COVID-19 and Omicron: Test? Vaccinate? Mask? Isolate? Quarantine?
The Minnesota Department of Health predicts that COVID-Omicron infections will peak in mid-February. That’s an estimate, based on the experience in the United Kingdom and in New York and other East Coast states.
Omicron, a variant of SARS-CoV-2, is more infectious than previous variants. The number of cases in the metro area in the last two weeks has increased by 147%.
Both unvaccinated and vaccinated people are able to contract this variant of COVID-19.
Unvaccinated people get sicker, are much more likely to be hospitalized, and are at greater risk of dying than vaccinated people.
The disease is spread through the air, particularly when people are near each other.
The virus primarily lives in your upper respiratory tract. When you breathe out, your exhaled breath carries the virus.
The more concentrated the dose, the greater your chances of becoming infected.
How much virus you’re exposed to will increase the closer you are to someone who is infected and the more time you spend with that person. The amount of virus you are exposed to will decrease if you’re in very well-ventilated spaces (such as outside) or if something blocks the virus from getting from the infected person to your nose.
What preventive measures work
1. Stay away from anyone who is infected.
This is the purpose of quarantine, staying home if you’re ill. The problem with it: you can transmit the disease before you even know you have it. Some people have such a mild form of the disease that they don’t know they’re infectious. With the omicron variant, it seems that you can infect others two days before you show any symptoms and three days after symptoms abate.
Testing is the way to catch those people who don’t know they are infectious, so they can stay away from others. The problem with testing, though, is that it reflects your status right then, not the next day. To be highly effective, testing has to be done often and should give quick results.
Antigen (quick or rapid) tests: you have to have a pretty high viral load to test positive. So a positive test indicates you’re probably able to infect others. But if you haven’t developed a high viral load yet (you just became infected), it won’t test as positive.
PCR tests (saliva, send in and wait): These are very sensitive – they’ll detect if you are infected. This test will be positive before you have symptoms and even after you have recovered and can no longer infect others.
Anyone can get a COVID test for free through a community test site. For more information on this and to find locations, see https://mn.gov/covid19/get-tested/testing-locations/index.jsp.
Minnesota also offers COVID-19 saliva tests at home. The kits can be ordered through Vault. It does require being able to log onto a Zoom call and dropping the test at a UPS pickup point. https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/testsites/athome.html
Keeping your distance from other people is another way to avoid being around those who are infected. But how effective that is, indoors, depends on the next preventive measure, good ventilation.
2. Good ventilation
People who are outside are at less risk of being infected because all of that air outside dilutes the virus. When you’re indoors, particularly when everything is closed up because it’s winter, you keep breathing the same air others have breathed. And because heating and cooling air is expensive, our buildings are usually designed to recirculate air.
Increasing the amount of outside air and better filtration of recirculated air improves the ventilation. Portable air cleaners with HEPA filters can help, if they are correctly sized and located for the room they’re in.
3. Stop it at the source – wear face coverings (better ones, worn right)
If we can keep people from spewing the virus whenever they breathe out, we’ll keep other people from breathing it in. That’s the idea behind face coverings (masks).
Early in the pandemic we thought COVID was found in the big droplets that people spew out when they cough, sneeze, or talk. If we cover up noses and mouths, those big droplets will be caught by the fabric of the face covering.
After nearly two years of research on COVID, we now know that it is spread in both big and small emissions from people breathing. That bandanna over your nose stops or slows down the big emissions, but it doesn’t do a good job stopping those small emissions. They can go through and around the fabric.
Now, we know the best type of face covering to stop people from spewing the virus whenever they breathe out is one that traps both big and small emissions, not letting them escape around the sides of the face covering.
What makes a good face covering? It must do a good job of blocking the virus. It must fit closely to the face, fully covering the nose and mouth, reducing the leaks around your nose, cheeks and chin. And it can’t be too difficult to breathe through.
N95 respirators are proven to provide a high level of protection. N95 means it will block at least 95% of the very small particles – if it fits you well.
KN95 or KF94 face coverings have about the same filtration efficiency. But they may not seal as well to the face. They’re made to a different standard and use different face models than those used for American standards.
ASTM barrier face coverings, a new category of face coverings that meet specific standards, are another option. These are not respirators; they do not provide the same high level of protection. But they have been tested for breathability, fit, and filtration efficiency. These may be classified as (and say on the label) Workplace Performance Masks or, with higher filtration and higher breathability, Workplace Performance Plus Masks. They also may say “ASTM 3502.”
4. Protect yourself
You may have noticed that many people haven’t got the hang of wearing face coverings. And some folks have beards, which create lots of leaks with face coverings. So you may want to take steps to protect yourself.
- Stay away from others
- If you need to be around others, wear a good face covering and wear it right.
- Get vaccinated and get boosted.
Why have the authorities (CDC, Health Department) reduced the quarantine period? Because you are less likely to transmit COVID after three to five days and it was too difficult to keep going on with life.
The chart below summarizes the current requirements.
OSHA and COVID
OSHA issued an emergency temporary standard, intended to take effect this month. It would have required employers with 100 or more employees to either institute a mandatory vaccination policy or wearing a face covering and testing weekly for all employees other than those who work at home or outside. On January 13, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld a stay on the standard, preventing it from going into effect. The reason for the stay: the Court thought the standard went too far, venturing into protecting public health instead of occupational health.
OSHA could try again, with a more limited standard. We don’t know if they will.
The stay on the standard does not take away employers’ duty to protect their employees from workplace transmission. If you crowd employees together and someone then contracts COVID from that, you could be held responsible.
The stay does not prevent employers from implementing their own vaccination, testing, or face covering mandates. It does mean employers have more latitude to decide how they want to protect their employees. Employers continue to have the responsibility to provide a workplace free from known hazards.
Our recommendation: follow the preventive measures we’ve listed above.
Vaccine Safety and VAERS
Ever hear that “thousands of cases of adverse effects to [name that vaccine] have been found?” If you dig into that, VAERS is usually cited. VAERS is the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System, intended to be an early warning system to detect problems with any type of vaccine.
Healthcare providers are encouraged to report any adverse health event that occurs after a vaccination to VAERS, even if they aren’t sure if the shot caused the event. If you get punched in the face right after being vaccinated and you think it was triggered by the vaccine, you can report it to VAERS. Anyone can file a report. Details are often lacking. There is no check of accuracy. There is no way to confirm that the adverse event was caused by the vaccination.
If you hear about dangers of a vaccine, dig deeper into the source of that – it may be misleading you. The US has a pretty robust vaccine safety monitoring system, through the FDA, the CDC, major medical providers such as Minnesota’s HealthPartners, and universities.
Counterfeit or fake N95 respirators: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/usernotices/counterfeitResp.html
Barrier Face Coverings: https://wwwn.cdc.gov/PPEInfo/RG/FaceCoverings
Vaccine safety monitoring: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/index.html
The MN Department of Health held a COVID Update for Business last week, which was very informative. You can find the short webinar here: https://lnks.gd/l/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJidWxsZXRpbl9saW5rX2lkIjoxMDAsInVyaSI6I[…]bta0wGCOycilzJEP7FydyxU3pansJOG2anU/s/787836123/br/125032198278-l