By Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist, World Health Organization
Whether it is the family gatherings for Christmas or people congregating in city centres as the bell strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, there is concern that large numbers of people mixing during the holiday season could result in spikes of COVID-19 infections. Indeed, many people who will be celebrating are asking how best to stay safe over the festive period.
With the new variant, Omicron, showing exponential growth and high transmissibility, there are certain things you can do to keep yourself and loved ones safe during this period.
The first line of defence is vaccination. Although vaccines appear to be less effective in preventing infection with Omicron, they still offer significant protection against a severe form of the disease that may necessitate hospitalization. So if you have not gotten vaccinated, this is a great time to do so. And if you’re immunocompromised or at-risk, getting boosted can help boost your immunity to the virus.
While wealthier countries have over 70% of their populations vaccinated and are rushing to offer booster shots, low-income countries have not even been able to vaccinate all their health workers and most at-risk populations. The vaccines have not been shared fairly, which WHO has consistently said leaves us open to new variants appearing, which could undermine our current health tools and drive further waves of the virus.
Vaccine nationalism and hoarding of vaccines by some countries has undermined equity, and created the ideal conditions for the emergence of the Omicron variant in a region which has low vaccination coverage.
Perhaps this holiday season, we can reflect on the injustice of vaccine inequity and increase public pressure on governments and manufacturers to do more to share licenses and transfer technology and know-how, especially with the new WHO-led mRNA Tech Transfer Hubs, the first of which has been established in South Africa. In the midst of the worst pandemic in 100 years, it seems ludicrous that all barriers, including to intellectual property have not been shared.
While vaccination is crucial to combatting the pandemic, it is not enough. The last two years have been tough and although we are tired of the pandemic, the virus is not tired of us. While it is critical for our mental and physical health to see loved ones, the gathering of large crowds is where the virus can be particularly prolific. We are starting to see examples from aeroplanes, nightclubs and even hotel quarantine where the Omicron is spreading more efficiently than ever.
The new variant appears to be the most transmissible so far and able to breakthrough vaccine protection more easily than Delta or other variants preceding it. Although immunity conferred not only by antibodies but by B and T cells (which are harder to measure) reduces risk of severe illness and death, clearly the threat remains and so public health and social measures remain critical tools to reducing the number of infections.
Given that COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, which spreads mainly through the air via aerosols (small droplets) and larger droplets, it is important to know how best to keep oneself safe. By talking, singing and even just breathing, people with COVID-19 can easily pass the virus to others. Obviously the closer you are and longer time you spend with someone that is sick, the more likely you are to get the virus.
Viral transmission is further optimized in indoor settings where windows and doors are closed, ventilation is poor and where people are not wearing masks. When cases are spiking, there is always the option to work and connect on digital platforms, but I understand the fatigue with using video sharing platforms for far too many aspects of our lives. We often need that physical connection for all aspects of our health.
And it is possible to minimize risk and keep yourself and loved ones safe. For example, if you are going to meet friends or family, try to do so outside and in as small a group as possible. If it is inside, try and keep windows open so that there is a regular exchange of air from outside. If it is too cold, open them regularly so fresh air can circulate. Good quality, well-fitting masks worn correctly can really help reduce infection and the latest evidence suggests that universal mask wearing can reduce chances of infection significantly. In fact, masks have been described as a vaccine in your pocket and the WHO has detailed guidelines on how to make high quality masks.
Everyone who is eligible should get vaccinated as soon as possible. However, even if you are vaccinated and you try your best to stay safe, Omicron is still so transmissible that you could come into contact with the virus at some point. If you start to feel symptoms, it is important to test as quickly as possible. While you await results, try and isolate from other people so you can break the chain of transmission.
The importance of testing early is also linked to the effectiveness of administered treatment, so the sooner people know whether they are sick, the easier it is to determine when they need to be treated or whether they need hospitalization. Luckily, new oral treatments which reduce the severity of COVID-19 are becoming available.
Festive seasons are difficult to navigate during a pandemic but through vaccination and public health measures, there are ways to minimize risk and still spend time with loved ones. As this year ends and another starts, I am as optimistic as ever that if governments and citizens work together, we can get through the acute stage of this pandemic together and use that momentum to tackle the other challenges of our time.