As a result of new coronavirus subvariants, we are experiencing a rise in COVID-19 infections in the U.S. right now.
“COVID is not gone nor will it disappear. We have to develop a truce with it,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Currently, infections, mostly mild, are increasing, and so are hospitalizations. A further increase is expected this winter. Thus, the best thing all of us can do is to take advantage of the new COVID booster.”
But beyond getting the latest COVID-19 shot, what should we all be doing right now to handle the ever-present risk of catching the disease and passing it on to loved ones? After three years of living through different COVID-19 waves, it’s totally normal to feel confused about how to manage your risk in this moment.
The rules have changed since March 2020, when there were no vaccines or treatments for COVID-19. “We’re really in the age of personal responsibility. So individuals need to gauge their own relative risk for developing serious disease, and how risk-averse they are in terms of their activities,” said Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the infectious disease division at the University at Buffalo.
That’s why HuffPost reached out to infectious disease experts about what they are personally doing to mitigate risk. Here’s what they shared about the precautions they’re taking — and what has and hasn’t changed about their behavior right now:
1. They won’t skip wearing masks in crowded spaces.
Masks remain one of the most effective first barriers to combat the spread of COVID-19. Experts said they are wearing masks more in crowded spaces.
Jodie Guest, senior vice chair of the epidemiology department at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, said she masks while traveling due to the uptick in cases.
“There actually was a bit of time in the spring when I did get on an airplane and didn’t wear a mask,” she said. “And then starting in the summer, I did start wearing them again.”
Now, she said: “I would not travel and be in an airport right now without having a mask on.”
Guest said she keeps a mask in her car and backpack for situations that could suddenly become crowded. “Do you take your umbrella with you if there’s a forecast of bad weather? I use a mask the same sort of way,” Guest said.
And if you’re in a group at higher risk for severe disease, you should be more diligent about masking. Take it from Schaffner.
“As I have gray hair, I’m in a higher-risk group just on the basis of age, so I’ve been wearing my mask at indoor events continuously,” Schaffner said. “Now that COVID cases and hospitalizations are increasing, I’ve been even more complete in being sure to mask up.”
2. They won’t go on vacations without taking precautions.
Russo cited his recent cruise vacation with his wife as an example of how he used masking to be more cautious.
He first assessed personal health risks. Russo said neither he nor his wife has significant underlying health disorders, are in their mid-60s, and have hybrid immunity from previous infections and vaccinations, so they do not consider themselves to be in the highest-risk category.
But they did mask more during the cruise to mitigate the risk of getting COVID-19.
“There’s indoor entertainment every night in a theater — we wear masks. We go onto an elevator with a bunch of other people — we wear a mask,” he said.
“We’ve been cautious where we can be as best as possible, particularly in the fact that we’re in a higher-risk setting being on our cruise ship,” Russo said.
3. They won’t dine in restaurants without assessing risk first.
“Restaurants and gyms are my sort of two highest-risk categories. I think we saw that early in the pandemic, and I don’t think anything’s changed, because both have the potential to be poorly ventilated spaces where people are often not wearing masks,” Russo said.
That’s why he called restaurants an “Achilles heel” of COVID-19 infection risk. Russo said that earlier in the summer when cases were much lower, he was eating out at restaurants, but he curtailed that activity before his vacation as he waited to get his COVID-19 booster shot.
If you have vulnerable people living with you, you might want to ask more questions at a restaurant.
“My wife and I are major caregivers for a family member who is receiving cancer chemotherapy, so we’re careful about going out to restaurants,” Schaffner said. “When we do, we look for tables that are a bit more separate from the others, and my wife always asks the server whether they are vaccinated.”
Guest said there are times she’s comfortable going to restaurants and times, like when she is preparing to visit her parents, that she is not.
“It’s this balance between going out and doing fun, social things that are really important for our mental health and connection, and then balancing it with, ‘Who am I putting at risk? When am I personally at risk? What do I have available to me to make sure I know that I am not increasing other people’s risk?’” Guest said.
4. They won’t assume they’re COVID-free if the first test comes back negative but they have symptoms.
Testing remains an important part of experts’ strategies. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines say to get tested at least five full days after your last exposure, even if you do not have symptoms.
“Sometimes it can take two or three days of symptoms for that test to come up positive. … Use that information to protect other people,” said Dr. Lucy Wilson, a professor in the department of emergency health services at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She advised working remotely or staying home if you’re sick, because “that is helpful, not only for COVID, but for all communicable diseases, especially respiratory.”
Part of being prepared right now means having at-home COVID-19 tests on hand so you don’t need to rush to a pharmacy.
“I make sure I have COVID-19 tests at home. I use them when I know I’ve had an exposure or when I know I’m going somewhere where people might be at increased risk,” Guest said.
And if there are symptoms, these experts don’t rely on just one test. “If I’ve had an unknown exposure, and I feel sick, I want to test, and if it’s negative, I want to retest 24 to 36 hours later,” Guest said.
It’s also helpful to look up the expiration dates on your at-home tests, Wilson said.
“Realize they’ve been extended so that you can go on that FDA site and look at the particular company and the particular test,” she said. “You can even look up the lot numbers on there.”
5. They won’t forget how unpredictable COVID can be.
More than 40% of adults in the U.S. say they’ve have had a COVID-19 infection, the CDC reports ― and that can help against future risk. “It has been shown repeatedly now that prior infection and prior vaccination help prevent severity because of improved protective immunity,” Wilson said.
But experts all advised trying not to get COVID-19, even if you are vaccinated and have already had it, because you don’t know how your body will respond to repeated infections.
Dr. Cesar A. Arias, co-director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research at Houston Methodist Research Institute in Texas, said that at this point, if you’re a healthy individual, COVID-19 is unlikely to kill you if you get infected — but even if you’re in that group, you should still avoid catching it.
“The infections with this virus are unpredictable,” Arias said. “Last time, for example, I had a very bad conjunctivitis eye condition that I did not expect. That’s why I’m cautious about trying to not get infected.”
Among the precautions Arias said he takes are tracking wastewater data to see the level of COVID-19 spread in his community and masking while traveling when there is an uptick in cases. “My last two previous occasions when I had COVID were exactly after a trip,” Arias said.
Guest also recommends paying attention to public health officials to know if COVID-19 cases are up. “We really need to rely on people who are interpreting that wastewater surveillance data to guide us to know what’s going on in our area,” she said.
Wilson recommended looking at the CDC chart with the percentages of total emergency department visits due to COVID-19, flu and RSV in your area. “It gives you a combined statistic on the graph as well as individual for those three, so you could just be aware of respiratory diseases in your community,” she said.
And if you’re noticing that more colleagues and friends are catching COVID-19, that’s another sign to take more protective measures, too. “If you know a bunch of people that have it, then now’s the time to put your mask on when you’re in big, crowded situations,” Guest said.