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BA.2, holiday travel and you.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Travel experts are predicting a busy, busy weekend on the roads and in the skies. That's because Easter, Ramadan, Passover and - don't forget - spring break are all on the calendar. And for many people, this is the first time they'll be traveling since the pandemic started two years ago. But with cases starting to tick up slightly, travelers may be wondering how worried they should be about new COVID variants. Here to fill us in on that is Dr. Monica Gandhi. She's a professor and associate chief in the division of HIV, infectious diseases and global medicine at the University of California San Francisco. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Dr. Gandhi.

MONICA GANDHI: Thank you.

CHANG: All right. So let's start with the most recent variant that's concerning a lot of people right now. That's BA.2. How does BA.2 compare with omicron, which was a big problem over the winter holidays? Like, do you see BA.2 having anywhere near the same impact on the spring holidays?

GANDHI: So it doesn't seem to be because the way to think about BA.2 - it is actually omicron. It's just a subvariant of omicron. What we saw over the holidays, winter holidays, was BA.1, and this is like a sister subvariant that's more transmissible than BA.1.

CHANG: OK.

GANDHI: But despite over 80% of our cases in the United States being BA.2, we have definitely seen some upticks in cases in the Northeast and other places. But our hospitalizations are remaining lower than they have during the entire pandemic since spring of 2020.

CHANG: OK, so that's good news. But we have been hearing from people who are writing to us and are wondering, like, how cautious they need to be while traveling. Let's say you're gathering with extended family. Maybe some of them are older members of your family. Should people be wearing masks indoors still? What do you think?

GANDHI: Well, we really are, again, in a very different phase of the pandemic. So hopefully, your older family members are vaccinated and boosted. The only people that cannot be vaccinated at this point are those under 5, and the Moderna vaccine, I hope, will be approved soon for them. But children are less likely to transmit. It's spring weather. Keep open your windows. But I would absolutely gather without masks this particular Passover and Easter because we're in such a different place.

CHANG: OK. Well, how about, like, much larger indoor gatherings? - because, like we said, this is a big weekend for religious gatherings. How comfortable should people be going to crowded places of worship? Like, yes, keep windows open. But are you still recommending that we can be indoors even if crowded?

GANDHI: I really do think it's such a different phase - again, really low hospitalizations. If you are particularly vulnerable or immunocompromised even after your three doses or four doses, you can definitely wear a strong fit and filtering mask indoors. Hopefully, you've gotten those four doses if you're immunocompromised, however - but such a different place in the pandemic than last year. We - people are gathering. People have been gathering in indoor spaces. And, again, our hospitalizations are staying low, which we're very grateful for.

CHANG: Well, this seems like a really reassuring conversation, Monica.

GANDHI: We are in a different phase. We have these tools. The vaccines work so well. Boosters work so well. Get your fourth dose if you're immunocompromised. There are treatments for those who are extremely vulnerable still to severe disease. We have the tools. We're in a different place. I hope people enjoy their weekend.

CHANG: Happy holidays, everyone out there. That is Dr. Monica Gandhi from the University of California San Francisco. Thank you so much.

GANDHI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.