This summer, COVID-19 safety is more individualized than ever

Current coronavirus levels in wastewater are close to the summer 2021 Delta surge, according to Biobot.

COVID-19 metrics have been on the rise in the U.S. for about a month now, indicating that we’re experiencing a summer surge. This is pretty unsurprising for many public health experts, as the country has experienced increased transmission during the last three summers.

Unlike past years, though, this summer’s surge comes after the end of the federal public health emergency. We now have less data than ever to follow COVID-19 trends, combined with less access to health measures than ever.

We’re also dealing with continued minimization of the problem. Coverage of the current surge in mainstream media sources tends to downplay any concerns, suggesting that hospitalizations are low (even though those data are delayed), or that masking isn’t necessary (even though this tool works best as a preventative measure), or that all infections are now mild (even though Long COVID remains a risk for any case). The People’s CDC offers more critique here.

Despite these challenges, enough information is out there that anyone committed to safety can keep up with COVID-19 news and protect themselves. Unfortunately, this practice now requires much more individual effort—a far cry from the collective measures that we took back in 2020. But we still have opportunities to show leadership, by sharing information and resources with our communities.

Here are a few things I’m doing in the current surge, and recommendations to consider sharing:

  • Assume all data are delayed and undercounted. COVID-19 data sources are sparser than ever, so the trends we see are likely to be small reflections of larger issues. Biobot’s wastewater dashboard, for example, provides results from a sample of sewersheds across the U.S.; the same increases are likely happening in places where we aren’t tracking them.
  • Watch your local wastewater numbers. Despite the uneven coverage of wastewater surveillance, this is still the best tool for advanced warnings on COVID-19 now that case data are no longer available. If your city or county doesn’t have a wastewater testing site, you can likely find a nearby one to follow for trends. See the CDD’s resource page for links to dashboards.
  • Stock up on high-quality masks. N95s and KN95s are really necessary to protect yourself from the ever-evolving Omicron variants. There are a lot of places to buy these online; Project N95 is my personal favorite, as you can get masks directly from their manufacturers and contribute to mask donations for less-resourced communities.
  • Consider a higher-value respirator for riskier activities. If you’re traveling or going to a higher-risk event this summer, a reusable respirator might be helpful. I wrote more about why I bought one in this post last summer.
  • Stock up on rapid tests. Most health insurance plans no longer cover these (following the end of the federal health emergency), but some local governments are still giving them out for free in public spaces, like libraries in NYC. You might also buy tests in bulk online. I personally use iHealth Labs, because they sell packs of five tests that are easy to bring while traveling and frequently run sales.
  • Make a plan for isolation/quarantine. In case you or a member of your household gets sick, it can be helpful to have an advance plan on where you might isolate, how to keep air clean in shared spaces, where to get Paxlovid, etc. Your Local Epidemiologist has more tips on how to deal with a positive test.
  • Share information and resources. Surveys have suggested that many Americans would mask and take other public health measures during surges, but those people might not know about the current rise in transmission. Sharing information with your community (along with masks, rapid tests, and other tools, if you have surplus) can help broaden safety measures.
  • Remember why you’re taking precautions. During increased social pressures against COVID-19 safety, I personally find it helpful to remember why I find these behaviors important. Some reasons are selfish (for example, taking a week or two off work would be difficult) while others are more philosophical (such as a dedication to the principles of broader public health)—but all of them are valuable.

If you have questions or additional suggestions, please share them below.

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