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Experts Urge Testing, Masks And Other Precautions If Gathering For Holidays As Omicron Spreads

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) - There were long lines at the Minneapolis Convention Center Thursday to get last-minute tests before the Christmas weekend—a key step to take, public health experts say, should Minnesotans gather with family and friends.

Rapid antigen tests are in high-demand as people screen for the holidays. Dr. Andrew Olson, director of COVID hospital medicine at M Health Fairview, noted that the antigen tests providing results in 15 minutes detect a different part of the virus than the PCR tests, which take more time to process.

Both though, he said, are good tools when deciding if it's safe to see others. Masking and keeping gatherings small are also recommended. But above all, experts urge vaccination and getting the booster shot to protect against serious illness and death.

"[Antigen tests] are really good, we think, at helping people understand how infectious am I? And the goal of testing before you go to a family gathering is to understand what is my risk for spreading this infection to others," Olson said. "So any negative test is better than no negative test in helping decrease the spread at a family gathering.

But Olson noted that the tests aren't perfect and antigen tests can sometimes produce false negatives—often when people aren't showing symptoms. It's very unlikely that a test would produce a false positive, he said.

"I want to be quite clear about this: It is not perfect," he said. "However, the reality is the tests are pretty good and certainly better than not testing at all."

A negative result can be reassuring, particularly if someone has been both vaccinated and boosted and is gathering with other vaccinate individuals, he added.

President Biden recently pledged 500 million free, at-home COVID tests for Americans as the Omicron variant spreads rampantly across the nation.

Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease epidemiology at the state's health department, said it's already the dominate strain in Minnesota.

"We're seeing a lot of Omicron," she said.

But after completing a take-home, over-the-counter test, those results aren't reported to the state. Still, experts believe rapid tests will be important pieces of the pandemic-fighting strategy going forward.

"It's a good thing because it gets testing out there, but it limits the information we have to really understand what's happening in the state," Ehresmann said.

State testing sites will close Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, so MDH suggests having some at-home tests on hand—but don't panic buy. Some retailers are limiting how many rapid tests customers can purchase.

Other testing sites vary with their hours. You can see a full list of testing options here.

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