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Omicron is spreading. Dr. Ashish Jha answers 9 questions about it and what you can do

The arrival of the omicron variant in New York City has resulted in a rise in cases and the return of long lines for COVID testing. It has many people comparing this December to March 2020 when the pandemic began.
Kena Betancur
AFP via Getty Images
The arrival of the omicron variant in New York City has resulted in a rise in cases and the return of long lines for COVID testing. It has many people comparing this December to March 2020 when the pandemic began.

This week has been one of mass cancellations. Between pro sports games and theaters shutting down and some schools and colleges moving to remote learning again, it has many people comparing this December to March 2020, when the pandemic began.

But despite those feelings, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, says this is not March 2020 all over again. And, he adds, he isn't panicking.

Jha spoke with NPR's All Things Considered to talk about how to navigate this season of the pandemic, including holiday travel and parties.

Are we really reliving March 2020?

We're not. We're in a very, very different place. It can feel like that ... but the big difference between March 2020 and where we are [now] is we have all sorts of tools to keep people safe to get on with our lives. And 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.

How bad could omicron get?

Well, if we aren't careful and if we aren't thoughtful 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.

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. But we have the ability to prevent those infections from 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.

What could January and February look like?

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.

Some of it will happen in unvaccinated people, and that worries me a lot. But a lot of it will 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've got to get boosters into everybody. That will 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.

Will access to rapid tests get better?

It is a challenge, but they're 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 that stuff. 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.

Should you go to that holiday party?

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.

Travelers arrive for flights at Newark Liberty International Airport on November 30.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
Getty Images
Travelers arrive for flights at Newark Liberty International Airport late last month. Flying domestically should be relatively safe as long as precautions are taken.

Should you keep your holiday travel plans?

Yeah, I think so, especially if you're vaccinated and boosted and people around you are. Obviously, on the planes you won't know people's vaccine status, but planes are not particularly dangerous ... And one more caveat, which is domestic. International travel is 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.

What about parents who have kids too young to be vaccinated?

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 for 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.

Children arrive for class in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Testing schoolchildren on a regular basis can be preferable to instituting quarantines.

Is the CDC's "test to stay" policy for schools a good one?

I think this is about time. The evidence on this has been very clear for several months. I'm really happy to see the 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.

Is the rise in case numbers something to panic over?

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 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 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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.
Gabe O'Connor