The United States is in the midst of another wave of the coronavirus, this time thanks to Omicron subvariant BA.5. Scientists warn that the new variant appears to be the most transmissible version of the virus to date, and that it reinfects people who have already handled previous variants once or twice, sometimes as recently as a few weeks ago.
The small percentage of people who avoided Covid-19 for two and a half years also discovered that BA.5 had ways of bypassing their defences. Even President Biden, who managed to avoid infection, tested positive on Thursday. Like many Americans, the president and his aides have let their guard down, relaxing the strict Covid precautions previously used in the White House.
Everyone just wants to get back to normal, even though polls show few Americans are sure what living with Covid really should look like. Most cities are unlikely to bring back the mask mandates or other protective measures used earlier in the pandemic, or even in the original Omicron wave.
“There has been a shift in our baseline,” said Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Hospitalizations have nearly doubled since May, and more than 400 Americans die each day, but those numbers are well below the peak of the Omicron winter wave.
“Earlier in the pandemic, we would not have accepted these numbers,” Dr. Osterholm said.
There is also the possibility of developing symptoms of prolonged Covid-19, which researchers are trying to fully understand. However, experts are still studying these concerns.
“We can live our lives knowing full well that this danger exists,” said Dean Ho, a bioethicist at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.
The question is, what public health measures does the nation need to prioritize. And what can you do individually to reduce the risk of exposure, slow the ongoing cycle of new variables and reduce the disruption of daily life? Here are five steps to take, if you haven’t already.
1. Take advantage of your vaccinations and boosters.
If you haven’t had a booster shot — or any shots at all — experts say the current boost is a good reason to make an appointment now. Vaccines provide excellent protection against serious diseases and booster doses can increase those benefits. But fewer than half of Americans received boosters, and fewer than a third of adults eligible for the second booster shot (or fourth shot) — those who were immunocompromised or older than 50 — did.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s use of the term “full vaccination” to describe the first two doses of vaccines early in the pandemic did not help. Although the agency has since switched to saying that people should be “updated” to all of their shots, early use of “full vaccination” has unfortunately been discontinued.
“A lot of people said, ‘I’ve got my shots and I’m done,'” Dr. Osterholm said.
Dr. Osterholm added that some people may be discouraged by new research showing that immunity to infection drops dramatically within three months, and that the latest sub-variants of Omicron are more adept at evading immunity than previous versions of the virus.
New, more targeted vaccines for Omicron subvariants are likely to arrive in the fall, and the Biden administration is considering expanding booster eligibility. But if you’re in a high-risk group that qualifies for second boosts, you shouldn’t try to time your shots. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), getting vaccinated now “will not prevent you from getting a licensed specific variant vaccine in the fall or winter when both are recommended for you.”
2. Look for Covid-19 indicators for your new community.
You should monitor Covid-19 statistics to see your risk and decide when to add more levels of protection. For the majority of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s color-coded map of community-level risk has been a good indicator of cases and transmission rates. But the agency recently changed the way it calculates these risk levels to focus more on local hospitalization rates.
Case numbers are no longer closely tracked with hospitalizations due to a combination of natural immunity or a vaccine, home tests and available treatments, leading to the lack of clarity in real-time tracking of the virus. Instead, experts recommend using other ways to stay informed about the dangers of Covid-19 in your community: Check local news and take advantage of your social networks.
Ajay Sethi, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, talks to your family and friends as well as other members of your community to find out if they’ve had COVID recently or know anyone who’s had or has recently had COVID. Since you’re more likely to interact with people in your network, you may get a better sense of what’s happening in your community and what your risks of getting sick might be.
When more of your contacts catch Covid or get infected again more frequently, like many people across the country are right now, it’s a good indication that you and your peers should start wearing masks and add more Covid protections.
Dr Sethi added that some people may feel reluctant to say they have the virus, either because they feel strange, embarrassed about having it or know the stigma associated with having relatives with different epidemiological ideologies. But, he said, “It’s kind of the opposite of what we need to do.”
3. Hide the mask, not just inside.
Wear high-quality masks in public places where you need to protect yourself, whether or not you have Covid-19. Each infection may still carry the risk of 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 much,” Dr. Rivers said. “I continue to wear a mask whenever I’m indoors and try to move as many outdoor activities as possible.”
Other experts agree that if you want no masks, the air outside will be safer than indoors. But even outdoors, the closer people are to each other, the higher the risk of contracting the virus.
“Although BA.5 is contagious, we have to admit that it is important not to be in crowded conditions with limited air,” said Dr. Osterholm.
If you’re hosting a summer barbecue, for example, you may want to invite fewer guests to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. You can also check that each person has been vaccinated and that they have recently tested negative. Dr. Osterholm said that at large gatherings, such as outdoor concerts or weddings where you have less control, you should disguise yourself and watch for new symptoms for a few days afterward.
4. Keep quick tests on hand — and use them.
Rapid tests are an effective tool to combat the spread of Covid-19 if you use them regularly. Dr Sethi said if you’re only testing after your potential exposure, you’re doing it wrong. Instead, shut down social events by testing before and three to five days after large gatherings to better protect yourself and those you meet, he said.
Keeping a batch of rapid tests at home, especially if you don’t have access to a public testing site or tests through your workplace, said Alyssa Belinsky, a health policy expert at Brown University. Each family can request three rounds of free tests – or 16 tests in total – from the government. Those with insurance can also be compensated for eight free tests per month.
Just remember that you can test negative even if you have symptoms of Covid-19, Dr. Sethi said. Isolate if you think you are sick. Test again a day or two after the negative result is confirmed. And if you have Covid-19, get tested after your symptoms have subsided or until they are gone. . A positive antigen test is a fairly reliable indication that you’re still contagious, even if your symptoms subside or go away.
Dr Sethi said that when people don’t use them often enough, rapid tests become less useful from a public health standpoint.
5. If you’re traveling, learn how to get treatment.
Before you leave, prepare for the possibility of infection during the flight.
“It is a good idea to travel with a printed list of all your current medications, medical history, vaccination and contact information for your provider in case you need to seek medical care while traveling,” said Dr. Annie Luetkemer, professor of infectious diseases at the University of California, San Francisco.
Save plenty of space 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 a little research in the clinics and pharmacies in your destination.
Although you can’t proactively get Paxlovid, an antiviral treatment for Covid-19, without a diagnosis, you can use the Test to Treatment locator to find places where testing and immediate treatment is available in the United States. Pharmacists can also prescribe baxlovid directly to patients who test positive but are unable to see a medical provider, said Kuldeep Patel, associate chief pharmacy officer at Duke University Hospital in North Carolina.
However, outside the United States, the availability of treatment depends on where you are. Paxlovid and another antiviral called molnupiravir are on the World Health Organization’s list of recommended medicines to treat Covid-19 and have been approved for use in several countries.
But you can also avoid the uncertainty of finding a drug abroad. If you are at high risk of developing complications from Covid-19 or may be immunocompromised and at risk of lowered efficacy of the vaccine, Dr Luetkemeyer said you can talk to your doctor about getting an Evusheld monoclonal antibody treatment before you travel. You may also want to carry over-the-counter medications — such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, cough suppressants, and throat lozenges — to help relieve symptoms if you get sick.
You can choose the steps that will mitigate the most damage at the moment, and these calculations may vary for different people. Dr Belinsky said the country was “struggling to reshape the risk profile of Covid”. She added that this does not mean that we should completely abandon the measures that will keep us safe. The BA.5 increase can be a reminder that there is a middle ground between Covid precautions dominating your life and pretending the pandemic is over.