Don't Go Here Now, Say Virus Experts
Although the Omicron wave is peaking, COVID is still spreading at heights we've never seen before, and now is no time to relax. But can you go to an outdoor gathering unmasked? Eat indoors? Travel? Where is safe and where isn't? To answer some of these questions, epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina and virus expert Dr. Bob Wachter appeared on Andy Slavitt's podcast In the Bubble with Andy Slavitt to play a game of Safe or Not Safe. Read on for some of their answers—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.
Is Indoor Dining Safe?
Jetelina: "I wouldn't risk it right now with the high wave. It's very possible to get Omicron inside while you're eating at a restaurant. Especially if those tables are close, especially if ventilation's not good. Order out, order Uber eats, or sit on the patio. I think there's other options." Wait until transmission is low—"less than 10 cases per 100,000 in a location…"
Wachter: "The answer is no, I'm happy to put it off until the cases are lower. It's just not safe now, if you don't want to get COVID and I still do not want to get COVID if I can avoid it."
Can Fully Boosted People Hang Out Without Concerns, Given Omicron?
Wachter: "We've seen by the number of breakthrough cases—by the fact that we all know people who've been vaccinated and got infected—that vaccinated people are fully capable of getting infected." Maybe they are less likely to get infected or transmit but "I don't think the ground rules we used a year ago—where a vaccinated person is perfectly safe to be with—we can't use anymore, particularly at a time like this, where Omicron is so incredibly—it's really raining Omicron almost everywhere, getting a little bit better, but still there's a lot of Omicron around. So the bottom line is, if the only way you're deciding that someone is safe is that they're fully vaccinated, that's no longer good enough. They're capable of having the virus and infecting others."
Jetelina: "I actually still have hope that our boosters do reduce transmission to some point, whether it's reducing infection altogether, or even if you get a breakthrough infection, you clear the virus much quicker than unvaccinated people." When she's around vaccinated people, "I don't wear a mask with vaccinated people that I trust who are boosted."
Wachter: "It all depends on the context," he added. "I am less confident in an environment where there's a ton of COVID around. … I still do it without masks with very small bubbles of family members, basically. But if it's any larger bubble than that, if we're getting together with five or six or eight people indoors, that is where I think the role of testing comes in. This will all change if the prevalence of the virus goes down tremendously, as it's likely to do in the next few weeks."
Are Small, Unmasked, Outdoor Gatherings Still Safe?
Wachter: "I don't think there's good evidence of a lot of outdoor transmission epidemiologic evidence. But I guess I approach this as: This virus is better at infecting people than what it replaced. So the general rule that outdoors is completely safe? I have tempered my thinking about that a little bit. There's really nothing about outdoor is that makes it completely safe other than a larger volume of air. And the fact that it's usually a little bit windy. So if I am in a space outdoors where there's a lot of room around me and I'm walking the dog, I don't wear a mask. But if I was at an outdoor cocktail party face to face with people, I would now have a little concern about getting infected with Omicron."
Jetelina: "I very much agree with Bob. I think these questions are really difficult too, because it depends when we are in this wave and when we're not. Once we make it down on Omicron and transmission is really low, outdoors are gonna be super safe. And I don't think we need masks, but right now we're at the top of the Omicron wave, yeah—if you're shoulder to shoulder with someone outside, you need to be wearing a mask, period. If you're walking your dog, I don't think that's necessary."
Should We Be Holding Back on Travel?
Jetelina: "It's not as safe as before because if you're going to the airport, there's lots of transmission, you'll be walking through SARS-CoV-2 clouds basically. Now the risk that someone wants to take is really up to their risk tolerance. I'm a moderate risk taker I will say. And I traveled at the peak of Omicron….I definitely felt like, this risk is high….I'm actually not very concerned about on the plane travel, like in the air; I'm a lot more concerned going to and from an airplane. Because a lot of people are taking out their masks, they're talking, they're eating." She said measure your risk. If you need to travel, that's a different risk than if you don't.
Wachter: "It's riskier to—if you look at the chance of getting infected and then less risky, if you do get infected that something terrible will happen to you. And I think those two things sort of cancel each other out in a way."
Jetelina: "If you're healthy and boosted, it's different than if you're unhealthy."
They both said this surge will go down in a few weeks or a month; why not wait?
How Concerning is the New Mutant, "Stealth Omicron"?
Jetelina: "I'm not that concerned about it….We do have preliminary evidence from Denmark that the severity doesn't look to be any different…" and the vaccines should work against it. "In the end, this is still Omicron. I'm much more concerned about another variant popping out of nowhere like Omicron did after Delta."
Wachter: "If it's winning the race against Omicron version one, then it must be somewhat more transmissible. So I'd say that's a little bit worrisome….I'm more worried about what it means about the future and will there be new variants that do their job better than Omicron."
How to Stay Safe Out There
Follow the public health fundamentals and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live—get vaccinated or boosted ASAP; if you live in an area with low vaccination rates, wear an N95 face mask, don't travel, social distance, avoid large crowds, don't go indoors with people you're not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.