Virologist suggests layering COVID precautions if gathering for the holidays

Dec 22, 2021, 3:10 PM
Travelers wear masks as they wait in a line for a TSA security check, Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The omicron variant has been the talk of the country. It now makes up the majority of COVID cases in the United States, accounting for 73% of new infections last week, as the Associated Press reports.

Rise of omicron variant in Seattle prompts demand for testing, boosters

With the holiday season in full swing and Christmas coming up at the end of the week, Dr. Angela Rasmussen spoke about the potential risk of gathering and travel. She has been talking with KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show, since pretty much the beginning of the COVID pandemic. 

For those who don’t know, Dr. Rasmussen is a virologist and has a PhD in microbiology and immunology from Columbia University that she got in 2009. She did her postdoc at the University of Washington. Now, Rasmussen studies emerging viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, and is an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan, working at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, which is a research institute that focuses on developing vaccines for pandemic viruses. 

“Maybe I’ll start with my own personal story of holiday travel this season,” she said. “I was supposed to come back to the Seattle area to celebrate Christmas with my family yesterday. And over the weekend, given the situation with the omicron variant, I decided not to do that.”

Her husband is already in the Seattle area, staying with family.

“So I will be doing Christmas solo here in Canada, with my dog,” Rasmussen said.

She did clarify that she is triple vaccinated and says she’s not particularly concerned about getting COVID herself, but she knows that is a possibility.

“One thing that we do know about this new variant is it’s highly transmissible,” she said, but multiple doses of the vaccines do seem to be holding up so far in terms of their ability to prevent severe disease.

“That said, there will be people gathering at my family’s house for Christmas, including my 2-year-old niece, who cannot be vaccinated because she’s too young,” Rasmussen said. “In addition to that, I worry about my parents. They’re not that old, but they are older, and they are in a risk group where even full vaccination means they are still at some risk. And on top of that, there are many, many vulnerable people in the larger community.”

Even if the omicron variant is milder, she says it’s so transmissible and there will be so many cases that there will be fewer health care workers available because some of them will have contracted omicron, and there will be an absolute number of people who need care.

UW modelers project 3 billion new COVID-19 cases by February

“Even though my family will continue to limit the size of the gathering, will wear masks when in public, will use rapid tests prior to gathering to make sure that everybody is testing negative, and everybody who is eligible has been fully vaccinated and boosted, I made the difficult decision not to go myself because I thought it presented too much of a risk to the community,” she said.

However, if Rasmussen had decided to travel, she says she would be using as many protective measures as possible, including cracking a window during the gathering, using rapid tests, and ensuring that everyone who is at the gathering is vaccinated, and being mindful of distancing.

“Really trying to layer as many of those different protections that we’ve known about since really the beginning of the pandemic on top of each other, because risk reduction is additive,” she said.

Dr. Rasmussen suggests thinking about as many of these measures as you can in order to reduce your risk as much as possible when you’re figuring out how to gather safely.

“The bottom line is get vaccinated, get boosted if you haven’t already, be safe, and have a happy holiday,” she said.

Listen to the full interview with Dr. Rasmussen in the third hour of the show from Wednesday: 

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Virologist suggests layering COVID precautions if gathering for the holidays