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Dr. Anthony Fauci declared last month that the U.S. is transitioning "out of the pandemic phase," following mask mandates lifting across the country. However, that doesn't mean COVID-19 is behind us. Surges continue in different parts of the U.S., while an estimated 300 people die every day because of the virus.
So it's understandable that some people — at least the ones who have been trying to protect themselves and others from the highly-contagious virus for the past two years — are feeling a bit confused about what exactly they should be doing at this stage of the pandemic to stay healthy and safe.
Dr. Joseph Khabbaza, a critical care medicine specialist and pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells Yahoo Life, "A lot of people have been given a sense that this is probably over for most of us. The answer isn't going to be the same for every two people."
Khabbaza says that's because every person has to assess their own individual risk factors when it comes to getting COVID. Dr. Prathit Kulkarni, an assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, agrees, telling Yahoo Life: "Safety precautions at this stage in the pandemic are related to one's personal risk of having a bad outcome from COVID-19, vaccination status and one's personal risk tolerance. All situations are slightly unique and require an individual and situational risk assessment."
With the exception of people who are immunocompromised or elderly, though, "if you’re fully vaccinated and up-to-date on boosters, your personal odds of getting severe illness are very low, even if you come across the virus," says Khabbaza. "Whereas for people who have not been vaccinated they may not factor in that they are at high risk for severe illness. But that's something some people have chosen."
How can you protect yourself in general?
In a nutshell, getting vaccinated and boosted if eligible is still the right call — especially if you're more vulnerable to severe illness from COVID — and offers "the best protection," says Kulkarni.
He adds: "Folks who are at higher risk for a worse outcome from COVID-19 may wish to enhance their protection from contracting COVID-19. The best way to do this is with a well-fitting mask. N95 respirator-type masks afford the greatest individual protection."
Kulkarni says that "the folks who are potentially at the highest risk at this point in the pandemic include unvaccinated individuals, especially older persons, folks who are at higher risk but have not yet been boosted such as older persons or people living in nursing homes and people with significant immunocompromising conditions."
Both Kulkarni and Khabbaza say it's also important to know what the COVID rates are in your area or where you're traveling to. "Following CDC's tracker of COVID activity around the country can also be helpful to get a gauge for how things are going in a particular geographic area," says Kulkarni.
Planning on going back to the office, hitting the gym or attending a wedding? Keep these precautions in mind to stay COVID safe and healthy.
Flying on a plane
With multiple U.S. domestic airlines including Delta, American and United dropping mask requirements on flights, you may be wondering how to stay safe while traveling on packed planes. The CDC states that it continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time. But depending on your own personal risk factors and risk tolerance, while at the airport, "if you're able to space apart from people and avoid close sustained contact, then a mask is not going to be needed," says Khabbaza. But when you're in prolonged close proximity to others, it's a good idea to mask up.
For example, Khabbaza shares that he doesn't wear a mask while walking around the airport because he's in motion and able to distance himself from others. However, he puts on a mask while in the security line "because of close contact." He then takes it off walking to the gate and while sitting at the gate "because I’m away from other people." Once on the plane, Khabbaza puts his mask back on. "Ventilation in airplanes seems to be good, but to me, it's easy enough to minimize my risk in a setting with others by wearing a mask,” he says. "That's where you’ll get more value for masking."
Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, told CNN that wearing a mask in the highest-risk settings while traveling is key. "That includes during boarding and deplaning when the ventilation systems on airplanes are often not running," she says. "Don't drink or eat at those times."
Although airlines often hand out sanitizing wipes as you board, Khabbaza explains that, from a COVID transmission standpoint, "I don’t think that would have much of a barrier." That's because "contact with surfaces is not as big of a mode of transmission as initially thought, if at all," he says. That said, it doesn’t hurt to wipe down the seat and tray table for hygiene's sake.
Kulkarni agrees, saying, "In general, wiping down surfaces via routine cleaning can be generally helpful for avoidance of transmission of several different infectious organisms."
Eating at a restaurant
In general, it's safer to dine outdoors when feasible. "Similar to the initial stages of the pandemic, outdoor transmission of COVID is very limited compared to indoor transmission," points out Kulkarni.
Khabbaza says to keep in mind that "if you are choosing to dine in a restaurant, most of your risk is when you’re sitting down and eating, which is much of the time." Putting on a mask while walking for "a few seconds to your seat" or wearing one on the way to the restroom may not change the fact that there's a "slightly higher risk of indoor dining right now," he says. "Theoretically, it could lower it a little bit, but you're drinking, eating, talking and laughing when seated and not moving around — that's where the risks are."
Khabbaza says the safest way to dine indoors is by choosing restaurants with big open windows to further lower the risk of transmission or going to restaurants during off-hours "when they're not full."
Working in an office
If you're alone in your own office or in a private cubicle, a mask likely isn't needed. "It will be hard to transmit if far away from others and there’s a barrier with cubicles," Khabbaza says.
But he stresses that it's important to know your company's policy on vaccinations and whether employees need to show proof of vaccination to better assess the risk. "If vaccination is mandatory that certainly makes things a lot safer," Khabbaza says. "But if you're in close sustained contact all day at work, masking is probably not a bad idea, especially in times of high cases."
Wearing a mask can also help put co-workers and employers who are more vulnerable at ease. "If you're working with people you know are immunocompromised or elderly, it's OK to try to protect them with masking," he says.
Along with distancing and good ventilation, Wen told CNN that "testing that's done at least once a week can help catch early, asymptomatic COVID-19 cases and serve as an additional layer of protection."
Visiting a public pool
The good news is that the virus doesn't transmit through water, per the World Health Organization. There's also the protective benefit of being outdoors while at a public pool. However, Khabbaza points out that "close sustained contact with someone in a pool might have some of that risk."
If the pool isn't crowded, it's easy to avoid people and space apart. "But if it's a crowded pool party, there's a risk and masks aren't feasible," he says.
When going indoors, such as to the locker room, it's a good idea to put on a mask if there are several people close by. The CDC recommends bringing extra masks and storing them in a plastic bag in case one gets wet.
Going to the supermarket
In general, supermarkets are "lower risk from a COVID standpoint because you're not really in close sustained contact — a lot of it is walking by people," says Khabbaza, "and you can space out in a line at the cashier."
But if you’re concerned or immunocompromised, he says, "just wear the mask, and then you have a barrier over your nose and mouth."
Working out at the gym
The size, crowd and ventilation matter when it comes to gyms. Small boutique gyms that rely on fans to circulate the air are going to be "a little [riskier] if crowded because there's not much ventilation," says Khabbaza. "In the really big gyms, spacing can be done" so you can distance yourself from others. Large gyms are also more likely to have an HVAC system for better air filtration.
"If you can space out, it's going to be relatively safer compared to smaller gyms where spacing isn't much of an option," says Khabbaza.
While wiping down gym equipment isn't essential from a COVID transmission standpoint — “it would be very hard to get it, especially if you're not touching your face," Khabbaza 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're at a high risk of severe illness, "it might be reasonable to avoid weddings at times of [COVID] surges," says Khabbaza, who recommends wearing a well-fitting N95 mask at group events, particularly if you’re more vulnerable. "If you're anxious about the possibility of getting it, weddings may not be best for you during times of surges."
That said, most weddings take place at "big venues where you can space out a bit," he says. "If you're spaced out and in a mask, you should be very good about minimizing your risk." But Khabbaza says that the best protection is being up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, which makes the odds of severe illness "extremely low, assuming you have a normal immune system," he says.
You can also go one step further to assess the risk of attending a larger social gathering: Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the Division of Infectious Diseases and Geriatric Medicine at the University of Michigan, told NPR that before a big event, "ask if people must be vaccinated and/or tested to attend and if they have to show proof or are on the honor system."
Staying at a hotel
While you don't need to wear a mask when you're in your own hotel room, you might want to put one on while riding the elevator if it's crowded or if you're staying at a big hotel with longer elevator rides that stop at multiple floors. "A short elevator ride will be on the lower end [of the risk spectrum], but not impossible," says Khabbaza. "But transmissibility becomes higher when in close contact."
A 2021 study found that in elevators without proper ventilation, an infected person coughing can transmit viral particles "all across the elevator enclosure."
Another option to stay safe: If you don't want to mask, wait for the next empty — or mostly empty — elevator if it's feasible, or take the stairs, suggests Khabbaza.
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