What you need to know about COVID ahead of the holidays: boosters, surges, variants

It’s that time of the year again.

As airports crowd with travelers and the weather cools down, a post-holiday COVID-19 surge is likely brewing across the country.

Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease expert at Duke Health, breaks down what you need to know ahead of this holiday season:

Are COVID-19 cases on the rise?

Compared to a few months ago — when most of the country experienced a “surge-let” — Wolfe said North Carolina is in a much better position.

COVID-related hospitalizations and emergency room visits have both declined in recent weeks.

However, for a number of reasons, like colder weather and more congregation and travel over the holidays, he cautioned that cases will likely begin to tick up again in early December.

“We’d be naive, I think, to not expect a nice little winter peak,” he said.

What to know about COVID variants spreading

Right now, cases are made of up two main COVID variants: EG.5 and a a newer strain, HV.1.

EG.5, which makes up about a fifth of cases, is very similar to prior variants. Though it seems to spread more easily, researchers do not think it causes more serious infection nor is it better at evading immunity, Dr. David Wohl, a UNC Health epidemiologist, told the News & Observer in August.

The new omicron variant, HV.1, similarly does not appear to make people sicker and responds well to current treatments for COVID-19, Wohl said.

Precautions for the holidays

Wolfe said the best way to prepare for the holidays is to stay up to date on COVID shots.

Last month, health care providers began offering reformulated COVID boosters, which are designed to target the original COVID strain and XBB — an omicron subvariant that circulated this summer.

Even though XBB is not dominant in North Carolina, the vaccine still offers a boost in protection against the related variants spreading now, Wolfe said.

It takes a few weeks from when you’ve been vaccinated to build up immunity, so he said it’s wise to get the booster some time before travel or large family gatherings.

It’s unclear how many eligible North Carolinians have received these shots because the CDC stopped publishing state-level data in May, when the federal Public Health Emergency ended.

Nationally, the CDC estimates that about 14% of American adults are up to date on the COVID-19 vaccines, which is in line with the uptake of last year’s bivalent booster.

He also encouraged people to stay home from large gatherings if they have a fever, muscle aches and pains, or a cough. Those symptoms put you at high risk of having COVID, the flu or RSV, he said.

“I don’t think people should get caught up in the weeds of trying to tease out what symptoms are which,” he said. “You would hope that from a community-minded person’s perspective, they would not want any of those sorts of illnesses to be transmitted around the Thanksgiving table.”

Teddy Rosenbluth covers science and health care for The News & Observer in a position funded by Duke Health and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.