fully vaccinated not only offers some protection against the virus, it comes with certain liberties, writes CNN’s Jacqueline Howard.
What the world can learn from Omicron hotspots
South Africa, the United Kingdom and Denmark are three of the countries where the Omicron variant is surging, less than a month after it was first detected, CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark writes.
So what can other countries learn from their experience?
Firstly, it’s too late to keep the variant out. “I imagine Omicron will be everywhere soon,” Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at England’s University of Southampton, told CNN.
“And there’ll be a lot of Omicron around that most countries haven’t detected yet, in part because testing systems and genomic capacities may be limited.”
It’s spreading fast, too: In a risk assessment, published last Wednesday, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) warned that there was a “very high” risk that the variant would spread further in the region, adding that it “is considered very likely to cause additional hospitalizations and fatalities,” beyond those already forecast from the Delta variant.
And despite some promising early data from South Africa, it’s too early to know for sure if the strain is milder.
Pfizer’s Covid treatment pills yield promising final data
Pfizer’s updated results for its experimental treatment for Covid-19 showed it cut the risk of hospitalization or death by 89% if given to high-risk adults within a few days of their first symptoms, the company announced in a news release last week.
Pfizer hopes it can eventually offer the pills, under the name Paxlovid, for people to take at home before they get sick enough to go to the hospital. Paxlovid combines a new antiviral drug named nirmatrelvir and an older one called ritonavir.
After a month of follow-up, the study found five hospitalizations and no deaths among 697 people who received the drug within the first three days of symptoms. Among 682 who received placebo, 44 were hospitalized, including 9 who died. All of the adults in this study were unvaccinated.
If given within the first five days of symptoms, the efficacy was similar: 88%.
These results hold up against a similar announcement from the company last month, when not all the data had come in yet. The research also showed “an approximate 10-fold decrease in viral load at Day 5, relative to placebo,” the statement said.
Here’s how to test yourself before you travel somewhere
If you have Covid-19 symptoms, it’s best to get a PCR test – they’re the gold standard in terms of detecting the virus, according to CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen.
But an at-home test can be a convenient solution if you want to double-check you’re safe to travel to gatherings.
Some local health departments or Federally Qualified Health Centers offer them for free, the CDC says. When you’re buying self-tests, make sure they haven’t expired.
If you’re in the US, only buy tests authorized by the US Food and Drug Administration; the agency’s website has a list of more than 40 FDA-authorized home tests, some of which have age limitations. You can buy these tests online or in pharmacies and some retail stores.