Right now, the US is in the middle of a trifecta of infectious diseases. The “triplemic” of the coronavirus, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) has led the city of New York and County of Los Angeles, among other things to “strongly recommend” indoor masking. Officials in Oakland and Sacramento may follow soon. The CDC, which has barely spoken about masks in the past year, now recommends wearing one based on the level of the Covid-19 community — a recommendation that takes into account hospital admissions, available beds and the number of cases.
Listen, I’m not trying to scare you with this objectively scary information. The data simply shows how crucial it is to prepare for this season’s weather. There’s a sense of fatigue, especially when it comes to Covid: It’s been nearly three years since that particular pandemic began, and officials’ recommendations have remained confusing. It’s overwhelming; I totally get that. But addressing the emotional realities of dealing with these illnesses can go a long way toward protecting you and your loved ones.
Having Covid-19 cases increased by 26 percent in the two weeks leading up to Dec. 19, while hospitalizations and deaths rose by 14 percent and 63 percent, respectively. And this flu season is trending to be one of the worst in recent years. The CDC estimates that 15 million people have contracted the flu this season. As of Dec. 16, at least 150,000 people have been hospitalized and 9,300 people have died from higher-than-average flu rates. And even though RSV is starting to become a trend down, infection rates remain high. These high rates of illness also play a major role deformation at hospitals and pharmacies.
So how can we best navigate this icky viral chaos? I asked Elizabeth Stuart, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and James Conway, a physician specializing in childhood infectious diseases at the University of Wisconsin. Here’s their advice, edited for length and clarity.
Don’t practice presenteeism: Stay home if you’re sick
This one feels the most obvious, but for many reasons it doesn’t always work out. Some employers have exploitation workplace policy to ensure that employees come in even if they are not feeling well. Some employees succumb to the idea that working while sick makes them an ideal employee, one who is willing to sacrifice their well-being for the company.
But symptoms of any kind, mild or severe, are a clear sign to stay home. “For far too many years, whether in the workplace or for important social engagements, people took it as a show of pride that they would get through it and go to work even if they were sick,” said Conway. “I think people have finally come to realize that this is both impractical and a bit disrespectful to others.”
For people who can’t miss a service – the reality for many in the service industry, especially – other measures such as masking, hand washing and vaccination will be crucial to your well-being and that of everyone else. (The biggest help, of course, would be a universal absenteeism policy.)
“The vaccines this year are really matching what’s circulating and performing well,” Conway said.
Some keep hesitating when it comes to vaccines, some not have access to the vaccines they need, and others think they are not needed. For Covid boosters in particular, Conway says people are likely to believe that receiving their primary series, recently contracting the coronavirus, or a combination of the two protects them well enough. (If you catch Covid-19 before getting vaccinated or boosted, the CDC does recommend postponing the admission for three months after the onset of symptoms or a positive test. You’ll get the most out of your vaccine if you ride your post-viral immunity.)
“That was probably decent enough in the delta era,” he said. “But with these rapidly emerging Omicron variants, especially this new BQ sub-variant that replaced the BA.4 and BA.5, you’re basically unprotected unless you’ve had the bivalent booster.”
New Covid sub-variants could cause more breakthrough infections. Wear a mask and wash your hands.
Both Stuart and Conway recommended keeping plenty of masks on hand — hang one with your car keys, keep a few in your purse, tuck an extra one in your jacket pocket, and share with others. The same goes for hand sanitizer or, preferably, wash your hands regularly.
“Some of these viruses form an aerosol and fly through the air, but most respiratory viruses are transmitted by what we call droplets, where people cough and sneeze and get somewhere,” explains Conway. “And then you touch that space and you touch your own face. Wearing a mask is a way to keep your hands off your face. Hand hygiene is an extra layer.”
It’s also essential to find a mask that fits you well, Stuart added. If you like your mask you will be more likely to wear it and you can buy that winner in bulk.
The caveat is that masks can be pricey. Stuart advised checking to see if organizations in your area are giving them away for free. In Washington, DC, for example, masks are available to anyone who wants them at local Covid centers. The GGD also has a tool that people can use to search free N95s based on their zip code. A quick search showed CVS, Walgreens, local pharmacies and several large supermarket chains form an important part of the program in more rural areas, which continue to suffer limited access to vaccines.
If you manage to snag an N95 or KN95, you can use it until it’s visibly dirty, too loose-fitting, or falling apart – knowledge that lets you know it’s cool to stretch that mask out for a week. “Masks are disposable, but not single-use,” said Stuart. “You don’t need a new mask every day or for every interaction.”
Let the outside air in and remove all the dirt
If you share a home with someone who is sick, don’t be afraid to wear a mask indoors or open a window to ventilate the area.
“My daughter has been sick this week and I now wear a mask in the house when I’m with her,” said Stuart. “Hopefully we’ve learned from the past few years to have a greater appreciation for ventilation and how to prevent the spread – whether that’s opening the windows a little or wearing masks, especially in large groups.”
You can also circulate the air throughout your home by placing a fan in front of the window, turning on the exhaust fan above the stove or in the bathroom, which helps move air outside the house, or grab a HEPA air filter if you can afford it. A humidifier may also come in handy, as the coronavirus is not a fan of humid air.
Set the tone with friends and family
Setting boundaries with your loved ones isn’t always easy, but it benefits everyone to do so during this triple pandemic. So don’t feel guilty if you turn down invitations to crowded parties or don’t allow an unvaccinated person to attend a gathering you’re hosting.
Besides, a vaccination against flu and Covid, or a rapid test before arrival, may not be such a big deal for them after all.
“I’m more or less pleased with some of the invitations I’ve received to social gatherings where people say they expect everyone to be vaccinated,” Conway said. “Whereas that was seen as provocative in the past, I think it’s becoming a little bit more normalized.”
Juliet Craven is a writer who covers everything she thinks is cool, and she’s the brains behind it Make it meaningfula wellness newsletter.
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