Scientists, researchers and healthcare professionals worked hard to combat the toughest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. As vaccination rates increase and infection rates drop over time,1 it makes sense to think about the best strategies for navigating the “new normal.” While many people are excited to return to former activities and reunite with friends and family, there’s also apprehension about what it means to be safe2 so they can enjoy the world again while putting their health first.
Vaccine science is complex and rigorous,3 and combing through information online can feel overwhelming. While the number of U.S. residents who are now fully (or partially) vaccinated rockets past the tens of millions mark,4 others may still have important questions or logistics that they hope to address.5
Reach out to your provider for caring, common-sense guidance about vaccines. Think of your PCP as your top source for trustworthy information about important topics such as:
- How to prepare for a vaccine or treat minor side effects
- When you can consider yourself fully vaccinated
- Any new research about the potential for booster shots to keep you safe from COVID-19
When in doubt, reach out!
Mask On, Mask Off
Scientists and researchers closely monitor important data to guide their masking recommendations.6 Masking guidelines fluctuate because the medical community’s understanding of this complex virus increases as data accumulates.7
That’s a good thing, but it can make it harder to know when to mask up. Scientists know for sure that masking helps keep people safe, especially when different forms (variants) of the virus evolve.8 Current guidance advises that you wear a mask indoors—even if you’re fully vaccinated—in crowded areas or areas of high infection.9 Masks should be worn snugly, covering your mouth and nose. Because mask guidelines can shift during quickly changing conditions,10 bookmark the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) website on your device and check it regularly. (You can also add the app to your phone.)
Finding Good Data
The Internet can be a valuable resource for useful data about things like your community’s rates for infection and vaccination. Verifying that the information comes from a trusted source is still very important. Sources like the CDC,the City and County websites where you live and the hospital homepage in your community will have reliable, up-to-date statistics about how many people are getting sick with COVID-19 in your area so that you can increase your precautions accordingly. If infection rates are going down and vaccination rates are going up, this is good news! If the opposite is true, be extra careful.11
Traveling During COVID-19
Travel beckons to many people, whether it’s to reunite with friends and family who live far away or to enjoy exploring the world. The CDC does recommend that you postpone travel until you are fully vaccinated,12 and some locations have travel restrictions in place.13 Before traveling, double-check that your destination has infection rates and vaccination rates that align with your comfort level for risk.14 Ask your hotel, airline and other travel vendors about their cancellation policies in case you get sick (or decide that it’s not safe to travel). Many travel companies have returned to stricter policies after initial flexibility during the pandemic’s early days.
Most experts agree that airplanes are relatively safe due to sophisticated ventilation systems,15 but take extra precautions at the airport (where security checkpoints remain notoriously germy).16 If you start to feel sick, postpone that trip. It’s not worth risking your health or exposing others to illness.17 A final tip: research the medical facilities at your destination to be sure you’re comfortable with their capacity and access to resources.18
Indoors vs. Outdoors
Scientists and medical experts have long determined that being outside decreases your chances of contracting COVID-19, because viral particles become greatly diluted by fresh, moving air.19 Inside, more confined areas increase the chance that you’ll be exposed.20 While some people still choose to wear masks outside (and that is completely fine),21 it’s more important to wear your mask indoors if you’ll be in a confined space for longer periods—especially if there’s a crowd.22 As for those outdoor dining “bubbles” and tents? They’re safer than dining indoors in terms of proximity to others, but these spaces may not be appropriately ventilated to duplicate natural airflow.23
When in doubt, check with your provider24 or with the CDC for up-to-date recommendations on staying safe indoors.25
Rethinking new routines
Don’t pressure yourself into abandoning precautions too quickly. You don’t have to rush to attend gatherings if you don’t feel ready yet.26 You can try new habits incrementally. Try to keep existing good habits going.27 If you began spending more time with your family during the pandemic, suggest keeping your favorite activities scheduled even as social calendars fill up again. Some things that you may have added, like meticulous hand-washing or periodically disinfecting your phone and computer keyboard, will continue to serve you well.28
New etiquette rules
One of the great truths about the COVID-19 pandemic is that people have different comfort levels with risk. It’s fine to ask “Are you ok with a hug?” before hugging someone,29 and if you are approached for a handshake or hug that doesn’t feel right, you can always smile and say “I’m still social distancing.”30 Alternate hand gestures are still fine: a cheerful wave, pressing a hand to your heart, fist bump or elbow bump.31
You can plan to eat before or after social events where there’s a food buffet if you’d rather not handle communal serveware. Your health and comfort come first! Everyone is navigating these uncharted waters together, and missteps will happen. It’s ok to say “I’m sorry, I am still figuring out the new normal,” if you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation. Most people will understand—they’re figuring things out too.32
1Washington Post: “Coronavirus infections dropping where people are vaccinated, rising where they are not, Post analysis finds.” June 14, 2021: https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2021/06/14/COVID-cases-vaccination-rates/.
2CNBC: “As the pandemic fades, some Americans are anxious about a return to normal.” March 20, 2021: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/20/why-some-are-averse-to-return-to-normal-post-COVID.html.
3U.S. Food & Drug Administration: “Vaccine Development – 101.” Dec. 14, 2020: https://www.fda.gov/vaccines-blood-biologics/development-approval-process-cber/vaccine-development-101.
4Bloomberg: “More Than 4.27 Billion Shots Given: COVID-19 Tracker.” Aug. 4, 2021: https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/COVID-vaccine-tracker-global-distribution/.
5Johns Hopkins Medicine: “COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy: 12 Things You Need to Know.” March 18, 2021: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/COVID19-vaccine-hesitancy-12-things-you-need-to-know.
6University of California, San Francisco: “Still Confused About Masks? Here’s the Science Behind How Face Masks Prevent Coronavirus.” June 26, 2020: https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2020/06/417906/still-confused-about-masks-heres-science-behind-how-face-masks-prevent.
7PBS News Hour: “4 ways our understanding of the coronavirus has changed a year into the pandemic.” March 11, 2021: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/4-ways-our-understanding-of-the-coronavirus-has-changed-a-year-into-the-pandemic.
8Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute: “Keeping All People Safe: Hand Hygiene, Mask Wearing, and Physical Distancing.” July 16, 2020: https://www.research.chop.edu/announcements/keeping-all-people-safe-hand-hygiene-mask-wearing-and-physical-distancing.
9Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “When You’ve Been Fully Vaccinated.” July 27, 2021: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated.html.
10Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: “Improve How Your Mask Protects You.” April 6, 2021: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/effective-masks.html.
11Yale Medicine: “Comparing the COVID-19 Vaccines: How Are They Different?” Aug. 4, 2021: https://www.yalemedicine.org/news/COVID-19-vaccine-comparison.
12Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “When NOT to Travel: Avoid Spreading COVID-19.” June 10, 2021: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/when-to-delay-travel.html.
13Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “COVID-19 Travel Recommendations by Destination.” Aug. 2, 2021: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/map-and-travel-notices.html.
14Mayo Clinic: “COVID-19 (coronavirus) travel advice.” May 19, 2021: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-safe-travel-advice/art-20486965.
15United States Transportation Command: “USTRANSCOM releases results from study testing risk of COVID exposure on contracted aircraft.” Oct. 15, 2020: https://www.ustranscom.mil/cmd/panewsreader.cfm?ID=C0EC1D60-CB57-C6ED-90DEDA305CE7459D&yr=2020.
16Transportation Security Administration: “Coronavirus (COVID-19) information.” Aug. 15, 2021: https://www.tsa.gov/coronavirus.
17Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “When NOT to Travel: Avoid Spreading COVID-19.” June 10, 2021: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/when-to-delay-travel.html.
18UNICEF: “Travelling with your family during COVID-19.” Sept. 10, 2020: https://www.unicef.org/coronavirus/travelling-your-family-during-COVID-19.
19Mayo Clinic: “Safe outdoor activities during the COVID-19 pandemic.” May 19, 2021: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/safe-activities-during-COVID19/art-20489385.
20San Francisco Department of Public Health: “Risk of Being Indoors or in Enclosed Spaces During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” March 22, 2021: https://www.sfdph.org/dph/files/ig/COVID-19-Guidance-Indoor-Risk.pdf.
21Cleveland Clinic: “Should I Wear a Mask Outside Because of Coronavirus?”. July 1, 2020: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/should-i-wear-a-mask-outside/.
22Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Guidance for Organizing Large Events and Gatherings.” May 20, 2021: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/large-events/considerations-for-events-gatherings.html.
23Cleveland Clinic: Are Outdoor Dining ‘Bubbles’ Safe?” Nov. 13, 2020: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/are-outdoor-dining-bubbles-safe/.
24Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Guidance for Wearing Masks.” April 19, 2021: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cloth-face-cover-guidance.html.
25Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “How to Protect Yourself & Others.” July 26, 2021: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html.
26CNBC: “HEALTH AND WELLNESS. Nearly 50% of people are anxious about getting back to normal, pre-pandemic life—here’s how to cope.” March 21, 2021: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/21/coping-with-fear-anxiety-about-returning-to-pre-pandemic-life.html.
27New York Times: “The Nervous Person’s Guide to Re-entering Society.” April 22, 2021: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/22/well/mind/COVID-back-to-normal.html.
28Washington Post: “Pandemic habits: How to keep the good ones, end the bad ones.” April 30, 2021: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/habits-COVID-good-bad-how/2021/04/03/5a229796-93c0-11eb-a74e-1f4cf89fd948_story.html.
29Philadelphia Inquirer: “I’m done with unwanted hugs, and you can be, too.” May 24, 2021: https://www.inquirer.com/philly-tips/consent-touch-hugging-20210522.html.
30Boston Globe: “Advice: How to decline a handshake, and other social tips for coronavirus.” March 11, 2020: https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/03/11/magazine/advice-how-decline-handshake-other-social-tips-coronavirus/.
31American Association of Retired Persons: “New Etiquette Rules in a COVID-19 World.” May 15, 2020: https://www.aarp.org/home-family/friends-family/info-2020/etiquette-coronavirus.html.
32The Atlantic: “3 Rules for Politeness During a Confusing Social Transition.” July 2, 2021: https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/07/how-be-polite-post-pandemic-etiquette-manners/619346/.