By Mike DuBose
In the previous segment of this two part-series, I shared current information about the Delta variant of COVID-19, which has swept the US and now makes up the vast majority of cases. Although it can be worrying to grasp how much more transmissible and dangerous the Delta variant is than the original strain of COVID, it’s important to understand what we are up against so we know how to protect ourselves. Although we are in an unprecedented situation and new information may emerge later as we gain more experience with the virus, here are some things you can do now—based on credible research from reputable medical organizations—to help protect your mental and physical health as we continue navigating this pandemic:
Keep wearing a mask when indoors in public places. COVID-19 spreads mainly through heated breath expelled by infected individuals through activities like coughing, talking, or singing. Wearing masks prevents as many copies of the virus from being launched into the air by those who have COVID, while also forming a physical barrier to reduce the likelihood of uninfected people inhaling the virus. That’s why masking is one of the main precautions that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has urged Americans to take from the beginning of the pandemic.
Unfortunately, however, the CDC has been somewhat inconsistent in their messaging regarding masks this year. In early summer, with COVID infections down and vaccination rates growing, the CDC put out a more relaxed set of guidelines regarding wearing masks indoors. Then, Delta—which is much more contagious and can cause “breakthrough” infections even in vaccinated people—hit. People who had been vaccinated but had been in close contact with others in large groups started getting sick. The prime example was a wedding reception in Massachusetts that resulted in 274 symptomatic infections, even when 74% of attendees were “fully vaccinated.” The Massachusetts health department conducted testing and tracing that revealed that 90% of the sick were infected with the Delta variant!
To address the risks posed by the Delta variant, the CDC updated its guidelines in July 2021 to recommend that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear masks in indoor public settings, such as bars, malls, houses of worship, concert venues, and restaurants, that tend to be areas of high transmission. (Guidelines still say that masks don’t typically need to be worn outdoors, unless you are in crowds in an area with high numbers of cases or in close contact with unvaccinated people outdoors.)
Many people are tired of wearing masks, which is understandable. However, doing so could potentially save lives—especially when you consider that many breakthrough cases may not have symptoms, but are still capable of unknowingly spreading the virus to very young, old, or immunocompromised folks, who could become very ill or even die! That’s why I recommend that everyone continue to wear quality masks when in public and indoors, whether you are vaccinated or not (see www.mikedubose.com/blog/do-i-really-need-to-wear-a-mask for my analysis of different types of masks and recommendations on finding the best ones).
One major sticking point for many seems to be mask-wearing amongst children. As noted in the previous segment of this series, the Delta variant seems to be striking many more children than the original strain of COVID-19. As the Associated Press (AP) reported on September 7, 2021, in South Carolina, “people between the ages of 11 and 20 make up the state’s largest share of COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks, at more than 23%. Children 10 and younger are the second largest group, with more than 15% of cases.” Sadly, it seems that the Delta variant is also making young people sicker, too. Two Aiken students, one in fourth grade and one in tenth grade, have already died from COVID in the first week of September 2021.
The current guidelines on the CDC’s website say, “If you are not fully vaccinated and aged 2 or older, you should wear a mask in indoor public places.” This includes all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools. However, some parents have taken issue with the idea of mandating masks in school, leading some school districts not to require them. Two doctors, Marty Makary, MD and Cody Meissner, MD also wrote an August 9, 2021 Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal expressing doubt about children wearing masks. In their piece, they assert that moist masks can lead to pathogen buildup, which can cause other illnesses; that wearing masks can fog up children’s glasses and make them anxious; and that children sometimes wear low-quality masks that are not as effective as N95 or KN95 masks. Their ultimate suggestion: “Special attention should be paid to the many children who struggle with masks.”
Based on the evidence at this time about how contagious the Delta variant truly is, as well as reports of children becoming sick and even dying due to the virus, I think that children should follow the CDC’s guidelines and wear masks in school and in other public indoor places. I recommend that parents do research on quality masks and purchase several for their children that they can rotate out daily to ensure cleanliness. Parents should also speak candidly and honestly to their children about reasons for wearing masks, both in terms of their own health and in terms of protecting others who are at high risk if they contract COVID, and how to wear masks correctly (including not to touch the front of the mask, where the virus can live). Ultimately, our children’s health is the most important thing, and we have to be able to look past politics and the media to put kids’ best interests first!
Consider getting a booster shot once they are available. As explained in the previous segment of this series, it’s important to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Even though the Delta variant is causing more breakthrough infections than the original strain, those who are vaccinated are much less likely to get sick or die if they experience a breakthrough infection versus those who are unvaccinated. Unfortunately, studies out of Israel and other areas suggest that the effectiveness of COVID vaccinations decreases over time, specifically, about six months after the last of the two shots are taken.
Scientists now believe that a “booster shot” that attacks the Delta variant (in addition to the two doses previously taken for those who received the Pfizer or Moderna shots) may be helpful in further protecting vaccinated individuals, and the US government is currently laying out plans to offer third doses of the shot to all vaccinated Americans. Drug companies’ research supports the idea of booster shots as well—according to Pfizer’s Dr. Michael Dolsten, a third shot of the Pfizer vaccine increased antibodies from 5- to 10-fold in test subjects as compared to their second shot. Pfizer and Moderna are both working on booster shots for their vaccines, although they have not yet been approved by the FDA. Other scientists have posited that a booster administered as a nasal spray rather than a shot could be a good option because Delta seems to flourish particularly well in the nose. It’s still unclear at this point if we will need more shots after a third COVID “booster” shot, although some research say we will most likely to get them annually, like flu shots.
Protect your mind as well as your body. Living during a pandemic can be very frustrating. In an effort to avoid the virus, we can easily avoid other people, becoming isolated and experiencing negative impacts to mental and emotional health. Unfortunately, it looks like the coronavirus will be with us for a good while longer, especially since Delta is now the dominant variant, so we have to figure out how to live our lives while also staying safe! Here are some practical recommendations for being happy and healthy during this pandemic:
1- Respect the virus, but don’t live in fear. Humans need socialization for optimal mental and emotional health. You should seek ways to be around others safely and while following best practices for limiting the spread of the virus. Finding a balance may be tricky, but it is important!
2- Leave your house every day—in a safe manner. Even if you just run a quick errand, do an outdoor activity (like gardening), or simply take a car ride, try to get outside for a bit each day. Being cooped up inside can be bad for your mental health! It’s possible to go out into the world while still being safe. For example, when you go into stores (like the grocery store), wear a quality mask with a cheap surgical mask over it, and try to go at unpopular times (ask customer service staff which times are least crowded). Avoid busy aisles until crowds disperse.
3- Stay savvy about cleanliness when visiting public places. Be mindful about opening doors to places that are touched by many other people, for example, entrance doors to malls or restaurants. Use a tissue to open high-traffic doors and then throw it away. Carry a bottle of hand sanitizer at all times that you can use frequently to keep your hands germ-free.
4- Avoid indoor crowds whenever possible. Although it’s important to get out of the house, put thought into where you will go to make sure you control the setting. You want to be able keep a distance of six feet between yourself and others and have the ability to leave if people crowd in around you. This can be particularly difficult when attending sporting events or worship services! If you go where people are singing or speaking loudly (such as your church), sit in the back or a non-crowded area and wear two masks (keep them on the entire time you are there). If you feel unsafe in any area, it’s best to leave. You can always try other ways to have fun outside of home, like taking a walk in a park you haven’t been to before or visiting a drive-in movie theater!
5- Try outdoor events or socially distanced events with others who have been vaccinated for safe socialization. You’ll be safest (and most at ease) when you can sit outside or at a six-foot distance from friends and family who you know are vaccinated against the virus, decreasing your risk. If you visit a restaurant, avoid inside dining, where HVAC systems can circulate air into which infected people may have breathed viral material!
6- Make sure to ventilate thoroughly during indoor gatherings. If you have visitors indoors, promote good ventilation by turning on ceiling fans and opening doors to the outside. Another good idea is to have virus-killing UV lights installed in your HVAC system, which can help you avoid a number of illnesses, not just COVID-19.
7- If strangers must come inside your home, mask up. If you need renovations done inside your home, for example, you should wear a mask and ask contractors to do so, too. Once visitors have left, disinfect any areas they may have touched and open doors and windows to air out your home.
8- Be careful riding in cars with others. Cars are very close quarters, and it can be very dangerous to ride with individuals who live who live outside of your home and may have COVID! Ventilation is critical in preventing the spread of the virus. If you are in a car with someone who does not live with you, crack the windows and turn on the air conditioning (or heat) to pull in outside air. Be sure to turn off the air recirculating button, which recycles inside air!
9- If you travel, practice safety precautions. When staying in hotel rooms, bring your own disinfectant and clean surfaces you are likely to touch, such as doorknobs, light switches, sink handles, etc. Wear masks inside the hallways and take the stairs if you are able instead of crowded elevators. When dining, order food to-go or eat at restaurants with outdoor seating. One piece of good news is that, now that Labor Day has passed, beach crowds will be lower and the coast will be safer to visit!
10- If you have been exposed to COVID (or are worried you might have been), get tested. The PCR test is administered at many pharmacies and is more reliable than at-home tests. Results should come back within two days. The Delta variant appears within four days of exposure versus 6 days for the original strain, but to be safe, if you test negative on PCR test within four days of exposure to COVID, you should retest 2-3 days later to ensure you’re not infected.
11- Get some exercise. Physical activity has been proven to help both mental and physical health. My wife and I enjoy walking, which has numerous health benefits and a low risk of injury. I recommend walking or running in your neighborhood or at a local park early in the morning when there are few people out, and you won’t even need to wear a mask! (If you run into neighbors, just make sure to socially distance.) If you walk in indoor areas such as the mall, go at low-crowd times and avoid walking in crowds or behind people. Unless you can socially distance, clean your hands and the equipment thoroughly, and wear a quality mask, avoid gyms, which are “high-touch” areas that lots of people pass through, raising your likelihood of encountering the virus.
12- Pursue new hobbies. What would you like to learn to do? Explore interests like art, cooking, or music to have some fun and engage your brain! (If you’re having a hard time thinking of ideas, think back to what you always wanted to try when you were younger.) It’s important to mental and emotional wellness to keep your mind challenged and active.
13- Reach out to others. You may not be able to meet with people in person, but a phone call can show that you care, especially if you know someone is suffering! Calling friends and family reinforces your connections with them and can make both parties feel happier.
14- Limit anxiety-inducing television. Much of the media, especially shows and channels with political biases, is filled with negativity! Watching too much TV can make you more afraid, depressed, and anxious. When you do watch TV, make sure to listen to a variety of viewpoints so that you have a broad perspective on the issues.
15- Stream interesting shows and movies. The movie theater tends to draw crowds, so you may not be comfortable visiting. However, there are a lot of great options available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services that are fun, thought-provoking, and educational. This can be a good opportunity to have a “date night” in with your spouse!
16- If you are spiritual and are married, consider having a daily devotional as a couple to start off your day. In difficult times, it is helpful to think about a higher power when beginning each day, regardless of your particular religious beliefs. For Christians, my wife and I recommend Our Daily Bread, coupled with Bible verses, inspirational readings, and prayer.
17- Get organized. With many of us spending more time in the home than we typically do, clutter can be especially stressful. Take the opportunity to go through your things and sell or donate items you no longer need. A clean, tidy house feels great!
The Bottom Line: Although we had all hoped that we were nearing the end of the coronavirus pandemic, Delta variant has shown us that we’re not in the clear just yet! Practicing safety measures to prevent COVID infection may be tedious at times, but it’s worthwhile to stay in good health. As we protect our physical health, don’t forget that it’s important to maintain good mental and emotional health, too. I hope that this article will help you do just that!
Mike DuBose has been an instructor for USC’s graduate school since 1985, when he began his family of companies, and is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and additional published business, travel, and personal articles, as well as health articles written with Surb Guram, MD.