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Health experts encourage testing before holiday gatherings

Some community COVID testing sites will still be open Christmas Eve, while at-home tests are available at pharmacies.

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Department of Health says, as of right now, the omicron variant is the dominant strain of COVID nationwide – and in Minnesota.

It’s a big change from where cases were three weeks ago, when the very first case of omicron was confirmed in Minnesota.

The omicron surge comes at a difficult time in Minnesota, with Christmas just days away.

University of Minnesota pediatric professor and infectious disease expert Dr. Beth Thielen says delta continues to be a problem and now omicron has become an even more dominant strain.

"It seems like a pretty inopportune timing,” Dr. Thielen said.

She says it's a bleak situation heading into the holidays, but Minnesotans have a few tools they can use to stay safe.

"Some folks are picking up tests at their local pharmacy and getting rapid antigen tests they can do at home."

Thielen says the tests are effective and incredibly convenient. She recommends testing yourself and your family before you hit the road to visit friends and family, even if you're not showing symptoms.

"What we're worried about is though people are feeling okay, and then they go to their holiday party and then infect people without even realizing it,” Thielen says.

She also recommends outdoor activities, if it's possible. Instead of crowding into a small living room, maybe host an outdoor bonfire or sledding party. She also recommends smaller gatherings of people.

"Taken altogether, these approaches can help reduce spread over the holidays,” Thielen said.

While the spread of omicron is concerning, there is some positive news going into the holidays. On Wednesday morning, the FDA approved Pfizer's new COVID antiviral pill Paxlovid. Studies show the pill reduced the risk of hospitalization and death by 89% when taken within three days of showing symptoms.

“I think universal access to effective treatments will have a major impact on the spread of the infection,” Mayo Clinic COVID Task Force Chair Dr. Andrew Badley said.

Pfizer says 180,000 treatments will be available by the end of the year. The federal government has plans to purchase about 10 million treatments in the coming months.

"We're hopeful that the drug supply will be sufficient that we can mail it out to as many people as needed. So, that could be very, very important.” Dr. Badley said.

There is also some promising news coming out of South Africa, one of the omicron hotspots.

Top researchers say the country may have already reached its peak.

According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa, some areas are seeing about a 20% drop in new cases, which might signal that the worst is behind them.

Thielen says it's unclear if the U.S. will see a similar drop in cases. The two countries and their COVID situations are very different. Plus, it's summer right now in South Africa, and winter here, so the seasons may also play a role.

"You know, hopefully it will turn out to be favorable, but in the chance that it’s not, I think it would be good for us now to take precautions,” Dr. Thielen said.

Besides the at-home tests, several community testing sites are still open.

Most will be open on Friday, Dec. 23, but will close down until next Monday, Dec. 27.

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