How to Safely Celebrate Holidays Amid the Latest COVID-19 Surge

The Food and Drug Administration authorizes emergency use of Pfizer’s pill to treat COVID-19.

Holiday travel and gathering has begun.

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And COVID-19 cases in South Africa are dropping after its omicron spike: What does that tell us about our current situation?

Dr. Jeffrey Bohmer, chairman and medical director of the emergency department at Central DuPage Hospital with Northwestern Medicine, discusses the answer to that and more.

Below, a Q&A with Bohmer.

What is the situation right now at your hospital?

Well, we've been fairly stable with the number of COVID patients in the hospital. We've been hovering around 60 to 70 patients. A patient every day for the last week or so I think we got close to 70 last week. The numbers right now seem to be relatively stable but higher than they were looking back three four weeks ago.

Let’s talk about this new Pfizer anti-viral pill that the FDA authorized for emergency use. How does it work?

It’s an antiviral medication that basically is not that dissimilar to the other ones that we may be familiar with such as Tamiflu. They basically inhibit the viruses ability to replicate itself in human cells. It works well, much like the drug Tamiflu does. The recommendation is to start it as soon as possible, as soon as you have confirmation of that test.

And what is the success rate, especially for folks that are immunocompromised? Does it work for those patients as well?

Yeah. It’s indicated for those patients and in particular those that are at high risk for developing severe COVID. The studies that Pfizer completed – those are a randomized control trial that looked at that and it showed about 88% effective in preventing [hospitalization and death]/ The trial looked at those, the placebo versus the medication and I think it was a 6% hospitalization and death rate within 28 days of the people that got the placebo and 0.8% of those that got the medication, so it definitely shows some efficacy and is promising and I’m hoping it could be a game changer as we as we head into our third year of the pandemic.

What do you advise to people that are about to get together in indoor settings for the holidays?

I certainly would recommend keeping the gatherings to a lower number. I don't think it’s unreasonable to get families together, much like we were discouraging last year especially since we have the majority of people are vaccinated. I would be reluctant to encourage families that have members that aren’t vaccinated to get together just for the reason that those unvaccinated are so much more at risk to getting severe COVID.

But I think we know that not everybody’s going listen to or adhere to those guidelines, so I would certainly say if you have people in the family that are immunocompromised, vaccinated or not, … those that are unvaccinated I would strongly recommend if you can get a test done within one to three days before you get together. A negative test does not mean you don’t have it, but it does decrease your chances of actually been able to spread, spread COVID. I think if you have people that are immunocompromised in the family, I think it’s a good idea to wear masks.

Do you anticipate a spike in cases about a week or so after these holiday gatherings?

I think the next couple of weeks we’re going to be seeing a higher number for sure. We saw that after Thanksgiving and that was delta. Knowing how fast omicron spreads and how quickly it incubates in patients, I bet that next couple days after Christmas and in the new year we’ll be seeing high numbers. My hope is that the omicron virus lives up to what the indications are in South Africa and now Europe that it doesn’t cause severe disease, as we’ve seen with the alpha and delta variant.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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