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Should you change your vacation plans because of omicron? Here’s what five Bay Area experts are doing

Even as families and friends gathered for the Thanksgiving long weekend, global concern mounted over the omicron variant of the coronavirus – presenting them with a potentially serious new risk to consider when planning. the rest of the holiday season and beyond.

As Bay Area residents expressed dismay at this last possible wrinkle in their hopes for a more normal holiday season, local experts told The Chronicle on Sunday that it was good to be at the current, but not to panic about the new variant. They said based on the information to date, they have not changed their own plans. But they have repeatedly stressed the importance of COVID vaccinations, boosters and other health precautions.

Developments around omicron continue to evolve rapidly. It was first discovered in southern Africa and classified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization. No cases involving the new variant have yet been confirmed in the United States, according to federal and state health officials.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health said they were monitoring developments closely. Senior White House medical adviser Dr.Anthony Fauci has acknowledged that it is possible that the variant has already arrived in the United States

California health chief Dr Tomás J. Aragón said in a statement on Sunday that, as officials gather information on omicron, “vaccines continue to be our best way through the pandemic by protecting us by completely safe from serious illnesses of COVID-19 and its variants. … We are doubling down on our immunization and recall efforts to ensure all Californians have access to safe, effective, and free vaccines that can prevent serious illness and death.

The omicron variant appears to be spreading rapidly in Africa and Was found in several European countries, Israel and Hong Kong. The United States and several other countries are now restricting travel from certain African countries. But experts say early evidence, with a limited number of cases so far, does not yet reveal whether the variant is much more transmissible than other strains of coronavirus, or whether it can evade vaccine immunity or cause more serious illness.

Customer Service Agent Jing Chen assists a traveler at San Francisco International Airport. The United States prohibits travel from South Africa and seven other African countries to non-US citizens due to the omicron variant.

Léa Suzuki / The Chronicle

Some Bay Area residents are wondering if they should rethink their plans for vacation gatherings and travel given the unknowns and the new layer of uncertainty.

Kate McPherson of Mill Valley, who was shopping for a Christmas tree on Sunday at the tree yard at Marin Middle School in San Francisco, said she canceled a trip to visit her family in Wisconsin on last year and didn’t want to disappoint his sons Henry, 5, and George, 3, by canceling again. Once there, they will stay with their families and avoid the crowds.

A: Be aware of what is happening with COVID at your travel destination.

B: Get a reminder. Get vaccinated if you haven’t already.

C: Children should get vaccinated.

D: Diagnosis – Stock up on home tests to educate yourself on the need for more safety if the test is positive. For international travel, a negative test is required to return to the United States

E: Everything else, including getting the flu shot.

“It sucks,” she said, hearing the word “omicron”, “but I don’t know if it makes me feel worse than I already feel.”

Another tree buyer, Craig Sparks of San Francisco, said, “You’re naive if you’re not at least a little worried. We have all been humiliated.

His wife, Elizabeth, took a longer-term view, convinced it wouldn’t disrupt Christmas plans. “Most likely by the time he gets here,” she said, “it will be just in time to ruin the summer.”

The five Bay Area experts who spoke to The Chronicle on Sunday said the variant has yet to affect their own vacation plans. The best route is vaccinations, boosters and other safety measures in the event of a pandemic, they said.

George Rutherford, UCSF: It should be safe for people to travel as long as they are vaccinated and boosted and take “reasonable precautions,” said Rutherford, who had no plans to travel for the holidays.

Air travel during the Thanksgiving holiday has almost reached pre-pandemic levels. US citizens are exempt from the travel ban on African countries, so don’t risk getting stuck abroad, as happened earlier in the pandemic. But they must be alert to any changes in restrictions abroad and in the United States.

“If they are not vaccinated, they should get vaccinated,” then be stimulated, Rutherford said. Young unvaccinated children should be well protected if the adults around them are fully immunized.

John Swartzberg, University of Berkeley: Swartzberg said the new variations won’t change his “fairly conservative” vacation plans. His vaccination and recall gives him “great confidence” about participating in holiday activities, but if the variant is found to be more transmissible, vaccine resistant or virulent than other strains, he said he would. “Much more careful”.

“Omicron could turn out to be a storm in a teacup,” Swartzberg said. “At the moment I am diligently following what is happening with this variant and it will inform my decisions. We should know a lot, a lot more in a week or two.

Masked shoppers walk down Oakland Grand Avenue.  The discovery of the omicron variant comes at a delicate time when Bay Area residents and community leaders continue to fight coronavirus infections.

Masked shoppers walk down Grand Avenue in Oakland. The discovery of the omicron variant comes at a delicate time when Bay Area residents and community leaders continue to fight coronavirus infections.

Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle

“Be worried, but don’t panic,” Swartzberg said. “Even in the worst-case scenario… we know what to do to keep ourselves safe. And, if we need a new vaccine, we could develop one and make it available in three months or less using mRNA technology.

Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, UCSF: Bibbins-Domingo, associate dean for population health and health equity at UCSF, maintains plans to welcome parents from across the country for the holidays.

“In our large extended family that will reunite, all adults are vaccinated and vaccinated, and anyone under the age of 17 is fully vaccinated. These plans will continue and will not be changed as a result of this new news. “

Regarding omicron and vaccination, Bibbins-Domingo said it is “fair to say that it is likely that there will be some protection against the vaccine.”

With the Delta variant still being the dominant threat in the United States, she advised, “Boost for yourself, Boost for your loved ones, Frankly Boost for anyone else along the way.”

Testing is another useful measure for anyone planning to travel and get together for the holidays, especially if you are going to be around someone at high risk for serious infection.

Bibbins-Domingo said there was “no reason to believe” that omicron would not show up in the United States. In assessing the risks, the key is “not to panic or be dismissive,” she said.

Peter Chin-Hong, UCSF: Chin-Hong said he was unlikely to cancel his own travel plans. However, he said he “would consider postponing trips to Europe as they experience an increase” which is mainly due to the highly transmissible delta variant.

The COVID-boosted and “street smart” people, who are not immunocompromised, he said, “should be OK.” The recall is a “personal force field” with “excellent protection” against infection, serious illness, hospitalization and death, he said.

He continues to wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces, see vaccinated friends, dine indoors, and travel by air.

He said he would be shocked if omicron was not already in California, given the travel patterns to Africa. The main concern is with unvaccinated people. The vaccination will continue to keep people away from the hospital even if omicron turns out to be worse than delta, he said.

Monica Gandhi, UCSF: The infectious disease expert plans to move forward with plans to take her two sons to visit their grandparents over the winter break.

Gandhi had resisted getting a recall because of his protest against “the global lack of equity in vaccines.” But now she has changed her mind in order to see her father, who recently developed an immunocompromised disease.

Gandhi is optimistic despite the omicron threat. The Bay Area’s high vaccination rates have kept hospitalizations “relatively low” during the Delta surge compared to previous outbreaks, she said, and she predicts those rates “will continue to protect us.”

San Francisco Chronicle editor-in-chief Sam Whiting contributed to this report.

Kellie Hwang is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @KellieHwang