ST. PETERSBURG — Last week I was exposed to COVID-19.
I had a group of friends over for dinner before everyone left for the holidays. Everyone was fully vaccinated and symptom-free, so we thought we were in the clear.
The next morning, one guest tested positive.
As the highly contagious omicron variant spreads across the state, it’s a situation that Floridians will face over the holiday season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines an exposure as being within 6 feet of an infected individual for more than 15 minutes.
So sitting next to an infected dinner guest for hours, as I did, definitely counts as an exposure.
Here are some steps that you can take to avoid exposure and what you can do if you’ve been exposed.
The good news, according to public health experts, is that you can still see friends and family this holiday season while minimizing your risk of exposure. Some precautions may be inconvenient, but far less so than the steps you’ll have to take after you learn you’ve been exposed.
I took some steps to avoid exposure, but experts I spoke to said I could have done better. Everyone at dinner was fully vaccinated and symptom-free, and we left the windows open to increase airflow indoors. I had recently received my booster shot, which experts say offers the best protection against omicron.
But being indoors was itself a problem, said Dr. Nishant Anand, executive vice president and chief medical officer for BayCare Health System.
“If you think of it on a sliding scale, the riskiest thing is to be indoors without a mask,” he said. “It does help whenever there are windows open and fans blowing to cycle the air out.”
He added: “Especially with the weather as nice as it is, I think it’s a much better idea for people to gather outside whenever they can.”
Our dinner was Sunday, Dec. 19. One guest, who was from out of town, tested negative for the coronavirus the day before our dinner. But he was the one who ended up positive less than 48 hours later.
Going from negative to fully symptomatic in just two days would have seemed impossible with the previous variants, but it’s going to be a regular occurrence with omicron, said Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist at the New York University School of Medicine.
“The original variants had an incubation period of something like four to five days,” Gounder said. “With omicron it’s two to three days.”
That means people have to get tested more frequently in order to catch an infection, she said. “With omicron, you’re probably looking at testing at least daily, particularly in high-risk settings.”
Experts suggested taking a rapid antigen test every morning if you’re planning on being in close contact with people outside your immediate household.
Even with all those precautions, it’s inevitable that Floridians will be exposed to someone who contracts COVID-19. Here’s what experts say you should do next:
“The first thing to do, obviously, is contact tracing,” said University of South Florida immunologist Michael Teng. “People need to know that they’ve been exposed so they can get tested and start monitoring for symptoms.”
That means you have to contact those you were in close contact with and let them know you were exposed to COVID-19, whether you’re experiencing symptoms and when you got tested.
Don’t rely on the government’s contact tracing. The Tampa Bay Times reported in October on the problems with the state’s contact tracing program, which spent millions telling infected people to call and warn those they were in contact with.
Teng suggests checking temperature regularly and using a fingertip oximeter to measure blood oxygen saturation. A change in temperature or oxygen saturation can often indicate an infection before you’d see the results of an at-home antigen test, Teng said.
Letting others know that they’ve been exposed is especially important at this time of year, when more people may be traveling to visit friends and family. “It’s incredibly easy to spread this variant,” the immunologist said, “so you need to know if you’re at risk of infection.”
Wash hands, clean surfaces
If you’ve had an infected individual in your home, Anand said, it’s essential to wipe down surfaces with an antiviral cleaning agent. And you need to go back to washing your hands frequently, in case you’ve been slacking on that.
Household products like Lysol, Clorox, and a diluted solution of bleach work well for killing any virus particles left behind, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We know that most infections come from airborne particles,” Teng said. “The best way to avoid contact with virus (particles) that you pick up from surfaces … is still to wash your hands and avoid touching your face.”
Isolate and mask
Once you’re exposed, experts said, the most important thing is to make sure you don’t spread the virus to others.
The CDC recommends that fully vaccinated individuals should isolate for 10 days after an exposure, but that time period soon may be reduced. After that period of isolation, if you’re symptom-free and test negative, you should be in the clear.
During isolation, assume that you’re infected and can spread the virus to others. “It takes time for symptoms and tests to emerge as positive,” Gounder said. But you still can spread the virus to others before you feel ill or test positive.
“If you need to go out and get food or run to the drugstore, that’s fine,” she said. “But keep it to essential activities, not going out to the bar on Friday with my friends.”
And when you do go out, it’s essential to wear a mask to curb the potential that you might spread the virus to others. “You need to wear a higher-grade mask, at bare minimum a surgical mask,” Gounder said. N95 or KN95 type masks are the gold standard, especially for omicron, because “cloth masks just don’t cut it,” she said.
Don’t let the prospect of a positive result keep you from getting tested. Even the best COVID tests have some degree of uncertainty, “but not testing means your uncertainty level is 100 percent,” said Teng.
Don’t be embarrassed to tell others if you do test positive, and remember to be kind to someone who tells you that they might have been exposed. If someone tested positive and told you, Teng said, it means they care about you.
“That should be your takeaway, not that they brought COVID into your house,” he said. “They didn’t know they were infected and now they do. By telling you, they’re trying to protect you.”
Editor’s note: Ian Hodgson covers the COVID-19 pandemic for the Times. His last negative antigen test was on Dec. 23 and he is waiting for the results of a PCR test. He remains symptom-free.
For more information
The Florida Department of Health has tips for dealing with an exposure at: floridahealthcovid19.gov/exposure/
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers tips for staying safe during the holidays: bit.ly/3FsQa24
The Food and Drug Administration’s frequently asked COVID-19 questions: bit.ly/3JgX1Os
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How to get vaccinated
The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:
Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your zip code.
More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.
Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.
Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email [email protected]
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