What are the current COVID-related best practices? Here’s how to cut through the noise about masks and vaccines

By | September 13, 2023

Drawing of masked people confused about COVID messaging.

Some say confusing messages, poor communication about COVID and ever-changing public health guidance have made it harder to know what to do at this stage of the pandemic. (DrAfter123/Getty Images)

The end of the COVID public health emergency this spring and the White House’s decision to ease the federal response to the pandemic have brought with it further easing of vaccine and masking requirements that already seem like a distant thing of the past.

While in the past there were at least some widely recognized standards of “sick etiquette” for those who had a COVID diagnosis or had interacted with someone who had tested positive, as COVID hospitalizations increase in the United States, many people find themselves at navigate this new phase of the pandemic without a major national program.

It’s the latest in what some have criticized as confusing messages and poor communication about COVID and ever-changing public health guidelines. And while the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has promised to create greater transparency and build greater trust in the agency, for many questions still remain about current COVID best practices as we prepare for a likely spike in infection. cases this fall and winter.

Here’s what public health experts say about some frequently asked questions about COVID protocols.

How effective are the new anti-COVID boosters?

On September 11, the US Food and Drug Administration approved and cleared updated boosters from Pfizer and Moderna that aim to protect against the XBB.1.5 variant of Omicron. This was followed by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommending updated vaccines on September 12.

The CDC said the new BA.2.86 variant (dubbed “Pirola”) may be more likely than previous variants to infect people with presumed immunity from vaccines or previous infections, but Moderna and Pfizer said their new vaccines have generated strong responses to the new variant being tested.

“I don’t think we have a sense of exactly how effective the vaccine is yet by when the boosters come out,” Justin Lessler, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health, tells Yahoo Life . “But what we know is that the boosters will be much more effective against circulating strains – including BA.2.86 – than the previous vaccine, because they will be based on a more closely related strain. And we also know that being boosted increases your immunity overall.

Who should receive a booster?

The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older receive an updated COVID-19 vaccine to protect against variants currently circulating in the United States. The new Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna boosters will be available later this week, according to the CDC.

Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the FDA’s vaccine expert panel, predicted that the CDC would recommend that anyone older than 6 months be eligible for the booster, as it did last year, but he doesn’t believe those who have had at least a booster really needs the new dose, unless you are a senior, pregnant, or immunocompromised. However, other experts Yahoo Life spoke to said that while some high-risk groups should be a priority, everyone could benefit from boosted immunity.

“People who are at higher risk for COVID-related complications should definitely get a boost, but everyone else should also seriously consider it,” Anne Liu, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the Stanford University School of Medicines. “If more people were vaccinated, there could be less spread of the virus throughout the community, meaning less time missed from school and work.” She added that a recall “also protects immunocompromised people and limits the disruption to our daily lives by this virus.”

Mask or no mask?

Some individual companies and hospital networks have reintroduced mask mandates as COVID cases rise, while many others recommend masks but leave the final decision up to individuals.

The CDC recommends wearing a mask around others for up to 10 days after being exposed to someone with COVID-19. But in general, experts say masking comes down to assessing personal risk and reading the room to determine whether a mask may be a good idea. For example, if you are around immunocompromised relatives or friends, it’s a good idea to mask up for their protection.

“I think it gets more complicated when people have to make these assessments of themselves as well as assessment of the environment, so you need to be quite attuned to where we are,” Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiologist professor at Mailman Columbia School of Public Health and director of the Pandemic Response Institute in New York City, he tells Yahoo Life. “With fewer and fewer people masking in public, it’s really important that there’s a sense that people respect each other’s decisions about masking and that they’re not judging people, not trying to figure out, ‘Why is this person wearing a mask?’ but simply accept that this person wears a mask. It is an individual decision to do so and be respectful of that decision.

Lessler says that while wearing a mask in public if you have COVID-like symptoms is the courteous thing to do for those around you, there are currently no hard rules about where masks must be worn.

“Personally, I think we’re probably entering a phase where, at least in healthcare settings, everyone should be wearing a mask, because it’s a very high concentration of both at-risk people and potentially infected people,” he says. “But on airplanes and things like that, especially considering some people’s feelings about masks, I think that’s a harder question.”

One circumstance where masking should be a no-brainer is if you are currently infected with COVID, Liu says.

“Mask up in public but preferably stay at home,” he says. “If you live with other people, masking at home will reduce the chances of spreading COVID within your home.”

Does social distancing or isolation still exist?

Yes, although it depends on the situation, experts say. Here’s what you need to know:

  • If you have COVID: The CDC currently recommends isolation for at least five days, and you can end isolation after five days if you have no fever and your symptoms are improving — a much less stringent isolation period than previous recommendations. “Personally, whenever I tested positive I always remained in isolation until I had two consecutive negative tests, but I think this is a more conservative approach,” Lessler says.

  • If you were in contact with someone with COVID: “Contacts who test negative and have no symptoms do not need to isolate as long as those two things remain true,” Liu says, though Lessler adds that he would “certainly advise judicious use of testing and being really aware of symptoms” after being exposed.

The takeaway

Despite some public criticism of the agency’s COVID guidelines, experts continue to say the CDC is a good source of information to stay up-to-date on COVID recommendations, which will likely continue to evolve as we move past the public health emergency. and we enter a more endemic phase. of the virus.

Wafaa also recommends following the guidance of state and local health departments — who will have more localized data and suggestions based on what’s happening in your community — as well as staying in touch with your doctor for personalized advice.

“I encourage people to always be analytical and think about their own situation, as well as their environment, and to always turn to reliable sources of information,” he says. “Avoid all the misinformation and misinformation that is out there.”

This article was originally published on September 11, 2023 and has been updated.

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