This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Syed Husain.
COVID-19 and the recent Omicron spread continue to hold everyone’s attention, especially those wanting to safely return to working and socializing with other people. We often think of infection prevention and control in terms of healthcare settings, but we can also take effective steps in our homes, when working or shopping, and when in restaurants and entertainment venues. During these pandemic times, we all need to stay current on new developments and understand how to handle the situations in daily life that can potentially expose us to infection. In this blog, ID Care infectious disease physician Dr. Syed Husain offers expert guidance on preventing, controlling, and living alongside COVID-19 today – including key steps like getting fully vaccinated, social distancing, hand washing, and masking.
How Does Infection Prevention and Control Factor into Our Everyday Lives?
Early in 2020 when the pandemic was first taking hold, isolation at home was the best advice for preventing infection. However, that is not a long-term solution. With the advent of remarkably effective vaccines and new treatments coming, people are much more capable of avoiding and surviving COVID-19. Coupled with common-sense infection prevention and control practices, it can now be generally safe to venture anywhere the demands of modern life require you to go.
According to Dr. Husain, everyone should develop expertise in COVID-19 infection prevention and control as it pertains to their daily lives. It’s the best way to combat this disease going forward, and it is not difficult. He advises, “it is very important to practice all of the medical recommendations to keep infection rates at a minimum, and to continue with the daily activities that make our lives possible.”
Infection Prevention and Control: Vaccination, Social Distancing, Hand Washing, Masking
At the beginning of this year, people in New Jersey and around the world experienced another surge of COVID-19 infections, this time related to the Omicron variant. It was a big concern initially, because it struck during wintertime, when people are mostly indoors where airborne infections spread more easily, as well as during the holiday season, when people socialize more with family and friends. The most worrisome aspect was that we didn’t know whether existing vaccines would be effective against it.
As it turned out, Omicron was much more infectious, transmitting more easily than previous variants, but it was found that vaccinated people still had significant protection against severe disease, hospitalization, and death due to this form of COVID-19. “In our NJ communities,” said Dr. Husain, “there was a huge and rapid spike in the rate of infection, then it dropped nearly as quickly, but there are still a lot of people getting infected,” he added, “so we must continue to stay vigilant and take active measures to protect ourselves and each other.”
Dr. Husain is optimistic that Omicron infections will continue to drop, especially as the weather warms up and people spend more time outdoors, where social distancing is easier and fresh air circulation is better. “The chances of transmitting these infections will be lower in springtime,” he advised, “but it will still be a factor when people are indoors or in overcrowded settings.”
Overall, these effective infection prevention and control tips remain in effect:
- Social distance, stay at least six feet apart to limit exposure or spread from close contact.
- Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.
- Wear a mask when indoors where COVID-19 might be present.
- Get fully vaccinated, including all recommended shots and boosters.
- Seek medical treatment if you become infected and your symptoms are severe.
- Quarantine as recommended by your doctor and CDC guidelines until you recover and are no longer contagious.
Is Omicron Less Severe than Previous COVID-19 Variants?
The first case of Omicron was detected in the US on December 1, 2021, but just 4 weeks later, it had largely displaced Delta, with 95% of all COVID-19 infections being Omicron. With such a rapid onset, the first task was to understand its ability to spread and cause harm —that is, was it more or less dangerous than previous variants?
In the short time since then, a clearer picture has emerged: Omicron spreads more easily, but its worst effects can be reduced by the same vaccines that protect us from other existing forms of COVID-19.
What has been determined is that the Omicron variant:
- Is more contagious and can infect vaccinated people and previously infected people.
- Has similar symptoms to previous variants but are generally more mild and less persistent.
- Usually result in less severe outcomes for those fully vaccinated, including hospitalization and death in otherwise healthy people.
Omicron is about 1.5 to 2 times more contagious than Delta, and about 4 times more contagious than the original virus that first appeared in late 2019. Toward the end of January 2022, an Omicron subvariant called BA.2 emerged which is believed to be about 1.5 more infectious than the original Omicron, now known as BA.1. Fortunately, the new BA.2 subvariant produces similar symptoms to Omicron BA.1 and existing vaccines provide effective protection against it.
Both Omicron variants can cause dangerous, potentially deadly disease in unvaccinated people. While healthy vaccinated people can get Omicron and infect others, the severity and duration of their symptoms is vastly reduced. For this reason, hospitalization and death are rare among the vaccinated, and are generally limited to the most vulnerable, immunocompromised people.
Unvaccinated people remain at highest risk for contracting any of the COVID-19 variants and for suffering the worst symptoms. “These are the patients we see being hospitalized the most, and they can get really sick with this infection,” warned Dr. Husain, adding that “some don’t survive because of the severity they suffer due to not being vaccinated.”
What Are the Top 5 Tips for Infection Prevention and Control Against Omicron?
Infectious diseases like COVID-19 cause the body to produce antibodies, which are proteins that can identify and neutralize the germs that cause harmful symptoms. If you’ve recovered from an infection, the antibodies that helped defeat it remain in your body, protecting you against future infection from that disease. However, they don’t always last forever, and if a new variant of the disease shows up, antibodies for the previous variant may not recognize it.
Vaccines function in a similar way but are much safer because they don’t require you to be infected first. You can also get booster shots, which will generate more of the antibodies if their numbers begin to decline.
Omicron, both BA.1 and BA.2, is different enough from previous variants that it can sometimes evade the primary protection of vaccination, which is to eliminate the virus before it can infect cells and reproduce in the body. However, Omicron is similar enough that it cannot escape secondary immune responses, which will attack and destroy infected cells, so the virus cannot reproduce in large enough numbers to cause severe symptoms. This is why vaccinated people can contract Omicron, but it only produces mild symptoms for the vast majority of them. Fortunately, the same proven steps that prevent or limit other forms of COVID-19 remain effective against Omicron.
Top 5 tips for infection prevention and control of Omicron and all forms of COVID-19 continue to be:
- Social Distance
- Wash Hands
- Quarantine if you are exposed or infected
Why Are Masks Still Necessary?
In New Jersey, face masks are required in high-risk areas such as healthcare and childcare facilities, schools, homeless shelters, correctional institutions, and public transportation. However, stores and other businesses not specifically required can make their own determination whether to mandate face masks.
Regardless of the legal requirements or business policy of any structure you enter, everyone is free to wear a mask, and you should as a preventative measure. While cloth masks were sufficient to help inhibit less-contagious variants, Omicron demands the use of more effective barriers. Ideally, use an N-95 or KN-95 mask, or, at minimum, a well-fitting surgical mask.
“Masks are still important to have and wear properly,” according to Dr. Husain, “and given the speed Omicron has been spreading and with breakthrough infections among vaccinated people, we recommend wearing masks when indoors in public settings, at work, and at school.”
How Can We Stay Healthy in the Age of Covid?
Dr. Husain advises that beyond using proven infection prevention and control techniques, “the most important message is to keep yourself healthy, so your immune system is functioning well and better able to prevent or fight off COVID-19 and other infections.”
To help defend against pandemic infection as well as promote good health, Dr. Husain recommends that everyone adopt these critical healthcare habits:
- Watch your diet and eat a variety of nutritious, whole foods, and don’t overeat.
- Exercise regularly and make it enjoyable. Even a brisk walk can be very beneficial. Exercise can help with weight control, muscle strength and agility, and keeping your mood positive.
- Sleep well, for 7 to 9 hours every night. It promotes general health as well as boosting your immune system.
- Consult an infectious disease doctor if you suspect any serious infection.
What Should I Do If I Get COVID-19?
We are all susceptible to getting infectious diseases, and in this respect, COVID-19 is no different. Each disease requires a specific response, and if you become infected with Omicron or any other COVID-19 variant, Dr. Husain prescribes the follow course of action:
- Stay home if you feel sick, do not go to school, work, or anywhere else.
- Get tested and if positive, stay quarantined for the appropriate length of time.
- See an infectious disease doctor if symptoms get worse than a typical cold or flu, and if you have trouble breathing, get to a hospital emergency room.
- Return to regular activities only when you are healthy and no longer able to infect others. If you’re unsure, your doctor is best equipped to determine your health status.
How long to quarantine depends on each person’s characteristics and symptoms, but current CDC guidelines outline most people can get back to normal activities 5 days after their fever breaks if they are asymptomatic and feeling well. Others may have to wait up to 10 days. You can consult your physician.
Why Does COVID-19 Infect Some People and Not Others?
According to Dr. Husain, “there are many factors that can contribute to this phenomenon. One is that overall immune system health can be stronger in one person than the other, even if they’re living in the same environment.”
The other possibility is that antibody levels can vary among people, sometimes due to medications for other conditions that can decrease the immune response and render one more vulnerable to any infectious disease, including COVID-19. Dr. Husain explained that “it’s typically a combination of the amount of viral exposure, one’s immune status, and the presence of any immunity-weakening medicines that can predispose someone to these infections.”
What Is Long COVID?
Most people have heard about “long COVID” or “long-haul COVID,” a condition where the infection produces long-term symptoms or health problems that can last for weeks, months, or longer. They can range from mild to more severe, including:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Tiredness or fatigue
- Difficulty thinking (“brain fog”)
- Joint or muscle pain
- Sleep problems
- Mood changes
- Change in smell or taste
- Changes in menstrual period cycles
- Adverse neurological effects
- Psychiatric problems
- Developmental delays
- Pulmonary problems affecting the lungs and breathing
- Cardiac conditions that impair heart function or blood circulation
- Gastrointestinal effects
- Fatty liver disease
- And other symptoms listed here
“We are currently identifying patients with long-COVID and investigating the condition,” said Dr. Husain, “so people should understand that COVID-19 is not a simple infection. It’s a very serious condition and we should all play our part to prevent it from spreading and to keep ourselves healthy.”
How Will New Treatments Affect COVID-19?
New treatment modalities are under development, and some will come online in the coming weeks. We’ve had intravenous antiviral agents for a while, and now oral antivirals and monoclonal antibodies are available. In some patients, steroids have also been effective to reduce the impact of the disease.
Dr. Husain believes that ultimately “we will probably require regular boosters or yearly vaccinations. Along with upcoming new treatments, we will find better ways to tackle this infection to prevent its worst effects.”
Is the Pandemic Almost Over?
It’s been over two years since the COVID-19 virus made its unwelcome debut, and just about everyone is eager to be done with it. The loss of life is tragic, the illness and after-effects can be very serious, and the worry is an ongoing challenge. In our fast-paced modern world, it can seem like the virus has been here for a very long time. However, it is still a relatively new infectious disease, and much is yet to be discovered about how to fully deal with it.
At some point in response to vaccination, natural immunity from previous infection, and new treatments being introduced, transmission rates for COVID-19 will drop and the severity of the disease will lessen. The disease will no longer generate an out-of-control global pandemic; it will change to a manageable endemic situation. Much like endemic Influenza (flu), COVID-19 will likely always be among us, with possible seasonal fluctuations, but it will no longer be the widespread, severe threat and major disruption to our daily lives.
“We can do quite a bit to keep COVID-19 out of our bodies and to treat it if it breaks through,” said Dr. Husain, “but given the way it’s been evolving, it will probably continue to exist, new variants will occur from time to time, and we will have to manage it accordingly.”
What Role Does ID Care Play in Infection Prevention and Control Today?
ID Care’s ongoing role is to educate people on the importance of vital COVID-19 infection prevention and control to address the spread and treatment of this complex infectious disease.
“We also guide patients through the different phases of their illnesses, and above all, we seek to help them fully recover, return to their normal lives, and stay healthy,” said Dr. Husain. ID Care also consults with many NJ organizations, companies, schools, and government agencies to establish infection prevention and control policies and procedures that keep employees and our communities safe and healthy.
The pandemic is still happening, and new COVID-19 variants are still a probability, but according to Dr. Husain, “the good news is that we can learn to live alongside COVID-19, protected by vaccinations, medications, and everyone taking the simple but effective steps to prevent and control infection wherever they happen to be.”