As omicron transmission soars, it seems like Covid-19 cases are all around us. We can’t get away from them.
We spoke to Mia Taormina, DO, chair of the department of infectious disease at Duly Health and Care, formerly named DuPage Medical Group, to ask her about the best precaution and testing strategies to use now.
Omicron symptoms may be mild, but it’s important to do all you can to prevent transmission. If you have cold symptoms, get tested, wear a mask, and stay home until you are in the clear, Taormina says.
Frequent testing, indoor masking, and Covid-19 vaccines have helped mitigate the virus’s spread. People who are fully vaccinated and boosted have much milder Covid infections than people who are not vaccinated.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently expanded booster shot eligibility. Now, people can get a booster shot five months after their last vaccine dose, rather than six months. The FDA also expanded booster shot eligibility to anyone 12 and older.
Taormina fills us in on what we need to know about the Covid omicron variant now.
Q: What should I do if I test positive for Covid-19? How long do I need to quarantine?
A: If you test positive for Covid-19 using an at-home test, notify your physician so they are aware of your illness, as you may qualify for certain treatments. At home, you can consider vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc supplementation in addition to rest, hydration, and Tylenol or ibuprofen as needed.
If you have Covid-19, you should isolate yourself within your home to a separate bedroom and bathroom, if possible. Plan to stay home from work or school for at least five days, according to the Centers for Disease and Control’s revised guidelines. After five days, if you have no Covid-19 symptoms, are not immunocompromised, and are fever-free, you can leave isolation while still wearing a mask for the next five days. You should strongly consider getting a test on day six as an additional layer of mitigation in an effort to keep everyone safe.
Q: With omicron’s sheer transmissibility, are we all going to get Covid-19? If so, do I still need to take strict precautions?
A: We won’t all get Covid-19, but we are going to continue to see hundreds of thousands of cases daily across the country for the next several weeks. We still do need to take strict precautions — now more than ever — because every new infection is a chance for this virus to further mutate and evade our vaccine protection. Additionally, even though omicron appears to cause less severe clinical illness, passing this virus to someone more vulnerable than yourself could beget a poor outcome for that individual.
We still do need to take strict precautions — now more than ever — because every new infection is a chance for this virus to further mutate and evade our vaccine protection.
Q: Are at-home Covid-19 tests reliable? Should I take an at-home antigen test, a rapid test, or a PCR test (if I can get any of them!)?
A: At-home Covid-19 antigen testing is quite accurate if you have symptoms that point to possible Covid infection. Once you’re symptomatic, you likely have enough active virus to cause most tests — both rapid antigen tests and PCRs — to return positive if you have Covid. Additionally, taking an antigen test at least five days after any high-risk contact, even if you’re asymptomatic, will give ample time for you to develop virus robust enough to be detected by an at-home test.
Rapid tests don’t necessarily fare as well when they are done without symptoms or just as a random screen. You could be pre-symptomatic and not yet have enough virus to cause a home test to return positive.
PCR tests remain the most sensitive and the gold standard, but they may be difficult to find without long lines and long waits for results. There are rapid PCR tests available in some areas that are also very good, but, again, very limited.
For the next few weeks while testing is scarce, the most important thing to do is isolate if you are symptomatic and presume you are positive, especially if you have had a known high-risk contact.
Q: Sketchy-looking test sites are popping up in empty storefronts. Are those places reliable for Covid-19 tests?
A: Unfortunately, not all testing sites are operating under the auspices of a commercial pharmacy, health system, or public health department. Residents have reported that some of these pop-up sites have dirty facilities, workers without masks and gloves, and results that are never sent to the customer.
It is best to make every effort to go to a reputable clinic, hospital, health department, or commercial pharmacy testing site. The Illinois Department of Public Health advises going to a community-based testing site on its list and avoiding testing sites that won’t tell you the name of the lab they use.
I also encourage folks to check out social media sites like Chicago Vaccine Hunters on Facebook where you can crowdsource and ask questions about various testing sites and their standards.
Q: What is the best mask to wear now — cloth, disposable, KN95, KF94, or N95? How often should I change masks?
A: We’ve reached the point in this pandemic where cloth masks really should be left on the shelves. Omicron is highly contagious and the best protection to the wearer is a medical-grade N95 (especially if fit-tested), a KN95, or a KF94. These multilayer, fitted masks can filter out the most Covid-containing droplets and afford the best protection.
A disposable mask that is tossed after a single day’s use would be the next best choice — with double masking a consideration in crowded areas. Disposable masks should be changed after no more than eight hours of use or at any time if they become soiled or wet.
We’ve reached the point in this pandemic where cloth masks really should be left on the shelves. Omicron is highly contagious and the best protection to the wearer is a medical-grade N95 (especially if fit-tested), a KN95, or a KF94.
Q: Is it safe to eat inside a restaurant, given that people have their masks off?
A: At this point, if you are not fully vaccinated and boosted if eligible, I would exercise caution when eating in restaurants or partaking in other indoor venue events where masks are removed. I would strongly encourage seniors and those with compromised immune systems to wait until community transmission rates come down before returning to indoor dining.
Q: Can my kids hug their grandma?
A: Vaccinated kids can certainly hug their vaccinated/boosted grandparents, provided all are feeling well and not displaying symptoms. If there are little kids who are under the age of 5 and not yet eligible for vaccines, they should be encouraged to wear a mask when with their grandparents, if they are able to do so. Again, make sure their grandparents and other adult family members are fully vaccinated.
Q: What else do I need to know about Covid-19 testing and omicron?
A: This current wave of Covid-19 with the omicron variant will be the most dramatic we have seen. As symptoms are generally mild for most, do not quickly presume that your cold symptoms cannot be Covid illness because you are vaccinated. Any cough, cold, fever, or illness should result in strict mask-wearing and staying home from work or school to assure there is no progression of symptoms.
Ideally, when testing becomes more readily available, we should all be able to more quickly discern if our everyday sniffles are Covid-related. Until then, layered mitigation strategies with vaccinating, masking, social distancing, testing, hand hygiene, and optimized ventilation create the safest possible scenario for all.
Anyone age 5 and older is eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine. People 12 and over who have been vaccinated for at least five months, qualify for a booster shot. Find vaccination sites through vaccines.gov. If you have cold symptoms, get tested for Covid-19. Find a list of testing sites here. Though they sell out quickly, Walgreens, CVS, Walmart, and other stores and pharmacies sell at-home Covid tests.