I'm a Virus Expert and I Warn You Not to Go Here Even if it's Open
As much as we all want the pandemic to be over, it's not. Cases are spiking in many areas and although safety precautions have been lifted, trying to avoid COVID is still recommended because there can be long lasting damaging effects that harm overall health and lingering symptoms that can continue for months. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with different virus experts who explain what to know about COVID right now, when to still wear a mask and places to avoid in an effort to prevent getting sick. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss Already Had COVID? These Symptoms May "Never Go Away".
What Should People Know About COVID Right Now?
Dr. J. Wes Ulm, Harvard and MIT-trained MD, PhD with a background in bioinformatics, gene therapy, genetics, drug discovery, consulting and education says, "That, as exhausted and fed up as we are with the pandemic, unfortunately the virus is not done with us, and we ignore its ongoing threat at our peril — above all on a mass scale, as we've since learned, the danger of long COVID and cumulative organ damage from even mild cases in healthy individuals. The very name of the pathogen that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, is a bit of a misnomer, since the first four letters are an acronym for 'severe acute respiratory syndrome.' An active COVID infection indeed imperils lung function, but in the two years since its arrival shook the world, it's become clear that, more fundamentally, SARS-CoV-2 is a vascular pathogen. That is, upon gaining access to a human host (usually through a respiratory corridor like the mouth or nose, then into the airways), the virus races through the body through the ramifying blood vessels that supply virtually all our tissues. And since SARS-CoV-2 enters cells through ACE2, one of the most ubiquitous receptors in the body, it poses a serious threat across the spectrum of the body's vital organs, in a way that's rarely seen for infectious diseases.
The upshot is that, as tragic as the 1 million American deaths from acute COVID have been, the virus's most pervasive danger to US society is in its potential to gradually, progressively wreak havoc on victims' organs with each new infection — accumulating damage through a thousand cuts, for perhaps tens of millions of Americans. Particularly in the last few months, physicians and researchers have managed to paint an alarming picture of just how insidious and subtly dangerous COVID is to the human body; it is not merely like a cold or flu, even if it presents that way initially for many (as does, for that matter, HIV). Multiple studies have now confirmed that even seemingly innocuous bouts of COVID-19 augment the risk of hypercoagulable states (the blood's tendency to clot) and serious sequelae like pulmonary emboli, of diabetes (both Type 1 and Type 2), of permanent lung dysfunction, of heart disease, of liver and kidney conditions, of brain damage, and of immune dysregulation. Moreover, because of SARS-CoV-2's disquieting skill at mutation and immune evasion, and our immune system's difficulty in sustainably 'remembering' the molecular hallmarks of the COVID spike protein after both vaccination and natural immunity, herd immunity is virtually impossible, and any misguided attempts to gain it with repeated infections will pose a serious danger to the organ and tissue function of a multiply infected individual. An increasingly frequent motif in many case reports is of COVID patients who experience what seem to be only mild brushes with the virus, barely sidelining them for a day or two — only to suffer from a variety of documentable disorders in a range of tissues weeks or months down the road.
SARS-CoV-2, in other words, is one of the most formidable microbial foes we've ever faced as a society, possessing the contagion of measles and the capacity to disseminate systemically as few other pathogens can, alongside a fluid mutational capability that empowers it to nimbly evade the customary mechanisms of herd immunity. And it now has almost 8 billion human hosts worldwide, capable of disseminating it across borders in a way never seen for the plagues that ravaged communities before the 20th century. There have already been reports of sustained labor shortages in the USA and Britain, two of the hardest-hit countries, ensuing from the travails of millions of Americans and Britons battling the effects of long COVID or the serious illnesses to which COVID-19 predisposes us. If officials simply pursue a "let it rip" strategy for each new COVID variant, we'll be setting up US society for calamity in the months and years down the road as more and more millions of Americans tackle the ramifications of organ damage from the cumulative risk that builds with each infection. It's understandably troubling to have to fight such a tenacious enemy that keeps returning, again and again, with a new wave every few months. But this is effectively a war for which it is our generation's lot to fight; SARS-CoV-2 is a force of nature and will not subside for our convenience, and we ignore or dismiss it at our peril."
When to Wear a Mask
Dr. Mary Rodgers, the principal scientist at Abbott says, "I recommend following the guidance and recommendations made by government officials and healthcare experts in your area. If masks aren't required in your area, I recommend tracking cases in your area and if they're on the rise, consider wearing one when indoors and in crowded areas, especially if you are more vulnerable to COVID-19 or going around people who may be at a higher risk. It also comes down to each individual's comfort level; if mask wearing helps provide peace of mind, then I recommend using them."
Summer is here and we're tired of being isolated but Dr. Rodgers suggests avoiding, "Any crowded area where people aren't wearing masks, including concerts, grocery stores, etc. If cases are on the rise and mask mandates aren't instated in crowded areas, this could increase exposure and potential risk of contracting the virus. If found in this situation, I recommend taking proper precaution including getting vaccinated and boosted, wearing a mask, attempting to maintain a distance from others and testing before and/or after with rapid tests"—including BinaxNOW Self Test by Abbott—"to help prevent the spread."
Bars and Restaurants
Dr. Rodgers suggests staying away from, "bars and restaurants in areas with heightened cases. While some bars and restaurants do still have mask mandates, as soon as you're seated, you're able to remove your mask, allowing for potential spread. If going out to a bar or restaurant, I recommend dining outside as temperatures increase, avoiding times when it's more likely to be crowded, ensuring you're vaccinated and boosted and testing before and/or after with" self tests.
Who doesn't love a good buffet? While we might be tempted to enjoy a spread of gourmet cuisines, Dr. Syeda Amna Husain, a doctor who has partnered with Abbott doesn't recommend it. "People are touching their nose and mouth and then proceed to touch the spoons and containers in the buffet line, so there is always a possibility to transmit any kind of infection, not necessarily just COVID."
How to Stay Safe Out There
Follow the public health fundamentals and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live—get vaccinated or boosted ASAP; if you live in an area with low vaccination rates, wear an N95 face mask, don't travel, social distance, avoid large crowds, don't go indoors with people you're not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.
Wes Ulm, MD, PhD, is a physician-researcher, musician (J. Wes Ulm and Kant's Konundrum) ,and novelist, and earned a dual MD/PhD degree from Harvard Medical School and MIT. He is part of the Heroes of the COVID Crisis series in relation to his ongoing efforts in the drug discovery and public health arena.