(Adds statements from CDC director, NYC mayor)
By Julia Harte and Rich McKay
Dec 22 (Reuters) - Americans are facing a second Christmas of upended holiday plans, with a surge in COVID-19 infections fueled by the now-dominant Omicron variant forcing some people to cancel their travel and fret about whether it is safe to visit loved ones.
Carmen Rivera and her fiancee Jasmine Maisonet made the painful decision to cancel their flights to visit family in Florida and Puerto Rico after Maisonet was exposed to an infected co-worker and tested positive for COVID-19.
Rivera, a newly elected city council member in Renton, Washington, hasn't seen her family in Puerto Rico since the start of the pandemic. With the latest wave of COVID-19 infecting even those who have been vaccinated and boosted against the disease, like Maisonet, Rivera said it stung to spend another holiday season in isolation.
"We thought we were safe, we were washing our hands, sanitizing, vaccinated, masking - we believe in science," Rivera said.
The swift rise in infections from Omicron, first detected last month and now accounting for 73% of U.S. cases, has added fresh confusion and concern around holiday travel. Many Americans flocked to COVID-19 testing sites or scrambled to get at-home tests this week to ensure a negative test result before heading to see relatives.
But Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC on Wednesday that the virus posed less of a threat this year than it did last year because of the advancements in vaccines and scientific understanding of the virus.
"We are in a very different place than we were a year ago. We have vaccines, we have boosters and we have all of the science that demonstrates that prevention, interventions like masking in indoor settings work to mitigate the spread of this virus," she said.
President Joe Biden said on Tuesday https://www.reuters.com/world/us/omicron-surges-biden-expand-testing-warn-unvaccinated-2021-12-21 that vaccinated people should follow precautions but feel comfortable celebrating the holidays with family and traveling as planned, despite the Omicron wave.
Long Island insurance broker Lori Eves considered the risk and refused to let Omicron ruin her trip to Paris with her retired mother this month. The two women had the Palace of Versailles nearly all to themselves on Friday.
"I'm not really worried," Eves, 42, said as she took a tour of the palace outside the French capital. "We're both vaccinated and boosted and we just, you know, we felt safe."
TRAVEL ESTIMATES OPTIMISTIC
Travel companies are betting vaccinated Americans will follow through on their plans and have retained a rosy outlook on this year's holiday season, riding the momentum from a rebound in U.S. travel over Thanksgiving.
The American Automobile Association estimates that 109 million Americans will hit the road, board a plane or otherwise travel more than 50 miles between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2, marking a 34% increase from 2020, according to a statement from AAA.
However, AAA spokesperson Ellen Edmonds said that estimate was compiled before Dec. 14, and the spike in cases that has occurred since might prompt cancellations.
The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 2 million passengers through the nation's airports each day from Dec. 16-Dec. 20, which is about double the number of people who passed through airports on those dates in 2020 and almost as many as in 2019.
Delta Air Lines Inc's (DAL.N) chief executive asked the CDC https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/delta-ceo-asks-cdc-cut-quarantine-time-breakthrough-covid-cases-2021-12-21 on Tuesday to shrink quarantine guidelines for fully vaccinated individuals who experience breakthrough COVID-19 infections, citing the impact on the company's workforce. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday that the Times Square New Years Eve celebration, which draws hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, was still on, although city officials were working with health experts to maximize safety. "We like to move that event forward so long we can do it safely," he told MSNBC. "We don't want to live in defeat or surrender to COVID. We got to really fight our way through it."
'IS IT WORTH IT?'
With just a few days left before Christmas on Saturday, some Americans are waiting until the last minute to decide whether to press forward with their plans.
Morgan Johnson, a 28-year-old middle school teacher in Washington DC, is spending the week with her parents in Chicago. They are taking several at-home COVID tests to determine whether they will drive to see Johnson's grandparents outside Minneapolis on Christmas day.
Her grandparents are in their 80s, vaccinated and want the family to visit, Johnson said. But she and her parents, all of whom are vaccinated, worry about unknowingly spreading the variant to the elderly couple.
"You would never forgive yourself for getting your grandparents sick," Johnson said.
She also worries about how she would get back to Washington for the start of school in January if she were forced to isolate in place.
"It makes you think, is it worth it to go?" she said.
Elizabeth Crutchley's family decided it was too risky to travel. The 51-year-old was expecting her daughter and son-in-law to visit her in Maryland from Hawaii, but their fear of infection is keeping everyone at home.
Instead of the usual Christmas feast at a relative's house, surrounded by her children and family, Crutchley's holiday get-together now will happen over Zoom.
"As long as we can see each other's faces and we can laugh, it'll be okay," she said. (Reporting by Julia Harte, Rich McKay, Michaela Garber, David Shepardson and Gabriella Borter; Writing by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Stephen Coates and Mark Porter)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.