ACROSS AMERICA — One of the hardest-to-find holiday items right now isn’t the latest toy or gadget but over-the-counter COVID-19 antigen tests, in high demand as the coronavirus omicron variant surges and accounted for an estimated 73 percent of new infections last week.
The nation is facing a second Christmas and New Year’s under the cloud of the coronavirus, which threatens to return to early pandemic infection rates. Getting tested won’t prevent a COVID-19 infection, but it can provide peace of mind to your guests and hosts.
Good luck finding an at-home test, though.
A representative for BinaxNow told the Los Angeles Times it has experienced “unprecedented demand” for its at-home test that offers results in 15 minutes.
“We’re sending them out as fast as we can make them,” said John Koval, director of public affairs for Abbott’s Rapid Diagnostics team, which oversees BinaxNow. “Today, we’re back up to making well over 50 million BinaxNOW tests per month, and we’re heading to 70 million a month in January.”
The Biden administration has plans to distribute 500 million free rapid-test kits to Americans as part of the president’s COVID-19 winter plan, but the tests won’t be available in time for the holidays.
In the meantime, state and local officials around the country are aggressively ramping up local test sites.
Long lines are snaking around corners in U.S. cities this week as people scramble for tests, including in New York City. There, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday said the city would open eight new major testing sites early this week and send free at-home test kits to “high volume” areas.
Getting COVID-19 vaccinations, including the booster shot, is the best defense against coronavirus in general and, more specifically, the omicron variant, which the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated Monday accounted for 650,000 cases nationwide.
About 61 percent of Americans were “fully vaccinated” — meaning inoculations apart from a booster — at the end of last week, the CDC estimated. Among them, about 28 percent also had gotten a booster shot.
Drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna have both said their booster shots protect against new COVID-19 infections related to omicron, and appear to lessen the symptoms in breakthrough infections among the vaccinated.
Is It Too Late To Get Vaccinated And Boosted?
Peak coronavirus protection doesn’t come until two weeks after the second or final dose, but the first dose provides some protection.
People who get the booster dose begin to see an increase in COVID-19 antibodies right away; but as with the coronavirus vaccines, peak protection occurs two weeks after the shot.
“There is a meaningful increase in antibody titers by one week and peak responses at two weeks following mRNA boosting,” Dr. Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, told ABC News.
Here are some other things you can do to protect against the spread of COVID-19:
Gather In Well-Ventilated Places
The virus spreads through the air when people talk or even breathe, and a cough can send 10,000 to 20,000 particles into the air. If gatherings can’t be held outside, health experts at the University of Michigan recommend gathering in well-ventilated spaces, opening windows if weather permits and installing HEPA air purifiers.
“What you want to do is avoid being in closed spaces with many people for long durations with poor ventilation,” Jesse Capecelatro, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at U-M, said in a post on the Michigan Health website.
“When it comes to mitigation, you want to avoid inhaling as many infectious particles as possible,” Capecelatro said. “The longer you are around someone, the more of their exhaled particles you inhale. The more people at a gathering, the higher the risk that one of them may be infected.”
Wear Your Mask
Whether you get COVID-19 depends on the number of particles you breathe in — the more particles you take into your lungs, the higher the chances of an infection. Masks can reduce that and boost protection.
Wearing a mask in the company of vaccinated people may not be as important as when socializing with people who aren’t vaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown, according to health officials
“But if it’s a gathering of a large number of people that you don’t commonly interact with, you may choose to wear a mask even if everyone is vaccinated, if you’re in an indoor space that is not well-ventilated,” said Dr. Laraine Washer, a clinical professor of infectious diseases at the University of Michigan Medical School and hospital epidemiologist at U-M Health.
She also advised people to wear masks in public indoor spaces, especially when out shopping for groceries and holiday gifts in areas with substantial or high transmission rates.
“If you’re vaccinated and you’re boosted, and you take care when you go into congregate settings like airports to make sure you continually wear your mask, you should be OK,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.
Upgrade Your Mask
Many health experts recommend upgrading your mask if you’re planning to be in crowded places where you don’t know people’s vaccination status or if they have active COVID-19 infections.
Experts say three-ply cloth and surgical masks do a good job at preventing you from spreading COVID-19 if they fit snugly, but upgrading to N95 or KN95 respirator masks offers more complete protection. If you can’t find the upgraded masks, wear a surgical mask topped by a cloth map, but make sure it’s a snug fit.
Cancel Or Downsize The Party
With the right precautions, holiday parties can be relatively safe. But be smart about it.
“Avoid some really risky things like large indoor gatherings where people are eating and drinking,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
His school canceled its 200-person holiday party, he noted.
Research on omicron in Norway focused on a four-hour holiday party, where one person infected with omicron passed the virus to more than 80 people — about three-fourths of those in attendance. Nearly 90 percent of those who attended the party had received two doses of mRNA vaccine, according to the study.