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Brandy Thompson’s tradition of spending Christmas with family has fallen apart this year.
Over the past several days, three of Thompson’s family members have tested positive for the virus. Her 77-year-old mom, who has metastatic breast cancer, was the most recent.
“We’ve all gone two years without getting COVID and all of a sudden it’s exploded,” said Thompson, a retired 50-year-old who lives near Liberty, outside of Houston. “This has kind of put a wrench in everything.”
Across the state and country, the omicron variant of COVID-19 has upended the holiday season for many, with some second-guessing plans with loved ones — and others canceling them altogether.
After nearly two years of navigating life during a pandemic, many Texans thought the first holiday season after vaccines became widely available would be relaxing and filled with friends and relatives. But for families like Thompson’s, it has so far included scrambling for COVID tests, delaying plans and worrying about relatives who have been exposed to the virus — or already tested positive for it.
Early evidence suggests omicron may be milder but spreads faster, compared to the delta variant. Medical experts expect that people who have been fully vaccinated and recently gotten a booster shot will still be much better protected from serious illness or death. Still, medical researchers are trying to determine how severe omicron-related infections are for unvaccinated individuals or even the less recently vaccinated.
Just days before Christmas, people are getting tested before they travel or see family. Some haven’t been exposed to the virus but are getting tested out of precaution, especially with the omicron variant rapidly spreading.
While her entire family is fully vaccinated, Thompson said a close relative was the first in the family to test positive for the virus about two weeks ago — but that loved one quarantined and did not transmit it to other family members.
But, after a family gathering Saturday, a young relative tested positive for the virus after someone from their school got it, Thompson said. Soon after came the positive test result for Thompson’s mother, who is so far doing well.
Still, Thompson said in an interview with The Texas Tribune that some family traditions, like cooking soup with one another on Christmas Eve, have been canceled. And while Thompson said she has tested negative for the virus twice so far — once on Monday and again Tuesday — it’s still unclear whether her own adult kids will come to her house over the holiday. She plans to take a third test sometime Wednesday.
“It’s very strange how our whole family is falling apart right now,” Thompson said.
The new variant was detected in Texas for the first time earlier this month. Outbreaks and surging case counts have since been tied to the latest strain. While hospitalizations across most of the state have so far remained relatively low, health experts say they fear the health care system may be overwhelmed by cases caused by omicron within weeks.
In Austin, Chuck McDonald is worried about infecting his 85-year-old mom over the holidays.
McDonald, who works for the University of Texas at Austin’s housing and dining department, said he is concerned about last week’s rise in cases on campus before students returned home. Even though both he and his mom are fully vaccinated, McDonald said, he does not want to run the risk of passing the virus to her.
“At her age a smaller illness could turn into something major,” McDonald told the Tribune on Tuesday, adding that he plans to take a test Wednesday before isolating himself until he leaves to visit his mom, who is about a two-hour drive away.
“I wear my mask at work and when I go to H-E-B or wherever, and it’s so annoying that so many people don’t think even this simple act is worth the effort in order to keep others from getting sick,” McDonald said.
In El Paso, 49-year-old Albert Rangel was getting tested on Tuesday afternoon. He said his 68-year-old mother, who is prediabetic, wanted Rangel to get tested before he arrives at her house on Christmas night for dinner.
He said he currently doesn’t have any symptoms, but “it’s better to play it safe,” he said.
Rangel, who is vaccinated, said he canceled Thanksgiving Day dinner because his girlfriend had tested positive for the virus a few days earlier. Because he was with his girlfriend when she had symptoms, he didn’t join the rest of the family for Thanksgiving dinner, even though he tested negative. He said he suspected the vaccine helped him avoid contracting the virus.
“It’s scary,” he said. “I’m hoping all this goes away soon.”
Meanwhile, in San Antonio, Lisa Martinez says she will not be celebrating Christmas this year the way she thought she would. Some of her family was set to come over, but her daughter tested positive on Sunday. So she and her daughter have been stuck in a room for the last four days, secluded from her mother and son, both of who are high-risk individuals.
“I'm disappointed,” she said. “I myself have let my guard down a little bit.”
Martinez got tested at a San Antonio COVID-19 rapid testing site Tuesday. Because she’s been with her daughter, she’s almost sure she has the virus.
Her holiday plans now consist of taking care of her daughter and making sure her other high-risk family members don’t get exposed.
Diana Garcia, another San Antonio resident, got tested Tuesday because she has the sniffles. In any other non-COVID year, Garcia said, she would have probably just taken an over-the-counter medication and resumed normal business.
But because her holiday plans consist of traveling to her hometown of McAllen and being around a lot of people, she wanted to make sure she doesn’t have the virus.
The pandemic has almost made people paranoid, she said. One of the biggest challenges navigating the pandemic is wondering if she travels, will she get someone sick? Is her family going to be OK?
“Everything is a little scary,” Garcia said.
Just northeast of Houston, Thompson said given her mom’s breast cancer diagnosis, the family hopes to celebrate the holiday in January.
“Every visit with her is important,” Thompson said. “You never know when it’s the last Christmas you might have.”
Thompson is also optimistic that omicron will be one of the last variants of the virus — and if future variants do arise, they might be less severe.
“Hopefully omicron is the end of it,” she said. “I think that’s what is probably going to happen: It will just end up being a watered-down version of itself.”
Disclosure: H-E-B and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.