NEWS

How to Protect Yourself Against COVID-19 During the Winter Surge

COVID winter.

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Key Takeaways

  • Public health officials are concerned that another winter surge of COVID-19 infections is looming.
  • Experts are not yet sure how severe the impact of the Omicron COVID-19 variant will be, but advise that everyone continues to take safety measures.
  • You still might be able to take part in traditional winter activities, including holiday gift shopping and celebrations, if you wear masks, stick to outdoor activities, and more.


Public health experts are warning of another COVID-19 surge this winter. While it's not yet clear what the impact of the variant will be, experts have some recommendations about how we can all stay safe.

Here's what you need to know about the Omicron variant as well as the steps that you can take to protect yourself during the holiday season.

What We Know About Omicron So Far

There is still a lot that is unknown about the Omicron variant. For now, experts are advising everyone to continue being cautious and take steps to prevent the virus from spreading.

Each variant of the COVID virus has unique characteristics that need to be studied before experts can draw broad conclusions about them.

“Omicron has to be treated as if it’s a new virus, in some ways," Devabhaktuni Srikrishna, an air quality engineer and the founder of Patient Knowhow, told Verywell. "For all practical purposes, it’s like a new virus, so we can’t easily generalize it to other variants."

Here's what experts know so far about the Omicron variant and how it might affect us this winter.

Transmission

Omicron appears to be more transmissible than other strains of COVID-19 (including Delta). That means that if you get the Omicron variant, you are more likely to infect others.

The Omicron variant was responsible for causing a “super spreader” event among fully vaccinated individuals in Norway—all of whom tested negative with a rapid COVID test prior to the event.

“Preliminarily, the Omicron variant appears to be highly contagious," Ariella Morrow, MD MPH, a physician with Sameday Health who has been advising patients throughout the pandemic, told Verywell. "Early evidence from South Africa shows that it is three to six times more transmissible than Delta. That’s a huge advantage for the virus because it’s going to spread like wildfire.”

Illness Severity

Patients who get the Omicron variant appear to be more likely to develop less severe cases of COVID, but research has yet to fully explain why.

One theory is that many of these cases are less severe because they are occurring in people who already have some immunity against COVID-19—either from a previous infection or vaccination.

“The data here is very preliminary and conclusions have to take into consideration several confounders,” Morrow said. “We are seeing less death and less hospitalization than with the Delta variant. However, we don’t know if it is less severe because it’s infecting people who’ve already been infected or already been vaccinated.”

Preparing For Winter

If you keep some practical safety tips in mind, you can still enjoy the festivities of the holiday season.

Vaccines

While public health researchers are still evaluating the effectiveness of current COVID-19 vaccines against the Omicron variant, the vaccines are still the best tool we have against the virus.

Morrow said that everyone who is eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine should get vaccinated, and those who are already vaccinated should get a booster dose when they're due for one.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a booster dose 6 months after the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or 2 months after the first Johnson & Johnson dose.

If you've already had COVID-19, Morrow said that you should still get a COVID-19 vaccine because "multiple exposures to the virus make our immune system more flexible to a mutation...The more we are exposed, the more antibodies and the more diverse antibody family our bodies make."

Face Masks

According to Srikrishna, everyone should wear a well-fitting, NIOSH-approved N95 respirator/mask (or better) when they're in public indoor spaces.

“A cloth mask, especially if it’s not well-fitting, may stop some respiratory particles from reaching inside or going outside," Srikrishna said. "But it doesn’t stop most of the tiny aerosols that are coming out of our mouths continuously. You can’t see these particles, but they are constantly there."

N95 Mask Versus Cloth Mask

An N95 respirator will filter out 95% or more of particulates in the air. N99 and N100 masks that offer even better protection are also available but are more costly and may be less comfortable to wear, especially for prolonged periods. For an N95 respirator to provide optimum protection, it must fit properly, Srikrishna said. The nose piece must seal tightly around the bridge of the nose, and there must be no leakage of air around the edges of the mask. Men with beards may not obtain the maximum benefit from an N95, although a recent study suggests N95 retained significant filtration in a small number of bearded test subjects.

You also need to make sure that your mask fits correctly. To quickly assess if your respirator is a proper fit for your face, perform a positive and negative pressure test when you first put on your mask.

First, exhale with your hands around the mask, checking for any areas of air leakage, or fogging of eyeglasses. You should feel a slight increase in pressure within the mask.

Next, take a breath in. You should notice the mask collapsing inwardly toward your face.

N95 or higher respirators have silicone or gel seals, known as elastomeric, which Srikrishna said provides greater comfort. It also offers a better fit during extended wear. Newer respirators are becoming available which contain more breathable designs.

Air Filtration

COVID-19 travels through airborne particles, which is why proper air filtration is vital when you'll be gathering indoors. You may want to consider your air filtration options if you plan to host an indoor gathering during the holiday season.

If your home has centralized heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, Srikrishna said that you might want to consider upgrading the air filter to a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating of 13 or 14, which is designed to filter out 75% of airborne particles.

What Is a MERV Rating?

The MERV rating refers to a filter’s ability to purify airborne particles. The higher the MERV rating, the smaller the particles that a filter can trap. Most home HVAC systems use MERV 8 or 9 filters but they can usually accommodate a filter with a MERV rating up to 13.

High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can filter out particles 0.3 microns in diameter or greater, making them effective at trapping the airborne particles that carry the COVID-19 virus.

However, most conventional home or commercial HVAC systems cannot accommodate a HEPA filter. They are most useful for smaller areas, such as living rooms.

For an additional layer of filtration, portable HEPA air purifiers or MERV 13/14 filters that are attached to a box fan can be a cost-effective air filtration option for supplementing centralized HVAC systems that typically do not usually run continuously because they switch on and off to control temperature.

According to Srikrishna, this option "may be a reasonable substitute in some cases." For similar reasons, to get the benefit of continuous air filtration, portable HEPA air purifiers must be set to run on their highest fan settings (or as high as tolerable) rather than set to their automatic settings, which typically will not trigger the fan in response to the presence of particles carrying the virus.

Srikrishna said that a decent air filtration system will provide at least four to six clean air exchanges per hour, but six to eight is better. You can use an air filtration calculator to assess the size of the portable air purifier that you need based on the size of your room.

COVID-19 Testing Options

If you have any symptoms of COVID-19 or were exposed, you need to test right away.

Morrow promotes testing "because if we can prevent one transmission event, we can prevent thousands of cases and save lives." That said, Morrow added that "we need to use the right test at the right time, and we need to understand what that test means at that moment."

There are two main options for COVID testing: PCR tests and antigen tests.

PCR Tests

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests look for genetic material from the COVID-19 virus in your nose.

“PCR is the gold standard for COVID testing,” Morrow said. “It’s nearly perfect. If you have COVID-19 in your nose, the test will find it.”

However, PCR tests do not always identify COVID infections before symptoms begin. Furthermore, PCR test results can take one to three days to produce results, during which time an asymptomatic person could be unknowingly spreading the virus.

“Some gatherings request a negative PCR test within 72 hours," Morrow said. "But 72 hours is an enormity of time for a virus to spread."

Rapid PCR tests are highly accurate and do not take as long to provide results. However, they are still expensive and not often covered by most insurance plans, which Morrow pointed out makes them economically out of reach for many people.

Antigen Tests

Antigen tests are also taken from a nasal swab. These tests detect specific proteins (antigens) on the surface of the COVID virus. These tests are less sensitive than a PCR test and are most useful in someone that has symptoms.

Most antigen tests give results within 15 to 30 minutes. However, antigen tests may not detect COVID infection early on—especially in people who are vaccinated.

“Antigen tests are real-time,” Morrow said. “They’re not as accurate, but they tell us what’s going on in your nose right now.

Anyone with COVID-19 symptoms and a negative antigen test should have a laboratory PCR test, as rapid antigen tests can miss some positive cases.

Early treatment of symptomatic COVID-19 can lead to better outcomes, which is why it's important to get a confirmation of the diagnosis and begin treatment as soon as possible.

Can I Still Celebrate the Holidays Safely?

You can still enjoy holiday celebrations with loved ones, but it's important to keep some practical safety tips in mind.

Morrow advised that everyone attending a holiday gathering should have a rapid COVID-19 test no less than 24 hours before getting together. Anyone showing any signs of infection should stay home, even if they had a negative COVID-19 test. Anyone who develops symptoms within one week of a holiday gathering should get a COVID-19 test and notify everyone present as soon as possible.

Srikrishna also recommended placing smaller air filtration units in areas where people will be gathered, such as the dining room and living room.

What About Holiday Shopping?

Whether you're trying to stock up on food for a holiday meal or picking out gifts, in-person shopping is another aspect of the festive season that you might be worried about with COVID looming.

“In some cases, it’s unavoidable," Srikrishna said. "But to the extent possible, shopping online will keep you safer. If you can’t avoid it, wear an N95 mask or better.”

Morrow added that you should try to "choose hours and times that the shops are less busy, choose a high-quality mask, be mindful of who is around you at the store." It can also be helpful to try to "go to a larger store with better ventilation."

Don't Let Your Guard Down

“We are encountering a more transmissible variant, and we’re concerned that it will more readily infect patients who have already been infected because this virus can evade our natural immunity,” Morrow said. “We’re entering a period of hygiene fatigue and isolation fatigue. It has been weighing heavily on many of us the degree to which we’ve had to separate ourselves from each other and the world.”

As you approach the holidays this winter, remember the importance of taking precautions and being honest with others about your risk tolerance. There are ways to celebrate safely with loved ones, but it's also OK if you'd prefer to keep the festivities socially distant again this year.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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