How to gather safely during the holidays - a Q&A with Dr. Rodney Rohde
Dr. Rodney E. Rohde, Chair and Regents’ Professor of the Clinical Laboratory Science Program and Associate Director of the Translational Health Research Center at Texas State University, provides insights on how to best gather safely for the holidays during the pandemic.
Q: As a health professions expert and practitioner, what are your thoughts as we enter another holiday season dealing with COVID?
It’s almost surreal to realize we are all about to enter our third year of this ongoing SARS-CoV-2 / COVID-10 pandemic. We know – you are tired of the pandemic. However, it is now more important than ever to keep in mind some critically important reminders as we approach the holiday season.
As of today’s date, roughly more than 59% of the U.S. population and 54% of Texans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Tens of millions of Americans are eligible for a booster shot and now children ages 5 and up can receive a vaccine. The bad news is that there are still millions, approximately 40%, in the U.S. who are not vaccinated.
Q:What is the most important thing people can do to prepare for the holidays?
Vaccination is the number ONE way to stay safe during the upcoming holidays and beyond especially as different generations get together to celebrate. The best gift is to be transparent and know everyone who can be is vaccinated and protecting each other.
Q: Do you have other advice for those gathering this season?
While vaccination is the most critical thing to be safe over the holidays, there are other important things to do to protect yourself, your loved ones, and others you come into contact with during your travel and celebrations.
Masking is still important. The order of the most protective masks is N95 [impractical usually because they must be professionally fitted], KN95, surgical / procedural masks, and finally cloth. I use surgical masks when I’m not in high-risk environments. When I am in a high-risk environment [airplane, bus, crowded and poorly ventilated rooms /spaces, unknown vaccination status around me, geographical areas reporting high disease rates, etc.], then I wear a KN95. I rarely wear a cloth mask but they are absolutely better than going without one in high risk areas.
If you know you are with family and friends and everyone is current on their vaccination, you can then think about whether or not to wear masks. But again, be extra careful if you have immunocompromised loved ones around, including elderly and the very young. Those groups can still be at risk.
Q: Where is the best place to get together?
Outdoor and well-ventilated spaces are best for family gatherings and parties. However, if you are sick, stay home and Zoom with others. Even if you only think you’ve been exposed to the virus - by the way, this could mean any illness as we are seeing flu cases climb - testing is still important for you to consider.
Q: What about children who are not old enough to be vaccinated?
The CDC still recommends that unvaccinated family members – including children ages two and older – wear a mask indoors. If younger than two, it’s best to limit visits with people who aren’t vaccinated. And, keep children at a safe distance from others in public.
Q: We are also in flu season. Any advice?
The CDC is also recommending people six months and older get a flu shot. In fact, there are curbside or drive-thru vaccination available and may be a smart choice in communities with high transmission of COVID-19. It’s also SAFE to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu at the same time. Remember, the Texas State Student Health Center is available for vaccinations too.
Q: Many people will be traveling for the first time since the pandemic started. What should they do?
Even if you’re vaccinated, there are steps one can take to help keep you safe. Wear a mask on public transportation (it’s a requirement). It’s always important to monitor your health for any illness, COVID-19 or otherwise, causing symptoms during and after your trip. If you have unvaccinated, young children, then it might be smart to drive. If you have to fly, try to avoid long flights and layovers. If you’re unvaccinated, get tested before and after your trip to ensure you’re good to go. And, when in doubt, follow the ongoing public health motto: mask up, social distance, and wash your hands.
When I travel, I like to avoid any crowded spaces (sit away from others, etc.), wash my hands often and consider taking a laboratory COVID test before and after my trip.
If you are leaving the U.S., it’s ALWAYS important to Review the State Department’s travel advisories. Officials are warning against travel to several countries due to COVID-19. Check the list out here. THIS IS IMPORTANT because there are a TON of travel regulations to keep up with including testing timelines for unvaccinated individuals, vaccination proof documents, and other requirements for each country. In other words, take the time to PLAN AHEAD with foreign travel requirements.
Q: Since the new Omicron variant is now in the U.S. and Texas, what do we know about it?
Early data analysis of the Omicron variant appears to indicate high transmissibility with lower severe illness and mortality. It Is important to state that this data is ongoing, rapidly changing and coming primarily out of South Africa in younger individuals. In other words, the sample size is small and not diverse enough to make major generalizations to the global community. Experts are evaluating this virus variant in experimental laboratory tests as well as via ongoing global observation of clinical cases. The next few weeks will give us more information. We may very well see two COVID-19 variants in circulation in the U.S. in 2022 - Delta among the unvaccinated and Omicron infecting those who had a COVID-19 infection, recovered but were not vaccinated. We must continue to balance with proper time for evaluation and the actual hospital loading (strain) that might occur. Hospital admissions and viral pathology are always lagging indicators in these events.
I believe those who have been fully vaccinated and boosted will be mostly protected from Omicron. Will there be breakthrough infections from Delta, Omicron or other variants? Yes, no vaccine is 100% effective as I and others continue to state. However, fully vaccinated and now hopefully boosted individuals will be less likely to have severe COVID-19, be hospitalized or die. It is critical for the public to continue to follow all public health mitigation measures – get vaccinated. If vaccinated, get the booster. Whether vaccinated or not, wear a high-quality mask (KN95 or surgical mask) when in high-risk environments. Try to maintain distance and good ventilation in high-risk environments, wash your hands, avoid unnecessary travel to high levels of community prevalence of the disease, and be safe to protect those around you that may be immunocompromised.
Q: Any final words of wisdom and advice?
I have been involved in this pandemic from the beginning and we all have seen so many changes. I would like to leave you with this advice. Try to see all of these public health measures as a way to layer your protection. The more things you do – vaccination, masks, well-ventilated areas, avoid crowding, washing your hands, covering your coughs, getting tested if needed, monitoring your health, and thinking about other’s health as part of being an informed and loving community member – the safer we all are in our life. It is all about RISK REDUCTION. Whether it is a seat belt, not smoking, wearing a bullet-proof vest, or getting vaccinated and wearing a mask. We are reducing our RISK to danger. There is no 100% guarantee in life, but we can reduce our risk. By doing so, we are also reducing the risk to the larger global community. Let’s each do our part as Texas State Bobcat family members!
Other sources include: CDC, Mayo Clinic, Texas Department of State Health Services, Texas State University Roadmap, and Johns Hopkins.