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Holiday travel: Does Omicron change anything?

By Marnie Hunter, CNN

Holiday travel will be ramping up again soon, and it’s likely to be another very busy time for US travelers.

The Transportation Security Administration screened nearly 21 million travelers at US airports during the 10-day Thanksgiving holiday period, and the agency expects near pre-pandemic levels of air travel for the December holidays.

Plus there’s another wild card in play: Omicron.

The new variant, designated a “variant of concern” over the Thanksgiving travel period, adds an extra layer of uncertainty as people prepare for December and January trips.

If you’re vaccinated, you shouldn’t have to change your holiday plans — even with Omicron circulating in the United States, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“If you have a vaccinated situation, your family is vaccinated, enjoy the holidays indoors with your family,” Fauci said on a CNN Global Town Hall on December 1.

Traveling does increase the risk of getting infected, he said, but wearing a mask and getting vaccinated and boosted helps protect travelers moving through busy spaces.

While much is still unknown about Omicron, health experts are also underlining what we do know right now: Delta is a big threat.

“Delta is still the most significant player by far that we have in the US, and we’re not in a terribly good place right now,” Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said Tuesday on “CNN Newsroom.”

New cases reported in the United States are now topping more than 100,000 a day, with more than 1,000 deaths a day, “the vast majority of those being unvaccinated people,” Collins said.

As the holiday travel season revs up again, here’s more of what experts advise for safer, smoother trips:

Safeguarding your health

The extent to which Omicron could evade protection from vaccines or prior infection is still being investigated, but current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalization and death, according to the CDC.

Getting vaccinated is essential for two reasons, says Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The first is the Delta variant.

“That’s the virus that’s here, right now, in each and every community, spreading,” Schaffner said. “But No. 2, and this has to do with Omicron, it is likely that our vaccines will provide at least partial protection. And partial protection is always better than no protection.”

There’s hope that Omicron could be milder, but it’s too soon to know. Getting as much protection as possible through vaccination and boosters is our best defense, CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen agrees.

Whether to travel or not is a personal calculation, Wen said.

“There are a lot of unknowns, so I think that depends on people’s individual risk tolerance. There will be some people who are OK with the unknowns and who are generally healthy, fully vaccinated and aren’t that worried. But there are other people who because of their own medical situation or because of risk factors might feel differently.”

The CDC still recommends delaying travel until you are fully vaccinated.

For those traveling with unvaccinated people, the agency suggests safer options such as road trips with few stops and direct flights.

Logistical considerations for international travel

Those travelers with international plans have more to consider. Ever-shifting restrictions in countries all over the world and the new US requirement to take a test within one day of a return flight’s departure for the United States could mean unexpected wrinkles.

“This is a very dynamic situation, and travelers should consider how important the trip is to them and have a plan B and a plan C,” said Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.

“They should think through all the scenarios for what could happen. Let’s say that they end up in a country that is now going to implement a mandatory quarantine on arrival. How will they cope with that? Is it worth going?”

US embassies provide country-specific information for American citizens, including whether tests in a particular destination are reliably available within the one-day period required for their return.

On December 8, tests in Egypt were listed as available within one day “at extra cost.” In Chile on December 8, it was a “no” — tests are not reliably available within that time frame.

Getting there safely. And what happens next

Wen and Schaffner stress that what travelers intend to do at their destinations is likely to pose a greater risk than the journey itself, provided travelers wear masks in transit and socially distance as much as possible.

People should be wearing a high-quality mask — N95, KN95 or KF94 — anytime they’re in crowded indoor settings with people of unknown vaccination status, Wen said.

“If you are planning to see relatives who are all vaccinated and be outdoors or around other people known to be vaccinated, that’s much lower risk than if you’re planning to be in indoor crowded spaces with people of unknown vaccination status,” she said.

A trip that involves a lot of shopping and going to the theater, eating in crowded restaurants and going to your favorite New York City bar is definitely higher risk, Schaffner said.

“If you want to do all that, yes, you’re assuming more risk, but that’s really got nothing to do with Omicron. That has to do with Delta right now,” he said shortly after Omicron’s discovery was announced.

When everyone who’s eligible for vaccination and boosters gets them, it also helps protect kids younger than 5 who aren’t eligible for vaccination yet.

If a gathering involves immunocompromised family members or unvaccinated children, or both, Wen suggested that everyone quarantine for at least three days before getting together and taking a rapid test just before seeing each other.

“That would reduce the risk for everyone,” she said. The CDC recently updated its guidance on self-testing as one risk-reduction strategy.

Schaffner said his family all took tests before gathering for Thanksgiving.

“And so not only are we vaccinated and boosted, but we tested negative. Now if you start taking control like that, then you can do your travel and your reunions and your social events at very low risk,” he said.

Smoothing the way, travel-wise

The TSA is encouraging air travelers to sign up for TSA PreCheck, the expedited screening program that doesn’t require members to remove their shoes, belts, liquids, laptops or light jackets.

Other tips from the TSA:

— Avoid airport rush hours, typically between 5-7 a.m. and 4-6 p.m.

— Arrive early — two hours before domestic flights or three hours for international flights

— Don’t pack anything that will slow you down. Here’s a list of what you can and cannot bring. (Note: Firearms are prohibited at checkpoints and in carry-on luggage).

— Respect TSA officers, flight crew and other frontline workers and pack firearms properly to avoid fines.

Travel organization AAA recommends travel insurance.

“Get that trip insurance and that airline insurance if you can. That little box you often skip, click it this year because we don’t know what staffing levels are going to be like for the airlines and for TSA,” AAA spokesperson Andrew Gross said before the Thanksgiving rush.

And make sure your vehicle is ready. AAA suggests getting key components such as the battery, fuel system, tires, brakes and fluid levels checked before a road trip.

While 2021 isn’t going to deliver the Covid-free holiday season we wished for, it is possible to gather more safely with family and friends this year.

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CNN’s Jen Christensen, Naomi Thomas and Pete Muntean contributed to this report.

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