As the world enters its fourth full year of living with the COVID-19 virus, general attitudes toward the illness are noticeably less concerned than in previous years, as Professor of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School Mercedes Carnethon said.
Carnethon said that it appears as if the general public feels “safer” when it comes to the pandemic: Many adults who are vaccinated or in good health do not deem themselves at particular risk for severe illness. However, the COVID-19 virus still looms, and amid another wave of the sickness this season, it remains important to know and follow best practices for preventing its spread.
People can avoid spreading the virus by getting tested. Experts at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommend people get tested for the virus whenever they experience common symptoms including coughing, congestion or a new loss of taste or smell. People who are exposed to COVID regardless of symptoms should also test, though the CDC recommends waiting until five days after initial exposure.
Most COVID tests fall under two categories: PCR lab tests and rapid antigen tests.
PCR lab tests are available through healthcare providers and can take up to three days to return results.
At-home antigen tests can be found over-the-counter at many common pharmaceutical stores like Walgreens and CVS, as well as in general stores like Target. Northwestern students can also go to the University’s Student Health Service for over-the-counter testing. Most antigen tests produce results within 15 to 30 minutes.
Antigen tests are less likely to detect the virus than PCR tests, so the FDA recommends taking two to three antigen tests over the span of 48 hours to confirm test results.
As a general rule of thumb, Carnethon said it’s important to err on the side of caution to protect yourself and those around you, especially during the upcoming colder months, when respiratory viruses like the flu and common cold are more prevalent.
“It doesn’t hurt to rule out COVID-19 since there are many respiratory illnesses circulating,” Carnethon said. “If [a person isn’t] feeling well and even if it isn’t COVID, they should try not to pass it along to others. If symptoms don’t get better with rest, fluids and over the counter symptom relievers, then they may wish to see a doctor.”
What to do if you (or a loved one) tests positive
In the event of a positive COVID test result, one may feel a lot of uncertainty. However, there are courses of action that people can take to safely and responsibly manage such a situation.
Robert Murphy, professor of Medicine at Feinberg and Biomedical Engineering at McCormick, noted that physical quarantine is key. Even though Northwestern no longer provides isolated housing for those infected with COVID, students can take action independently, he said.
“If I was living in the same room with somebody who had COVID, I would leave,” Murphy said. “Just for a couple of days. As they get better and test negative, then you can go back.”
Murphy also said that people should consider themselves infectious for a period of five days after first experiencing symptoms or getting a positive test result, and should at least wear a mask and self-isolate during that time.
There are also ways people can treat infection, should it occur.
The antiviral medication Paxlovid kills the virus and can be an effective treatment for those infected, Murphy said.
“If you have an underlying medical problem, you can take Paxlovid even if you're young,” he said.
Murphy said vaccines are a very effective method of COVID-19 prevention and treatment.
Although it is true that when people are infected with COVID their body generates an immune response, vaccines provide a more reliable standard of immunity. This is because the degree of immune response that a COVID infection generates depends on how sick the person gets, said Murphy. Vaccines trigger a “stronger immunologic response” that, according to Murphy, leads to greater protection against future infections than a previous infection alone.
Both Carnethon and Murphy said that the virus is constantly mutating and evading systems of immunity. This means people should keep up to date with available COVID vaccines.
“The current vaccine is a new vaccine. It's not the same old one. It's not a booster,” Murphy said. “It's completely engineered differently.”
There are three types of COVID vaccines available: Pfizer, Moderna and NovaVax. All provide immunity against the variant of COVID-19 that is currently circulating, Omicron.
Murphy said COVID is endemic, something that the world has and will continue to have to live with. Ultimately, Carnethon said that operating in a world with COVID entails consideration for others, exercising caution and responsible action.
“People should be considerate of others who may be susceptible to severe illness if they catch it and be considerate of others who may not want to risk becoming sick,” Carnethon said. “It is best to behave in the way one would behave with any other illness they don’t want to give to others.”
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