Omicron is the unwelcome party guest at everyone's holiday gatherings this year.
Scientists are still trying to learn about the new Covid variant — including how transmissible it is, how well current vaccines work against it and where its biggest hotspots are. Many of those answers won't be known for at least a couple weeks, just in time for Christmas.
Without those answers, you may need to ask yourself a tough question: Is it safe to attend a holiday party?
If you're vaccinated and gathering with other vaccinated people, the answer is a simple "yes," White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a briefing last week. Ideally, every guest should be boosted, too.
Still, you may run some risk. A recent 120-person company holiday party in Norway provides some anecdotal evidence that omicron could evade vaccine protection: All guests were vaccinated and tested beforehand, but more than half of them — many of whom had just returned from a business trip to South Africa — tested positive for Covid afterwards, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday.
At least 13 of those people reportedly had omicron. None of them had severe symptoms, a company spokesperson said.
Preliminary research does suggest that omicron could cause milder Covid infections, Fauci told CNN on Sunday. But while this early finding is "a bit encouraging," it's too soon to know whether the strain poses a greater risk of severe illness and death, he said.
If anyone's unvaccinated at your party — including small children who aren't yet vaccine-eligible — or unwilling to share their vaccination status, your decision gets much harder. You'll face a higher risk of getting sick or transmitting the virus to someone else, even if you're fully vaccinated yourself.
If you're hosting such a party, you should rely on a combination of safety strategies, like gathering outdoors, wearing masks and maintaining social distance. You can also ask your unvaccinated guests to quarantine and get tested before the event, as an additional layer of assurance.
The risk grows further if you're in a "public congregate setting," where you can't realistically know who's vaccinated, Fauci said last week. That could mean an office holiday party at an indoor bar where vaccination isn't required, or even taking a crowded bus home.
In those situations, "it is very prudent to wear a mask," Fauci said. "That's what I do." You can briefly lower your mask to safely eat a cookie or drink some eggnog, but try to keep it on as much as possible.
Ultimately, the most reliable way to have safe and festive holiday parties is to get your Covid vaccine and booster when you're eligible. Even a single dose of a vaccine a few days before the party is better than no vaccine at all, experts say.
Regardless of anyone's vaccination status, if you have symptoms of Covid or were recently exposed to someone who has it, you should skip the holiday party and get tested. It's just not worth the risk.
And stay flexible. Be willing to change your plans if omicron proves more dangerous in the coming weeks, as scientists gather more information about the variant — even if it means bailing on your holiday party at the last second.