A year after the scaled-down holiday gatherings of 2020, many Americans were looking forward to more "normal" Christmas celebrations this season.
But Covid-19 cases are on the rise, and the omicron variant is spreading rapidly. Reinstated mask mandates, warnings from overburdened hospitals and long lines at testing sites are inspiring a sense of déjà vu from a Christmas past that few people care to relive.
"We’re back to a March 2020 quarantine vibe," lamented Jesus Gutierrez, 26, who lives in New York City, where the state on Sunday reported 22,478 new Covid cases. It was New York state's highest single-day total since the pandemic began.
Gutierrez wanted to host a Christmas dinner with friends, an event he and his boyfriend had been planning since Thanksgiving. The couple moved out of Manhattan earlier in the pandemic, then returned to the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood on Manhattan's West Side and were looking forward to their holiday reunion with eight or so friends.
But then, Gutierrez said, "people I know who were supposed to come are testing positive."
The pair contemplated asking that their guests test negative before the party but ultimately chose to call the whole thing off. Their friends were understanding, since they're trying to be cautious themselves, Gutierrez said, but they were also "sad and bummed."
The World Health Organization said last week that the omicron variant is spreading faster than any previously detected strain of the coronavirus, and most early research indicates it's more contagious than prior variants. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that as of Friday, more than 73 percent of new cases in the U.S. were caused by omicron.
Preliminary data suggests omicron can better evade immune protection from a vaccine or prior infection, making the chance of a breakthrough case higher.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, warned Sunday that the next few weeks will put severe stress on hospital systems. “We are going to see breakthrough infections; there’s no doubt about that,” Fauci said.
As of Sunday, the U.S. was seeing a seven-day average of 133,243 new cases per day, up 12 percent from the previous week, according to NBC News’ count. On average, 1,302 people have died from Covid every day for the last week, a 1.7 percent increase from the week prior.
Already, it feels common to know someone who has Covid, a reality that has caused many people, like Gutierrez, to once again scrap or at least scale back their Christmas plans.
Gutierrez said his apartment overlooks a crowded pop-up Covid-19 testing tent, a sight he called “daunting,” and added that he knows someone who is hospitalized and in a coma due to Covid complications.
“Once I heard about that, I was like you know what — and they were vaccinated — it just gets a little real and scary when there’s a real-life story directly to you,” he said.
Many questions remain about precisely how transmissible the omicron variant is, and it’s too early to assess the severity of illness it causes. What does seem clear, however, is that booster shots are key.
On Monday, Moderna announced that its booster provides protection against omicron, and Pfizer offered a similar analysis of its booster shot earlier this month.
“The difference between a vaccinated and boosted person who has an infection and someone who has an infection who’s never been vaccinated, there’s a major difference with regard to the risk of severity,” Fauci said Sunday.
While a booster shot's effects can have benefits after 48 hours, it takes up to two weeks for the body to produce the highest amount of antibodies, doctors say. As of Sunday, nearly 204 million people across the country were fully vaccinated, and more than 60 million had received a booster, according to the CDC.
Joanne Cleaver, 63, has gotten her booster but decided to alter her Christmas plans anyway.
Cleaver considered taking her vaccinated 88-year-old mother to a church concert, but she decided instead to plan activities her family can do outside at her home in Charlotte, North Carolina. That includes an evening of gingerbread house-making for her four grandchildren and one other family.
“It feels like the best way to handle this is to focus on what’s absolutely most important,” Cleaver said. “You can’t do all the traditions, so let’s just do the couple that feels sustainable in this time.”
Cleaver added that she wasn't disappointed by the change in plans.
"We’re back to a March 2020 quarantine vibe."
New Yorker Jesus Gutierrez
“Honestly, we never adjusted our expectations back to normal,” she said. “We did not expect to resume what I would call the normal level of activity.”
Most experts, including Fauci, aren’t advising people to cancel holiday plans entirely. Instead, they encourage people to take as many precautions as possible, including masking up in public, indoor settings; testing often; gathering outside when possible; and making sure everyone who attends a party is vaccinated and, ideally, boosted.
Eric Meyerowitz, an internist and infectious disease specialist at Montefiore Health System in New York, said his family is relying on a combination of those measures for their festivities.
“I’ve been talking with family members about changing plans, seeing if we can do some of the gatherings outside,” he said. “And then trying to do all the mitigation strategies. So I ordered some additional rapid tests yesterday, and, if we are going to be inside, we’re going to have windows open and keep it to small numbers.”
When it comes to unvaccinated loved ones, Alan Bulbin, director of infectious diseases at New York’s St. Francis Hospital, suggested it might be best to lovingly uninvite them.
“I certainly can’t judge, and I know there are some people who just will remain hesitant and not [get vaccinated],” Bulbin said. “But if I was the host of a gathering, I would say, ‘I’m sorry you can’t come. Love you but stay home.’”
Don Wood, 52, said he and his wife still plan to host about a dozen vaccinated relatives, including his 82-year-old mother-in-law, for Christmas in Leavenworth, Washington.
Last year “was brutal,” Wood said. “We’re a family all about big family gatherings — that was rough.”
Wood said he didn't see his twin brother and sister-in-law at all last year, so he will soon drive to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to visit them and a few other vaccinated loved ones in the days before Christmas.
“We are keenly aware of the advancing omicron virus,” said Wood, a nuclear researcher at a national laboratory. But at this point, he added, “we’ve done the right thing” by getting vaccinated and boosted. “We now need to take steps to take care of our mental health.”
Akua K. Boateng, a licensed psychotherapist, agrees. She said while it’s important to be cautious, "seeing your family is a core need."
Boateng said she noticed a shift in the last few days, as people who expected to see loved ones for the holidays after long stretches apart felt like the rug was being pulled out from under them.
"Having hope really helps us to get through, and so having a surge with the new variants creates another layer of disappointment, another layer of depression and anxiety around not only being able to see family again, but when will my life be back to normal?" Boateng said.
"We are choosing between bad and worse," she added.
Wood said he certainly feels that disappointment.
“You keep waiting for a Christmas season to arrive to say, ‘Oh, we beat it,’ but it’s not here yet,” he said. “It doesn’t feel joyful yet.”