A look back on the first summer of COVID-19, 2020, we find a country that had just passed the milestone of two million cases and the very depressing occurrence of over 114,000 deaths. We were coming out of Memorial Day gatherings and expecting 140,000 Americans dead by July 4, 2020. There was a 2.4 times higher death rate among African Americans vs white Americans from COVID-19. We had no national policy to compensate for the unequal economic impact of the virus nor to address PPE (personal protective equipment) needs of working people and the public. Fast forward our country a year to June 2021 and we find Americans disregarding recommendations to mask in public and more importantly to get vaccinated. The hope that the 76% vaccination rate for herd immunity would be achieved with more people kept alive by masking proved to be “fool’s gold”. Only 46% of the population had been fully vaccinated in spite of incentive programs. The Delta variant was beginning to rear its ugly head. Here we are now at the beginning of the third COVID summer. More than 1,000,000 Americans are dead, only 68% of Americans are fully vaccinated, and the “protection of others by masking argument” has been lost.
If we are to get ourselves back to some semblance of a normal summer in 2022, we must proactively implement measures to protect ourselves. The mainstay of protection is vaccination. If you are six years of age and over, you can be vaccinated and boosted. The latter has proven to remain effective against the Omicron variants which have been running rampant for the last eight months. We continue to encourage everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated and boosted irrespective of your individual risk. Knowing your risk should be your guide as to your exposure to the summer crowds and travel. If you are fully vaccinated and healthy, you can more safely plan to attend cookouts, concerts, and travel.
If you are planning to utilize public transportation note that masking is now optional. Do not be afraid or feel embarrassed if you determine that wearing a mask at various times during your travel is the best course for you. The decision to do so should be governed by your vaccination status and your underlying risk factors. Make your travel reservations early and consider trip insurance because the start or the progress of your vacation may still be affected by this persisting virus.
Most destinations have reopened for tourists. This does not mean that every individual will be safe traveling to every vacation site. The CDC has a classification system for international travel. This “Risk Assessment Level” is available on the CDC web site. If domestic travel for the summer is your plan, first check the CDC web site for community spread by county in the USA (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/covid-by-county.html). Be not afraid to implement mitigation measures, such as masking and socially distancing, to protect yourself when the level of spread merits the precautions.
Lastly, preventing spread of this virus is still very dependent upon knowing when a person is positive so that they can quarantine. One of the critical downfalls of our government early in the course of this pandemic was the lack of available testing. This is no longer the case since every American has access to now a third round of free, easy to use home test kits. You may access yours at www.covid.gov/tests or by calling 1-800-232-0233. If you have Medicare, you are eligible for eight (8) test kits per month through your pharmacy, without charge. Whether traveling our not, a good supply of these free testing kits should be in every household and also in your travel luggage. It is comforting to know your test status before you are around someone who might be vulnerable, or after you are exposed to someone known to be or suspicious of being positive; or for just reassurance that symptoms which you develop are nothing more than seasonal allergies.
Get out there and enjoy the family, friends, and destinations that you have put on hold since 2019. Taking the practical measures that we have outlined will make your journeys safer for you and those around you.
Clyde E. Henderson, MD
Cincinnati Medical Association