I’m as happy as the next person that the COVID-19 pandemic is in a much better place than it was this time last year, and certainly this time two years ago. Thanks to safe and effective vaccines, many folks are better protected from severe disease from the virus, which definitely helps me sleep easier.
But one thing that has been keeping me up at night is the seemingly widespread idea that the pandemic has passed and that we don’t need to worry about protecting ourselves and our communities from COVID-19 this winter. I’ve seen this attitude reflected all over social media, as well as in the world around me—it’s almost as if nobody’s even heard of a mask, let alone thought of wearing one in a crowded store.
This misconception has been fueled in part by misleading messaging from the federal government. In September, President Biden said the pandemic was “over” in a 60 Minutes interview. (He later tried to backtrack, explaining that the pandemic isn’t as bad as it once was.)
On top of this, the CDC rolled back mask guidelines in health care settings right before the start of cold and flu season, as SELF previously reported, and local leaders have all but given up on emphasizing the importance of wearing masks this winter. This, combined with the fact that folks desperately want this to be over, has led to our current reality, in which very few people are taking the risks of COVID seriously anymore—despite the fact that every week about 1,800 Americans are still dying from the virus, more than 300,000 are getting infected, and cases are steadily rising in much of the country, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
How concerned you are with getting or spreading COVID probably depends on your individual health and circumstances, but we should all be doing what we can to keep our communities well this winter, especially since the steps we can take to do so—like wearing a mask when you’re traveling for the holidays—are super simple. These precautions matter because they have the potential to save lives—but I also know that many people will roll their eyes at even basic preventative tactics at this stage in the pandemic.
The last three years have taken a toll on all of us, but that’s no excuse to give up now—even if masking up in supermarkets may earn you some strange looks. Though it feels superficial, I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter what other people think, and that, in addition to keeping people safe, these practices have a minimal impact on my day-to-day life—the worst that could happen is that I could forget my mask and have to double back to my house or buy another.
The potential consequences of not being careful, however, are dire. I’m anxious about my personal well-being as well as the general health of my community; specifically, I’m scared of getting reinfected with COVID-19, which I got this past summer, and which wore me out for a full week. COVID is most definitely not “just a cold,” and we need to quit referring to it as such, especially since research is starting to unveil the potential health implications of reinfection, including a heightened risk of developing long COVID.
Though many people are brushing off the threat of long COVID, one CDC study estimates that at least 20% of people who get the virus—one in five—will develop the condition. The list of symptoms linked to the condition, which scientists are just starting to understand, includes brain fog, dyspnea (increased respiratory effort), depression and other mental health issues, cardiovascular complications, neurological problems, and so much more. Also worth noting: very few people have gotten the updated COVID boosters, known as bivalent boosters. This is concerning because public health officials seemed to bank on these vaccines to significantly slow the spread of COVID this year while simultaneously neglecting to mandate or even strongly recommend using masks in public.
I’m also concerned about influenza, given that experts have been warning for months that we could see high cases of flu this year. Their estimations are based in part on data from Australia’s most recent flu season, which lasted from April to October. As Kenneth Koncilja, MD, an internal medicine and geriatrics specialist at Cleveland Clinic, previously told SELF, “We look at Australia to predict our flu season. And this year, they had a horrific flu season.” (In October, the country’s number of lab-confirmed cases of influenza was more than 400 times that of the same time period in 2021, per the Immunisation Coalition of Australia.) Similar to COVID, influenza can lead to its own set of complications, especially in high-risk people, from sinus or ear infections to pneumonia, per the CDC. And, as with the COVID-19 vaccine, Americans have been slow to get their flu shots this year: One recent survey suggests less than half the population plans to get one at all.
As if this weren’t enough, we can’t forget about the current high rates of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common virus that usually causes cold-like symptoms, but can become serious for very young children or elderly folks. The situation is so drastic that it’s been declared a public health emergency in multiple places in the US, and, at one point in November, every single pediatric hospital bed in the state of Rhode Island was full, as SELF previously reported. Though I don’t have kids, I don’t like the idea of passing on a potentially harmful virus to people who do have children—or who live with their older parents or grandparents—at this year’s office holiday party.
So I’m going to be cautious this holiday season, especially since I’ll be bouncing back and forth between my place and my parents’. Thankfully, my family and I are fully vaccinated against the flu and COVID, but the risk of significant illness from either of those viruses seems alarming enough to be strategic and cautious about social events right now.
Being considerate and careful doesn’t mean I won’t attend any indoor gatherings at all during the coming months, or that I’ll stay totally quarantined throughout the winter—only that I’ll be taking steps to be as safe as I can. Remember: COVID precautions aren’t all or nothing; you can implement some easy methods into your daily routine that go a long way in protecting people while also allowing you to have a somewhat normal holiday season. Specifically, I plan to:
- Wear a mask anytime I head into a public space. Earlier this fall, I stocked up on KN95s.
- Avoid scheduling back-to-back indoor gatherings. Spreading things out will give me time to test myself for COVID in between big events.
- Stay home if I feel sick. Even if I don’t have the flu or COVID, I don’t want to pass on any type of illness to anyone.
- Cancel plans with anyone who’s feeling sick. Given all the nasty viruses circulating right now, it’s in everyone’s best interest to just reschedule.
- Avoid crowds when I can. When possible, I plan to avoid rush hour at my local grocery store, particularly crowded shops, and other areas where I’m likely to be in close quarters with a lot of unmasked people.
- Rapid test before unmasked events and after every COVID exposure. Having a low threshold to test will (a) make me feel better about my overall health and (b) keep me from constantly worrying I’m spreading the virus to those around me.
Individually, none of us can stop the ongoing pandemic, nor can we eradicate common viruses like influenza or RSV. But if we all follow these (hugely!) easy steps, we may be able to keep ourselves and everyone around us—our roommates, our coworkers, the people we interact with at the supermarket, etc.—a little (or a lot) healthier this year.
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