At the end of 2020 and 2021, many people greeted the start of the coming year hunkered down due to the risk of Covid-19. But now, New Year’s Eve events and celebrations are back in a big way. A lot of people have plans to attend social functions, whether they are crowded festivities with thousands or house parties with a few relatives and friends.
These gatherings are occurring as the United States is in the midst of a triple threat — a confluence of respiratory syncytial virus or RSV, influenza and Covid-19. All three viral infections are spread from person to person, and gatherings involving many people can increase transmission at a time when hospital capacity nationwide is at near-record levels: More than 70% of inpatient beds are in use across the country, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
What should you consider in deciding whether to attend New Year’s Eve parties? How can you gauge the risk of specific events? Are there individuals who may want to take more precautions, and which mitigation measures can reduce risk if they go? If you find out later that an attendee was ill, when should you test afterward to make sure you are in the clear? And what happens if you develop symptoms after an event?
To guide you through these questions, I spoke with CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician, public health expert and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She is also the author of “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health.”
CNN: What should people consider in deciding whether to attend New Year’s Eve parties?
Dr. Leana Wen: People should start by considering three factors. First, what is your risk and the risk of your household from severe outcomes due to respiratory viruses? If everyone is generally healthy and you have already resumed other aspects of pre-pandemic activities, it might be reasonable to do the same for New Year’s get-togethers. But if someone is elderly or severely immunocompromised, you may wish to take additional precautions.
Second, what’s the importance of these events to you, compared with the importance of avoiding infection? Virtually every in-person interaction has some level of risk. That doesn’t mean everyone should avoid in-person activities permanently, but if you do attend a higher-risk event, know that you have a chance of getting a respiratory infection from it. Whether you go depends on how you weigh the importance of that event versus your desire to not get sick.
Third, is there a specific timing issue for which you really don’t want to get sick heading into the new year? For example, someone who has an operation scheduled the week after New Year’s may wish to be extra careful, so they don’t get an infection and then have to postpone their surgery. Someone else may have an important work event or school exam, and the desire to avoid any infection before that occasion could outweigh the desire to participate in New Year’s Eve celebrations. These are all things to consider and will vary depending on individual preference.
CNN: How can people gauge the risk of different New Year’s Eve events?
Wen: The risk depends on the type of event and what kind of mitigation measures are put into place, if any.
The more people, the higher the risk. A small gathering of, say, 10 close friends means that you could potentially contract respiratory viruses from one of these 10. Especially if these friends have been fairly cautious themselves, chances are low that none of these 10 are infected coming into the party. Compare that with a large party of 1,000 people. In this case, chances are much higher that someone at that party is infectious.
An outdoor event will be lower risk than an indoor event. Indoor events where everyone is spaced out, and where there is good ventilation, will be safer than ones where people are crowded close together.
In addition to space and ventilation, another mitigation measure that can make a difference is testing. If the event requires same-day rapid Covid-19 tests, that reduces risk. And it helps if the organizers emphasize that people who are symptomatic should not attend.
CNN: What are some things people can do to reduce their risk if they do go to an event?
Wen: Flu, RSV and a lot of other respiratory infections are spread through droplets. Washing your hands well and often can reduce your risk. Bring hand sanitizer with you in case it’s not readily available and use it frequently, especially after shaking hands and touching commonly used surfaces like shared serving utensils.
You could also stand near windows and try to stay away from crowds, especially if people are gathering in areas that aren’t well-ventilated.
Covid-19 is airborne in addition to being transmitted through droplets. Studies have shown that masks reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission. Some venues may require masks, but even if they don’t, if you are someone who is very concerned about Covid-19, you could wear a high-quality N95 or equivalent mask during the event.
CNN: If you find out that someone at an event had Covid-19, when should you test afterward to make sure you are in the clear?
Wen: If you are asymptomatic, you should test at least five days after the event. If you test earlier than that, the test result might be negative, and you could still have contracted Covid-19, even if the virus in your body hasn’t replicated enough for the test to detect it yet. To be certain, I’d test five days after and then again two days after that.
CNN: What if you saw other people on New Year’s — if you were exposed on New Year’s Eve, could you infect people the day after?
Wen: The incubation period for Covid-19 is at least two days. Even if you did contract Covid-19 on New Year’s Eve, you wouldn’t have enough virus in your system to infect other people the day after. By the next day, two days after exposure, it’s possible.
CNN: What happens if you develop symptoms after an event?
Wen: If you develop symptoms, you should test for Covid-19, and then, if you test positive and you are eligible for Paxlovid, speak with your health care provider about taking the antiviral treatment. Inform the event organizer right away so that they can alert others.
Viral symptoms are not just due to Covid-19, of course. If you are someone who is particularly vulnerable, you should call your health care provider, who can test you for influenza and prescribe the antiviral Tamiflu. Children and other vulnerable people should get tested for RSV, too.
Otherwise, the advice is the same as pre-pandemic: Refrain from going to public places while symptomatic. Use standard measures to treat viral syndromes — such as fluids, rest, fever-reducing medicines and other symptom-based treatment.