The United States is in the midst of a new wave of coronavirus, this time thanks to Omicron’s BA.5 subvariant. Scientists warn that the new subvariant appears to be the most transmissible version of the virus to date, and is reinfecting people who have dealt with previous variants once or twice, sometimes as recently as a few years ago. weeks.
The small percentage of people who have avoided Covid-19 for two and a half years are also discovering that BA.5 has ways of overriding their defenses. Even President Biden, who had managed to avoid an infection, tested positive on Thursday. Like many Americans, the president and his aides had let their guard down, relaxing the strict Covid precautions previously employed at the White House.
Everyone just wants to get back to normal, although polls show few Americans know what life with Covid should really be like. Most cities are unlikely to bring back mask mandates or other protective measures used earlier in the pandemic, or even during the original Omicron push.
“We had a shift in our baseline,” said Michael Osterholm, epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Hospitalizations have roughly doubled since May and more than 400 Americans die every day, but those numbers are significantly lower than the peak of the winter Omicron surge.
“Earlier in the pandemic, we would never have accepted these numbers,” Dr. Osterholm said.
There is also the potential for developing symptoms of long Covid, which researchers are trying to fully understand. Still, experts weigh in on those concerns.
“We can go about our lives knowing full well that this risk exists,” said Dien Ho, a bioethicist at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.
The question is what public health measures should the nation prioritize. And what can you individually do to reduce your risk of exposure, slow the never-ending cycle of new variants, and minimize disruption to daily life? Here are five steps to follow, if you haven’t already.
1. Maximize your vaccines and boosters.
If you haven’t received your booster – or any vaccine at all – experts say the current surge is a good reason to make an appointment now. Vaccines offer excellent protection against serious diseases, and booster shots can amplify these benefits. But less than half of Americans have received boosters, and less than a third of adults eligible for their second booster (or fourth shot) — those who are immunocompromised or over the age of 50 — have received it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s use of the term “fully vaccinated” to describe the first two doses of vaccines early in the pandemic did not help. Although the agency has since moved on to say that people should be “up to date” with all their vaccines, the early use of “fully vaccinated” sadly remained.
“A lot of people said, ‘I’ve had my two shots and I’m done,'” Dr. Osterholm said.
Some people may also be discouraged by new research that shows that immunity to infection declines significantly within three months, and newer Omicron subvariants are much better at dodging immunity than earlier versions. of the virus, added Dr Osterholm.
New vaccines more targeted to Omicron subvariants will likely arrive in the fall, and the Biden administration is considering expanding booster eligibility. But if you’re in a high-risk group eligible for a second booster, you shouldn’t try to time your shots. According to the CDC, getting vaccinated now “will not preclude you from receiving a licensed variant-specific vaccine in the fall or winter when recommended.”
2. Find your new Covid-19 community indicators.
You should keep an eye on Covid-19 statistics to determine your own risk and decide when to add more layers of protection. For the majority of the pandemic, the CDC’s community-level risk color-coded map was a good indicator of cases and transmission rates. But the agency recently changed the way it calculates these risk levels to put more emphasis on local hospitalization rates.
The number of cases no longer closely tracks hospitalizations due to the combination of natural or vaccine immunity, home testing and available treatments, which blurs real-time tracking of the virus. Instead, experts recommend using other means to stay informed about Covid-19 risks in your community: check local news and access your social networks.
Talk to family and friends and other members of your community to find out if they have had Covid recently or know anyone who has or has recently had Covid, said Ajay Sethi, epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Because you are more likely to interact with people in your network, you can get a better sense of the impact in your community and your own risk of getting sick.
When more of your close contacts contract Covid or are re-infected more frequently, as many people across the country are now, that’s a good indicator that you and your peers should start putting on masks and adding more Covid protections. .
Some people may be reluctant to share that they have the virus, Dr Sethi added, either because they feel like an outlier, are embarrassed to have caught it or know the stigma attached to having parents. with different pandemic ideologies. But “it’s kind of the opposite of what we need to do,” he said.
3. Mask up, and not just indoors.
Wear good quality masks in public places where you need to protect yourself, whether you have been infected with Covid-19 or not. Each infection can still carry the risk of developing long, debilitating Covid symptoms, said Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“For me, the thought process hasn’t changed too much,” Dr. Rivers said. “I continue to wear a mask whenever I am indoors and try to move as many activities outside as possible.”
Other experts agree that if you want to go mask-free, outdoor air will be considerably safer than indoor spaces. But even outdoors, the closer people are, the higher the risk of catching the virus.
“As contagious as BA.5 is, we have to recognize that it’s important that you’re not in crowded conditions with limited air,” Dr Osterholm said.
If you are hosting a summer barbecue, for example, you may want to invite fewer guests to reduce the risk of virus transmission. You can also verify that everyone is vaccinated and has recently tested negative. At larger gatherings, such as outdoor concerts or weddings where you have less control, you should mask up and monitor yourself for new symptoms for a few days afterwards, Dr. Osterholm said.
4. Keep rapid tests handy and use them.
Rapid tests are an effective tool to fight the spread of Covid-19 if you use them regularly. If you’re only testing after you’ve been potentially exposed, you’re doing it wrong, Dr Sethi said. Instead, limit social events by testing before and three to five days after large gatherings to better protect yourself and those you meet, he said.
Keep a stash of rapid tests at home, especially if you don’t have access to a public testing site or testing at your workplace, said Alyssa Bilinski, a health policy expert at Brown University. Each household can order three sets of free tests – or 16 tests in total – from the government. Insured persons can also be reimbursed for eight free tests per month.
Just remember that you can test negative even if you have symptoms of Covid-19, Dr Sethi said. Quarantine yourself if you think you are sick. Test again a day or two after your negative result to be sure. And if you have Covid-19, test after your symptoms have lessened or even disappeared. . A positive antigen test is a fairly reliable indication that you are still contagious, even if your symptoms have improved or disappeared.
When people don’t use them often enough, rapid tests end up being less useful from a public health perspective, Dr Sethi said.
5. If you are traveling, find out how to get treatment.
Before you go, be prepared for the possibility of getting infected while traveling.
“It’s a good idea to travel with a printed list of all your current medications, medical and vaccination history and contact details for your provider in case you need medical attention while travelling,” Dr. Annie said. Luetkemeyer, professor of infectious diseases. diseases at the University of California, San Francisco.
Keep enough space on your credit card and read your health or travel insurance policies carefully to see what expenses they will cover if you need to extend your trip due to Covid-19. And do a little research on the clinics and pharmacies in your destination.
Although you cannot obtain Paxlovid, an antiviral treatment for Covid-19, preventively without a diagnosis, you can use the Test to Treat locator to find places where testing and immediate treatment are available in the United States. Pharmacists can also prescribe Paxlovid directly to patients who test positive but are unable to see a healthcare professional, said Kuldip Patel, deputy chief of pharmacy at Duke University Hospital in North Carolina.
Outside of the United States, however, the availability of treatment will depend on where you are. Paxlovid and another antiviral called molnupiravir are on the World Health Organization’s list of recommended drugs for the treatment of Covid-19 and are approved for use in several countries.
But you can also avoid the uncertainty of finding medicines abroad. If you are at high risk of complications from Covid-19 or if you are immunocompromised and at risk of reduced vaccine effectiveness, you can speak to your doctor about receiving the Evusheld monoclonal antibody treatment before travelling, a said Dr. Luetkemeyer. You may also want to carry over-the-counter medications — like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, cough suppressants, and throat lozenges — to help relieve symptoms if you get sick.
You can choose which steps will mitigate the most damage right now, and those calculations might be different for different people. The country is “struggling to redefine what Covid risk looks like,” Dr Bilinski said. But that doesn’t mean we should give up entirely on measures that will keep us safe, she added. The BA.5 push may serve as a reminder that there is a happy medium between having Covid precautions dominate your life and pretending the pandemic is over.