Should Americans Cancel Holiday Travel Plans Due to Omicron? What the Health Experts Say
The Christmas holiday is just days away and yet things seem more uncertain than ever when it comes to traveling. But thankfully, that doesn't mean it's time to panic.
Doctors say travelers should assess their own personal risk levels and determine travel plans accordingly — taking into account all the things they can do to keep themselves and others safe.
"There's still a lot of uncertainty," Dr. Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Travel + Leisure, but added, "There are things people can do to reduce risks even if they can't be down to zero."
There are a few tried-and-true measures travelers can take to reduce risks like mask-wearing and getting vaccinated and boosted, as well as a few rules to rely on when determining holiday plans.
Travelers should also arm themselves with all the information, including when it comes to what to know about travel insurance.
These are your omicron-related holiday questions answered, according to the experts.
What do we know about omicron so far?
A clearer picture has started to materialize about the new variant, which first emerged in southern Africa and was reported to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24. But much still remains unknown.
What is clear is that the omicron variant is now the dominant variant in the United States, accounting for at least 73% of cases last week throughout the country and as much as 90% in some parts of the nation like the New York area, the Southeast, the industrial Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest, The Associated Press reported. Experts say the peak is likely a few weeks away.
Omicron may also have a shorter incubation period than previous variants.
"It looks like the virus replicates more quickly," Gronvall said. "That has implications for testing: probably, people are going to go from negative to positive in a more rapid fashion."
How sick are people getting?
It's way too soon to tell, Gronvall said. Many people who have contracted the omicron variant of the coronavirus have had relatively mild symptoms, but she said that could be because most people have so far been vaccinated and younger.
"We have more older people who are not vaccinated. There's no reason to assume right now that this is going to be mild for them," she said.
In Texas, an unvaccinated man in his 50s with underlying health conditions and who had previously contracted COVID-19 died of the omicron variant, according to Harris County Public Health. He is believed to be the first known recorded omicron death in the U.S., according to ABC News.
So, should you cancel your holiday plans?
That depends, doctors say.
If you are a higher risk person who is older or has underlying conditions, or if you are unvaccinated, "now is not a smart time to travel," Dr. Keith Roach, associate attending physician at NewYork-Presbyterian and associate professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, told T+L.
"The low-risk people who are vaccinated and boosted, under 65, [and] don't have medical conditions are probably at relatively low risk for themselves. However, they could still be contributing to spread in the community," Roach said. "Things are completely different now from how they were three and four weeks ago. So we all have to be flexible about our travel plans."
However, it's important to keep in mind that a lot of that decision has to do with personal risk tolerance.
"Everybody has their own risk tolerance and there are things you can do to reduce your risks and that wasn't the case a year ago," Gronvall said, adding, "I myself will be a little bit more cautious and everyone has considerations in their life they have to think about. It's not just about the different situations other people are in, it's about our healthcare [system] and making sure we don't teeter over the edge."
What about getting a PCR or rapid COVID-19 test?
The omicron variant may spread faster and have a shorter incubation period, but that doesn't mean tests aren't effective means of detecting it. Gronvall said when people are infectious, a rapid test can be "as accurate as a PCR."
But PCR tests are still the gold standard.
"A rapid test is reasonable if you're planning [to] travel and you need a confirmation of something," Roach said. "But if you're having symptoms, you need to get a PCR test."
What about getting vaccinated?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that so far, vaccines remain "highly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations, and death." The agency also recommends that everyone 18 and older get a booster shot. Those who received a Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine should get a booster at least six months after their second shot, while those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should get a booster at least two months after their initial shot.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told CNBC's The News with Shepard Smith on Monday that the agency was "examining" its definition of fully vaccinated and that "just being vaccinated with two doses may not be enough."
Gronvall said travelers need to adjust to evolving information and "watch the space, there's a lot of people who are trying to figure this out."
"People just need to realize that just because they're vaccinated, what we're dealing with has changed," she added. "And that's the evolutionary lesson that no one wanted to learn."
If people do travel, what can they do to reduce the risk?
Get vaccinated. Get boosted. Wear a mask. These steps have consistently worked throughout the pandemic and continue to work against omicron.
"None of these variants are magic," Gronvall said. "People get infected through breathing in the virus."
Part of mitigating risk has to do with how people are getting to their destinations, Roach said.
"It's not the travel, but the where and the how that you travel that determines what your risk is going to be," he said. "If you're on a bus for a prolonged period of time next to somebody that's not always wearing their mask, that's unsafe travel."
Travelers can also upgrade the quality of their masks, opting for surgical masks over cloth masks or even N95 masks if available, he added.
"I'm telling people: get the best mask they can find and don't take it off on the plane," he said.
What about travel insurance?
With travel plans nearly constantly up in the air, flexible cancellation policies and travel insurance have become almost a necessity in the pandemic era.
But what your policy actually covers can vary, Daniel Durazo, the director of marketing and communications for Allianz Travel Insurance, told T+L.
Travelers should look for an insurance plan that "provides coverage for non-refundable, pre-paid expenses if you have to cancel your trip due to illness caused by COVID-19," he said. But if travelers want to be able to cancel if they simply change their mind, they'll need a plan that specifically allows for that.
Alison Fox is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure. When she's not in New York City, she likes to spend her time at the beach or exploring new destinations and hopes to visit every country in the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram.