With COVID-19 case numbers once again increasing across the country due to the spread of the delta and omicron variants, you might be wondering if you can continue to avoid infection, especially if you have not yet received a COVID-19 vaccine. Even if you are vaccinated, you may have similar fears.
Whether you are vaccinated or not, there is risk of infection. However, for those who are fully vaccinated and have received a vaccine booster dose, the risk of infection is minimal compared to those who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.
COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness and death, and the addition of a booster dose makes them highly effective at reducing the risk of infection. Additionally, people who experience a breakthrough case of COVID-19 after vaccination are likely to have no or very mild symptoms.
For those who are unvaccinated, the risk of infection, severe illness and death is much higher. In fact, the majority of people who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 or who have died due to complications of COVID-19 were unvaccinated.
Exposed, aka in ‘close contact’
Regardless of whether you are vaccinated or not, what should you do if you are exposed to someone with — or experience symptoms that could be — COVID-19? First, it’s important to understand what it means to be exposed to someone who has COVID-19, and what symptoms to watch for — whether you know you've been exposed or not.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you are considered to have been exposed to — or in close contact with — someone with COVID-19 if you were within 6 feet of the infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.
This 24-hour period starts 2 days before the infected person's illness began, or if they are without symptoms (asymptomatic), 2 days before they tested positive for COVID-19. The period goes until approximately 10 days after their symptoms first appeared or they are released from isolation.
What to do if you are exposed to COVID-19
If you have been exposed to COVID-19 and are unvaccinated, you should isolate yourself and be tested. If your test result is negative, stay home for 10 days after your last contact with the person who has COVID-19, monitor your symptoms, and try to stay away from people you live with, especially people who are at higher risk for getting very sick from COVID-19. If your test result is positive, isolate yourself for 10 days after your first day of symptoms or 10 days after receiving your positive test result if you do not have any symptoms. After isolation, follow strict masking guidelines.
If you are fully vaccinated — meaning 2 weeks have passed since your second dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — you should get tested 5 to 7 days after your exposure, even if you don't have symptoms. Wear a mask when around others for 14 days following exposure — in California, all people must wear a mask in public indoor locations — and monitor yourself for any symptoms. The same guidance applies if you are fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot.
Feeling COVID-19 symptoms
Even if you haven’t knowingly experienced an exposure to COVID-19, you might still have picked it up when you were around others in public or with a loved one who is unaware they’re infected. While people — vaccinated or unvaccinated — are able to transmit the virus by the third day after exposure, they may not begin to experience symptoms until day 10 or later.
If you experience any of the following common COVID-19 symptoms, you might be among the millions who have been infected in the U.S.:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
Talk with your doctor about getting tested or go to a nearby COVID-19 testing site. Home self-test kits are considered to be as accurate as antigen rapid tests and can be purchased at some pharmacies. They are easy to use and provide results in approximately 15 minutes. However, PCR tests — provided at most COVID-19 testing sites — are considered the most accurate test to determine an active infection.
5 steps to take if you have COVID-19
If you have received a positive COVID-19 test result or have been exposed to COVID-19 and are experiencing symptoms, the CDC says to take these five steps:
- Keep in contact with your doctor. Most people with COVID-19 have mild symptoms. Your doctor can help you decide if you can care for yourself at home or need additional treatment. Always call before you go in person to get care for COVID-19, so that your health care provider can be prepared to protect staff and other patients from potential infection.
- Stay home. Stop the spread by isolating yourself and avoiding public areas (unless you’re seeking medical care) for 10 days after first experiencing symptoms or receiving a positive COVID-19 test. Isolate yourself as much as possible from the people and pets in your home and use a separate bathroom, if possible. Wear a face mask if you must be in the same room with others — even pets — and when leaving your home for COVID-19 testing and care.
- Take care of yourself. If you are experiencing mild symptoms, you can most likely find relief with the use of over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers, along with lots of rest and hydration. Monitor your symptoms and call your doctor if symptoms worsen. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if you are having trouble breathing or persistent pain or pressure in your chest, are unable to stay awake, have bluish face or lips, or are experiencing confusion.
- Talk to your own close contacts. It’s important that you reach out to anyone you may have exposed to COVID-19. Think back to all the places you’ve gone and people you’ve seen starting 2 days before your symptoms began or you tested positive. You might receive a call from public health contact tracers in your area; it is important that you cooperate with their efforts.
- Keep things clean. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or clean them using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Make sure to wash dishes, glasses, cups, utensils, towels and bedding after use, and avoid sharing them with others in your household. Use effective household cleaners and disinfectants on all surfaces and regularly touched areas, such as TV remotes and handrails.
The best way to avoid getting COVID-19 is to follow the recommendations of public health agencies: Get vaccinated and receive a booster shot when eligible, wear a mask in indoor public locations, avoid crowds, stay away from people who are sick, and wash your hands often.
Sharp HealthCare joins the CDC in encouraging everyone who is eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Get COVID-19 vaccine information and access to COVID-19 resources from Sharp.