Say good-bye to Thanksgiving dinners over Zoom. Holiday season family gatherings are finally (relatively) safe again in the age of COVID—provided everyone gets their shots—says NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Ashwin Vasan. 

“If you’re vaccinated, and especially if you’re boosted, and if you’re making use of rapid home tests, then there should be no reason why people can’t gather,” he told the Amsterdam News in a COVID-19 roundtable for Black media. “There should be no reason why people can’t celebrate,  there should be no reason why people can’t find community once again during the holidays.

“So it does feel a little more normal, but we also just have more tools in our toolkit. And also, if you happen to get sick, we have treatment, right? We have Paxlovid, which will keep you out of the hospital.” 

Dr. Nathaniel Hafer, director of operations for the UMass Center for Clinical & Translational Science, concurs, crediting the aforementioned “toolbox.” Vaccines are now available to young children. Paxlovid, Pfizer’s antiviral pill, offers an emergency response for infected at-risk individuals previously unavailable in past, pandemic holiday seasons. And boosters are readily here. 

“I think all that advice was good,” said Hafer. “As long as people are vaccinated and boosted, as long as people don’t go out if they don’t feel well [and] they’re taking a rapid test before getting together—makes sense throughout.”

But vaccines are the key to making such a safe holiday season possible. With kids back in school, adults back in the office and temperatures falling, Vasan mentions the return of seasonal viruses. Around 2,000 New Yorkers die each year from the flu. Most are elderly, have pre-existing conditions and/or unvaccinated. So Vasan wants folks to get their flu shots. Additionally, he highlighted the availability of new COVID-19 boosters.

“These are bivalent boosters that cover Omicron variant and all of its sub variants,” said Vasan. “Over time, one of the biggest criticisms of the COVID vaccine has been that ‘I’m boosted or I’m vaccinated, and I still got infected.’ So [it] can’t be working right? Well, we’ve been using the same formulation of the vaccine since December 2020. 

“Only now, we updated it to include the most transmissible variants, that is Omicron and all of the different sub variants like BA.2, BA.4, BA.5 and so forth.”

According to a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokesperson, only 28% of Black New Yorkers are boosted. Hafer says appointments were painless for him, albeit in Massachusetts—he simply signed up on the CVS website and got his shot over Labor Day weekend. 

But the return of safe holiday gatherings and the arrival of new booster shots are overshadowed by even better COVID-19 news. 

“We’re at the lowest levels of death we’ve seen at any point in the pandemic, which is a wonderful thing, even though no death is acceptable,” said Vasan. 

Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift today by visiting:

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