The arrival of the omicron variant has led to a sharp rise of coronavirus cases in various parts of the U.S. and around the world.

And with the holidays around the corner, many individuals are unsure about what the right safety measures are to practice, especially if they’ve been fully vaccinated and have gotten their booster shots.

“It’s never been as complicated as it has been at this point,” Dr. Taison Bell, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Disease and Pulmonary Critical Care Medicine at the University of Virginia, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “We have a variant that’s already causing problems in delta, a new variant that could potentially cause additional problems on top of that. We have vaccinations, but we have spotty uptake in some areas that are lowly vaccinated. And we have a staffing crisis. There are a lot of variables here that could pull the levers the wrong way.”

Omicron is now the dominant version of the coronavirus in the U.S.

“I think in either scenario we can expect to see a higher case burden,” Bell said. “In some areas, particularly where there’s low vaccination, that’ll translate to higher hospitalizations and higher deaths, unfortunately.”

'We're here again'

Though there is still much to be learned about the new variant, preliminary data has indicated that it’s been able to evade vaccines at a higher rate than previous variants while a three-dose regimen (two doses and a booster) of MRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna remain effective at mitigating transmission and preventing bad outcomes.

“When we’ve talked about the potential for omicron to erode some of that protection, we’re talking mostly about symptomatic disease,” Bell said. “Having some sort of mild and moderate symptoms — most of the cases that we’ve seen that have been omicron and those who’ve been fully vaccinated, they have been mild cases. I think the vaccines were designed to prevent severe disease and so they’re still doing their job.”

Unvaccinated individuals remain at risk, especially given that natural immunity does not seem to be very effective at all against Omicron.

“We’ve seen data already that if you’re unvaccinated, you’re 11 times more likely to be hospitalized, 10 times more likely to die from COVID-19,” Bell said. “We know that vaccination provides really good protection, particularly against severe disease.”

Until there’s more vaccine uptake, Bell suggested better mitigation measures to prevent hospital systems from getting as overwhelmed as they were last winter.

Postponing elective surgeries “is something that we all have to consider,” Bell said. “My hospital system is preparing right now. Our numbers are also going up and you’re seeing hospital systems, for instance, in Minnesota that are taking out full-page ads, pleading with the community to get vaccinated because they’re already overwhelmed. This is with a delta surge, not to mention omicron. So yes, unfortunately, we’re here again where we have to prepare for a surge.”

He also recommended ensuring that everyone who’s eligible gets their booster shot, as Dr. Anthony Fauci has indicated that it produces enough antibodies against the omicron variant to prevent serious illness.

“We want to get that extra benefit, particularly because we have so many people that are unvaccinated and still at risk,” Bell said. “We want to do things like cut down on transmission, cut down on symptomatic disease, and that’s really where boosters will get us for the majority of people."

Some institutions, like the Metropolitan Opera, have begun requiring booster shots: Starting Jan. 17, all opera attendees will need to show proof of their booster vaccination in order to be admitted.

“When it comes to the audience, having policies like full vaccination and boosting required to come to a show makes a lot of sense, particularly now,” Bell said. “We’re seeing an increase in symptomatic disease.”

But, he added, “when it comes to the cast who are not going to be masked up, I would have the same requirements but with the addition of regular testing. At least twice a week, given the incubation period of the virus. This is how we really prevent these massive outbreaks among cast members that have led to cancellation. If we can have that layered approach, we can still have these seasons. It’s certainly something to look forward to, but it has to be a layered approach.”

The layered approach

To be as safe and cautious as possible, Bell recommended taking a “layered approach,” especially when it comes to the upcoming holiday.

For example, on Christmas, his household is requiring any guests to be fully vaccinated and to be boosted within 10-14 days before the gathering. Additionally, they are asking guests to get a negative rapid antigen test either the day before, night before, or the morning of the holiday.

"And of course, no symptoms because that’s a high risk of being sick from anything,” Bell said.

This is what other health experts have recommended as well — getting fully vaccinated, getting boosted, getting tested, and avoiding contact with unvaccinated individuals. 

“We’re using that layered approach, and I think it can be done safely if you have that approach,” Bell said.

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at [email protected]

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