How to keep holiday gatherings safe as Omicron takes hold

·4 min read
Public health experts say it's OK not to mask up when eating or drinking, but if you're gathering with loved ones it is recommended you wear a mask when indoors. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images - image credit)
Public health experts say it's OK not to mask up when eating or drinking, but if you're gathering with loved ones it is recommended you wear a mask when indoors. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images - image credit)

Public health officials say Omicron is expected to spread rapidly in coming days — just as the holiday season kicks into high gear.

Early data shows the new variant is three to four times more transmissible than the Delta variant, however, so far, it's also showing lower rates of hospitalization and milder symptoms.

But according to family physician Dr. Madhu Jawanda, there is still a lot to learn about Omicron, and we need to proceed with caution when it comes to holiday gatherings.

"We still want to protect vulnerable populations, and we still don't want it spreading that quickly amongst all of us to make us ill. So we still have to do all our public health measures and get vaccinated," she told The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

Public health measures are already in place to reduce the spread of transmission of all COVID-19 strains, such as washing hands and wearing masks.

Beginning Monday, new public health orders will come into effect, cancelling organized New Year's Eve parties, and limiting the size of indoor gatherings and capacity at large sports and entertainment venues.

"The entrance of Omicron doesn't change what we need to do to prevent the spread — it's still the same things we can do to reduce risk," UBC school of population and public health professor Dr. Devon Greyson said.

"However, the urgency around those recommendations may be a little stronger now."

Avoid international travel

The federal government is strongly discouraging Canadians from non-essential travel abroad over the holidays, and on Wednesday issued new travel guidance advising residents not to leave the country at this time.

"To those who were planning to travel, I say very clearly — now is not the time to travel. The rapid spread of the Omicron variant on a global scale makes us fear the worst," Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said.

Keep gatherings small

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said this week "we should not be having large holiday parties."

The new public health orders that come into effect on Monday mean that indoor gatherings must be limited to household members plus 10 guests or one additional household. Health officials say that unvaccinated people should not be involved in any indoor gatherings.

Greyson encourages people to cap gatherings at a maximum of 10 people altogether to reduce the risk of transmission.

Gather outside if possible, take precautions if not

Greyson says while gathering outdoors is preferable, some parts of B.C. are much colder than others and outside walks aren't always an option.

If you do need to have friends and family over and inside your home, crack a couple of windows to increase ventilation and have visitors wear masks when not eating or drinking.

"It's also important to communicate with other people with whom you might be gathering so everyone can make an informed decision about their risk," Greyson said, adding it helps to suggest bringing a sweater or reminding them to wear masks.

Be mindful of who you're gathering with

Communication around expectations about whether or not visitors are vaccinated is an important part of hosting holiday gatherings, Greyson said.

Jawanda said she's using multiple layers of protection, but has only invited people over this season who she's comfortable bringing together.

"If I know that they're lower risk. They've been double or triple vaccinated and they had COVID in the past. You have to sort of look at all the factors," she said.

If someone close to you is unvaccinated or particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, Gresyon suggests going for a one-on-one walk outdoors.

Masks

Proper mask wearing has been subtly evolving since we started wearing them, but Greyson suggests upgrading to an N95 mask if you haven't already done so.

Health Canada says non-medical masks are just as effective as medical masks if they:

  • Fit well.

  • Have multiple layers, including at least two layers of breathable tightly woven fabric, such as cotton.

  • Have an effective middle filter layer.

Fabric, reusable masks bought early on in the pandemic may be starting to loosen up at this point, and won't be as effective. Greyson reminds people you want a close fit, a wire on the nose helps keep it down and prevents gaps, reducing the risk for you and those around you.

Wear one any time you're indoors, around people who aren't part of your immediate household, unless eating or drinking.

Rapid tests — if you can get them

If you can get it, rapid testing can be used to identify asymptomatic individuals and increase confidence that those coming together are healthy.

Though the province still hasn't made the kits widely available, and says they're reviewing the most appropriate way to use them, Jawanda said she's bought some for her loved ones to take before gathering at her home as an additional layer of protection for all.

"I would really, really love it if we had access to rapid antigen testing like Nova Scotia is handing out. I think that would help us all feel a little bit better about how to manage and mitigate our holiday planning."

Rapid antigen tests can be bought online from a number of manufacturers, although shipping delays mean they may not arrive in time for celebrations.

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