Health

As COVID Worsens, Here's What to Do to Protect Yourself Before You Get the Vax

Wear two masks, spend less time in the store, and keep your eyes on the prize.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
January 22, 2021, 6:53pm
Young Asian woman wearing a mask at city street, Shanghai, China
Photo by Qi Yang via Getty Images

The ten months (ten months!) since COVID-19 began spreading uncontrollably throughout the United States have felt so, so, so much longer than that. This partly stems from the way this pandemic has broken down into psychosocial phases—stages of anger, paranoia, produce-bleaching and ear-plugging denial in the face of mass death. It was also made doubly hard by the fact that COVID has impacted different parts of the country at different times and different levels of severity. Couple all that with a total lack of unified federal response, and it’s been a very splintered almost-year indeed. 

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Fortunately, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, in the form of COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna and others in the late stages of testing from AstraZeneca, Janssen, and Novavax. So far, though, the vaccine rollout has been… let’s say… less than stellar, with obstacles ranging from public opinion to logistics to supply to slow rollout of rules and regulations. Meanwhile, the number of COVID cases continues to climb and the prospect of new, mutated COVID strains making it to the U.S. feels inevitable. 

Long story short: We’re still going to be doing this shit for a while, and experts say we’re going to need to make behavioral adjustments in the meantime. Here’s the thing: We’re so close. We’re so close! While the actual end might not be coming as soon as we’d like, we are in a kind of home stretch. Especially when COVID numbers have skyrocketed in the last several weeks, it’s a better time than ever to remind ourselves to hold the line (and hopefully even more formal federal guidance is speedily on the way).

The good news is that we know more about how COVID spreads than we did in March 2020. The even better news? None of the extra steps you’ll need to take to keep yourself and your loved ones safe involve going to a Zoom birthday party. 

Keep up (or revamp) the tried and true precautions

If you’re still avoiding lingering indoors whenever possible, staying at least six feet apart from everyone you don’t live with, sticking to your hometown or city, and wearing a mask any time you go outside—great! Keep up the good work! You are the person we’d all ideally be right now. But for those of us who didn’t win a “Good Citizenship” award as a 10-year-old, it’s time to tighten up on all of those safety measures once again, especially the ones we relaxed when COVID-19 cases dipped in over the summer. 

Liberties that may have once been viable during COVID’s low period that roughly coincided with the summer—like spending time with non-roommate friends at an outdoor bar, or just popping in to a shoe store, or chilling in a pod member’s apartment unmasked—carry a much higher risk now with climbing COVID numbers and new variants of the virus that scientists are tentatively saying are more contagious than the original strain. “I think there is no room for error or sloppiness in following precautions, whereas before, we might have been able to get away with letting one slide,” aerosol scientist Lindsay Marr told The New York Times.  

Kick your mask situation into high gear

Earlier this month, Atlantic contributor Zeynep Tufekci and University of San Francisco researcher Jeremy Howard asked: “Why aren’t we wearing better masks?” As someone who is not “a scientist” or “an expert,” my guess is that people found something comfortable, cute, and non-disgusting (remember gaiters?) and decided that was enough—but unfortunately, that set it and forget it vision doesn’t gel with reality. 

If you’re regularly coming into contact with other people or are high-risk for COVID infection, Tufekci and Howard advise medical-grade masking for the best protection possible. “The cloth masks that we focus on in our paper [on mask efficacy] do a good job at source control, but on their own they do not protect the wearer as well as medical-grade respirators do,” they wrote. “If we could confidently tell people that the masks would also help protect the wearer from infection, we would likely get more people to wear them. Appealing to solidarity is excellent (“My mask protects you; your mask protects me”), but being able to confidently add self-interest to the equation would be even better.”

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If you don’t have access to medical-grade PPE (and be aware of fakers if you go searching online!), make sure your mask fits tight to your face and is at least double-layered (a filter insert provides even more protection). If you’re worried your go-to mask isn’t up to snuff, double up: Tara Parker-Pope of the Times recommended popping a disposable surgical mask under a cloth one in a pinch. 

Cut down on indoor time whenever possible

It’s not feasible for most people to stop going to the pharmacy or the doctor’s office or the grocery store, no matter what a grabby headline might imply. But given the fact that the new variants of COVID are pegged to be between 50 to 70 percent more contagious than the old iterations, experts suggest spending as little time as possible indoors, when going indoors is unavoidable. 

“Shopping for five minutes in the grocery store is a lot better — six times better — than shopping for 30 minutes,” said Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Vox. “The best protection still remains avoiding contact with other people indoors, especially for a sustained period of time,” evolutionary virologist Stephen Goldstein said in the same article. Parker-Pope of the Times suggested that anyone confronted with a crowded grocery store skip it and return at off-peak hours instead. 

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Basically, when you do head inside somewhere, do it with a mission—it’s not like meandering through the aisles of your local Food Lion is all that fun anyway. 

Go ahead and put a pin in any travel plans

This might seem obvious given all of the above, but just in case anyone hasn’t inferred: It’s time to put a big ol’ pause on any plans you have to travel, especially across state lines, in the near future. It’s just not safe to do so right now, for you or for the communities you’ll be traveling to. 

“If you live in a state with low rates, check which states will require you quarantine in your home upon your return, as many states are asking people to quarantine when returning from states with a positive test rate higher than 10 per 100,000 residents or higher than a 10 percent test positivity rate over a seven-day rolling average,” 

Manisha Juthani, an infectious disease specialist and an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Yale School of Medicine, told VICE in September

For a little more perspective: Cook County’s positive test rate is 274 per 100,000 residents, LA County’s is 105 per 100,000 residents, Orange County’s is 85 per 100,000 residents, NYC’s is 70 per 100,000 residents, Harris County is 64 per 100,000 residents, and Washington, D.C.’s is 53 per 100,000 residents. So… yeah. Right now, with 24.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 410,000 deaths so far in the U.S., the idea of “low rates” is a deeply unfunny joke. We’re not sure when that “10 per 100,000 residents” figure fell out of favor, but we sure do see people traveling as if the circumstances in which we came up with it have changed. They very much have not, at least not yet. 

Long story short, COVID-19 is still very much “happening.” We might not be scared to go for a walk outside anymore (and experts stressed that we still shouldn’t be, as long as we’re maintaining a safe distance and wearing masks!), but that doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. In fact, thanks to a botched government response we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives, adhering to the things that keep us safe is our best hope for all of this ending as soon as possible. 

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