With new subvariants of omicron circulating, celebrating Easter and Passover this weekend in South Florida will require some extra caution.
COVID-19 infection and hospitalization numbers in Florida are far better than they were a year ago, however new cases have been rising in the state over the last few weeks.
Whether attending religious services, egg hunts or family gatherings, here are some key steps you can take to stay healthy, including some potentially unexpected measures.
Going to a crowded church or big family gathering isn’t all that risky anymore unless you are unvaccinated or have chronic medical problems.
Consider the length of time since your last vaccine dose or COVID infection and the amount of COVID in your community.
In Miami-Dade County, the test positivity rate as of Friday is the highest of any county in the state at 8%.
Broward and Palm counties are at 7.9% and 6.9%, respectively. Public health experts like to see the rate below 5%.
“I think you have to understand that the risk is not zero,” said Dr. Joanna L. Drowos, associate professor of family medicine with Florida Atlantic University. “When you go out in public and there’s a crowd, that risk goes up, particularly when you’re indoors so you will want to weigh your individual risk. Those who are most at risk hopefully have received their booster protection.”
Dr. Curtis Franke, interim chief medical officer of MD Now Urgent Care, said fully vaccinated people have the most protection against the virus, and you in turn have the most protection when you are around them. Lots of children still are not vaccinated.
“Knowing the percent of people who are vaccinated at a gathering is very important just from a risk-management standpoint,” he said.
In South Florida, many churches and temples still are offering online services. Attending in-person and wearing a mask is still an option.
Just because your cousin received a negative test result doesn’t mean you want to be in close quarters with him. Positive results from self-tests are highly reliable. Negative results from self-tests may be less reliable, especially if someone has symptoms associated with COVID-19.
There is nothing wrong with reminding family and friends to stay home if they have even the mildest of symptoms.
Right now, people also are sick in South Florida with viruses other than COVID-19.
In the past few weeks, there has been a surge in non-COVID viral cases such as upper respiratory infections, common colds, gastroenteritis, and strep throat, says Dr. Zynab Hassan, medical director at Holy Cross Urgent Care in Fort Lauderdale. There also has been an increase in allergic symptoms of runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes, sinus pressure, and dry cough, which can also look like COVID.
If a sniffler shows up at your holiday gathering, keep your distance. Hassan also advises not sharing things that can spread via respiratory droplets such as drinks, and sanitizing quickly after shaking hands.
COVID has made people uncomfortable around anyone with cold or flu symptoms.
“If you feel bad, it doesn’t matter if it’s COVID or not. You shouldn’t be attending gatherings,” Franke said.
Some families and friend groups are big on hugging, cheek kissing and handshaking.
That might be OK for some people, but risky for others.
“Think about keeping others you care about safe and use your best judgment,” said Drowos with FAU. “If you are sneezing and have a runny nose, you know, maybe you don’t hug and kiss your relatives. That doesn’t mean that you can’t participate in holidays. Maybe keep your distance and wash your hands often or wear a mask.”
Franke at MD Now said the new BA.2 subvariant of omicron spreads more easily than other strains, so hugging or getting close enough to someone to breathe in droplets is a risk.
“You can catch the flu and COVID by just sharing the same breathing space so if you’re vulnerable, limit the number of people you hug or kiss,” he suggests.
Moderation is going to be important.
“If grandma hugs 200 people that day, that’s a really high-risk event for her,” Franke said. “You have to have those conversations with family. I think it might be worth saying, ‘You know, we’re trying to limit the number of people who hug grandma today.’”
Celebrating outside is still the best option to prevent the spread of COVID. The risk of outdoor transmission is exponentially lower than indoor transmission.
An outdoor religious service with the breeze blowing is safer than worship in a small indoor chapel with a lot of people whose vaccination status you may or may not know. An outdoor Easter brunch is safer than a family meal in a poorly ventilated restaurant.
But if you are gathering indoors, open the windows and increase cross ventilation. “All of that helps to dilute those respiratory particles that can be dangerous,” Franke said.
“If you’re seated having Easter supper or Passover with 10 people in a well-ventilated space, there’s a lot of lower risk than 200 people in a banquet hall with everybody standing and walking around as they eat,” he said.
Grief-stricken family members across the U.S. have shared their pain after unwittingly spreading COVID to a loved one who ended up hospitalized. Fortunately, this holiday weekend, rapid COVID tests are widely available.
You will want to time your test well so you know you are not spreading the virus to your entire family or friend group at an egg hunt or Passover seder. Omicron and its subvariants are highly contagious and spreading fast in places like New York.
“With a rapid test, the closer you are when you’re actually going see people the better,” Drowos said, “ You may have tested negative yesterday and been in the window before the test shows positive just because of the nature of the timing between exposure and your test.”
Franke said it is worth doing a COVID rapid test even if you don’t have symptoms or you recently had the virus. “Cases are down across the nation but that doesn’t mean it can’t come right back. We don’t want to have a false sense of security. It’s still important to be smart.”
Sun Sentinel health reporter Cindy Goodman can be reached at CGoodman@sun-sentinel.com or Twitter at @Cindykgoodman