Here we are in the grip of another covid-19 wave, yet from what I see and almost everyone is acting as if the pandemic is over. And I live in Los Angeles County, whose public health department is arguably the most vigilant and active in the United States.
We all have epidemic fatigue. Even those who should know better let precautionary measures slide. If you have a feeling MEA culpa on the way, I will not disappoint.
I admit I’ve been a lot less cautious these past few months than I used to be. I’ve left the house without a mask on a trip to the grocery or pharmacy, and instead of coming back to get one, I walked without a mask, telling myself I’d be there for a little while.
In June, I took a 12-hour trans-Atlantic flight where virtually no passengers or crew members wore masks. I put on my mask first, a snug-fitting KN95. But after eating I a type Forgot to put it back on. In July, with Covid clearly on the rise, I hosted a birthday party for my daughter without asking guests to test themselves before coming home.
And there’s more where that came from.
Whether through luck or booster-boosted immunity, I managed to avoid the virus. But alarming reports about the BA.5 omicron subvariant — which has spread like wildfire in California, because it can block some of the defenses afforded by vaccines and previous infections — have provided my butt to shore up my behavior.
I didn’t actually break any rules in the situation described above, because there weren’t any. Public mandates — such as requiring people to wear masks and vaccinate to enter restaurants, gyms and other indoor venues — have been so bitterly politicized that returning to them now, especially in an election year, would be like trying to recapture a genie. Bottle I think many of us are coming to terms with a future where keeping Covid at bay will depend on personal responsibility.
Most areas in California are in the high-risk Covid transmission category, as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even in epidemic-ravaged L.A. County, reporting thousands of new infections a day and a double-digit rate of positive tests well into danger zones, serious resistance emerged as health officials recently discussed — and ultimately suspended — a plan to reinstate a mask order. Multiple cities in the county, including Beverly Hills, Long Beach and Pasadena, have said they will not enforce it. Business owners have openly questioned whether they should ask their employees to impose such a rule on unwilling and sometimes hostile patrons.
Kathryn Berger, a member of the county Board of Supervisors, wrote in an open letter to constituents that “masking mandates are polarizing and unenforceable.” A better way to go, he said, is to “trust the public to make personal COVID-19 prevention decisions to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, promote the effectiveness of vaccines and boosters, and invest in equitable access to COVID-19 treatment.”
Let’s face it: Covid is with us for the foreseeable future and we can only speculate about other forms that might blind us down the road or how many times we can afford to re-infest without risking lasting damage to our health. Given this inconvenient truth, now is a great time to adopt daily habits that reduce our risk of infection – and not just from Covid.
“Covid-19 cases will continue for decades and centuries, just as influenza has,” said Dr. Sahir Khan, an infectious disease specialist at USC’s Keck Medicine. In many Asian countries, he notes, there is a culture “where every winter when these viruses are at high levels, people wear masks in public. And I think it should become part of the culture here.”
The Covid complacency that has overtaken many of us is in large part a credit to vaccines and treatments that have drastically reduced the severity of illness from infection. But current vaccines themselves have proven far less protective against infection, especially when confronted with the evasive mechanisms exhibited by BA.5.
Shira Shafir, associate professor of epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, has experienced that confusing reality firsthand. When I called to interview him for this column, he was at home with Covid. Shafir’s 70-year-old mother had planned to visit from Arizona, so she and her husband opted to check in on themselves and their young son. Their son tested positive, and they asked his mother not to come.
“My son had no symptoms,” says Shafir. “We only tested her because my mother was coming to visit – and thank God we did, because otherwise my mother would have been exposed and infected for sure.”
The next day, Shafir tested positive, and the day after that, her husband did. Both she and her husband got the boost, and their son, who participated in a Pfizer vaccine trial for children under 5, got three shots.
A starting point in developing your Covid protective strategy is to determine how much infection is occurring in your community. If you live in an area of high prevalence, as more than 45% of US counties were in late July, significant precautions should be taken. An easy way to find out is to consult this CDC webpage, which will show you which category your county falls into. You can also follow your local health department on social media.
Another good measure is purely anecdotal: “If you know a lot of people who have Covid right now, that means there’s a lot of Covid,” says Shafir.
I know of at least 10 people, both friends and professional contacts, who have been infected in the past few weeks, all of whom have been vaccinated and boosted. And it set off the alarm bells I needed to reacquaint myself with basic safety measures.
Among them: Wear a mask in indoor public spaces and crowded outdoors. If you’re at high risk of serious illness, avoid those places and look for options like curbside pickup and home delivery.
If you’re hosting a dinner party, ask guests to do a quick home test before they arrive. If you are taking a plane, wear a mask the moment you enter the airport and at least keep it on until the plane is airborne and then when you land.
If you test positive, follow these guidelines: Stay away from people for at least five days after your first symptoms or positive test result. If you test negative, don’t have a fever, and your symptoms improve, you can end isolation after the fifth day.
If you’re one of those people who doesn’t worry about Covid because you don’t believe it will make you terribly ill, remember this: the course of the illness can still be highly unpredictable and there is some chance of ending up with a long Covid. , which can leave you with brain fog, shortness of breath, and heart damage.
If you are not convinced by any of these, at least consider some for neighbors, colleagues and relatives who may be older and sicker than you.
“That worries me,” said USC’s Khan. “I want to make sure that society is doing everything it can to protect those people.”
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, the editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.
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