University of Maryland cheerleaders masked during the season. Students are looking forward to the holiday break, despite concerns of the COVID-19 infection and Omicron variant. (Courtesy Photo)

By Chris Barylick
Special to the AFRO

With the fall 2021 academic semester drawing to a close and the freedom of a weeks-long winter break for undergraduate and graduate students only days away, there comes the question of how to stay safe from COVID-19 this holiday break. Where the pandemic was thought to be under control, with CDC infection numbers showing a significant decline, the emergence of the Omicron variant has added yet another speed bump on the road back to much-desired pre-pandemic normalcy, the CDC reporting that the Omicron variant now accounted for three percent of COVID-19 infections within the United States as of this writing.

This, combined with the fact that the Fall 2021 semester marked the first semester back to in-person classes for many students who are now looking to enjoy socializing with friends back home, places even more pressure on the vacation to come. With that in mind, college students and medical personnel shared their plans for the coming holiday break, and how they planned to stay safe given the circumstances at hand.

Hugh K. Campbell, a Montgomery College IEC Apprenticeship Program class of 2025 student, stated that he planned to encourage those around him to get the vaccination shot and avoid congregating with those that opted out of the vaccinations.

“It’s a hard line now. None of that ‘I’m not sure’ bullsh— anymore. Get the fu—- shot,” he said, citing that vaccinations had been available for the better part of a year and that the pros outweigh the cons in his mind.

“To stay safe over the holidays, I’m mainly just relying on social distancing and wearing a mask,” said John Lin, a graduate student with the University of Maryland’s Fischell Bioengineering Institute. “I’ll be going to Florida over winter break,” he added. “I think we all know that they’re a little cavalier over there. So I’ll be pretty nervous about going to the tourist attractions with my family and staying safe in that regard.”

In spite of the nervousness around the season, medical professionals offered their best advice as to how students can stay safe.

“If you flip the blue surgical mask around, it does better protecting you from others than the blue side out, which is designed to protect the surgical patient. More masking and washing are the key. Get a booster if you can,” said Ashley Aronow, BA, MS, a preclinical pharmacologist working in gene therapies, MRNA, and nanoparticles for Generation Bio in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Alcohol-based hand sanitization requires either contact time or friction, so rub vigorously until evaporated or let it sit. If you want to decontaminate your phone, spray it down and walk away for a few minutes or scrub it,” Aronow added.

“Know who you’re with and what their COVID status is. Having everyone vaccinated will help minimize symptoms, but not prevent infection,” said Ward Rogers, manager of Express Healthcare in College Park, Maryland, which has opened several walk-in and drive-through rapid testing and vaccination sites within the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area. “It’s not realistic for family members to social distance, so be sure everyone is negative. If an outsider comes to the house, suggest that they get tested prior and wear a mask – can help decrease spreading virus particles. Wash hands frequently. If someone starts feeling symptoms like fever, cough, sniffles, loss of taste/smell, isolate them and get tested.”

“Masking may help, but the best defense against catching the virus is to not be around the virus,” he added. “It’s unrealistic to expect close family members to occupy living spaces with an infected individual and not become infected, no matter how vigilant they are with preventive measures.”

The forthcoming holiday season won’t be the pre-pandemic normalcy we’d love to get back to, but it’s a step in the right direction provided people remain aware of the situation. Be careful, play it safe, enjoy your time with friends and family, and listen to your instincts if something feels off or the situation feels a bit riskier than it should. Play it safe, have a good time, and provided everyone remains careful, this holiday season should be awesome prior to returning to campus to start the new semester.

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