Covid-19 in winter: How to prepare during the colder months

Is an increase inevitable? How should families think about next winter? What can they do to prepare for and get through this period safely?

I discussed all of these questions with our expert, CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, who is an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the School of Public Health at George Washington University’s Milken Institute. She is also the author of a new book, “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health,” and the mother of two young children.

Dr. Leana Wen: No. If there is one thing we have learned from the pandemic, it is that the future is not predetermined. There is a lot that depends on us.

Yes, we are dealing with a highly contagious virus, the Delta variant of the coronavirus. Yes, we are unfortunately seeing an increase in cases again. And yes, I’m worried about what’s going to happen this winter, because we’ve seen from last year that when the weather is colder, people go indoors, where the risk of transmission is higher. The upcoming holidays also worry me, due to the increase in indoor gatherings.

However, unlike last year, we have vaccines that add an important layer of protection. We also have other tools, such as testing, that can help.

I don’t think we should be resigned to a winter hike. We can prevent it if we cooperate.

CNN: What’s your advice for families to try to stay as healthy as possible this winter?

Wen: Anyone eligible to be vaccinated should do so. This includes children from 5 to 11 years old who are newly eligible.
Those who are eligible to receive their acceleration shots must also receive them. There is growing evidence that immunity decreases over time and getting a boost will help protect against progressive infections – and likely reduce the likelihood of spreading Covid-19 to others as well.

Let’s also talk about non-coronary aspects of health. First, make sure you get the flu shot. It can be given at the same time as a coronavirus vaccine or a booster. The flu vaccine reduces the likelihood of contracting the flu and the severity of illness if you still end up getting the flu. This is especially important because last year was a mild flu season, which means many people do not have immunity to the flu. We want to rule out the possibility of “twin demise” from the flu and Covid-19.

For children, make sure they are updated on other immunizations as well. And for children and adults, pay attention to other health issues about maintenance. Many medical appointments have been postponed due to Covid-19. Now is the time to get your mammogram and cervical and colon cancer exams, to check your blood pressure and diabetes, visit the dentist, and in general, report your other medical issues.
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It is also important to mention mental health, which is just as important as physical health. The pandemic was very difficult for many people. Mental health was already an unmet need before Covid-19. Now is the time to work on mental health, and seek help if you need it – just as you would for physical health problems.

CNN: Are there any supplies you would recommend people provide, from a Covid-19 point of view?

Wen: All households should have a standard set of supplies when it comes to caring for sick family members. This includes a thermometer, febrile agents (acetaminophen and ibuprofen), and rehydrate solutions (such as Pedialyte).

High quality masks (N95, KN95, KF94) are now widely available. Make sure you have at least five masks for each household. These should be carried when in indoor, crowded places.

I would also strongly recommend providing quick tests. Your family should have at least one, ideally two, quick tests for each member of the household. These are tests that can be purchased at your local pharmacy. Results return within 15 minutes. This differs from the gold standard test, the PCR test. In many places, you need to get a note from a doctor to get a PCR test or maybe you need to go to an emergency room to be seen. That adds up to expense; also, results may take 24 hours or more to return.

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Because PCR tests are not so readily available, rapid tests can be helpful if someone begins to have symptoms, especially if it takes time to get a PCR test and then get the results. Quick tests are also very useful for exam purposes, for example, before you meet with friends and relatives indoors.

CNN: What do you say to those who are really sick with Covid-19 and want to return to pre-pandemic normalcy?

Wen: I would say I hear you! I’m also sick of Covid-19 – we all are.

Here’s the thing, though – Covid-19 isn’t quite finished with us yet. We still have more than 80,000 new daily infections and more than 1,100 Americans dying every day from coronavirus. We are in a much better place than we were last year, thanks to the vaccine, but we are not out of the woods yet.

That said, there is a lot we can start doing again to try to get back to normal. Consider making a list of all the things you want to do. Scroll through the list and see how many things can actually be done now, with improved security.

For example, you can eat holiday meals with loved ones, even if you have children who are not yet fully vaccinated. There are a few extra precautions that still need to be taken, but you can get together with friends and family again.

I know the pandemic has been so difficult for so many families. We can get through this winter – if we all work together to reduce risk by resuming the activities we miss the most.

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