Gathering for the holidays? Health experts offer strategies for staying safe amid omicron
This year, Dr. Scott Levy will be handling out early presents when his family gathers for the holidays: over-the-counter rapid COVID-19 tests.
Guests will be asked to take the rapid antigen test when they arrive as a precaution, Levy said.
With a 93-year-old father with health issues, the chief medical officer at Doylestown Hospital is taking no chances amid the latest case surge in the near two year pandemic, he said.
With more people traveling and gathering in-person during this holiday season, the wide availability of COVID vaccines, more relaxed attitudes toward social distancing and mask wearing, and the rapidly growing omicron variant, health experts are seeing an explosion in COVID cases in Pennsylvania and elsewhere this month.
While health experts tout the vaccine and booster shots as the most effective protection against severe complications from the virus that result in hospitalization, they are also recommending people remain vigilant.
Pennsylvania has recorded more than 130,000 new COVID cases the first three weeks of December, according to state health data. In November, there were 169,342 new cases.
State health officials estimate 15% of COVID cases through Dec. 6 are among fully vaccinated individuals.
As of Tuesday, 4,527 Pennsylvania adults were hospitalized with COVID, compared to 2,639 on Nov. 17; of those hospitalized 933 — or roughly 20% — were in the intensive care unit, according to state data.
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The number of hospitalized COVID patients on ventilators jumped from 365 to 571 over the last four weeks, state data shows.
State health officials and doctors say the overwhelming majority of new hospitalizations and deaths – more than 80% – are among people who are not fully vaccinated or unvaccinated. The state’s positivity rate is about 17%, among the highest since the pandemic started.
Short of self-isolation, Levy and other doctors recommended taking a rapid antigen test — either the at-home version or ones offered through drug stores — before attending large in-person social gatherings.
The pre-gathering testing is recommended for people who are fully vaccinated and boosted as breakthrough cases are rising, and vaccinated individuals may experience only mild symptoms or none, but can spread the infection.
Chain retailers Walgreens and CVS announced this week they will limit the number of at-home COVID test kits customers can purchase in response to a jump in demand. Online orders for at-home tests are also reportedly in short supply.
Consumer advocate Michael Bannon, head of the consumer protection office in Bucks County, said his office has not received any complaints involving price-gouging or scams involving at-home COVID-19 test kits. But it could be only a matter of time with increased demand, he said.
“We think this type of chaos created around the COVID 19 testing is very fertile ground for scammers to take advantage of,” he said.
Health experts appeared divided over the safety of in-person social gatherings inside and outside the home.
Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole recently advised against holiday gatherings involving more than one household, but the city’s health department is giving out 24,000 at-home test kits before Christmas
People need to be conscientious about the size of their get-togethers, said Dr. Graham Snyder, medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at UPMC in Pittsburgh.
“Try to keep them small,” he said.
Children who are too young for the vaccine and the immunocompromised should continue to wear face masks in public and gatherings of more than six people, doctors said.
Face masks, hand hygiene and practicing social distancing around those who are under vaccinated, unvaccinated or otherwise considered at high risk for developing complications.
Short of an at-home test, Dr. Ronak Bhimani, chief medical officer at Lower Bucks Hospital in Bristol Township, is also recommending smaller gatherings of related people.
“If you’re sitting at a table with people from six different households, that is six different opportunities to have one person be positive,” he said.
More on rising COVID cases: COVID in Pennsylvania: Wolf asks federal government to help hospitals as cases spike
COVID in long-term care: New data shows COVID deadlier, more prevalent in PA long-term care than once thought
This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Fast-spreading COVID variant prompts new calls for pre-holiday precautions
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