First there was Thanksgiving when some families who gathered for the turkey and stuffing also shared the coronavirus, causing a surge in cases in some places and further straining the country’s already overburdened hospitals.
Then there was a Christmas weekend when Americans overcrowded airports in numbers that have not been seen since the pandemic began. Anyone who contracted the virus at the time is likely still in the incubation phase or just beginning to experience symptoms. So it’s too early to appreciate the full impact of people’s Christmas activities.
Now comes New Year’s Eve, an opportunity to celebrate, drink, indulge in large crowds, often among strangers, and to utter a primal scream when the clock strikes twelve.
In other words, it’s a vacation that is tailored precisely to super-spreader events. And it is just arriving as the first cases of a new, contagious variant of the virus were discovered in the United States, suggesting that it is already widespread.
“It’s in a small community south of Denver, so it’s reasonable to believe it could already be in New York City,” said Dr. Bill Hanage, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
New Year’s Eve, he said, “risks accelerating the rollout of variants that are more communicable in communities, and we have reason to believe that these are emerging.”
The risk of transmission increases with the size of the congregation, of course, but also with the amount of alcohol consumed, said Dr. Hanage.
People who drink “become disinhibited,” he noted, “and when they become disinhibited, they are more likely to be risky.”
The safest way to see the New Year is at home when there is no one outside of your household, said Dr. Hanage. However, as more people gather around, they can reduce the risk a bit by doing it outdoors and wearing masks.
“It doesn’t sound very fun or easy to drink champagne,” he said, “but wearing a mask will be another barrier to possible transmission.”