How Fauci and other health experts are recommending Americans ring in the new year

December 29, 2021, 8:53 PM UTC

With the number of COVID cases in the U.S. breaking records again this week, many Americans are reconsidering their plans to ring in the new year.

The seven-day average of U.S. COVID cases topped 280,000 on on Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine, as both the Delta and Omicron variants continue to surge across the country. 

But does that mean Americans should change or cancel their New Year’s plans? “It really depends on what your plans are,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday during a press briefing. 

Fauci recommended that Americans avoid big, public celebrations. “If your plans are to go to a 40- to 50-person New Year’s Eve party with all the bells and whistles and everybody hugging and kissing and wishing each other a Happy New Year, I would strongly recommend that this year we do not do that,” he said.

Many cities and event organizers are already canceling their celebrations, including the annual shows in London, San Francisco, and the Peach Drop in Atlanta. New York City scaled back its Times Square ball drop, limiting attendance to 15,000 people who need to be fully vaccinated and wearing masks.

Decisions on whether or not to attend smaller gatherings, Fauci said, can be made on a case-by-case basis. “If you are in a situation…in your home, with family, parents, children, grandparents, and everyone is vaccinated and boosted, although the risk is never zero, the risk is low enough that we feel you should continue to go through with those plans,” Fauci said Wednesday. 

Yet many families may have varying levels of vaccination—COVID vaccines for children under age 5 still haven’t been authorized, for instance—and some members may have underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to severe infections. So when it comes to attending New Year’s celebrations, medical experts say the decision will likely come down to individual risk tolerance. 

At this point, the evidence shows that Omicron is more transmissible than previous variants. But so far, infections seem to be less severe for vaccinated people, with fewer hospitalizations and deaths being recorded. 

Being fully vaccinated and boosted does help protect against infection and hospitalization, and even death, the data show. So plan accordingly with your guest list. “With Omicron in the mix, this is not the time to include your unvaccinated friends and relatives at indoor family gatherings, even if you feel like you might be rude by uninviting them. This is to protect them and to protect you and your family,” said Dr. Jessica Justman, associate professor of medicine in epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.

Getting a COVID test ahead of time may also help minimize risk—whether you’re having symptoms or not. There are still plenty of asymptomatic COVID cases. And given the prevalence of COVID amid the current surge, cold- or flu-like symptoms have a high likelihood of a link to COVID positivity. “There’s really no way of differentiating, you know, COVID from influenza at this point, and it would be important to get tested,” Dr. Abinash Virk, one of the Mayo Clinic’s top infectious disease experts and former head of its travel clinic, recently told Fortune

When it comes to the type of test you should get, PCR tests are more accurate. “The home tests only really shine when you’re actually having symptoms,” according to Dr. Frank Esper, an infectious disease specialist with the Cleveland Clinic.

But it may be difficult to schedule a PCR test and get the results in time at this point. If that’s the case, an at-home antigen test is better than nothing, especially if you test for two days in a row, and directly before you attend a gathering. “More information is better than less. The test kits are not perfect, especially if you are asymptomatic, but they are much better than the alternative, i.e., not knowing that someone has an infection,” Justman said.

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