(ABC4) – Healthcare experts across Utah are urging people to get tested for COVID-19 before getting together with family this Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

They say with the omicron variant spreading rapidly while community spread remains high in Utah makes getting tested that much more important. At-home tests are becoming more popular. Health experts say they have some pros and cons, but these tests are becoming crucial tools in slowing the spread of COVID-19.  

“Home tests are both a blessing and a challenge,” Weber-Morgan Health Department Epidemiology Nurse Amy Carter told ABC4.

Millions of Americans are preparing to travel for Christmas. Utah health officials are urging Utahns to get tested before hitting the road. They say those home tests may be the best option for many people. They explain the pros and cons.  

“We really, really need to recognize as a community that the symptoms of COVID-19 overlap with other respiratory viruses and test early,” said Dr. Brandon Webb with Intermountain Healthcare Infectious Diseases. “Test frequently and test early.” 

One way to test early and frequently is with at-home tests. 

“It’s great for people to have the ability to do that test really quickly at home,” says Carter. “Especially if they’ve had a recent exposure or concerning symptoms and know right away and know am I okay to go out or should I be staying home.”

Many home tests come in kits with two tests. These tests often take 15 minutes to produce results. While they’re convenient, experts say one downside to these is they’re not as accurate as PCR tests.

“If you’re positive on those (home tests), you are more likely to be infectious,” explained Dr. Sankar Swaminathan who is the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah Health. “If you’re negative by one of those, you may still be positive by PCR, but you’re still probably less infectious. So, it’s a good screening tool.”

As the holidays pick up speed, health officials say the omicron variant is also speeding up.

“And the relative proportion of omicron to delta has been doubling every two to three days,” says Dr. Webb.

He reminds us that the new variant is expected to become the dominant variant in a matter of weeks. This comes as hospitals continue to operate near capacity across the Beehive State thanks to the delta variant.  

Official say it’s important to understand just how quickly omicron is spreading right now because test positivity rates in the state are still about three times higher than the goal of three to five percent. This means the current strains are not under control in Utah and the omicron variant is expected to only make things worse.  

“We need to take precautions because there are a lot of people who are immunocompromised, you may not know it,” says Dr. Sankar Swaminathan.

He encourages people to get tested right before visiting family this Christmas because grandma and grandpa are considered high risk even if they’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19.  

Health officials told ABC4 that at-home tests do not get reported to the health department. This means many people may be positive for COVID-19, but are not counted by the state. With that being said, they encourage those who choose to get tested at home to understand the proper amount of time to isolate should they test positive.