The United States is in the midst of another coronavirus wave, this time thanks to the Omicron subvariant BA.5. Scientists warn that the new subvariant appears to be the most infectious version of the virus to date, and that it is re-infecting people who have already dealt with earlier variants once or twice, sometimes weeks ago.
A small percentage of people who have been avoiding Covid-19 for two and a half years know that there are ways to bypass BA.5’s defenses. Even President Biden, who has ruled out infection, tested positive on Thursday. Like many Americans, the president and his aides have let down their guard, relaxing the strict Covid precautions previously used in the White House.
Everyone wants to get back to normal, but polls show that few Americans know what it’s like to live with Covid. Most cities cannot roll back mask mandates or other protective measures during a pandemic, even in the initial Omicron wave.
“We’ve had a fundamental shift,” said Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Hospitalizations have doubled since May and more than 400 Americans are dying each day, but those numbers are well below the peak of the winter Omicron wave.
“Before the pandemic, we would never have accepted these numbers,” said Dr. Osterholm said.
There is also the potential to develop symptoms of prolonged Covid, which scientists are trying to fully understand. Still, experts are weighing those concerns.
“We can live 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 which public health measures should the nation prioritize. And what can you do individually to reduce your exposure, slow down the constant cycle of new options, and minimize the disruption of everyday life? If you haven’t already, here are five steps to take.
1. Maximize your vaccines and boosters.
If you haven’t gotten your booster yet — or don’t feel like it at all — experts say the current boom is a good reason to schedule an appointment now. Vaccines provide excellent protection against serious diseases, and booster vaccines enhance these benefits. But fewer than half of Americans have received stimulants, and less than a third of adults eligible for a second booster (or fourth shot) — those with compromised immune systems or those over 50.
It didn’t help that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used the term “fully vaccinated” to describe the first two doses of vaccines early in the pandemic. Although the agency has since moved on to say that people should be “updated” with all their shots, early use of “fully vaccinated” has unfortunately stuck.
“A lot of people say, ‘I’ve had two shots and I’m done,'” said Dr. Osterholm said.
Some people may also be dismayed by new research showing that immunity to infection declines significantly within three months, and that the newest Omicron subvariants are more adept at evading immunity than previous versions of the virus. Osterholm added.
New vaccines targeting more Omicron subvariants are likely to arrive in the fall, and the Biden administration is considering expanding the boost authority. But if you’re in a high-risk group eligible for secondary boosters, don’t try to time your shot. According to the CDC, getting vaccinated now “does not prevent you from getting the recommended fall or winter version of the vaccine.”
2. Find out your new community’s Covid-19 indicators.
You need to keep an eye on Covid-19 statistics to determine your risk and decide when to add a higher level of protection. For most of the pandemic, the CDC’s color-coded community-level risk map was a good indicator of cases and transmission rates. But the agency recently changed the way it calculates that risk level to focus more on local hospitalization rates.
Because of compound or vaccine immunity, this event no longer closely monitors natural hospitalizations and numbers, with at-home testing procedures obscuring real-time tracking of the virus. Instead, experts recommend using other ways to educate your community about the threat of Covid-19: Check local news and get on social media.
Talk to family and friends, as well as other members of the community, to see if they have recently had Covid or know someone who has recently, says Ajay Sethi, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As you interact more with people in your network, you can better understand the disease in your community and what your risk factors may be.
When most of your close contacts are infected with Covid or are frequently re-infected, as many people across the country are now, it is a good indication that you and your peers need to start wearing masks and adding protection against Covid.
Some people may be hesitant to say they have the virus, Dr. Sethi added that they feel like outsiders, ashamed of being caught, or aware of the stigma of having relatives with different pandemic ideologies. But “it goes against what we should be doing,” he said.
3. Wear a mask, not just at home.
Whether you are infected with Covid-19 or not, wear a good quality face mask in public where you need to protect yourself. Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Health Center, said each infection still carries the risk of debilitating long-term Covid symptoms.
“For me, the thought process hasn’t changed much,” says Dr. said the rivers. “I’ll continue to wear a mask when I’m at home and try to do as much as possible outside.”
Other experts agree that outdoor air is safer than indoor spaces if you want to go without a mask. But even outdoors, the closer people are, the greater the risk of contracting the virus.
“Because BA.5 is contagious, we have to recognize that it’s important that you stay out of crowded places with restricted air,” said Dr. Osterholm said.
For example, if you’re hosting a summer barbecue, you may want to invite fewer guests to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. You can also check that everyone has been vaccinated and recently tested negative. At large gatherings, such as outdoor concerts or weddings, where you are supervised, wear a mask and then watch for new symptoms for several days. Osterholm said.
4. Keep quick tests handy and use them.
Rapid tests are an effective tool against the spread of Covid-19 if you use them regularly. If you’re only testing after potential exposure, you’re doing it wrong, Dr. – said Sethi. Instead, book social events before and three to five days after large gatherings to best protect yourself and the people you meet, she said.
Keep quick tests at home, especially if you don’t have access to a public testing site or tests through your work, says Alyssa Bilinski, a health policy expert at Brown University. Each household can order three rounds of free tests from the government, or a total of 16 tests. People with insurance can get a free test eight times a month.
Just remember that you can still test negative for Covid-19 even if you have symptoms, Dr. – said Sethi. Quarantine if you think you are sick. Test again a day or two after a negative result. If you have Covid-19, get tested after your symptoms subside or even disappear. . A positive antigen test is a reliable indicator that you are still contagious, even if your symptoms subside or disappear.
If people don’t use them enough, rapid tests won’t be useful for public health, says Dr. – said Sethi.
5. Know how to get medical treatment if you are traveling.
Before you leave, be prepared for the possibility of infection during your trip.
“If you need medical care while traveling, it’s a good idea to travel with a printed list of all your current medications, your medical and immunization history, and your provider’s contact information,” said Dr. Annie Luetkemeyer, professor of infectious diseases at the University of California, San Francisco.
Leave plenty of room on your credit card and read your health or travel insurance policies carefully to see what expenses they will cover if you have to extend your trip due to Covid-19. And do some research on clinics and pharmacies in your destination.
Although you can’t get Paxlovid, the antiviral treatment for Covid-19, without a prior diagnosis, you can use the Test to Treat locator to find places in the United States where testing and immediate treatment are available. Kuldeep Patel, chief pharmacy officer at Duke University Hospital in North Carolina, said pharmacists can prescribe Paxlovid directly to patients who test positive but cannot see a healthcare provider.
Outside the United States, however, the availability of treatment depends on where you are. Paxlovid and another antiviral drug 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 medicine abroad. If you have a high risk of complications from Covid-19 or are immunocompromised and the vaccine is less effective, you may want to talk to your doctor about receiving Evushield monoclonal antibody treatment before you travel, Dr. Luetkemeyer said. If you do get sick, you may want to carry over-the-counter medications (acetaminophen, ibuprofen, cough suppressants, and lozenges) to relieve symptoms.
You can now choose the steps that will minimize the most damage, and these calculations can be different for different people. The country is “struggling to change what the threat of Covid is,” said Dr. Bilinsky said. But this does not mean that we should completely abandon the measures that will keep us safe, he added. Vision BA.5 reminds you that there is a middle ground between letting Covid precautions dominate your life and wishing that the pandemic is over.