WASHINGTON: Americans are facing a second Christmas of upended holiday plans, with a surge in COVID-19 infections fuelled by the now-dominant Omicron variant forcing some people to cancel travel and fret about whether it is safe to visit loved ones.
Carmen Rivera and her fiancee Jasmine Maisonet made the painful decision to cancel their flights to visit family in Florida and Puerto Rico after Maisonet was exposed to an infected co-worker and tested positive for COVID-19.
Rivera, a newly elected city council member in Renton, Washington, hasn’t seen her family in Puerto Rico since the start of the pandemic. With the latest wave of COVID-19 infecting even those who are vaccinated and boosted against the disease, like Maisonet, Rivera said it stung to spend another holiday season in isolation.
“We thought we were safe, we were washing our hands, sanitising, vaccinated, masking,” Rivera said.
The swift rise in infections from Omicron, first detected last month and now accounting for 73 per cent of US cases, has caused fresh concern around holiday travel. Many Americans flocked to COVID-19 testing sites or scrambled to get at-home tests this week to ensure a negative test result before heading to see relatives.
In the last seven days, the average number of US cases has risen 26 per cent and cases are up 83 per cent since the start of the month, according to a Reuters tally.
But Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC on Wednesday that the virus posed less of a threat this year than it did last year because of the advancements in vaccines and scientific understanding of the virus.
“We are in a very different place than we were a year ago. We have vaccines, we have boosters and we have all of the science that demonstrates that prevention, interventions like masking in indoor settings work to mitigate the spread of this virus,” she said.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday reiterated his administration’s pledge to assist US states in battling the wave of cases after outlining specific steps on Tuesday, such as providing stockpiled resources and mobilising 1,000 troops to aid with healthcare. In his remarks on Tuesday, he said vaccinated people should follow precautions but feel comfortable celebrating the holidays with family and travelling as planned, despite the Omicron wave.
Long Island insurance broker Lori Eves considered the risk and refused to let Omicron ruin her trip to Paris with her retired mother this month. The two women had the Palace of Versailles nearly all to themselves on Friday.
“I’m not really worried,” Eves, 42, said as she toured the palace outside the French capital. “We’re both vaccinated and boosted and we just, you know, we felt safe.”
With just a few days left before Christmas on Saturday, some Americans are waiting until the last minute to decide whether to press forward with their Christmas plans.
Morgan Johnson, a 28-year-old middle school teacher in Washington DC, is spending the week with her parents in Chicago. They are taking several at-home COVID tests to determine whether they will drive to see Johnson’s grandparents outside Minneapolis on Christmas.
Her grandparents are in their 80s, vaccinated and want the family to visit, Johnson said. But she and her parents, all of whom are vaccinated, worry about unknowingly spreading the variant.
“You would never forgive yourself for getting your grandparents sick,” Johnson said.
TRAVEL ESTIMATES OPTIMISTIC
Travel companies are betting vaccinated Americans will follow through on their plans and have retained a rosy outlook on this year’s holiday season, riding the momentum from a rebound in US travel over Thanksgiving.
The American Automobile Association estimates that 109 million Americans will hit the road, board a plane or otherwise travel more than 50 miles between Dec 23 and Jan 2, marking a 34 per cent increase from 2020.
However, AAA spokesperson Ellen Edmonds said that estimate was compiled before Dec 14, and the recent spike in cases might prompt cancellations.
The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 2 million passengers through the nation’s airports each day from Dec 16-Dec 20, which is about double the number of people who passed through airports on those dates in 2020 and almost as many as in 2019.
Delta Air Lines’s chief executive asked the CDC on Tuesday to reduce recommended quarantine time for fully vaccinated individuals with COVID-19, citing the impact on the company’s workforce. In New York City, where the percent of residents testing positive on a 7-day average more than doubled between Dec 13 and Dec 20 to reach 11 per cent, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday that the Times Square New Years Eve celebration was still on.
City officials are working with health experts to maximise safety at the event, which draws hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, de Blasio said. “We’d like to move that event forward so long as we can do it safely,” he told MSNBC. “We don’t want to live in defeat or surrender to COVID.”
Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases are contributing to labour shortages in the city’s police department, which saw 7.8 per cent of its force out sick on Tuesday, Commissioner Dermot Shea told PIX11 News on Wednesday. Nineteen out of 150 City MD clinics were closing on Wednesday to “preserve our ability to staff our sites,” the urgent care chain said, after it experienced a massive influx of demand for testing in the last week.