With the holidays approaching and COVID fatigue setting in, you might be tempted to toss caution to the wind and live your best pre-pandemic life. But now is not the time to let your guard down.
COVID-19 cases are spiking across the country, and it could be many months before a vaccine is approved and shipped to your local pharmacy or physician's office. Measures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus will be part of our lives for the foreseeable future.
We need to make peace with the fact that this thing ain't over.
Even if you think you know the drill, the science keeps evolving, and it's easy to backslide. But you can do your part to tamp down the spread of the virus by avoiding these mistakes.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Mistake 1: Assuming Intimate Hangouts Are Safe
Strapping on a mask to ride public transportation or attend an outdoor community event is a good habit to get into because the more people you interact with and the longer that contact lasts, the greater your risk of acquiring and spreading COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But you should exercise the same level of vigilance even if you're only having brunch with a few friends or watching a game on your neighbor's widescreen. These activities are lower risk than mega events, but they're not zero risk, according to the CDC.
People tend to get lulled into a false sense of security in these more intimate settings.
"They're letting their guards down when they're in small groups and gatherings with their friends, not realizing that some of them could harbor the infection and are not really being as meticulous with social distancing or with face coverings," says Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore.
Basically, if you're with anyone who lives outside your household, you'd be wise to wear a mask, wash your hands and keep at least six feet of distance between you.
Mistake 2: Masking Up Improperly
Mask "fails" are frustratingly common: masks that dangle from one ear, droop below the nose, peak out of a pocket. The coronavirus doesn't care if you had good intentions. You need to mask up properly to avoid possibly spreading the virus to other people (and to protect yourself from infection, according to a new CDC analysis).
If you're not in the habit of putting on a mask, getting used to wearing one can be difficult, but then it becomes like a "second skin," says Hana El Sahly, MD, associate professor of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
A quick refresher from the CDC: Your mask must completely cover your mouth and nose and fit snuggly around your face without gaps.
Mistake 3: Wearing a Mask With an Exhalation Valve
When COVID first began infecting people in hot spots across America, masks were in short supply. Now, with ample options on the market, why not replenish your stash with those that work best to cut your risk of transmission?
New airflow videos from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) suggest masks with exhalation valves don't make the cut.
"Most exhalation valves consist of a small, flexible tab that acts as a one-way check valve, opening upon exhalation and closing upon inspiration," writes NIST research engineer Matthew Staymates, author of a November 2020 Physics of Fluids study that included the videos. They're designed to allow exhaled air to pass through the mask, and that's the problem.
"These videos show how the valves allow air to leave the mask without filtering it, which defeats the purpose of the mask," he explains in a NIST news release.
Sophia Thomas, DNP, a doctor of nursing practice and president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, tells LIVESTRONG.com she's had a couple of COVID-positive patients who wore valve masks and infected other people close to them.
So what type of mask should you be wearing instead? The CDC recommends two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric. While a September 2020 Science Advances study found N95 masks — the fitted type used by health care workers and first responders — are best at blocking respiratory droplets, the CDC discourages their use by the general public so as not to deplete supplies. The same study found three-ply masks worked almost as well.
Fabric Face Masks to Buy
Mistake 4: Getting Together Indoors
As the weather turns frigid and socially distanced backyard barbecues give way to indoor festivities, worries about transmitting SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) escalate.
Viruses in aerosols "can remain suspended in the air for many seconds to hours, like smoke, and be inhaled," explain leading U.S. environmental and public health scientists in the journal Science. Their October 2020 letter to the editor cautions that these airborne particles, especially in poorly ventilated indoor spaces, can lead to superspreading events.
Over the summer, people weren't clustering indoors so much, notes infectious disease doctor Kirsten Lyke, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. But now we're entering a riskier period.
"We think it's going to be a really rough winter, because you're only as strong as your weakest link," Dr. Lyke tells LIVESTRONG.com. "A family can do everything right, and [yet] they can't control their 18-year-old who went drinking with his friends and then came to Thanksgiving dinner and passed it on to everyone."
Mistake 5: Thinking You're Invincible
Early in the pandemic, the rate of new COVID cases was highest among older adults. So, naturally, many young, healthy people assumed they were in the clear. But new data suggest young adults are quite capable of getting the infection and passing it along to others.
During the summer (June, July, August), 20- to 29-year-olds accounted for the largest proportion of total cases — more than one in five, CDC researchers reported October 2020 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The increased level of infection among younger adults "likely contributes to community transmission of COVID-19," according to the report's authors. And, they add, that poses a risk for older adults and others at higher risk for severe illness.
Keep this in mind: Forty percent of infections are asymptomatic, based on CDC estimates. That means you can have COVID, not know it and inadvertently infect others.
Mistake 6: Believing You Can't Get It Again
If you had COVID and recovered, your immune system mounted antibodies to fight off the infection. That's great news, but don't count on it as a cloak of protection against future infections. Scientists don't how how long such immunity lasts. Could be three or four months; could be a little longer, studies suggest.
Recent reports of people with confirmed cases of COVID who were reinfected "understandably cause concern," says the CDC. Based on other viruses, including the common cold (a type of coronavirus), some reinfections are expected — but at this point, cases of COVID reinfection remain rare, the CDC points out.
Whether or not you've had COVID, you still need to wear a mask, social distance and wash your hands to avoid contracting and spreading the virus.
Mistake 7: Relying on Temperature Checks
A normal body temperature is 97 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit, more or less, according to the Cleveland Clinic. But if you waltz out into the world thinking fever-free means COVID-free, you could be putting other folks at risk.
"Temperature checks are very difficult to use as an indicator," Thomas says.
A surface temperature reading might not be very reliable, say, if you've been in a chilly room for a period of time. And if you took a fever-reducing medicine like acetaminophen or ibuprofen before getting your temperature checked, you're less likely to register a fever.
A September-October 2020 report in Travel Medicine and Infectious Diseases cautions about the futility of temperature checks as a COVID-19 indicator, especially in young adults. The small study involved 84 mostly young men (in basic training with the Swiss Armed Forces) who had twice-daily temperature checks over a 14-day period following their COVID diagnosis.
A temperature cutoff of 100.4 identified only a minority of cases, the study found, while a higher cutoff of 101.3 still missed 92 percent of cases at the time they presented with symptoms.
In September, the CDC announced a shift in its strategy for screening certain international airline passengers. It now acknowledges that some people with COVID may have no symptoms or fever at the time of screening. However, the agency continues to recommend temperature checks in the workplace.
Mistake 8: Dismissing Your Symptoms
With cold and flu season revving up (and seasonal allergies in full swing in some parts of the country), it can be hard to tell what's making you miserable. Please don't brush it off.
You might need testing to firm up a diagnosis. If it's the flu, your doctor can prescribe antiviral medicine to speed your recovery. If it's COVID, you need to self-isolate.
A test doesn't change the course of the disease, explains Thomas. "But it does reassure individuals that, yes, I do have COVID-19. I do need to stay home, and I do need to isolate and I do need to notify others of my disease so they can take the proper precautions."
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
Is This an Emergency?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Considerations for Events and Gatherings"
- CDC: "Scientific Brief: Community Use of Cloth Masks to Control the Spread of SARS-CoV-2"
- CDC: "How to Select, Wear, and Clean Your Mask"
- Physics of Fluids: "Flow Visualization of an N95 Respirator With and Without an Exhalation Valve Using Schlieren Imaging and Light Scattering"
- NIST: "New Airflow Videos Show Why Masks With Exhalation Valves Do Not Slow the Spread of COVID-19"
- Science Advances: "Low-Cost Measurement of Face Mask Efficacy for Filtering Expelled Droplets During Speech"
- Science: "Airborne Transmission of SARS-CoV-2"
- Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: "Changing Age Distribution of the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, May–August 2020"
- CDC: "COVID-19 Pandemic Planning Scenarios"
- CDC: "Clinical Questions about COVID-19: Questions and Answers"
- CDC: "Reinfection With COVID-19"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Body Temperature: What Is (and Isn’t) Normal?"
- Travel Medicine and Infectious Diseases: "Body Temperature Screening to Identify SARS-CoV-2 Infected Young Adult Travellers Is Ineffective"
- CDC: "Federal Government Adjusts COVID-19 Entry Strategy for International Air Passengers"
- CDC: "General Business Frequently Asked Questions"