Dr. Anthony Fauci announced last month that the United States is moving “out of the pandemic phase,” after mask mandates were lifted across the country. However, this does not mean that COVID-19 is behind us. Increases continue in various parts of the United States, while an estimated 300 people die every day from the virus.
So it’s understandable that some people – at least those who have tried to protect themselves and others from the highly contagious virus for the past two years – are feeling some confusion about exactly what they should do at this point in the pandemic to stay healthy and safe.
Dr. Joseph Khabaza, MD, a critical care medicine specialist and a pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells Yahoo Life, “A lot of people have felt that this might be over for most of us. The answer will not be the same for every two people.”
Khabaza says the reason for this is that each person has to assess their own individual risk factors when it comes to catching COVID. Dr. Prathit Kulkarni, MD, associate professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, agrees, telling Yahoo Life: “Safety precautions at this point in the pandemic are related to personal risk of a poor outcome from COVID-19, vaccination status and individual risk tolerance. All Situations are somewhat unique and require an assessment of individual risks and circumstances.”
Except for immunocompromised or elderly people, though, “if you are fully vaccinated and up to date with boosters, your odds of getting seriously ill are very low, even if you do come across the virus,” Cabbage says. “While people who have not been vaccinated may not consider that they are at high risk of developing severe disease. But that is something some people choose.”
How can you protect yourself in general?
In short, getting vaccinated and a booster if he’s still eligible is the right option — especially if you’re at higher risk of severe disease from COVID — and provides “the best protection,” says Kulkarni.
He adds, “People at greater risk of a worse outcome from COVID-19 may want to enhance their protection against contracting COVID-19. The best way to do this is by using a well-fitting mask. N95 respirator masks provide the greatest individual protection.”
“People who are likely to be most at risk at this point in the pandemic include unvaccinated individuals, especially the elderly, and people who are at higher risk but not yet reinforced such as the elderly or people who live in nursing homes and people with of serious autoimmune diseases.
Both Kulkarni and Khabbaza say it’s also important to know the COVID rates in your area or where you’re traveling to. “Following the CDC’s tracking of COVID activity across the country can also be helpful in getting a measure of how things are going in a particular geographic area,” Kulkarni says.
Planning to go back to the office, go to the gym, or attend a wedding? Keep these precautions in mind to stay safe and healthy from the coronavirus.
Flying on a plane
With several US domestic airlines including Delta, America and United drop mask requirements on flights, you may be wondering how to stay safe while traveling on packed planes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that it continues to recommend that people wear masks on indoor public transportation at this time. But depending on your personal risk factors and risk tolerance, while you’re at the airport, “if you’re able to stay away from people and avoid constant close contact, then no mask will be needed,” Khabaza says. But when you’re in such close proximity to others, it’s a good idea to go undercover.
For example, Khabaza said he does not wear a mask while walking around the airport because he is mobile and able to distance himself from others. However, he wears a mask while in the security line “due to close contact”. Then he takes her on foot to the gate and while sitting at the gate “because I am far from other people”. Once on the plane, Khabaza put on his mask again. “Ventilation in airplanes seems to be good,” he says, “but to me, it’s easy enough to reduce the risks I’m taking in a place with others by wearing a mask. And that’s where you get more value for wearing masks.”
Lena Win, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, told CNN that wearing a mask in the most dangerous places while traveling is key. “This includes during boarding and disembarkation when the aircraft’s ventilation systems are often not working,” she adds. “Do not drink or eat at those times.”
Although airlines often dispense sanitizing wipes while boarding, Khabaza explains that from the point of view of coronavirus transmission, “I don’t think that would have much of a hindrance.” This is because “contact with surfaces is not in such a large transmission fashion as initially thought, that it is at all,” he says. However, it does not hurt to wipe the seat and the tray table for hygiene.
Kulkarni agrees, saying, “In general, wiping down surfaces by routine cleaning can generally be helpful in avoiding transmission of many different infectious organisms.”
Eating in the restaurant
In general, it is safe to eat outdoors when possible. “Similar to the initial stages of the pandemic, outdoor transmission of COVID is very limited compared to indoor transmission,” Kulkarni notes.
Keep in mind that if you choose to dine at a restaurant, most of your risks are when you sit down and eat, which is plenty of time, Baker says. Wearing a mask while walking “for a few seconds on your seat” or wearing a mask on the way to the bathroom may not change the fact that there is “a slightly higher risk of indoor dining right now,” he says. “In theory, you could lower it a little bit, but you drink, you eat, you talk and you laugh when you’re sitting down and not moving — that’s where the risks lie.”
Khabaza says the safest way to eat indoors is to choose restaurants with large windows open to reduce the risk of transmission or to go to restaurants during rest hours “when they are not full.”
work in office
If you are alone in your office or in a private room, a mask will likely not be needed. “It will be difficult to transmit if you are away from others and there is a partition with compartments,” Khabaza says.
But he stresses that it’s important to know your company’s policy on vaccines and whether employees need to show evidence of vaccination to better assess risks. “If vaccination is mandatory, that definitely makes things safer,” Khabaza says. “But if you’re in close, constant contact all day at work, maybe masking isn’t a bad idea, especially in times of severe cases.”
Wearing a mask can also help put your most vulnerable co-workers and employers at ease. “If you’re working with people you know are immunocompromised or elderly, it’s okay to try to protect them with masks,” he says.
Besides distancing and good ventilation, Wayne told CNN that “testing done at least once a week can help detect early asymptomatic COVID-19 cases and serve as an extra layer of protection.”
Visit a public swimming pool
The good news is that the virus is not transmitted through water, according to the World Health Organization. There is also a preventative benefit from being outdoors while in a public pool. However, Khabbazah notes that “continuous close contact with someone in the pool may carry some of these risks.”
If the pool is not crowded, it is easy to avoid people and the spaces between them. “But if it’s a crowded pool party, there’s a risk and masks aren’t possible,” he says.
When going indoors, such as a locker room, it is a good idea to wear a mask if there are several people around. The CDC recommends bringing extra masks and storing them in a plastic bag in case one gets wet.
Go to the supermarket
In general, supermarkets are “lower risk from a COVID standpoint because you’re not always in close contact — a lot of them are walking next to people,” Khabaza says, “and you can empty out in line at the cashier.”
But if you’re anxious or immunocompromised, he says, “just wear the mask, and then you have a septum over your nose and mouth.”
Work in the gym
Size, crowd, and ventilation matter when it comes to gyms. Small gyms that rely on fans to circulate the air will be ‘a bit [riskier] “If it’s crowded because there isn’t much ventilation,” Khabaza says. “In really big gyms, distances can be done” so you can distance yourself from others. Larger gyms are also likely to have an HVAC system to improve air purification.
“If you can save space, it will be relatively safer compared to smaller gyms where spacing is not much of an option,” Khabaza says.
While wiping down gym equipment isn’t necessary from a COVID transmission standpoint—”it would be very hard to get, especially if you don’t touch your face,” Khabaza says—it’s a standard recommendation to do so before and after using gym equipment in general.
Attending an indoor party or wedding
If you are at high risk of developing a serious illness, “it may be reasonable to avoid weddings at times [COVID] Khabaza, who recommends wearing an appropriate N95 mask at group events, particularly if you’re more at risk, says “storms.”
However, most weddings take place in “big venues where you can fit in a bit,” he says. “If you’re apart and wearing a mask, you should be very good at lowering your risk.” But Khabbazah says the best protection is to be up-to-date with COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, which makes your odds of developing severe disease “extremely low, assuming you have a normal immune system,” he said.
You can also go as far as to assess the risks of attending a larger social gathering: Dr. Priti Malaney, chief health officer in the Department of Infectious Diseases and Geriatrics at the University of Michigan, told NPR that before a major event, “ask if people should be vaccinated and/or their test to attend and whether they have to show proof or on the honor system.”
stay in hotel
While you don’t need to wear a mask when in your hotel room, you may want to wear a mask while riding in the elevator if it gets crowded or if you’re staying at a large hotel with longer elevator rides that stop on multiple floors. It will be a short elevator ride at the lower end [of the risk spectrum]but not impossible, says Khabbazah, “but transmissibility increases when you are in close contact.”
A 2021 study found that in elevators without proper ventilation, a person with a cough can transmit viral particles “through the elevator enclosure.”
Another option to stay safe: If you don’t want the mask hidden, wait for the next empty—or mostly empty—lift if possible, or go up the stairs, Baker suggests.
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