With lockdowns and mask mandates in the rear view mirror, many of us are happy to see life slowly returning to normal finally. However, with new strains of COVID-19 being discovered seemingly every week, we have to ask ourselves - will life ever return to normal? Or are we going to have to adapt to a new normal?
For years, experts believed that COVID-19 would continue to hit in waves that would gradually decrease in severity. The virus would become more infectious and less harmful with each wave. Many of us - myself included - believed that, over time, COVID-19 would become an everyday sickness similar to influenza.
However, this thought is being challenged more every day. At the time of writing, variants BA.4 and BA.5 are causing spikes in cases in many countries worldwide. With BA.4 and BA.5 being the most contagious strains yet, they seemingly follow the expected trend - COVID variants will become more communicable but with lower severity.
The issue is that the latter hasn’t held true. While it’s still too early to tell how dangerous the BA.4 and BA.5 variants are, some research has shown that these new strains can often result in more severe illnesses than earlier strains of Omicron (source).
While an increase in severity and prevalence is concerning enough, this is not the headlining news regarding the new variants. Instead, what is causing headlines is the new strain's ability to evade immunity - immunity that many of us had built through previously having COVID or through vaccine doses.
This concerning update has put into question the validity of the herd immunity theory. Since COVID-19 vaccines were released to the public in late 2020, we have been aiming for herd immunity. In other words, the point at which enough individuals become immune to a disease that the spread becomes hindered and gradually slows down.
While herd immunity has been seeming less and less likely since the initial Omicron spike, it’s only with these recent strains of COVID-19 that the concept of herd immunity has been virtually thrown out the window (source).
COVID is anything but a common cold, and based on recent events, it looks as though this will remain the case for the foreseeable future. While this is a bleak concept to imagine, the good news is that there are precautions we can take to protect ourselves and our families from the virus. Even better, many of these highly effective methods significantly reduce our chances of catching the new variants.
We Still Need to Care about COVID
For many of us, the vaccine was treated as a fix-all. Masks, social distancing, and other preventative measures could be replaced by a double dose of the recently released COVID vaccines. In South Korea, where I was living at the time, vaccinated individuals no longer needed to follow the mask mandate.
Earlier in the COVID pandemic, vaccines gave us a much-needed respite. They were highly effective against the variants at the time and saved thousands, if not millions, of lives. Unfortunately, we’ve seen vaccines lose efficacy against newly mutated virus strains.
While in-depth research on the new variants still needs to be carried out, we already know that BA.4 and BA.5 are far more effective at evading vaccine immunity than previous variants. This means that we can no longer rely on the vaccine as our one form of protection - at least not until updated vaccines are released to counter the new strains.
Despite COVID cases on the rise in many regions of the world, we are complacent. For many of us, we no longer don masks daily. Most of the time, COVID is merely a thought at the back of our minds. However, with vaccines no longer giving reliable protection against SARS-CoV-2 particles, we need to take a step back into 2020.
With second and third reinfections causing significantly more damage to our bodies than the first infection, and with BA.4 and BA.5 causing many breakthrough infections, we need to take ourselves back to the mindset we had early on during the pandemic. The time when we were more conscious than ever about COVID. The time when nearly everyone wore masks, socially distanced, and actively tried to avoid high-risk situations.
We don’t know what the future will bring, and we all share the hope that COVID will become nothing more than a memory soon. With that being said, for now, we must change our view on COVID. It’s no longer something we can leave at the back of our minds. Instead, we need to begin actively considering the virus again.
At this time, we need to start taking protective measures into our own hands again. If there’s one thing that ample SARS-CoV-2 research has shown us, it is that there are effective measures we can take to protect ourselves. Regardless of whether we are inside or outside, in a crowded environment or not, we do have steps we can take to protect ourselves. So let’s take a look at them.
How We Can Minimise the Impact of COVID-19
Now, more than ever, we must take our protection into our own hands. This can seem like an inconvenience, and in reality, it is. However, it’s a slight inconvenience that we take to safeguard our health - with a few minor adjustments to our daily lives, we can protect ourselves and our loved ones from the impacts of new COVID-19 variants.
We must always stay ahead of the curb regarding our protection because, more often than not, mandates are reactionary. By the time mandates come into force, the situation is already dire and the virus widespread. To look after our loved ones, we need to look into the future and take preventative actions - actions of our own accord. With that said, let’s take a look at the actions we can take.
Mask When in High-Risk Areas
Be sure to bring your mask when travelling!
The first action we can take to protect ourselves is one that you probably expected to see - masking. When we’re out and about, this is the one way that we can ensure we are protecting ourselves. In some situations, social distancing is also key, but social distancing isn’t always possible.
When masking, you need to determine the risk factor you are comfortable with. For example, for the elderly and immunocompromised, wearing a mask every time you leave the house might be necessary. For other groups, it’s up to you to decide whether you will always wear a mask or only in medium-risk or high-risk environments.
The risk factor also varies depending on the situation. For example, if you’re attending a Sunday market that is not particularly crowded and is entirely outdoors, this would be considered a low-risk situation. However, watching a sports game such as Basketball which takes place indoors in a crowded environment, poses a far higher risk.
We have a chance of contracting COVID-19 from either of these situations, but viruses are far more likely to spread during the latter event. So while I would put on my mask in any medium-risk or higher situation, the risk tolerance of everyone is different.
The takeaway is to ensure that you always have masks on hand. Of course, we don’t always need to wear masks, and many situations don’t call for them. However, it’s good practice to have masks on hand whenever needed.
To always be prepared, we recommend keeping a pack of masks in your home, a pack in your car, and if you carry a handbag or backpack, ensure that you have a few masks ready when needed. There’s no need to wear masks constantly, but having some for high-risk situations is essential.
When recommending the best type of mask for each situation, there are a few things to look out for. We’ve already discussed how you can pick the best mask in our article about factors to consider before purchasing a mask, and if you’re interested in the nitty-gritty details of choosing the right mask, we recommend checking it out.
In summary, for high-risk situations, you’ll want a mask certified KN95, KF94, FFP2, P2, N95 or equivalent. On top of that, since you’ll be wearing the mask regularly, it’s important to consider comfort - especially breathability. While comparing breathability is a bit more technical, masks that hold the ASTM F3502-21 approval have passed strict breathability tests.
Ideally, a mask that is certified in both standards is best. These masks have the best of both worlds - the breathability required by the ASTM standard and the filtration and fit testing needed by the respirator standard.
Avoid Crowded Spaces… When Possible
One of the easiest ways to protect ourselves from COVID-19 transmission is to simply avoid the places where we are likely to contract the disease. This means staying away from crowded spaces and events wherever possible - especially when it comes to high-risk venues.
So, what classifies as high risk? According to the Texas Medical Association, activities such as working out at the gym, going to a movie theatre, going to a bar, and spectating a sports game all classify as high risk (source). It’s these situations that you’ll want to avoid when possible.
On the other hand, eating in a restaurant, swimming in a pool and working in an office building all count as moderate risk or higher. The issue is that these activities are much less avoidable and many of us need to interact with people daily for our job or school. We understand that sometimes we can’t avoid moderate or high-risk situations as we often encounter the same problems.
During these situations, wearing a mask becomes more crucial than ever. For the best spread prevention, masks need to be worn by everyone. However, even if just a susceptible individual wears a mask, they will get significantly better protection than if they had no mask. Further, someone wearing a well-fitted respirator has an even lower chance of catching or spreading COVID-19!
Maintain Hand Hygiene
One of the easiest ways to prevent the spread of new strains of COVID-19 is to maintain hand hygiene. Taking the time to thoroughly wash our hands is never harmful; regardless of COVID, we should ensure that we thoroughly wash our hands. With that being said, COVID definitely brought the limelight to hand washing practices.
Getting into the habit of properly washing our hands is invaluable. Not only are we decreasing our chances of infection via COVID, but we can also protect ourselves from hundreds of other germs and illnesses.
The CDC has stated that we should wash our hands with soap for at least 20 seconds after touching our masks, leaving a public place, or touching surfaces commonly touched by other individuals (such as door handles). Further, it’s essential to ensure that we are washing our hands before touching our faces.
Test Before Meeting CV or CEV Individuals
For most of us, even if we catch COVID the symptoms won’t be severe. However, not everyone is this lucky and there are many people who are classified as either clinically vulnerable or clinically extremely vulnerable. Both groups are likely to experience far more severe impacts from catching COVID-19.
It’s our responsibility to ensure that we are doing what we can to protect these individuals when we interact. Make sure to always be wearing a mask and to take some form of COVID test before meeting. Currently, the most common form of easily accessible tests are Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) and Lateral Flow tests.
Both of these tests rapidly provide results within 15 minutes. Since they are also available for only a few dollars each (depending on where you live), they are straightforward to purchase and use. While performing a test each time before meeting an at-risk individual might seem inconvenient, it’s an inconvenience that may save someone’s life.
This leads to a second point - to take rapid COVID tests when needed, it’s essential to have some lying around. Pack packs of RAT/Lateral Flow Tests can often be purchased in packs of three, five or ten. This comes at a low cost and is easy to obtain from any pharmacy. In some areas, rapid COVID tests are even sold at supermarkets, convenience stores, and other locations.
In the end, we recommend that everyone keeps test packs within easy access for the foreseeable future for the same reason that we recommend everyone ensures masks are on hand at all times. You never know when you’ll need them, but they are absolutely essential in the situations you do. It’s best to be prepared, and this is truer than ever when it comes to the health and safety of not only ourselves but our loved ones.
Ensure Good Ventilation in Enclosed Spaces
One of the best ways to minimise the spread of COVID when indoors is to ensure that expelled particles always have somewhere to go. The best way to do this is to check that enclosed spaces always have good ventilation.
While it’s possible to get good ventilation through various methods, the best and simplest action we can take is to open windows and doors whenever possible. While this will not prevent someone from contracting COVID, it’s an excellent step to mitigate some of the risks associated with still air.
Of course, there is also the possibility that you regularly spend time in rooms where good airflow is simply not achievable through windows and doors alone. If this is the case, it’s worth considering investing in an air purifier. While air purifiers have had a lot of controversy around them in the past, good models have been found to not only decrease the levels of particulate matter in the air but to assist in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses.
As mentioned, not all air purifiers are equal and this is something that you will want to look into. While reviews such as those on Amazon seem like a good place to start, these reviews are often written by people unequipped to analyse how effectively an air purifier is performing.
Instead, look to reputable sources familiar with air purifiers’ intricacies and performance requirements. New York Times did a fantastic post on this, discovering that some of the most popular air purifiers on the market far underperform their lesser-known counterparts.
Even if you have a well-ventilated room, an air purifier might be worth considering. While we’ve discussed them in the context of COVID-19 and other viruses in this post, they can also assist in reducing other indoor pollutants such as PM2.5, PM10, and VOCs.
If you are regularly in an environment where you can’t control the ventilation - such as in an office or classroom - wearing a mask is your best way of protecting yourself. Unfortunately, minimal other steps can be taken to protect ourselves from COVID when indoors other than washing our hands regularly and avoiding contact when possible.
Isolate Yourself When Needed
For the first couple of years of the pandemic, isolating yourself when contagious was the norm. In many countries, it was not even the norm, but it was mandated - if you felt sick, you were required to stay home until you test clear of COVID symptoms.
However, times have changed, and now there is often a disregard for isolation. With COVID-19 so prevalent in many areas, it might seem pointless - why isolate when there are already tens of thousands of cases? The answer to that is that every little bit helps. If everyone was taking self-responsibility, our case numbers would be far lower than they currently are.
If you are beginning to feel sick, cancel your plans until you can take a rapid COVID test and get the results. While these tests aren’t always accurate, they have a high chance of correctly judging whether you are infected or not.
Of course, if you test positive, you need to act on it. While ideally, you would stay home for at least ten days, we know that isn’t always possible with responsibilities. If this is the case, you’ll first need to consider what high-risk situations should be avoided.
This means cancelling meetings with at-risk individuals, cancelling crowded events, and wearing a mask at all times when you are outside your house. Further, avoid close contact with anyone wherever possible - get packages delivered to your door and use contactless payment methods.
Keep an Eye on Our Health
While being healthy hasn’t been shown to decrease our chances of catching COVID-19, ensuring that we have the needed vitamins has been shown to significantly decrease our risk of experiencing severe COVID-19.
The most commonly mentioned vitamin in regards to COVID is vitamin D. At the start of the pandemic, many claims about this vitamin spread across social media, but at the time they were unsubstantiated. Luckily, since then we have ample research to draw from. The conclusion? Patients with a vitamin D deficiency are 14x more likely to experience a severe case of the disease (source).
Put another way, the mortality rate for patients with deficient vitamin D levels was 25.6% compared with 2.3% among individuals with adequate levels of the vitamin.
However, it’s not only vitamin D that it’s essential to stay on top of. Vitamin C has also been found to decrease the risk of severe cases and mortality with COVID-19 (source).
On top of this, ensuring that your diet contains the necessary vitamins and nutrients will bring countless other benefits. More than ever, it’s important to look at our diet and ensure we are getting our recommended daily intake of the necessary nutrients.
The unfortunate truth is that we don’t know when COVID-19 will stop impacting our lives. As much as everyone, we would love to look at the virus in the rear view mirror for the first time in over two years. However, at the same time, it’s essential to be realistic - COVID is still here, it’s not becoming a ‘common cold’, and it’s still leading to mortality in many cases.
This doesn’t mean we should stop our lives. Many of us have either already moved to or are moving to the ‘live with COVID’ philosophy, and we agree. It’s the only way forward. In saying that, with new COVID strains proving they can effectively pass vaccine immunity and even COVID immunity, we need to be responsible with our actions.
Living with COVID is the way forward. This means still living the lives we want to live and going forward. However, along the way, there are simple steps that we can take to protect not only ourselves but our families, friends, and society as a whole. We are living with COVID, but let’s do it responsibly.