The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has made many vaccinated people feel confused about what activities are safe as the world enters its third year of the coronavirus crisis.
Omicron appears to be far more transmissible than previous versions of the virus and better able to avoid immune protection against vaccines or previous infection, even though it appears to cause less serious illness.
In the video above, the WHO says that Omicron appears to cause ‘milder symptoms’
For many people, the rapid spread of the Omicron variant raises questions about whether to limit social gatherings, travel, and other activities.
NBC News asked four public health experts about their own personal behavior and risk calculation during this chapter of the pandemic.
Everyone advised the vaccinated people to remain vigilant and conscientious – and not to return fully to pre-pandemic life – but there was no firm consensus on some activities such as air travel.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, struck the most cautious tone, saying he has been avoiding travel and restaurants since March 2020.
But others said they have returned to some pre-pandemic rituals while taking strict precautions.
The following are their answers to five common questions that you may be thinking about.
What kind of mask are you wearing right now?
Dr. Kavita Patel, a primary care physician in Washington, DC, said people who can afford to upgrade their masks should throw away the cloths / fabric that were ubiquitous during previous COVID waves.
Higher quality masks like N95s are more effective at blocking viral particles.
“I’ve thrown out my fabric masks,” Patel said.
“I have, however, saved a few of my children’s favorite fabric masks, but I have them to go to school wearing KN95.”
But if a fabric face covering is all you have access to or can afford, it’s probably better than nothing.
Is it OK to travel by plane?
The experts who spoke to NBC News expressed different levels of comfort with air travel at this stage of the pandemic.
Osterholm said he has not yet resumed flying and has been on a plane only once since March 2020.
“Everything I can avoid, I want,” Osterholm said.
“It’s easy for me in the sense that I’m able to achieve what I need to achieve without having to get on a plane.”
In the same way, he avoids trains and buses.
Other experts were more open to air travel.
Patel said she went to Puerto Rico last month on vacation with her husband and two children, all of whom have been vaccinated.
She wore an N95 mask on the flight – and did not remove it once – and investigated the COVID situation in Puerto Rico before leaving.
Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health in New York City, said she and her husband flew to Kansas City, Missouri, around Christmas time.
They also wore N95 masks during the journey, and they did not eat or drink in order not to remove their face clothing. While in Kansas City, they did quick tests every morning.
“It was a COVID-free Christmas,” Gounder said.
Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and former Baltimore health commissioner, said she would feel “pretty confident” on a plane (in a mask) if she only had to worry about herself and her husband.
But they have two children under the age of five who are not eligible for vaccines, including a child under the age of two who is unable to wear a face mask so she avoids air travel.
From Monday 10 January, Pfizer’s Comirnaty vaccine will be available in Australia for the first time for ages 5-11.
Do you eat at restaurants?
Here, too, Østerholm takes care: He has not visited a commercial restaurant since March 2020.
He has only been to grocery stores a handful of times (masked, of course) and mostly orders food online.
Gounder, meanwhile, has not eaten indoors since COVID reached the United States, but she and her husband, who lives in New York City, occasionally eat outside in the makeshift restaurant structures that now line many streets.
She continues to avoid cinemas and gyms, saying it “could take a while yet” before she feels comfortable returning to these establishments.
Is it safe to send your child to school?
Public health consensus is that it is safe to send vaccinated children into classrooms as long as school administrators and teachers are conscientious about masks and other mitigating efforts.
However, for parents of children under the age of five, risk assessment can be more difficult.
Wen said her four-year-old son goes to kindergarten.
“We have to accept that there is risk in everything we do,” she said.
“Our goal at the moment can not be to avoid COVID completely. It would be extraordinarily difficult.
“The price one has to pay to avoid getting sick is extremely high. We are not willing to keep our child out of school to achieve zero COVID. “
Gounder said, however, that parents of young children might want to consider keeping them at home for the time being, “if you can afford it.”
“But if both parents work outside the home, or that kind of care is too expensive, it may not be an option for everyone, especially families with lower incomes,” she added.
How should we all deal with COVID insulation?
Facing Omicron, some people are also beginning to wonder if it is inevitable to get sick, and if so, if it would be better for an infected person not to isolate themselves from other members of their household.
Patel shot that idea down.
“I’m old enough to remember when we took that approach with chickenpox,” Patel said.
“But it’s not a good idea with COVID.”
“I have discouraged people from saying ‘hey, let’s all get COVID at the same time’ because we see different clinical presentations,” she added.
“We see cases where children get it and the adults do not, or vice versa.
“There’s no reason to assume everyone will get it.”
Plus, she said, Omicron could hit some family members harder than others, and everyone should do their part to avoid putting more pressure on overwhelmed doctors and hospitals.
“It’s not worth taking that chance if you can avoid it,” she said.