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Much of the country is on the cusp of the cold-weather season, when respiratory illnesses rage. And this winter — our third living with COVID-19 — health experts are urging caution, citing the potential for yet another surge, plus a flu season that could be worse than last.
However, there are five simple steps you can take to help improve your odds of staying healthy in the coming weeks and staying out of the hospital if you do come down with COVID. Here’s what’s on the list.
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1. Get your booster
There’s a new COVID-19 booster available — what’s known as a bivalent booster — and this latest version targets the original coronavirus and the omicron subvariant that is currently driving the majority of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.
“And based on everything we know about immunology and science and vaccines, these updated vaccines should provide a much higher level of protection against infection, against transmission and certainly against serious illness and hospitalizations and deaths,” Ashish Jha, M.D., the White House COVID-19 response coordinator said in an Oct. 11 news briefing.
As of Oct. 12, everyone 5 and up is eligible to get the still-free shot, but so far, few adults have rolled up their sleeves — about 4 percent. However a recent report from the Commonwealth Fund finds that if that percentage bumps up to 80 by the end of the year, more than 936,700 hospitalizations could be avoided and nearly 90,000 lives could be saved.
“If you’re eligible for this bivalent booster, then you should go get it. That’s number one, by far the most important thing,” says Mark Rupp, M.D., chief of infectious diseases in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
When’s The Best Time to Boost?
White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha recommends getting the updated booster before Halloween. “Why Halloween? Because it takes a couple of weeks for your immune system to generate the benefit from that vaccine. And that means you will be ready by Thanksgiving and certainly by the holidays,” he explained. “If you miss Halloween, is it too late? It’s not too late. Again, it takes a couple of weeks for the immune system to benefit from the vaccine, so there is no time period where the window is out and you’re no longer going to benefit; you will always benefit.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends getting the annual flu shot before the end of October.
2. Think ahead about treatments
Don’t wait until you come down with COVID-19 to figure out how you plan to treat it. Discussing the options with your doctor ahead of time can help to ensure that you have access to treatments in the first place, and that you get the right one for your situation.
Recent studies show that the antiviral Paxlovid, which was authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration nearly a year ago, can significantly reduce the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19. One pre-print study from researchers out of Kaiser Permanente Southern California found that when taken in the first five days of symptom onset, the prescription pill cut the risk of hospitalization by 88 percent, even among a highly vaccinated population. Another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the drug was especially effective in people 65 and older during the recent omicron surge.
Yet health experts say many adults who are eligible for Paxlovid, including older adults who are at higher risk for complications from COVID-19, aren’t receiving it even though it’s widely available. All the while hospitalizations and deaths among Americans 65-plus spiked during the summer months, more than doubling between April and July, an analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation found.