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How can we get together for the holidays and still be safe?


During one of the busiest travel days of the year, some of the biggest airlines are being hit hard by the omicron variant. Both Delta and United have had to ground dozens of flights each. They're contending with a lack of staff due to a jump in COVID cases. We know the variant is spreading rapidly in this country. Vaccinated people are increasingly testing positive for breakthrough infections, and hospitals in some states are running out of beds. So is it even safe to travel and visit loved ones this holiday weekend? Let's ask Dr. Leana Wen. She's an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. She joins us on Skype.

Doctor, is it wise for people to be traveling and gathering?

LEANA WEN: I think it really depends. So most important is, are you vaccinated? And ideally, are you boosted as well? If you are, then chances are, even if you get COVID, especially with omicron, you're going to have a pretty mild infection. And I think a lot of people may decide, if that's the case, that it's worth it to gather with their loved ones, especially because vaccinated people have gone through so much during this pandemic, have sacrificed so much. And I think it would be a reasonable decision for somebody who was vaccinated to say, I understand that there is a chance of contracting COVID. I'm going to try to decrease that chance as much as I can, but it's still worth it to me to do so.

That said, I also think it's equally reasonable for someone who is - definitely who is unvaccinated, but also individuals who are immunocompromised or otherwise medically frail to make a - the opposite decision and to decide to take additional precautions and perhaps gather only with a very small group and also to take many additional precautions, including testing right before the gathering.

MARTÍNEZ: What if someone - say someone brings someone that you're not sure of, that you've never met before, you have no idea what their status is?

WEN: I wouldn't feel comfortable, if that's the case. Especially given how much omicron is around, I would not be gathering indoors with people of unknown vaccination status at this point. I would see them outdoors - that remains a very safe setting - but I would not be sharing the same air with somebody of unknown vaccination status.

Even if everybody in a group is known to be vaccinated, you may still want to take additional precautions. I've been using what I call the two-out-of-three rule, which is that if you're gathering indoors in a place where there is so much virus, as there is in most parts of the country, you should have two out of three things - vaccination, testing or masking. So if everybody is known to be vaccinated, ideally everybody is also tested right before the setting - right before the gathering as well. If there is an unknown vaccination status or there are unvaccinated people, you should probably be doing testing and masking. Just having - or if you're just sharing indoor space with people of unknown vaccination status, that's really high-risk at this point.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, you know, on masking - a few days ago, I watched you on television tell people not to wear a cloth mask, that there's no place for them in light of omicron. And I know that you pushed for 3-ply surgical masks instead. But, I mean, should we not ever hear that, that people should not be wearing masks, because you know how people will take that?

WEN: Of course. And I did not mean to say that people should not be wearing masks full stop, but rather that quality of mask really matters. I mean, I get so worried when I see individuals walking around with a single simple cloth mask because it's not really doing much for them at this point. And at the beginning of the pandemic, when we were really limited in supply, I understand that cloth masks were all we had, and that's what we were wearing. But I really wish that our federal government, our federal health officials, the CDC specifically, updated their guidance around masks because we know that cloth masks, especially that simple one-layer cloth mask, just isn't doing very much.

If you're going to go so far as to wear a mask, why not wear the mask that's effective? What I would recommend is at least a 3-ply surgical mask - medical-grade surgical mask. If you want a better fit, because some of these surgical masks don't work that well as - they don't - the fit isn't that good around your face, you can wear two of them or you can put your cloth mask that's well-fitting on top of the surgical mask. Even better would be an N95, KN95 or KF94 mask, these respirator masks. These are the ones that we really should be wearing, especially if we're going to crowded indoor settings like airports, transit hubs. If there are mask requirements being put on anyway, they should at least require the right type of masks that are effective against omicron.

MARTÍNEZ: That's professor and physician Dr. Leana Wen. Thank you very much for your time.

WEN: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.