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How to safely navigate the holidays amid rising COVID cases

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Anyone else feeling whiplash? I am talking COVID and I am talking - I'll speak for myself - about feeling one moment that I am so done, that COVID will be with us for a while, if not for forever, and we all need to calm down and find ways to live with it. And then the next moment, I'm reading the latest headlines on omicron and rising case numbers and things shutting down again and feeling something close to panic.

Well, here to talk about where we are and how to navigate this moment is Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. Hey there.

ASHISH JHA: Hi. Thanks for having me back.

KELLY: So to sum up, we are at the end of a week where we've had pro sports leagues canceling, theaters shutting down, some schools - some universities going remote learning again. Convince me we are not reliving March 2020 all over again.

ASHISH: Yeah, we're not. We're in a very, very different place. It can feel like that for all the reasons you outlined. But the big difference between March 2020 and where we are is we have all sorts of tools to keep people safe, to get on with our lives. It doesn't mean the pandemic is over. We have some challenges ahead, but we know how to manage them. And we can do it.

KELLY: We have all kinds of tools to manage this, but we're watching omicron case numbers on a pretty scary upward incline. Understanding there's a range of possibilities, how bad could this get?

ASHISH: Well, if we aren't careful and if we aren't thoughtful, really, about our approach, then we can get into a lot of trouble. But remember, the main issue is in the past, infections always preceded hospitalizations, which preceded deaths. And that has been a pattern we've seen over and over again. We finally can break that cycle. So we have the ability. I don't think we have the ability to completely suppress infections unless we go into a massive lockdown, which we're not going to do.

KELLY: No.

ASHISH: But we have the ability to prevent those infections turning into hospitalizations and deaths. And that's what we should be focused on. We have an ability to prevent those infections from disrupting our lives, shutting our schools. That's what we should be focused on, and I really think we can.

KELLY: Really? I mean, I'm curious what gives you confidence and what you see January and February looking like, given these tools have been around for a while and a lot of people aren't using them.

ASHISH: Yeah. So first of all, I think we should all be clear. We are going to see a very large wave of infections that will really get going probably by the end of this month, and January will be a month where we will see maybe more infections than we've seen in any month throughout the whole pandemic. But the difference is that those infections will largely happen - I mean, some of it will happen in unvaccinated people, and that worries me a lot. But a lot of it'll also happen in people who are partially vaccinated, people who have gotten two shots. Those people largely should do OK. Most of them will not end up getting particularly sick. We've got to get boosters into high-risk individuals. Actually, personally, I think we should - got to get boosters into everybody. That'll make an enormous difference in keeping people from what will feel like a really bad cold to turning into something more dangerous. And then we have tools like rapid tests, which we can use to get together safely. So I do think, Mary Louise...

KELLY: If we can get them - that's another issue, but go on.

ASHISH: It - no, it is a challenge, but they're getting better. That, too, is getting better. And again, I don't want to be too overly optimistic. Look, the challenges of the next six weeks are real, and they are going to be difficult. But the tests are becoming more available. We're starting to see them show up more. They're getting a little bit cheaper. I think we can use these tests, get people boostered, avoid some really risky things like large indoor gatherings where people are eating and drinking and not masked up. If we can avoid some of those, we can have a pretty good holiday season, and we can get through January and February without too much disruption to our lives.

KELLY: OK. Well, let's get into the holiday season and what it's going to look like. You may have just answered this. But holiday parties - yes, no? Can we go?

ASHISH: Not large parties, no. You know, we had one at our School of Public Health, and we actually canceled it because we just didn't feel like having 200 people inside eating, drinking together made a lot of sense.

KELLY: Travel plans - if we have plans to travel over the holidays, should we keep them?

ASHISH: Yeah, I think so, especially if you're vaccinated and boosted and people around you are. Obviously, you know, on the planes you won't know people's vaccine status. But planes are not particularly dangerous. So I think - and let me - one more caveat, which is domestic - international travel's more complicated because of travel restrictions and quarantine issues. But domestic travel, I think, over the holiday season for vaccinated, boosted people, I think it's pretty reasonable to do.

KELLY: Any hope, any solace to offer to parents of kids too young to be vaccinated? Can they see people? Can they travel over the holidays?

ASHISH: Yeah, absolutely. So what we know about kids is kids' risk of being infected is really driven by the adults around them. So if you're in a community that's highly vaccinated or, certainly, if the rest of the family is vaccinated, I think it's pretty reasonable. If you want to add an extra layer of protection, you can add testing. Get one of those rapid tests for the child maybe before they see Grandma or Grandpa. I think that helps. I would, in fact, encourage that. But I don't think kids under 5 have to be isolated just because they're not vaccinated yet.

KELLY: A quick question on some news out today related to schools - the CDC is saying the test-to-stay policies for...

ASHISH: Yep.

KELLY: ...Schools work. This is where many school districts are keeping kids onsite in school even if they are not vaccinated and even if they have been in close contact with someone who tests positive so long as they test negative. What are...

ASHISH: Yep.

KELLY: ...Your thoughts on that?

ASHISH: I think this is about time. The evidence on this has been very clear for several months. I'm really happy to see CDC encourage this. We do not need to be doing mass quarantining. Right now we have kids across America at home waiting out a 14-day quarantine - totally unnecessary. The evidence is clear. If those kids are getting tested on a regular basis, they can come back to school safely. It does not cause big outbreaks or big spread.

KELLY: So I realize part of your job is not to sow panic. But you don't sound panicked here. You don't sound as though these case numbers are absolutely just scaring the bejesus out of you.

ASHISH: No, they're not. And the reason is because I really do think we're going to break this link between cases and hospitalizations and deaths. Look, I'm plenty worried. There are a lot of elderly people who are not vaccinated. There are plenty of elderly people who are not boosted. I'm worried about what's going to happen with them and what that - what the impact is going to be on our health care system. I'm worried about the fact that there's still so much misinformation out there that some people are going to take no precautions at all. I'm not saying we can just ignore the pandemic. I'm saying we're in a different place than where we were two years ago, and we have to remember that. And we have to use those tools to get through the next couple of months.

KELLY: Some words to get us through the next couple of months. That is Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. Thank you. Happy holidays.

ASHISH: Happy holidays. Thanks for having me back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.