Variants are a little bit like breakups: There's never a great time for one to strike, but there absolutely are terrible times. With Omicron, it's hard to imagine a worse possible moment. The promise of this holiday season has long been that Americans would finally get to make up for all the getaways and family reunions that didn't happen last winter. That's exactly what Americans have been banking on: The country is entering its biggest travel moment of the entire pandemic.
Omicron introduced itself to the world only a few weeks ago, but it's made quite an impression. In the United Kingdom, COVID-19 cases hit an all-time record on Thursday. And Friday. There's much we still don't know about the new strain, but as my colleague Sarah Zhang has written, we know enough to see that Omicron is about to tear through the United States. Here, Omicron cases are now doubling every two days, and the variant's contagiousness--and knack for duping our vaccines--is ratcheting up breakthrough infections. Sports leagues have started rescheduling games, restaurants are closing for a little while, and some schools are going remote.
All of this has left many would-be travelers nervously glancing at their calendar and asking themselves another round of terrible pandemic questions: How bad will things be by Christmas? By New Year's? And when do things get so bad that I need to cancel my holiday plans?
Whether you should travel over the next couple of weeks is not something Americans are getting an easy answer to at the moment. So far, the CDC is plowing forward with the same old guidelines: If you're fully vaccinated and not experiencing any COVID symptoms, mask up and off you go. Anthony Fauci and other public-health figures, while urging caution with Omicron, have been reluctant to tell people to stay home. Unlike last year, when virtually no one was vaccinated and the CDC point-blank told Americans not to travel, the fuzzy messaging comes in part from the fact that so much now depends on people's individual situations--whether they're vaccinated, what precautions they're taking, and whom they're going to see. This year, everyone has to make a choice all on their own.
And yet all the signs make it clear that many Americans have already made up their mind. While some number of people might cancel, no matter what happens between now and the thick of the holidays, Omicron almost definitely will not compel a critical mass of people to change their travel plans. So if you are traveling, you can take several steps to make it as safe for everyone as possible.
Thanks to Omicron, international jet-setters now have to navigate more travel restrictions, quarantine mandates, and testing rules. But beyond that, almost no evidence shows that Americans are rushing to change any plans. I fired up the TSA's tracker of how many travelers are passing through its checkpoints each day, and airports are even busier now than pre-Omicron. "If you decide today that you want to travel in the U.S. for Christmas, you're going to be seeing eye-popping airfares almost everywhere," Henry Harteveldt, a travel-industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, told me. "Depending on where you're going, the hotel prices or the rental-car rates may be through the roof. All of that is a sign that people really, really want to travel right now."
United Airlines has said that it ferried 400,000 passengers a day during the Thanksgiving rush, and now it's planning on even more for the year-end holidays. Meanwhile, the flight-search site Kayak saw a slight Omicron dip in searches within the U.S. when we first learned about the variant, but while the news has gotten only more worrying, searches are already back to where they were in late November.
For anyone who has been persuaded by Omicron to forgo holiday gatherings, airlines have stuck with the more flexible cancellation policies that popped up at the start of the pandemic, Harteveldt said. Most airlines won't refund your money, but they'll give you a voucher to use sometime in the future. That at least gives people some wiggle room if Omicron takes a turn for the worse and the CDC makes a last-minute plea for everyone to stay at home. (When I reached out to the CDC for comment on what would need to happen for the agency to come out against holiday travel, a spokesperson sent me back to the travel guidelines on the CDC website.)
Even so, Omicron is making its charge precisely at the moment when many Americans are heading off on their trips--and exactly when they're least likely to endure the headache of fiddling with their plans. "Very few people are going to cancel the day before the flight," says Scott Keyes, the founder of the travel website Scott's Cheap Flights. "At this point, if we haven't seen a wave of cancellations yet for Christmas--which we haven't--I would expect that most people are still going to continue to take whatever holiday travel plans they already have on the books."
The same goes for people who are planning on driving to their gatherings--which is how the overwhelming majority of Americans travel. Of everyone who travels at least 50 miles during the holiday season, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics estimates that just 5 percent fly. Paula Twidale, a senior vice president of AAA travel, told me that AAA is expecting 100 million travelers on the road during the holidays, just a sliver less than in 2019, which she called a "banner year" for travel.
Let's be clear: That so many Americans seem poised to travel doesn't mean it's the right call. "I rather suspect that Omicron will take over from Delta across much if not most of the country during the Christmas period," Bill Hanage, a Harvard epidemiologist, told me in an email. "And in January we will reap whatever whirlwind got seeded along with the eggnog."
Just like before Omicron, however, the risk of travel has less to do with the act itself and more to do with how people from different households behave before they all meet up. You could take every precaution possible in getting to your grandma's house halfway across the country, but if you packed into a bar the night before the trip and don't plan on getting tested before you see her, you're missing the point. Before you head out for the holidays, says Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at George Mason University, give yourself a cool-down period--a week, if still possible--by pulling back on activities that are especially prone to spreading COVID, such as indoor dining. If you work in person, wear a high-quality, non-cloth mask, and stick to wearing it as best as you can.
A. Marm Kilpatrick, a disease ecologist at UC Santa Cruz, is having his mom and sister over for the holidays, and he just made the unenviable decision of forgoing a sauna party that his friend was throwing. (Kilpatrick has cooler friends than I do.) "We were going to be tightly packed enough that I didn't want to do that with three or four other households," he told me. Kilpatrick reiterated the basics of Omicron 101: Get boosted! If you haven't yet, it's not too late. Because a booster shot kicks in more quickly than initial doses, you can get a shot today and receive the best Christmas present ever: a tangible immunity bump.
How you travel also is less important than what you do en route. Driving gives you some control over your environment, but be wary of making pit stops to eat indoors and bringing along people from outside your household. Thanks to ventilation in airplanes, flying hasn't been so risky throughout the pandemic. "But that doesn't mean we should overcorrect and feel like the risk of being on an airplane is zero," Popescu told me. "You still want to be mindful of the people right next to you." That's especially true now that planes are as full as they were pre-pandemic. If the passenger next to you has their mask off to eat or drink, Popescu said, wait a few minutes until after they're done to do the same. Turning the overhead AC on full blast and pointing it toward your face can help disperse any bits of the virus that are floating around. And particularly with a more transmissible variant, it's worth being even more cautious in less ventilated areas, such as when you're sitting by the gate or lingering on the jet bridge.
Think hard about who you'll be seeing once you arrive, especially if your plans include older, immunocompromised, or unvaccinated people. Conversations about pandemic risk can sometimes be awkward, but they can be a good place to start: "A lot of this comes down to: Is the person you're visiting vulnerable, and how do you feel about that?" Popescu said. "How do they feel about that?" If you're going to be spending a lot of time indoors with someone who is vulnerable, Kilpatrick said it's best to bring along at-home rapid tests--the ones you can buy at the pharmacy--for each day of your visit, especially if you have any inklings of COVID symptoms. Because Omicron appears to make people sick even more quickly than previous forms of the coronavirus did, don't bank on a test result from a few days ago. "If I had a dinner party to go to on Christmas and took a rapid test 15 minutes before the party," Kilpatrick said, "that's going to catch a huge fraction of infections." (Unfortunately, these tests don't come cheap, and they're in serious short supply right now.)
Even if Omicron had come at a less terrible time, it wouldn't have changed the fatigue that Americans are feeling right now. Over time, the link between what's going on with COVID and how we act about it is weakening, says David Lazer, a political scientist at Northeastern University who's involved with the COVID States Project. "The problem is that we've become habituated," he told me. When the Delta wave tore through the South, it led to only an incremental bump in protective measures such as mask wearing. Now, Lazer said, Omicron could potentially lead to even tinier changes.
But the pandemic is still here--more than 800,000 Americans are dead--and it is not ending anytime soon. Relish the holiday season, but don't use it as an excuse to let your guard down going forward as Omicron gears up for its next twist and turn. Americans might be over the pandemic, but the pandemic is certainly not over us.