As people were just beginning to look at the silver lining and develop hope that they are able to come together with family and friends to celebrate the holiday season, the hugely contagious omicron variant raised its ugly head to throw a monkey wrench into plans and has left many wondering whether Christmas will again be ruined for a second year.
Even with the delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus spreading, health experts know that people need to spend time together, and their advice is that, above all, getting vaccinated remains the best defense, and getting a booster shot further increases protection against COVID-19.
Dr. Nikkiah Forbes, director of the National HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Programme at The Bahamas Ministry of Health, said people can come together to celebrate but she recommends that gatherings be kept small. And that a vaccinated group is safer than a group of unvaccinated people.
“You want to keep it smaller. You can have Christmas dinner but with a small group. And what would help would be if people coming together all have a test taken on the day of or the day before the event, and all having a negative test, implying that they’re not infectious,” said Forbes.
She advises against parties and large gatherings “right now”, especially with the explosive spread of omicron. She said large gatherings are not safe to do.
“Omicron is spreading rapidly in our region and, over the last several days, we have seen an uptick in the number of [COVID-19] cases in The Bahamas, so we do have to be vigilant.”
Forbes said people are social and, like everyone else, she, too, said she wants to spend time with her family during the holiday.
“Last year, holiday gatherings, in any shape or form, we asked people to not do – outside of anyone who lived in their home – and not to mix households. But last year, we did not have vaccines, and that this year we do have vaccines this year, so the precautions are not the same.”
Forbes said it is better this year than last year but that we’re not in the clear yet.
Forbes reminds people that as they come together in small groups, to don a good fitting mask, and to wear it properly, covering the nose and mouth.
Strategies people should employ to ensure they can come together in small groups include following COVID protocols – vaccination combined with mask-wearing and six feet distance between people, hand-washing and avoiding crowds.
As people go about their holiday preparations, she said they should also be aware of ensuring they keep themselves safe.
“There have been large crowds pictured shopping – try to avoid that. If you plan to go shopping [in the final days before Christmas], don’t go into a crowd. Try to shop online, or go when the store is not as busy, use a pick-up service, or opt to shop at a store that is not crowded.”
When visiting people over the holidays, she also encourages people to be cognizant of visiting vulnerable people and to be careful. Those people with a medical problem, those who are older, have a history of cancer or something that weakens the system, she said, should ensure they get vaccinated and boosted.
There were 37 confirmed new COVID cases listed on the Ministry of Health and Wellness’ website on Friday, December 17 – 21 in New Providence, 12 in Grand Bahama, one in Abaco, two in Exuma, and one in Andros.
She also encourages vigilance when traveling.
There are currently no confirmed cases of the omicron variant in The Bahamas but samples are being tested for the variant, which has raced ahead of other variants and is now the dominant version of the coronavirus in the United States (US), according for 73 percent of new infections last week, according to US health officials.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers showed nearly a six-fold increase in omicron’s share of infections in only one week.
“We know resistant strains are spread by travel. And we are pending results and, while awaiting results, we should all conduct ourselves accordingly. It might already be here. It could be imported. We do not know but we have seen rapid rise in [newly confirmed COVID cases] the last few days and, so, we do have to go into the holiday season with caution.”
The health ministry’s update shows 10 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases with history of travel within 14 days – eight cases with history of travel within 14 days and two in Exuma.
Forbes, the consultant physician in infectious diseases at Princess Margaret Hospital and Doctors Hospital, advises people to weigh the need for travel. If they do not need to travel, she said they should postpone their trip, especially if they are older and vulnerable. If they must travel, she reminds people to continue to follow COVID protocols.
“Mask-wearing reduces COVID instance by 50-60 percent when combined with hand-washing and social distancing. And many of these places people are traveling to do not have mandatory mask mandates.”
For those people who are still unvaccinated, Forbes encourages them to get vaccinated, due to the contagious nature of omicron which she said is three times more infectious, if not more so, than delta.
“The best defense is vaccination and boosters, which should help in deaths and hospitalizations,” said Forbes.
There are currently 23 hospitalized cases, 21 moderately ill and two in the intensive care unit.
The Bahamas has recorded 713 COVID-19 deaths, with 38 deaths under investigation.