The United States is in the midst of another wave of coronavirus, this time thanks to Omicron’s BA.5 subvariant. Scientists warn that the new sub-variant appears to be the most transmissible version of the virus to date, and is re-infecting people who have already dealt with previous variants once or twice, sometimes as recently as a few weeks.
The small percentage of people who avoided covid-19 for two and a half years are also discovering that BA.5 has ways around 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 down their guard, loosening the strict Covid-19 precautions previously employed at the White House.
Everyone just wants to get back to normal, even though polls show few Americans are sure what living with Covid should really be like It seems. Most cities are unlikely to reinstate mask mandates or other protective measures previously used in the pandemic, or even Omicron’s original surge.
“We had 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 roughly doubled since May and more than 400 Americans die every day, but these numbers are significantly lower than the peak of the Omicron winter spree.
“Early in the pandemic, we would never have accepted these numbers,” said Dr. Osterholm.
There is also the possibility of developing symptoms of prolonged covid, which researchers are trying to fully understand. Still, experts are weighing in on 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, what public health measures is the nation taking? need to prioritize. And what can you do individually to reduce your risk of exposure, slow down the relentless cycle of new variants, and minimize disruption to daily life? Here are five steps to take, if you haven’t already.
1. Max out your shots and boosters.
If you haven’t had your booster — or any shots — experts say the current surge is a good reason to make an appointment now. Vaccines provide excellent protection against serious diseases, and booster shots can amplify those benefits. But less than half of Americans have received boosters, and fewer than one-third of adults who are eligible for their second booster (or fourth vaccine), those who are immunocompromised or older than 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 has not helped. Although the agency has since changed to saying that people should be “up to date” on all their vaccinations, unfortunately the initial use of “fully vaccinated” has stuck.
“A lot of people have said, ‘I’ve had my two injections and I’m done,’” said Dr. Osterholm.
Some people may also be put off by new research showing that immunity against infections drops significantly. within three monthsand newer Omicron sub-variants are much more adept at dodging immunity than older versions of the virus, Dr Osterholm added.
New vaccines more targeted at Omicron sub-variants 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’s eligible for a second booster, you shouldn’t try to mess with the timing of your shots. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventiongetting vaccinated now “will not prevent you from receiving a specific licensed variant vaccine in the fall or winter when it is recommended.”
2. Find the new indicators of Covid-19 in your community.
You should keep an eye on the Covid-19 statistics to determine your own risk and decide when to add more levels of protection. For most of the pandemic, the CDC color coded map of risk at the community level 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.
Case numbers no longer closely track hospitalizations due to a combination of natural or vaccine immunity, home testing and available treatments, blurring real-time tracking of the virus. Instead, experts recommend using other ways to stay informed about the risks of Covid-19 in your community: check the local news and access your social networks.
Talk to your family and friends, as well as other members of your community, to find out if they have recently had Covid or know someone who has recently had Covid, said Ajay Sethi, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Because you are more likely to interact with people in your network, you can get a better idea of the incidence in your community and what your own risk of getting sick may be.
When more of your close contacts get Covid or are reinfected more often, like many people across the country right now, it’s a good indicator that you and your co-workers should start putting on masks and adding more Covid protections.
Some people may be hesitant to share that they have the virus, Dr. Sethi added, either because they feel outliers, are ashamed of having contracted it, or know the stigma associated with having family members with different pandemic ideologies. But “that’s more or less the opposite of what we should do,” he said.
3. Wear a mask, 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 prolonged and debilitating symptoms of Covid, 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 still wear a mask whenever I’m indoors and try to move as many activities as I can outside.”
Other experts agree that if you want to go mask-free, the air outside will be considerably safer than indoor spaces. But even outdoors, the closer people are, the greater the risk of contracting the virus.
“As infectious as BA.5 is, we must recognize that it is important that it is not 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 virus transmission. You can also check that everyone is vaccinated and has recently tested negative. At larger gatherings, like outdoor concerts or weddings where you have less control, you should cover up and monitor yourself for new symptoms for a few days afterward, Dr. Osterholm said.
4. Have rapid tests on hand and use them.
Rapid tests are an effective tool to combat the spread of Covid-19 if you use them regularly. If you only test after you’ve had a potential exposure, then you’re doing it wrong, Dr. Sethi said. Instead, reserve social events by testing before and three to five days after large gatherings to better protect yourself and the people you meet, he said.
Keep a stock of rapid tests at home, especially if you don’t have access to a public testing site or tests through your workplace, said Alyssa Bilinski, a health policy expert at Brown University. Each household can order three rounds of free trials — or 16 tests in all — from the government. People with insurance can also be reimbursed for eight free trials per month.
Just remember that you can test negative even if you have symptoms of Covid-19, Dr. Sethi said. Quarantine if you think you may be sick. Test again a day or two after your negative result to be sure. And if you have Covid-19, get tested after your symptoms have subsided or even disappeared. . A positive antigen test is a fairly reliable indication that you are still contagious, even if your symptoms have lessened or disappeared.
When people don’t use them often enough, rapid tests end up being less useful from a public health standpoint, Dr. Sethi said.
5. If you are traveling, find out how to get treatment.
Before you leave, prepare for the possibility of becoming infected 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 in case you need medical care while traveling,” said Dr. Annie Luetkemeyer, professor of infectious diseases. diseases at the University of California, San Francisco.
Keep enough space on your credit card and read your travel or medical 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, an antiviral treatment for Covid-19, preventatively 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 can’t see a medical provider, said Kuldip Patel, senior associate director of pharmacy at Duke University Hospital in North Carolina.
However, outside of the United States, treatment availability will depend on where you are. Both Paxlovid and another antiviral called molnupiravir are on the World Health Organization’s list of recommended medications 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’re at high risk for complications from Covid-19 or may be immunocompromised and at risk of decreased vaccine efficacy, you can talk to your doctor about receiving Evusheld monoclonal antibody treatment before you travel, Dr. Luetkemeyer said. 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 which steps will mitigate the most damage right now, and those calculations may be different for different people. The country is “struggling to reframe what Covid risk looks like,” Dr. Bilinski said. But that doesn’t mean we should completely give up measures that will keep us safe, he added. The rise of BA.5 may be a reminder that there is a happy medium between having Covid precautions dominate your life and pretending the pandemic is over.