Millions of people plan to travel on Christmas and New Year in the omicron variant

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A few weeks after millions of Americans have traveled on Thanksgiving Day, an omicron variant is emerging as many more people begin to set out on Christmas and New Year, which worries public health officials and complicates travel plans.

The year-round rush – usually the busiest holiday trip of the year – will occur as researchers seek to fully understand the portability, severity, and immunity of a new coronavirus variant against vaccines.

But travelers say they expect confidence in vaccines and booster injections, along with growing pandemic fatigue after nearly two years, will force millions to travel through the winter holidays despite increased uncertainty.

Rishabh Chauhan, a PhD student at the University of Illinois at Chicago who is studying public risk perception and behavior During the pandemic, they said that early reports of a variant that appeared to be more portable but less dangerous were likely to leave most holiday travel plans untouched.

“We think Omicron could cause a small draft in travel, but we haven’t heard of any mass cancellation,” Chauhan said. “But we live in very uncertain times.” The news is published every day, so talking about the future is uncertain. “

With many travel plans still a week ahead and findings from medical research appearing every day, Chauhan and other experts argue that it is difficult to predict the effects of this option on sustained demand for vacation travel.

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“Delta has hit air travel and now there is a lot of speculation about what it means with omicronto,” said Sheldon H. Jacobson, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who uses data modeling. analyze the effect of the virus on the aviation system. “Until more data is available, it’s hard to predict.”

The travel industry is making a big leap on Thanksgiving, signaling that many passengers will tolerate some risk. According to the Office of Transportation Safety (TSA), air travel has more than doubled during the 10-day holiday period compared to 2020. The 21 million people screened at security checkpoints represented more than 90 percent of the pre-pandemic level. More than 2.4 million screened on Thanksgiving Sunday reached the highest daily number since the start of the pandemic, according to the TSA.

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An Poll Axios-Ipsos conducted earlier this month, about a week after South African reports emerged from South Africa, found that most Americans said they did not plan to make major changes to the variant. Less than 1 in 4 said they are likely to cancel holiday travel plans.

A more recent Axios / Ipsos survey which ended on December 13 saw a growing sense of unrest, with 68 percent saying they believed air travel would pose a major or moderate health risk – a 10 percent jump from early November.

Abhinav Sharma, an assistant professor of hospitality at Florida State University who studies travel decisions during a pandemic, said he did not expect the omicron to cause more than “mild to moderate fluctuations.”

“We became more experienced than the company when we dealt with the news related to the variants,” said Sharma.

Survey: Most Americans, regardless of party, are exhausted by pandemic changes

The AAA predicts that 109 million Americans will travel between December 23 and January 2 – twice as much as Thanksgiving, which is a shorter time frame, and almost 28 million more than during the same period last year. That would mean that this year’s travel after the winter holidays would reach 92 percent of the numbers from 2019, the group said. AAA claims that Omicron has not caused the closure of its travel agents, probably because many still believe in vaccines and booster injections.

“We don’t see many people change their plans,” said Paula Twidale, AAA’s senior vice president of travel. “I think people are used to taking all possible precautionary measures. They gave up the holidays last year, so they go. “

Travelers have also gained more confidence in their ability to reduce their risks, experts say.

Potomac resident Nora Yang recently booked a business trip to France after canceling her due to an omicron. Yang, who is fully vaccinated by revaccination, said she changed her mind after the first reports that she was causing milder infections.

“We’ve re-evaluated the situation,” said Yang, 59, a biotechnology manager. “Nothing is 100 percent safe, but [the business meeting] is a small group of executives and we will all be tested before. “

She said she planned to avoid the crowd and would feel safer on the plane due to a French request that incoming visitors provide evidence of a negative coronavirus test. Meeting participants are fully vaccinated and will wear masks and social distance, she said.

“I’ll be careful,” Yang said. “I feel like I know how to protect myself.”

Travel plans, which include visits to elderly and vulnerable relatives, include a different risk calculation – one that, according to public health experts, still requires extra care.

The CDC warns that the rapidly spreading Omicron in the US could bring a reprehensible wave by January

Lisa Lee, an epidemiologist and public health expert at Virginia Tech, warned that unvaccinated people should spend time with people over 60 or with a less immune system. Vaccinated people should be tested 24 to 48 hours before the trip, she said.

“We know what to do to reduce the risk as much as possible,” Lee said. “Let’s move on. Let’s be vaccinated. Wear a mask. Keep your distance. Stay out of the big crowds. These are things we all need to do, especially when more people have decided to take the risk during these holidays. “

Mahmood Khan, a professor and director of the hospitality and tourism management department at Virginia Tech in Arlington, said people had become more comfortable traveling as the pandemic continued.

“Many passengers are used to wearing masks and keeping a safe distance,” Khan said. “Travelers are much more attuned to how to deal with this situation.”

The hotel industry leaders say they believe that high gas prices, more than omicron variants, can keep some holidaymakers at home, while some airline managers have said they believe any effect of omicron will be short-lived.

“If the return of demand is delayed, yes,” said Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines. “It’s a short-term affair. It’s not a long-term affair. That’s how we look at the omicron.”

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Traffic security administrator David Pekoske said the agency expected crowds at airports to approach pre-pandemic levels, as was the case during Thanksgiving.

“We see a pretty strong recovery,” Pekoske told a news conference this week.

For some, flying is still too risky. District resident Saba Ahmed, 37, said she and her husband would miss another family vacation in California because they did not plan to fly until their 3-year-old son could be vaccinated.

“I’m really hesitant to have a preschool kid on the plane, especially with the new variant,” said lawyer Ahmed. “It’s very contagious.” I don’t think he could sit on a plane with a mask for five hours, and even if he could, I’m not sure if the mask would be enough to protect him, so we’ll stay put. “

Time is on the side of tourism, experts say. A longitudinal survey Chauhan and his fellow researchers have been monitoring risk perceptions since spring 2020, and behavior during the pandemic shows that people are increasingly trusting travel since vaccines have become widely available, even amid new variants, Chauhan said.

The survey found that although the delta variants rose sharply during the summer and fall, 43 percent said they feared a “severe reaction” to covid-19 – a decrease from 62 percent who claimed it before vaccines were readily available. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who said that video calling was a “good alternative” to visiting friends and family in person fell from 47 percent at the start of the pandemic to 38 percent this fall.

“People feel less worried,” Chauhan said. “They feel the risk is lower. People are getting more relaxed. “

FAQ: 9 questions about omikron variant and travel, answered

Juan Luis Nicolau, a professor of hospitality and tourism management in Virginia who studied travel decisions during the pandemic, said he was witnessing the disruption of larger social gatherings, such as office parties, due to the omicron. But family reunions will have a higher bar for cancellation, he said, especially after people left out last year. Participants can also better trust what precautionary measures their relatives have taken before they come with them – a key factor in pandemic decisions, he said.

“It suits my family more than big gatherings where we don’t know how people behave,” Nicolau said.

One key issue with the rapidly expanding variant that hits during the holiday season: it complicates the cost-benefit analysis used in decision-making, whether intentionally or subconsciously, experts say. Uncertainty about the virulence of omicron increases the feeling of risk or potential cost.

“It used to be ‘We’ll go see Grandma at Christmas, of course,'” said James K. Hammitt, a professor of economics and decision-making at Harvard University. “But now we have more reason to put more effort into this choice.”

As Omicron changes the rules of the Covid-19 pandemic

Visiting distant family members also increases the sense of benefit, and people have learned that they can reduce their risk by visiting outdoors or by home coronavirus testing before the meeting, Hammitt said.

Guido Adelfio, owner of Bethesda Travel Center, said that none of his clients on European holiday trips have been canceled, even though the omicron variant prevails there.

According to him, the “big concern” he hears from customers is rather that they are concerned about potential government restrictions, such as finding closed restaurants in their destinations. Everyone is vaccinated, he said.

“No one told me ‘I’m afraid I’ll get covid,'” Adelfio said. “But everyone asks, what happens if things turn off?” … They realize that vaccines are not 100% effective, but if they get sick, we hope they get a mild case. “

Omicron ends holidays for international travelers

Bethesda resident Nick Isbell said he paid close attention to omicron reports, especially from Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. Isbell hadn’t heard anything that would force him to cancel his two-week vacation in Bethany Beach, Delaware. He said he felt relatively safe because staying in the house would limit his contact with others.

“I’ve been vaccinated three times,” said Isbell, a 59-year-old economist at the federal government. “I have no information to tell me that people who received two shots and a booster are in serious danger. … I will panic if Dr. Fauci tells me to panic. ”

Washington Post poll analyst Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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