People gaze upon the Bangor holiday tree as it is lit up for the season, downtown, Dec. 3, 2021. Many Mainers are curtailing crowds like this and other holiday plans, due to the spread of the omicron variant. Credit: Sawyer Loftus /BDN

Mainers are canceling or scaling back holiday celebrations as the state faces the rise of a new COVID-19 variant on top of a case surge that has led to record hospitalizations across the state.

The end of 2021 has been marked by the omicron variant, which was identified just under a month ago but has already become the dominant U.S. strain. Some 73 percent of cases in the U.S. were linked to it in the past week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Monday. Maine reported its first five cases on Friday.

Much is unclear about the new variant, although preliminary reviews in South Africa and by the U.S. CDC have suggested that it may be more contagious than previous strains and lead to less-severe illnesses. Omicron may also cause more infections in vaccinated people, though vaccines are still widely effective against variants.

All of that spells concern for Mainers balancing concerns about exposure to a little-known variant with the desire to hold end-of-year holiday gatherings. One expert advised people to keep unknown factors in mind heading into Christmas and New Years celebrations, though any plan to make gatherings safer must be “individualized.”

“If people are going to get together for Christmas, they really do need to use those usual precautions about masking and social distancing and hopefully people have been vaccinated,” said Dr. Peter Millard, a former CDC epidemiologist who teaches at the University of New England in Biddeford.

Several readers who responded to a Bangor Daily News query on Tuesday cited a dearth of information about how omicron spreads and the higher likelihood of getting sick and infecting others as reasons for why they canceled their holiday plans or chose to make their gatherings smaller.

Despite a job requiring masks, Kayli McKeen of South Bristol said she wasn’t confident that she wouldn’t “be a vector” to pass on COVID-19 to unvaccinated family members that she was planning to see at Christmas before canceling the gathering.

“My concern is that I’m probably not going to get so sick that I’ll be in the hospital, but I don’t know for sure,” she said.

In South Portland, Becky Lomangino canceled a 50-person holiday party, because she wasn’t sure of each attendee’s vaccination status and had fears about breakthrough cases. She instead plans to pare down her Christmas gathering to 8 or 10 immediate family members.

“It’s a much more controlled group and we’re on the same page, 100 percent, with full vaccination and boosters and masks, so I feel safe in that group of people,” she said.

Pfizer and Moderna have released research showing that their vaccines provide strong protection against omicron infections in people who got an initial two doses and then a booster. Those who got a different vaccine or no booster likely carry strong protection against serious illness but potentially less against infections themselves.

In Maine, younger children who are less likely to be vaccinated played a large role in driving a November surge in delta variant cases. While they are unlikely to become severely ill with COVID-19, they can still infect vulnerable relatives. Millard advised parents to keep children away from at-risk people, especially if they are under age 5 and cannot be vaccinated.

“For example, if grandparents were in their 50s and they were fully immunized, then they’re probably okay,” he said. “But, on the other hand, if the grandparents are older and have health problems, I think they should stay away from the young kids.”

Millard joins other public health officials who have redoubled calls for people to get vaccinated and boosted. Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah said boosters and vaccines were vital in a Nov. 24 tweet, the day that omicron was identified overseas.

“Prevention is better than treatment,” he said.

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Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to