The Omicron variant still hasn’t been detected in the US, but COVID is still here. Tens of thousands of people are catching the Delta variant every day, mostly in the upper Midwest, Southwest, and Northeast. And although it’ll be weeks before we understand how Omicron affects transmissibility and severity, parts of the country are likely to endure another winter of outbreaks.
There’s lots you can’t control, from the emergence of new variants to vaccination rates around the country. But there’s also plenty you can do to minimize your risk—it’s the same things we’ve been doing all along.
Get a shot, get a booster
It’s possible that Omicron will prove better at infecting vaccinated people than previous variants. That would definitely pose a problem. But a vaccine is still the easiest way to reduce your risk. In the case of other variants—including those that shared many immune-escape mutations with Delta—vaccines still provide strong protection against death and hospitalization.
If you’ve been relying on prior infection to keep you safe, it’s time to rethink that. Yes, prior infection confers some immunity, depending on the individual, but it likely doesn’t last as long as vaccination. But Omicron carries a set of mutations that probably help it reinfect people. (Last year, a variant with similar mutations swept through Brazilian states that had already experienced large outbreaks.) A vaccine on top of infection is almost certainly safer.
Already got your shot? Get a booster. (Not sure if you’re eligible, or don’t know what shot to get? Start here.) If you’re young and immunologically healthy, your vaccine is probably still very effective against serious illness. If you’re over 65, it’s more likely that efficacy has started to wane. Either way, a booster will give you further protection against infection and mild illness, which makes you less likely to give the virus to others.
In the case of Omicron, we don’t know what impact boosters will have on infection. (And it’s important to emphasize that we don’t even know if Omicron will affect vaccine efficacy.) But a stronger immune response is rarely a bad thing.
Know the symptoms, keep testing
With cold and flu season coming on top of COVID, it’s hard to know what to make of symptoms like a headache or fever. The best thing you can do is test regularly, and avoid crowded situations if you’re feeling under the weather and haven’t tested negative.
Although there are preliminary reports that Omicron might cause slightly different mild symptoms than other lineages, it’s far too soon to say. And if you’re in the US, you’re still far more likely to be infected by the Delta variant. So watch for the basic symptoms:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
What test you use depends on what you’re testing for. If you’re just feeling under the weather, or you want to make sure you’re not infectious before going to a family event or other crowded setting, you might consider using a rapid test. They can give false negatives for asymptomatic infections, but are most accurate when you’re symptomatic or infectious, making them useful tools for circumstances where you just need to know if you’ve got a case at the moment. You can buy a take-home kit of two tests for about $25 at many drug stores.
Need a refresher on how quarantine works if you’re vaccinated? Check out this CDC page.
If you’ve been exposed to someone who had COVID, you should get a test three to five days afterwards, even if you’re vaccinated. (If you test negative and are vaccinated, you can end your quarantine afterwards.) But unless you’ve got symptoms, you probably want a more sensitive test. PCR tests are better for picking up asymptomatic infections, and are available at many doctor’s offices or urgent cares, although you might need an appointment.
Mask mandates have been lifted across most of the country, but plenty of public health experts think that you should keep wearing them indoors. After all, there’s almost no downside. N95 (and KN95) masks filter out the most viral material, provided they fit well, but even cloth masks reduce the amount of viral particles you breathe in and out. That makes you less likely to catch COVID, and probably less likely to get seriously sick. (The amount of virus you breathe in also appears to have an effect on disease severity.) It also means you’re less likely to get your loved ones sick.
Over the summer, an international team of researchers reviewed data on masking and transmission, and recommended “smart masking,” rather than masking everywhere. Basically, use common sense and focus on wearing a mask in spaces where the risk is highest: ”crowded spaces, indoor venues, and unventilated places.” (Grocery stores, concerts, apartment lobbies.)
Until we know more about Omicron, these tried and true methods will help ensure we are doing what we can to stop the spread of COVID—of any type—this winter.