This year, vaccines are available to all U.S. residents ages 5 and up, some of whom can even receive a booster shot.
“Although we’re still in this pandemic, at the same time, being vaccinated goes a really long way,” Dr. Lakshman Swamy, an ICU physician at Cambridge Health Alliance and Boston Medical Center, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above) “I think if you’re having a small gathering, a couple of families indoors and everyone’s vaccinated — the adults, certainly — I’d honestly feel pretty safe about that, about not being masked.”
Swamy added that "it really changes when you add more variables in, like more and more families, more people coming from out of state, not everyone is vaccinated. I would start to really worry then."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country's top infectious disease official, made a similar point recently.
“If you get vaccinated, and your family is vaccinated, you can feel good about enjoying a typical Thanksgiving, Christmas, with your family and close friends,” Fauci told the Bipartisan Policy Center.
'Getting the kids vaccinated will do a lot there'
Cases have ticked up by 29% over the past 14 days, and the U.S. has surpassed a total of 47 million cases with 769,000 deaths from COVID-19.
And while these numbers are lower than desired by many public health professionals, Swamy is hopeful that many families can still have a safe holiday, especially since the recent approval of vaccines for children between the ages of 5 and 11 has proven to be a game changer.
“Getting the kids vaccinated will do a lot there,” Swamy said. “If you get your kid their first shot before the 20th of November, you should be able to have them fully protected by Christmas. I think that’ll go a long way.”
'It's going to be even worse in some cases'
Unfortunately, until vaccination rates improve, it could still be a dark winter ahead for unvaccinated families, especially those gathering together for the holidays.
“Last winter, we didn’t have vaccinations,” Swamy said. “We had a lot of indoor gatherings. We saw a big surge here in Boston after that. I’m worried that what we’re going to see now is the same thing. But with the unvaccinated and Delta, it’s going to be even worse in those cases. And that’s what we’re seeing in the North and the West right now.”
Dozens of states are seeing their ICU capacities quickly fill up. Both New Mexico and Rhode Island are at over 88% capacity, according to the latest data from the Department of Health and Human Services.
“We are not excellent at predicting anything with COVID,” Swamy said. “That’s certainly true. But on the other hand, I think what we’re seeing is, unfortunately, going to be a worse case compared to last winter.”
The problem is not only gathering for the holidays — it’s also the fact that as the weather gets colder, people are more likely to shift indoors. This played a major role in why cases spiked dramatically last winter.
But with vaccines now widely available, it could be a different scene altogether this year.
“The way I like to think about it is it’s not quite in the rearview mirror, but I think we are heading there,” Swamy said. “With vaccines for kids starting, that’s a huge step forward. With more and more people getting boosters, that’s going to help. The biggest thing is getting the first shot into arms that haven’t had them yet.”
Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at email@example.com.