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Whether you agree with President Biden that the pandemic is over or you agree with most scientists who say it’s definitely not over, it doesn’t really matter. The reality is that all around us, pandemic precautions have disappeared.
But getting on with life doesn’t have to mean throwing caution to the wind. Covid is still here, and case counts are on the rise in some communities. We all have to learn to live with covid.
Living with covid can be easy if you take simple, regular precautions. Jay Varma, a physician, expert in infectious diseases and professor of population health sciences at Weill Cornell Medicine, has compared this new normal to the adjustments we all had to make regarding safety after 9/11. We’ve grown used to additional restrictions around travel, such as taking our shoes off in airline screening lines, as an inconvenience to stay safer.
I’ve spent nearly three years reporting on covid and pandemic life, talking to many of the world’s leading experts in public health and virus transmission. We don’t have to chose between staying safer and living a normal life. We can do both. Here are 10 tips to help, including some of the steps I’m taking to protect myself.
- Get a booster shot. Start by getting vaccinated or getting a booster shot. Read this Q&A for answers to common questions about the new boosters.
- Mask when it’s easy. Nobody wants to wear a mask all day long, so be strategic. I don’t normally wear a mask at work, but I wear one in a crowded meeting. You might want to mask in the grocery store; it’s a building full of strangers and covid is probably there too. Mask at the doctor’s office or on your commute if you take public transit. Risk is cumulative, so every time you don a mask in a high-risk situation, you’re lowering your odds of catching the virus.
- Mask when you travel. Your risk for coming into contact with covid goes up when you travel. Lower it by wearing a mask in the security line and in crowded terminals. Airplanes have effective ventilation systems, filtering air as often as every five minutes, but I still wear a mask. If it’s a long trip and you just don’t want to mask up, consider wearing one during the boarding and deplaning process, when the ventilation system may be off. And here’s a travel tip from virus experts: During the flight, turn the fan nozzle on and position it to blow on your face to help keep any wandering viral particles at bay.
- Avoid crowds. Whether you heed this advice probably will depend on your overall risk. Young and healthy people who are vaccinated may choose to spend time in packed indoor areas. People who are older or who have an underlying health condition may opt for outdoor areas when it comes to dining, sporting events and concerts. And for indoor events such as going to the movies or theater, the cautious may still want to wear a high-quality mask.
- Check community transmission levels. Keeping track of case counts in your community can help guide your choices. In the United States, if you look at a map of transmission levels from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, be sure you use the drop-down menu to see “community transmission,” not “covid-19 community levels,” which are an indicator of how hospitals are managing and not as relevant to personal decision-making.
- Have a Paxlovid plan. People over 50 and those at high risk are eligible to take Paxlovid, a highly effective antiviral drug. You’ll need to start within five days of diagnosis or symptom onset, so it’s important to talk to your doctor and have a plan for getting a prescription quickly if you need it.
- Think about your indoor air. Adding a portable air cleaner to a space can effectively double the ventilation in the room. Ask your employer to provide portable air cleaners in office spaces and meeting rooms. Ask how often the filters are changed. You can also ask your employer what steps have been taken to improve indoor air quality at the office. Many workplaces have upgraded air filters to hospital-grade quality filters. (Ideally your workplace is using something called MERV-13 filters, but some systems can only handle MERV-11 filters.)
- Use home tests wisely. While a negative home test means you’re probably not contagious, it’s not a guarantee you don’t have covid. If you have cold symptoms or don’t feel well, especially if you’ve had a known exposure to the virus or have been in a higher-risk situation such as traveling or an indoor concert, you should stay away from others or wear a mask until your symptoms subside — even if your test is negative.
- Stay home from work when you’re sick. One of the great lessons of the pandemic is that we should not go to the office with the sniffles or a sore throat. Just stay home and Zoom in if you feel well enough to work.
- Plan your life around the most vulnerable person in your orbit. If you have regular close contact with someone who is older, has a chronic illness or is immunocompromised, you’ll need to take more precautions and be more vigilant about masking, testing and avoiding high-risk situations.
The bottom line is that it’s not all or nothing, said Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Yale School of Public Health. “There’s lots of reasons we shouldn’t be just vaxxed and done. One infection with the virus can sideline you or disrupt your life or the lives of those around you very easily.”
Three questions . . . about smarter exercise
This week I spoke with Your Move columnist Gretchen Reynolds, who has written about the perils of being an active couch potato and whether morning or night is the best time of day to exercise.
Q: Why is it so hard for people to establish a regular exercise habit?
A: Most people, including me, say it’s because we don’t have time. But most behavioral science says it’s because we aren’t having fun. If people don’t like exercise, they won’t do it. The good news is there are so many ways to be active. Don’t relish jogging? There’s swimming, hiking, mountain biking, weight training, pickleball, online yoga, walks with friends or whatever movement you enjoy. It could help, too, to reframe workouts as “me time” or healthy procrastination. In that case, you’re not just going for a walk or swim. You’re taking a mental health break and will return to work refreshed, alert and eager to procrastinate some more tomorrow.
Q: What’s more important for health: exercising more or sitting less?
A: Can I answer “both”? There’s no doubt sitting is bad for us. It impacts our bodies in ways that raise our risks for everything from weight gain to heart disease. And new studies suggest short workouts won’t undo those effects. We probably need to exercise for at least an hour a day to combat long hours of sitting. Or we can sit less and move around more, breaking up our sitting with gentle activity but not formal exercise. Either approach is healthy and combining them — exercising more plus sitting less — is healthiest of all, if you can manage it.
Q: What’s your favorite short workout?
A: I love to fartlek, which just means I pick out a tree or other landmark when I’m out walking or running and pick up the pace until I reach it. My fartlek sessions are usually brief, maybe 15 minutes. But it’s such a fun, easy way to thread intensity into a workout and make the time go faster. I’m never bored when I fartlek.
Everyday life coach
This week’s everyday life coach is Shunmyo Masuno, a monk and the author of a new book I’m reading, “Don’t Worry: 48 Lessons on Relieving Anxiety from a Zen Buddhist Monk.”
The advice: Make your evenings calm. “One of the tricks to making your evening calm is to avoid, as much as possible, having to make decisions at this time,” Masuno writes.
Why you should try it: In one study, researchers tracked the decisions of 184 chess players. The study, published in the journal Cognition, found that the most accurate decision-making happened between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m.
How to do it: Adding calm to your evening will vary depending on the person. Evenings can be hectic for parents, and sometimes we have to take work home with us. Whatever your situation, try to carve out a little time for calm before bed. Some people may want to read a book or listen to music. Make evening the time you work on a craft or hobby. Light a candle. Take a bath. “When you make time for pleasure, you will naturally feel calmer and more at ease,” Masuno writes. “You end up improving the quality of your sleep, and you will awake refreshed and ready for your day.”
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