While most of us want to put Covid behind us, recent news headlines make that hard to do. What should you know? What should you do?
The most important fact is that like it or not, Covid is probably here to stay. While the worst of the pandemic is thankfully behind us, Covid will join influenza as a prevalent virus against which we must take measures. Recent data shows that infections are trending up, though death rates are much lower than they were two to three years ago.
Second, there will be variants! Most viruses mutate, and Covid seems particularly adept at this. Mutations may make the virus more easily transmissible, more (or less) dangerous and/or better able to evade our immune response.
The recently headlined EG.5 and BA.2.86 variants have enough mutations in the spike protein that lets the virus attach to our respiratory cells that they can infect people who have been immunized and/or had prior infection. They do not seem more virulent – hence the rise in infections is steeper than the rise in hospitalizations or deaths.
We have two levels of immune defense. The antibodies produced by vaccination or prior infection are the first line of defense and the cellular immunity the second. Even if a mutation seems able to escape our antibodies, the cellular response is often still effective.
What should you do? While vaccination is a good idea for most people, if you are older, have underlying medical conditions or are immune-suppressed, I would definitely get a Covid booster. Wait until the newer vaccine is available in late September/early October because it is targeted at mutations that more closely resemble the currently circulating variants, and another shot of the old vaccine is unlikely to offer much additional protection.
What about masks? While clearly not a panacea, masks do seem to reduce transmission of most respiratory viruses, including Covid, flu and the common cold. There is little reason to use a mask outdoors or in large well-ventilated spaces, but I would encourage you to use one when in confined indoor spaces such as theatres.
Finally – please stay home when sick. We teach our children to share, but sharing your respiratory virus is not a virtue.
Dr. Ed Hoffer is the chairman of the Marion Board of Health, a graduate of MIT and Harvard Medical School. He is Associate Professor of Medicine, part-time, at Harvard and a Senior Scientist at the Massachusetts General Hospital.
By Dr. Ed Hoffer