This holiday season, COVID-19 could be the villain that squelches any sign of cheer for yet another year.
The delta variant has propelled a spike in COVID cases after Thanksgiving in Massachusetts while the highly mutated omicron variant's impact remains to be seen as it gains a foothold in the Bay State. In fact, the World Health Organization on Wednesday said the new strain could change the course of the pandemic.
Amid the added uncertainty, NBC10 Boston asked three top Boston doctors during the weekly "COVID Q&A" series to give an update on the state of the pandemic in Massachusetts and whether we should rethink holiday parties.
Current State of COVID in Mass.
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Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have been steadily rising in Massachusetts and across New England in recent weeks. Meanwhile, the omicron variant was first detected in Massachusetts earlier this month.
"The numbers for the state of Massachusetts have really rocketed up," said Dr. David Hamer of Boston Medical Center. "I think it's probably a lot of Thanksgiving-related parties and gatherings that have led to transmission."
Health officials have been seeing a dramatic rise in coronavirus cases in recent weeks -- Wednesday's daily report had more than 5,000 new cases, the most in a single day since mid-January. The previous single-day high for newly confirmed COVID cases was on Jan. 16, as last winter's surge was receding, state data shows.
Epidemiologist Dr. Shira Doron was reluctant to estimate when cases might start to decline, but based on last year's trajectory, she said it could occur sometime in February.
"I don't ever try to predict what's going to happen with this virus anymore," said Doron, of Tufts Medical Center. "But the curve is very, very similar to last year's curve at this time."
Meanwhile, Boston doctors are seeing hospitals in Massachusetts reach capacity. Some have had to restrict non-urgent procedures as a result.
Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of infectious disease at Brigham and Women's Hospital, said the number of people in the hospital with COVID has about doubled. Doron said she has seen "very similar proportions" at Tufts Medical Center since Thanksgiving.
"I think, through the Christmas and New Year's holidays, we're going to just see this at least plateau, if not continue to increase in numbers of cases," Kuritzkes said.
A great majority of cases in the post-Thanksgiving spike were caused by the delta variant, Hamer said, with a smaller percentage by delta plus. He also pointed to the Boston-area COVID wastewater tracker, which earlier this week reached the highest level of the virus seen so far, about as high as last winter's spike reached, and have since risen.
"The wastewater data have spiked to nearly the highest concentration that we've seen through the whole pandemic," Hamer said. "So I'm concerned about what's going on."
How to have a holiday party despite COVID, omicron
The experts say that plenty of precautions can be taken to prevent the spread of infection at holiday parties, including masks, at-home COVID tests and spending time outside.
"I really think that we have to find a good balance of caution and humanity. We can't keep keeping families apart," Doron said. "I will say that there are plenty of tools in the tool shed so that people can be with the family members that are important to them, and do the things that they do during the holidays."
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Utilizing multiple precautionary measures adds extra layers of protection, Doron said, but she cautioned that there are no guarantees.
"There is no zero-risk situation," Doron said. "Even staying home with your nuclear family is not zero-risk. But there are ways to increase the safety around an extended family gathering."
Kuritzkes noted that, while at-home testing kits can serve as an added measure of protection, they have some limitations.
Home kits, which rely on antigen testing, are not as accurate as the PCR tests done in hospitals and at testing sites, but they have the advantage of giving results within minutes instead of days. Kuritzkes said that the over-the-counter tests are best used with symptomatic disease and are less effective in detecting asymptomatic infection.
Kuritzkes emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated and ensuring that those you're celebrating with are vaccinated as well.
"The issue is always to be aware of the situation in which you find yourself, but, to the extent possible, you should limit your gatherings to gatherings of people who were vaccinated," Kuritzkes said. "If you're going to be in a mixed group, then you should be wearing a mask, or be outdoors, or make sure there's more ventilation and limit your time, especially for very close contact."
Public officials and medical experts have been urging people to get vaccinated or to receive booster shots amid growing concerns about the omicron variant.
More from the COVID Q&A Series
A panel of Boston-based doctors talking about everything related to the COVID-19 pandemic every Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.
In an earlier episode of "COVID Q&A," the experts said they weren't sure if the omicron variant can evade the existing COVID-19 vaccines or natural antibodies.
Shortly afterward, the Pfizer vaccine was reported to be less effective against the omicron variant. However, the drug company said Wednesday that a booster shot may offer enough added protection against omicron, even though the initial two doses appear significantly less effective.