Here’s How to Assess (and Minimize) the Risk:
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are setting records across the county just as the holidays and winter approach, reiterating the importance of a continued personal commitment to infection prevention measures and the avoidance of complacency. Older adults and others at risk for severe disease are advised to stay home, forgoing face-to-face visits with individuals that do not live with them, to the greatest extent possible. Moreover, eschewing traditional holiday gatherings with loved ones is highly advisable.
That being said, some people may be willing to accept some degree of risk in order to experience social connection, especially the joy of visiting with loved ones this holiday season. Understanding differential risk and the transmission patterns of COVID-19 can empower you to make safer choices. Below, you’ll find information for assessing as well as influencing the relative risk of gatherings or visits that you may be considering:
Prioritize your physical health, mental health, and general wellbeing.
If you are an older adult, you are not any more likely than a younger person to contract COVID-19. However, you are at a significantly higher risk for suffering a severe syndrome of COVID-19 if you do contract the disease. If you happen to have certain underlying medical conditions, your risk is further compounded. When considering joining gatherings or having visitors, balance your heightened risk with the potential benefit that you may experience, and choose to engage only in activities that are vital to your health and wellbeing.
Talk about relative risk.
If you’ll be spending time with people you know, it is important to have open conversations about COVID-19 prevention in advance of your meeting.
Consider asking the following questions:
Do you consistently wear a mask and practice social distancing when you are in public or interacting with people that do not live in your home?
Have you had any recent close contact with a person with cold/flu-like symptoms?
Have you recently attended any large gatherings or spent time around people who were not wearing masks?
Do you feel that your work places you at higher risk for occupation exposure to the virus?
Remember, too, that you pose some degree of risk to others just as they pose risk to you. Is anyone that you plan to visit with at high risk for severe COVID-19?
What are your personal answers to the questions above, and how do those answers impact the appropriateness of your visit?
Limit the number of people.
The more people you encounter at an event or gathering, the more probable that at least one of those people are infected with the virus, thereby increasing your risk for exposure to COVID-19.
Ensure that everyone involved wears a mask.
Every single person at a gathering should wear a mask that fits snugly and covers both the mouth and nose. Masks offer some degree of protection to the wearer, but are at their best when acting as a barrier to prevent a COVID-19 positive person’s respiratory droplets from infecting others. Basically, your mask protects others and their mask protects you. If you find yourself in a room with a person that is not wearing a mask (or not wearing it correctly), leave.
Maintain a distance of at least 6 feet between yourself and others.
The closer you are to a person who may be infected with COVID-19, the greater your risk for contracting the virus. Exercise vigilance in maintaining a minimum of 6 feet of distance between yourself and others. When spacing chairs for a gathering, use a tape measure! It’s surprising how inaccurate humans are when estimating measurements.
Clean your hands often.
Wash your hands with warm water and soap, for a full 20 seconds, whenever you have the opportunity. Keep an alcohol-based hand sanitizer nearby and use it frequently, being sure to rub all surfaces of your hands until the product has dried completely. And, for good measure, do your best to avoid touching your face.
Select larger, better ventilated spaces.
COVID-19 is less readily transmitted outdoors rather than indoors. Outdoor spaces are often larger than indoor spaces, making it easier for people to stay six feet apart, or more. Furthermore, outdoor spaces involve sunlight, humidity, and wind, all of which work to disperse and disrupt the virus, thereby reducing relative exposure risk. When possible, choose to visit with others outdoors. If indoors, select the largest room available and consider sitting near an open window for improved ventilation.
Shorten your visit.
The longer the amount of time you spend with a person who may be infected with COVID-19, the greater your risk of contracting the virus.
Remember: People whom you love are not safe to be around just because you love them.
You can rarely be certain that an individual does not have COVID-19 (the only instance would be a person who has recently recovered from a laboratory-confirmed case of the disease). People who are infected with COVID-19 are contagious before showing symptoms, and many never feel sick at all. COVID-19 tests can have up to a 30% false negativity rate. And if a negative test result is accurate (which is always uncertain), it is only a snapshot of a person’s status at the moment in time that the specimen was collected. Plenty of people contract COVID-19 despite being extremely cautious, are shocked to learn of their test results, and have absolutely no idea where or when they became infected. Indeed, an enormous proportion of COVID-19 cases occurring across our country are linked to small gatherings of friends and loved ones.
Understand the degree of COVID-19 spread in the community-yours and that of the person(s) you will encounter.
COVID-19 is not spreading identically in all parts of the U.S. In order to make an informed decision about risk, you need to understand the specific situation in your area or the area you plan to visit. An individual’s degree of risk for COVID-19 exposure increases as incidence and the rate of community spread rise. To learn about current trending in Buncombe County or North Carolina, visit the state’s COVID-19 dashboard at: www.ncdhhs.gov
Little is entirely safe these days, but an unwavering commitment to practicing the 3 W’s (WEAR a mask, WAIT 6 feet apart, and WASH your hands) and an understanding of relative risk are vital to making safer choices that support your health and wellbeing and that of your neighbors.
With a myriad of factors to consider, assessing the relative risk of COVID-19 in the context of a given circumstance is a complex and challenging undertaking.