How to Prepare for a Possible COVID Infection This Winter—Even if You've Been Vaccinated and Boosted

How to Prepare for a Possible COVID Infection This Winter—Even if You've Been Vaccinated and Boosted

Less than one month after it was first detected in the US, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 now makes up 58.6% of all coronavirus cases in the country, according to the latest estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That sharp rise is thanks in large part to the variant's increased transmissibility, according to the CDC, along with the fact that Omicron is able to evade immunity (either that from a past COVID-19 infection, or through vaccination). 

The gist, regarding Omicron? The variant makes it possible for many more people—even those who have been vaccinated and boosted—to test positive for the virus this winter.

That's not to say all hope is lost if you've done your due diligence to protect yourself and those around you from COVID—and it certainly doesn't mean you can shirk other protective measures like wearing a face mask and keeping your distance from infected people. But, for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, preparation is key. Here, health experts help explain what everyone can do to prepare for a possible COVID-positive test result this winter—from getting vaccinated (an important first step!), to making a plan for isolation, if necessary.

Get vaccinated against COVID-19 (and the flu) ASAP

First things first: Getting vaccinated is still the best way to avoid getting COVID (and ensure your symptoms are mild if you do end up contracting the virus). According to the CDC, vaccination is the best way to protect against severe illness, hospitalization, and death, even after an Omicron infection.

Past that, if you've already received both doses of an mRNA vaccine (that means Pfizer-BioNtech or Moderna's shots), or a single-dose Johnson & Johnson-Janssen (J&J) vaccine, it may be time to get a booster dose. A post on the National Institutes of Health's Director's Blog on December 14, shared that preliminary data suggests booster shots (or third doses of a vaccine) "will help protect people already vaccinated from breakthrough or possible severe infections with Omicron during the winter months." As a quick refresher, the CDC says you are eligible for a booster shot if you're six months out from a final dose of an mRNA vaccine, or two months out from a J&J vaccine.

And while you're at it, be sure to get your flu shot, too. This can help you sidestep infection and hospitalization for influenza during a time when healthcare facilities are increasingly crowded due to COVID. 

Upgrade your personal protective equipment.

In addition to vaccination and boosting, the next best thing you can do is to cover your mouth and nose with a snug-fitting, high-quality mask—think N95, KN95, or a surgical mask with a fabric mask over it—in public indoor spaces, crowded outdoor spaces, and in any scenario where you can't confirm whether every person present has been vaccinated and/or tested negative for COVID-19 before attending, says Dr. Thomas Russo, MD, professor and chief of infectious diseases at University at Buffalo's Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

But the right mask isn't just for situations outside of the home: You'll especially want proper PPE on hand to stop the spread if you become contagious or if you plan to look after a household member who contracts COVID-19. While less conventional outside of healthcare facilities, protective eyewear like glasses, goggles, or face shields can help protect your eyes during brief interactions with infected household members, according to Dr. Russo.

Purchase at-home COVID tests to have on hand

Though polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are considered the gold standard for detecting COVID infections, it's wise to have COVID tests at your disposal at home, too. These at-home COVID tests (known sometime as at-home rapid tests or at-home antigen tests) aren't quite as sensitive as PCR tests, but they can be helpful in a few situations.

First: These at-home tests have been found to be more sensitive in people who are showing symptoms, and they're most accurate in the first week of symptoms, according to research by Cochrane. So if you are feeling ill and you have an at-home test available, you can take that as a first step to diagnosing a possible COVID infection. According to the same research, "antigen tests may be most useful to identify outbreaks, or to select people with symptoms for further testing with PCR." Note that even with a negative antigen test, it doesn't mean you're not infected with COVID—to know for sure, a PCR test is your best bet. "If you test negative for COVID-19 at home and you're still feeling sick, you could have COVID-19 and not be producing the virus in your mouth and nasal cavity yet," Cheryl G. Healton, DrPH, dean of the School of Global Public Health at New York University, tells Health.

Another pro of at-home tests: Getting quick test results can help asymptomatic testers gather more safely: You can and should test yourself before getting together with friends or family indoors—particularly if someone in the party falls into a high-risk group due to their age, health status, or because they've chosen not to get vaccinated and boosted, or aren't eligible for vaccination, according to Dr. Russo: "Having everyone do a home rapid test to ensure they are negative won't eliminate the possibility of someone infectious showing up," he says. "But it will decrease the likelihood and give an additional layer of protection." 

Locate your local PCR testing facility

Because PCR tests really are the way to go to confirm a COVID diagnosis, it's wise to find a place near you that performs the tests. Google can help here: In a White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing on December 27, President Biden announced that you can now search "COVID test near me" to find your closest testing center. Keep in mind many places can offer COVID tests, including urgent care centers, pharmacies, and other medical facilities or clinics.

One tip: You should prioritize places that you can walk or drive to, since you shouldn't take public transportation if you're experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. And to minimize potential exposure, choose a drive-through or outdoor testing option or facility known for its short wait times, then plan to wear the highest quality mask you can tolerate, Dr. Russo suggests. 

Invest in a thermometer and pulse oximeter

Self-monitoring mild symptoms can help you sidestep crowded medical facilities and keep your infection at home should you test positive for COVID-19 at some later date. You might already have a thermometer, which can help you keep tabs on your temperature, but you should also purchase a pulse oximeter, a device that measures the percent of oxygen in your blood, which can drop in severe COVID-19 cases. In some instances, this reading can alert you to low oxygen levels before you have difficulty breathing—a sign you need oxygen therapy as soon as possible.

"It's the most important tool you can have if you test positive for COVID-19 and you are isolating at home," says Dr. Russo, who recommends getting a baseline reading when you first take it out of the box so you can use it to detect a downward trend. Although readings can be false or on the low side among people of color, a normal reading is around 95 or above. Typically, if you dip below 93, you should reach out to your healthcare provider. 

Stock up on the essentials

Whether you're experiencing symptoms or are asymptomatic but still contagious, the last thing you want to do after testing positive for COVID-19 is run to the pharmacy for a get-well kit. To ensure you're well-equipped, now is the time to stock your medicine cabinet with pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, according to the CDC. You should also make sure you have enough fluids on hand (now may be time to buy a large water bottle, if you don't already have one), and plan to get enough rest, if the time comes. 

News of new drugs authorized for emergency use—like the antiviral medications Paxlovid (from Pfizer) and molnupiravir (from Merck)—may have you wondering if you can score any of those for your medicine cabinet, but there's a pretty hard answer there: You can't. "There is a very limited supply [of these drugs] and it shouldn't be stockpiled," says Dr. Russo. Another important point: These drugs have some serious risks to them. If you do test positive for the virus, you should contact your primary care doctor immediately, and they can help you determine the ideal course of treatment, that may or may not include a COVID-19 pill. 

In addition to medications and other supplies, you'll also want to stock up on disinfectants or sanitizing products, as well as soap. Though we are well past the point in the pandemic when everyone was using Clorox wipes on groceries, it's still a good idea to maintain cleanliness and proper hygiene—especially if you or a family member comes down with COVID.

Make a plan for quarantine and/or isolation

Although the terms tend to be used interchangeably, quarantine and isolation are not the same thing. Quarantining takes place after suspected or confirmed exposure to COVID-19, while isolation occurs in the case of confirmed infection.

For everyone, regardless of vaccination status, the CDC recommends you stay home for five days after testing positive for COVID-19. If, after five days, you have no symptoms or your symptoms are resolving, you can leave the house, but are asked to remain masked in public or around others for five more days. The one symptom to pay attention to here is fever: The CDC says to continue isolating after five days if you still have a fever, and not to leave home until your fever resolves.

If you've been exposed to COVID-19, your vaccine status matters. According to the CDC, if you've received a booster dose, or if you received an mRNA vaccine less than six months ago, or the J&J vaccine less than two months ago, you should wear a mask around others for 10 days and test on day five. For people who are unvaccinated, or have not yet received a booster (and got their mRNA vaccine more than six months ago, or their J&J vaccine more than two months ago), the CDC suggests staying home for five days, testing on day five, and then wearing a mask in public for an additional five days.

Clearly, everyone's quarantine or isolation scenario will look different, but the best, safest option includes isolating away from people who were not exposed or did not test positive. That may mean staying in a separate room and using a separate bathroom, if possible. You may also want to figure out a meal plan (this can look like meals being brought to you, or wearing the highest quality mask if you absolutely have to be around others for whatever reason). Also important: child care. Parents will want to determine how they'll care for and occupy their children in case they end up feeling too ill to be a primary caregiver.

Know the symptoms to watch out for—and the signs that you need emergency medical treatment

Two years into the pandemic, listing symptoms may sound like a broken record, but they still bear repeating. The CDC lists the following as the main symptoms associated with COVID-19 infection:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Regarding Omicron specifically, data show that the top symptoms reported are common cold-like symptoms, including runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing, and sore throat. The CDC also reported that, in the first 43 cases of Omicron in the US, those same cold-like symptoms were the most common, even in the vaccinated population.

Still, COVID-19 can turn serious—especially in those who are unvaccinated. The CDC says the following symptoms are signs that you need to seek emergency care immediately:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone

Know how to contact your doctor, and make a hospital plan

If you end up testing positive for COVID, you'll want to let your doctor know right away. They are already aware of your medical history and can provide guidance on medical interventions, advise on when to seek medical help and how to identify an emergency situation, and let you know how to use testing to determine when it's safe to be around others. If you tested positive on an at-home test specifically, they can advise you to take a PCR to confirm, or they can report your case to your community's health department (this is the best way for health officials to keep track of rising cases). 

While many COVID cases will resolve without treatment or hospitalization, there is still a chance that your case could become severe—again, mostly for the unvaccinated population. If you do begin to experience severe symptoms, your nearest hospital is a good place to begin, although an urgent care center may be your next best bet. You should also think through how you'll get to said medical center, since the CDC discourages use of public transportation if you're experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or have tested positive for the virus. 

Remember to go easy on yourself

The entire world has really been through it for the past two years—limited contact with others and fear of contracting a deadly virus has put an enormous amount of stress on many people. While there is still a hint of stigma around contracting the virus, there shouldn't be: "At this point in the pandemic, it's nobody's fault," Dana Rose Garfin, PhD, assistant adjunct professor at the University of California, Irvine Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing, tells Health. She encourages patients not to blame themselves or loved ones who might have transmitted the virus to you. "We have community spread of a highly transmissible virus, and even if you do everything in your power to protect yourself, infections are going to occur."

And while getting a COVID-19 diagnosis—or worrying about an impending one—can seem daunting, it's important to make room for the chance that you could come down with the virus at some point, and come up with a plan just in case. "Coming to terms with the possibility [of infection] might help it be less shocking when you receive the diagnosis," says Dr. Garfin. "Anything that you can do to prepare in advance will make getting COVID less stressful."

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