The constant barrage of COVID-19 information we read or hear about in the news can be confusing; even more so when what we read on the internet or hear from friends is incomplete, incorrect, or downright misleading. None of us want to get sick or infect a loved one, but we also want to live and enjoy our lives. How can we protect ourselves and our loved ones in 2022, but still live some semblance of a normal life?
First and foremost, you must get fully vaccinated, which in 2022 means getting a full series – 3 doses – of a mRNA vaccine (Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna). Why 3 doses? Why not just get infected and get it over with? Because immunity wanes 4-6 months after the second dose or after an infection and strong immunity is required to protect against new COVID-19 variants. Also, the protection from an infection is not consistent. In fact, previous infection and/or J&J vaccination offer virtually no protection against the new Omicron variant that is spreading rapidly across the United States.
Vaccination is incredibly safe and effective at preventing you from getting COVID-19 and if you get a breakthrough infection, it will be less severe and less likely to kill you, so we recommend it for everyone age 5 years and older. The number of children getting COVID-19 and its complications is increasing, but the vaccine is very safe in kids. Their risk of a serious vaccine side effect is much less than the risk of a serious complication of COVID-19 infection. Also, children can transmit to older adults and vaccination helps prevent transmission.
In fact, getting vaccinated helps break the chain of disease transmission. Despite the misinformation on the web, the medical science is clear – you getting vaccinated protects others from getting infected by you. Even if you don’t think you are at risk and you are not afraid, getting vaccinated is part of the social contract – it is your civic responsibility to protect others at higher risk for severe disease and death. My friends, hospitals and emergency rooms in Wisconsin are pushing, or past, capacity limits. Elective surgeries are being cancelled and patients with serious illnesses are being diverted because COVID-19 patients are taking up many available beds. That means if you have a heart attack, a stroke, need cancer surgery, have a car accident, or appendicitis, your care might be delayed, which leads to worse outcomes. And if that was not enough to convince to get vaccinated, “long COVID” can cause severe disability among even young, healthy people with apparently mild infections. You don’t someone else’s death or disability on your conscience.
The next weapon to protect yourself is to be mindful of where you are. Indoor gatherings with a crowd, in general, are unsafe, so please avoid them and when you can’t, get a real mask and wear it properly. Get an ASTM 3 or higher, 3-4 ply surgical mask and wear a mask brace or your stylish mask over it to make it snug. If it fogs your glasses, it is leaking, so you have to do better. Make sure it fits tightly and covers your mouth and nose because it protects others and you. Even better, wear N95 respirator. They are widely available from reputable US-based medical supply houses, are reusable, and protect you much more than any other mask. The 3-fold versions even are comfortable and easier for people with hearing assist devices.
The final tool is rapid antigen tests, which are perfect if you want to have a gathering of family or friends. Rapid antigen tests are very accurate and identify people who are infectious. Think of them as “infectiousness” tests. If the test is negative, you are unlikely to be infectious for the evening. But if you have upper respiratory symptoms, be a mensch and stay home – there are other bad bugs out there and the tests are not perfect. If you want to have a safe gathering, make sure everyone is triple vaccinated asymptomatic, and rapid test – then you can enjoy a nice evening, like in the good old days. But everyone must comply. No exceptions.
Finally, recall that most of the world is not vaccinated and it is our imperative as a wealthy country from a religious tradition that values human life and social justice to help assure vaccine equity within the US and across the world. The new variants won’t stop until everyone is vaccinated. Now is the time.
Dr. James H. Stein has written several articles for the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle since the advent of the pandemic. This is his latest guidance. He is an attending cardiologist, director of preventive cardiology, and the UW Health Robert Turell Professor in Cardiovascular Research, at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison. Stein’s opinions are his own and he is not speaking on behalf of UW Health, the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, or any other organization.