To Have an Almost-Normal Summer, Do This Now

Guidance from a global health doctor

Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

New strains of the coronavirus are upon us, and we must respond with vigilance. In a recent piece in the New York Times, I discussed what we need to do at an individual level to stop the new coronavirus variants.

Admittedly, the variants still travel via the same routes as the previously dominant virus — in droplets and aerosols through the air — and so the same measures are still needed to avoid transmission.

But I would hesitate to advise “keep doing exactly what we were doing” because that’s also not true. At this time last year, we were advising people to wear any mask they could, very few experts (aside from key aerosol scientists and environmental scientists) were talking about ventilation, we didn’t have vaccines, and we knew far less about how the virus spreads. We overfocused at that point on cleaning surfaces and focused less on cleaning the air.

We are so close to stopping the epidemic in the U.S. — which makes this the worst time to take our foot off the brake like Texas and Mississippi are doing.

Today, we have clear ways to improve on each of these points:

  1. Wear better fitting and filtering masks if you can find them.
  2. Focus on creating cleaner air and safer shared spaces using new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ventilation guidance.
  3. Get vaccinated — all three available vaccines are excellent.
  4. Whenever possible, take advantage of the outdoors and avoid any indoor crowded spaces, especially until you are vaccinated.

Some of the variants are more transmissible, meaning you could possibly become infected with less exposure time or distance. This highlights the importance of continuing to improve our own prevention measures.

What can you do differently once you are vaccinated?

This is the big question on many people’s minds, of course.

This week, the CDC issued official guidelines for fully vaccinated people. They advised that fully vaccinated people can safely socialize unmasked, in private, with one another or in small groups, again unmasked, with unvaccinated low-risk individuals. One thing to keep in mind is that while vaccines protect you and they reduce the chance that you will infect others, they do not completely eliminate that chance. So the guidelines continue to recommend taking all precautions around those who are high risk and unvaccinated.

Hope is definitely before us. Data from Israel already suggests a reduction in Covid-19 rates in a real-world setting, likely thanks to vaccinations. We are so close to stopping the epidemic in the U.S. — which makes this the worst time to take our foot off the brake like Texas and Mississippi are doing.

Of course, individual responsibility and action won’t stop the epidemic alone. In fact, assuming they will is as good as an attack on our most vulnerable people, who don’t have the choices afforded to those with more privilege. We need a combination of individuals doing their part and adequate support from the government. This includes everything from expanded access to the vaccine to the creation of safer, better-ventilated workspaces to financial protections for people who need to quarantine or isolate to better masks.

The fundamentals of testing, tracing, and isolating are no less important, either. Simply put: Get tested if you need to, make sure to participate in contact-tracing efforts by your local health department, and isolate if you have been exposed and aren’t fully vaccinated or recovered within the past three months.

I am hoping summer 2021 will be much better than last year, but what happens before then depends on our federal government, our state leaders, and our communities.

Doctor @BrighamWomens @HarvardMed

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