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I'm a Virus Expert and Warn You Don't Go Here Now

These five places are COVID hotspots, according to virus experts. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

If we've learned anything about COVID-19 over the last couple of years it's that the virus is unpredictable, affects everyone differently and isn't going away anytime soon. No matter how much we pretend the pandemic is over, it's not. COVID is here to stay for the time being and with BA.5 causing cases to spike, taking safety precautions is essential for trying to stay healthy. "The omicron BA.5 subvariant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus–the microbial cause of COVID-19–is the most contagious infectious agent ever encountered by human society," Dr. J. Wes Ulm, Harvard and MIT-trained MD, PhD with a background in bioinformatics, gene therapy, genetics, drug discovery, consulting and education tells us. Although BA.5 is spreading like wildfire across the United States, there are ways to try to prevent catching the virus and Dr. Ulm shares five places to avoid and why. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Large Indoor Gatherings, Especially if Air-Filtering, Ventilation, and UV Disinfection are Unavailable

3 men singing karaoke in the bar.

Dr. Ulm tells us, "There are some places and activities where individuals and groups should exercise additional, focused precautions — or avoid entirely — given the dissemination potential and virulence of BA.5, and the cumulative risk of organ and tissue damage from multiple, repeated infections. Topping the list, as with previous strains but even more so with BA.5, are gatherings with large crowds in an indoor setting, but lacking in adequate air filtering and ventilation, or designed without other infection control measures like ultraviolet disinfection (usually at a level near the ceiling). The good news, of course, is that such environmental mitigation measures are now so broadly available and appreciated as to regularly enter the discussion prior to an event. Unfortunately, most indoor settings still do not implement them widely, and such locations with dense crowding and lots of talking, singing, coughing, or yelling in close quarters are virtually a breeding ground for rapid BA.5 spread, at high viral doses more likely to engender severe disease or long COVID. If possible, especially during the summer months, try to schedule such events outdoors with wide spacing, or if they must be held in an interior setting, consider a KN95 or other high-quality respirator in addition to a basic surgical mask, especially for close conversations. And if you haven't already, make sure to get a booster shot. Even though the vaccines and boosters have been found to be markedly less effective at preventing BA.5 infection outright, they're still fairly reliable overall at keeping you out of the hospital, and more variant-specific, targeted vaccines will ideally soon be on tap."


Smaller Indoor Gatherings with Close Contact or Inability to Social Distance

Mature Guests Being Welcomed At Dinner Party By Friends

Dr. Ulm says, "As with previous strains, small family gatherings and events indoors are a significant catalyst for the spread of COVID-19, one of the reasons that coronavirus bouts are so often observed to tear through a household once they take hold in a single member. A difference here, however, is that BA.5 is so contagious and swiftly replicating that it can transmit its way through a home's occupants even without having very close contact, and disseminate further through air intakes and vents. Again, if possible, schedule events with extended family and neighbors outdoors, wear at least a surgical mask, and if you have the opportunity, consult with an HVAC specialist or environmental safety expert about an air filter or improved ventilation prior to a major gathering."


Public Transportation

woman wears face mask and keeps social distance by standing and using smart phone while transporting at train

Dr. Ulm explains, "A similar situation as for previous strains, but with added urgency due to recent court decisions and other official pronouncements undermining broad mask-wearing in trains, planes, and buses. One is therefore much more likely to encounter a large percentage of unmasked individuals, and given the sheer ferocity of BA.5 spread, in all likelihood several of them will be COVID-infected, with a magnified hazard of inhaling viral particles at a significant enough infectious dose to elevate the risk of a serious COVID bout. Operators of these vehicles have tended, overall, to introduce infection control measures like enhanced ventilation and filtration at a high rate, which somewhat attenuates the risk of BA.5 spread. But it's a good idea to have a respirator handy if you need to use such transportation to get from Point A to Point B, and to make sure you've received a booster shot if eligible."


Indoor Gyms or Health Clubs with Poor Ventilation

women take workout selfie in mirror

According to Dr. Ulm, "The dovetailing of a historically infectious virus with the heavy breathing and exertion of a gym or club can amount to an inauspicious combination to put it charitably, with markedly enhanced risk of an occupant breathing in a high enough infectious dose to risk a serious COVID bout and/or long COVID. Fortunately, owners of establishments like gyms, spas, health clubs, and swimming pools, well aware of the need to reassure their clients for their bottom line, have been among the business owners most vigilant about ensuring proper ventilation, air filtration, and other proven infection control measures. Check with the proprietor and officials at your local gym or club on the ventilation and infection mitigation, and where possible, mix in settings outside (such as outdoor swimming pools) to cut down on the risk of a severe bout with BA.5."


Outdoor Events in Close Quarters, Especially with Close Proximity to Loudly Yelling or Hollering Voices


"This is another shift from the state of affairs before with previous variants," says Dr. Ulm. "As a rule of thumb, events outdoors have posed comparatively low risk of COVID transmission, and even when infections have occurred, the inhaled dose of viral particles (from SARS-CoV-2 spread through aerosols or droplets) has been so low as to substantially dial down the risk of severe disease or long COVID. Once again, however, BA.5 operates under a different set of rules, and is much more aggressive in its transmission even in some outdoor settings. Increase social distancing where possible and consider at least a surgical mask. Be especially wary of settings (as in open-air sports arenas or stadiums) where lots of high-decibel hooting and hollering can propel SARS-CoV-2 in high numbers over long distances. By all means enjoy outings at summer parks and picnic spots, in as open an area as possible. But mask up in close quarters with others — especially if you can feel someone breathing on you nearby — even if you have a history of previous COVID infection. As noted, BA.5 is quite evasive against immune surveillance as well as spreading like a raging summer wildfire, and it can cause and is causing many serious infectious bouts even in those who had sidestepped bad cases before. So be sure to take reasonable precautions, and again, get boosted if you haven't already." 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. 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.


Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather