By Dr. Frank L. Urbano, MBA, FACP
In this COVID-19 pandemic, it seems like there’s a “new normal” every few weeks. We’re constantly adjusting our behavior in response to new public health guidelines, coronavirus variants, or policies at the national, state, and local level.
Whether case numbers and hospitalization rates are trending up or down in our area, we don’t know what the future holds. Dangerous new variants could evolve. As long as COVID-19 keeps spreading, we’ll need to continue to take some health precautions.
In addition to following responsible precautions — like getting vaccinated and boosted as recommended, and wearing a mask in appropriate situations — here’s a simple guide on how to take care of the people around you and protect your health if you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, have symptoms, or test positive.
When to test yourself for COVID-19
At-home COVID-19 tests use a swab of cells taken from your nose or throat to look for certain proteins indicating active COVID-19 infection. Results are usually seen in 10 – 20 minutes.
This fast turnaround, and the fact that these tests can be taken anytime and anywhere, make them a very important resource for saving lives and preventing spread.
Take-home tests are available for free at many vaccine clinics, and you can order them at no cost from the federal government. AmeriHealth New Jersey (AHNJ) also covers up to 8 over-the-counter (OTC), FDA-approved tests per calendar month per member as required by the Biden Administration.
Here are the best situations and times to test yourself:
- If you have any COVID-19 symptoms, like fever, cough, headache, or muscle pain, take an at-home test immediately.
- If you’ve been exposed to COVID-19, wait at least five days to test yourself. If you do it any earlier, you could still be infected even if you get a negative result. If you do test negative, consider testing yourself again 1 – 2 days after your first test.
- If you’re planning to attend an indoor event or gathering — especially around people at high risk of severe disease, older adults, those who are immunocompromised, or people who haven’t been vaccinated — it’s best to test yourself immediately before the gathering or as close to the beginning of the event as you can.
These recommendations, like many other things about COVID-19, change frequently. So check the CDC’s guidelines to make sure they’re still current.
What if you’ve been exposed, test positive, or have COVID-19?
According to the CDC:
When to quarantine
If you’ve been exposed, quarantine for at least 5 days. If you’ve had a booster shot, you don’t need to quarantine, but you should wear a mask for 10 days. This means staying away from others outside your home.
When to isolate
If you are sick, or have tested positive for COVID-19, isolate for at least 5 days. This means avoiding contact with others, even the people you live with. It’s best to stay in a specific “sick room” or area of your house, and use a separate bathroom if one is available.
When to seek treatment
Most people infected with COVID-19 have only mild symptoms, or might not have any symptoms at all. This is especially true for those who have been fully vaccinated and have received their booster. It’s also especially true for the Omicron variant.
If you have only minor or no symptoms, you will probably not need any medical consultation or care. And with the extreme stress that the pandemic has placed on our health care system, it’s best to avoid adding to that burden if you don’t have to.
But if you’re concerned about your symptoms or your risk of severe disease, make an appointment with your primary care doctor. And seek emergency medical care if you have:
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in your chest
- Inability to wake up or stay awake
- Inability to drink fluids
- Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds (depending on your skin tone)
Don’t overlook your mental health
This pandemic is taking a heavy toll on both our physical and emotional well-being.
If you’re struggling with mental health concerns due to grief, isolation, or the lasting impact of long-haul COVID-19 symptoms, AmeriHealth New Jersey has resources to help our members deal with the emotional and behavioral fallout from the pandemic.
We don’t know how long, or how profoundly, we’ll continue to be affected by COVID-19. But we do know it’s still very much here right now. So let’s keep doing what we can to protect our health, the health of our families, and the health of our community
Dr. Frank L. Urbano, MBA, FACP is senior medical director for AmeriHealth New Jersey.