More than 109 million Americans planned to travel this winter; however, with the new Omicron COVID-19 variant, an important question remains unanswered: were these holiday plans safe? Ongoing research suggests what the World Health Organization labels a ‘variant of concern’ is the most contagious variant to date, and increased traveling has only made it worse. Increased COVID-19 transmission has always been an expected risk with increased travel, but how has the Omicron variant changed the game?
The Omicron variant was first detected in southern Africa and quickly spread internationally. In just a month, the variant then surged to make up over 95% of all COVID-19 infections in the U.S. Early data suggests the variant may cause less severe illness than Delta, though this preliminary data was conducted on a small sample size so the conclusion may still change. Regardless, Omicron’s high transmissibility is still cause for concern, especially considering the number of cases that came with increased travel.
Early COVID-19 advice did not include recommending canceling travel for the holidays, which may have contributed to the high numbers of travelers. “You can [travel] if you and those you celebrate with are vaccinated,” said President Biden at the White House on Dec. 21. “If you're not fully vaccinated, you have good reason to be concerned.” Unfortunately, regardless of their vaccination status, individuals can still contract and spread the virus. All travelers played an important role in the COVID-19 spike after the holidays by giving the virus the opportunity to spread across the U.S. in a very short time frame.
When it comes to the spread of COVID-19 over the holidays, airplanes and other modes of transportation are easy to blame, but they aren’t the only thing to be wary of. In fact, Katelyn K. Jetelina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, determined that traveling on airplanes has only a low risk of infection because of filtration systems and ventilation. The CDC places the most emphasis on staying safe at destinations instead of during flights.
In regards to staying safe at destinations and once people return, the CDC recommends not traveling internationally if not fully vaccinated, checking the risk of infection for all destinations, practicing social distancing, testing for COVID-19 before and after trips, and quarantining if exposed to or infected with the virus. Even with these recommendations in place, COVID-19 rates still spiked because of holiday travel, highlighting the public’s general negligence of the virus’s transmissibility and overall relevance.
As we return from the holidays with elevated caseloads, vaccinated individuals should still be wary of Omicron even though they may face less severe symptoms. The variant is not only more infectious but more resistant to vaccines. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has determined that breakthrough cases are likely to occur with Omicron, meaning although vaccines remain effective, vaccinated individuals are more likely to get COVID-19 with the new variant.
U.S. officials have used this crisis as an opportunity to encourage vaccinations and booster shots. The CDC recommends getting vaccinated to fight against Omicron even if it is more resistant, as well as wearing masks and getting tested. Booster recommendations have also been strengthened as studies show they boost vaccine effectiveness against Omicron.
Overall, although Omicron seems to be less severe than other strains, it is more contagious and resistant to vaccines. Fully vaccinated individuals are likely to get breakthrough infections, so boosters are recommended for more protection, and practicing regular COVID-19 safety protocol and getting vaccinated are currently the best ways to keep Omicron away. This new variant has shown that normal recommendations are no longer enough to stop the spread of COVID-19; more must be done by both authorities and individuals to slow this highly contagious variant.
Through Teen Lenses: Are you concerned about traveling with the new COVID-19 variant Omicron? Have you taken any extra precautions? Why or why not?
“My family and I canceled our annual ski trip this winter since we heard our destination wasn't taking any extra precautions to limit [the spread of] COVID-19. We decided it wasn't worth the risk, especially with Omicron going around, so we're planning to go on shorter trips in nearby areas to be safer.”
Alyna Januarius, Senior at Thomas Edison High School, Virginia
“With the new variant I'm much more concerned about traveling and the logistics of everything. I want me and my family to be safe and still be able to travel, but I'm not sure how. We hope to get tested before leaving on trips, continue to wear masks, and use hand sanitizer regularly.”
Annika McCarrick, Junior at Thomas Edison High School, Virginia
“My family and I traveled to New York City for my birthday, and during our stay there, NY experienced a COVID spike. At that time we were all fully vaccinated, so the best we could do was maintaining our distance and keeping our hands clean. After returning, however, we made sure to get tested for COVID because of the alarming rise in Omicron cases. I’m personally worried about the Omicron surge, but by going out less and getting the booster as soon as I can, I don’t feel very concerned.
Maya Degafe, Junior at Hayfield Secondary School, Virginia