At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, most people knew basic protocols around the infection. That included doing your best to steer clear of people who were sick, quarantining if you had a known exposure to the virus and staying in isolation for a set number of days if you actually had COVID-19. But life has largely gone back to normal, adding confusion into the mix about what you’re supposed to do these days.
Now that COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are increasing in the U.S. again, it’s understandable to have questions — a lot of questions. Here’s what the official guidance and infectious disease doctors say about managing COVID-19 across a range of circumstances these days.
You tested positive for COVID. Now what?
While protocols have changed slightly since the pandemic began, there are still recommendations in place around testing positive for COVID-19. If you do test positive, you should stay home for at least five days and isolate from others in your home, according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Day zero is the first day you develop symptoms, the CDC points out. If you had no symptoms but tested positive, day zero is the day you took the test — but you revert back to day zero if you later develop symptoms.
The CDC recommends that you stay home and try to stay away from others as much as possible, even using a separate bathroom if you can. It’s also a good idea to avoid sharing personal items like cups, towels and utensils; if you need to be around others, wear a high-quality mask.
While some people will dismiss their symptoms as a cold, it’s best to stay home from work, school and any of your other usual activities, Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “You should recuse yourself,” he says. “You really don’t want to expose other people. You don’t know if your co-workers have diabetes or other high-risk conditions, or if they have someone at home who is in a high-risk group. Just shelter at home.”
If you’re in a high-risk category (the CDC has a full breakdown of medical conditions that would classify you that way), it’s a good idea to call your doctor about getting on an antiviral medication like Paxlovid, infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “Paxlovid should be prescribed to high-risk persons within five days of symptom onset,” he says. “If Paxlovid is unable to be given, molnupiravir [antiviral medications] should be prescribed.”
There’s more, though: You can leave isolation after day five if you’ve had no symptoms or if you had symptoms but have been fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication, the CDC says. But if your symptoms haven’t gotten better by day five, the CDC recommends continuing to isolate until you’re fever-free for 24 hours without medication or your symptoms start to get better.
From there, it’s recommended that you wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask indoors until at least day 11 and that you avoid being around people who are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19. “Don’t go visiting your grandparents during this time,” Schaffner says.
If you need to leave isolation during the five-day period (which, again, isn’t recommended), Schaffner says it’s important to wear a high-quality mask and to try to avoid others as much as possible. “If you need to get groceries and no one else can get them for you, wear that mask and go at a time when there are fewer people at the store — early morning or late in the evening,” he says.
You’ve been exposed to COVID.
Maybe you discovered a friend or loved one has COVID that you just spent time with, or you learned that a co-worker you sat next to at a meeting now has the virus. What next?
The CDC recommends that you start taking precautions immediately. That includes wearing a high-quality mask any time you’re around others inside your home or indoors in public and avoiding places where you can’t wear a mask indoors.
You’ll also want to monitor yourself for symptoms of COVID-19 like fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the CDC. If you develop symptoms, isolate immediately and get tested for the virus.
The CDC recommends testing yourself on day six if you didn’t develop symptoms, but continuing to wear a mask for 10 days, even if the results are negative.
Schaffner suggests testing more often if you’re in a high-risk group. “If you’re exposed and you’re high-risk, I recommend testing yourself starting from about day three after the exposure and testing on days four, five and six, if you can,” he says. If you get a positive test result, isolate and call your doctor about taking an antiviral medication.
“If you’ve had a known exposure, you should monitor yourself for symptoms and be careful around high-risk persons until it’s clear you haven’t contracted the infection,” Adalja says. “Exposures abound in everyday life, so there is little difference between having a confirmed exposure and routine exposures that people are unaware of, in my mind.”
Your friend tested positive for COVID. Should you cancel plans?
Yes. Your friend should be isolating if they tested positive for COVID-19, Schaffner says, and you don’t want to risk exposing yourself and getting sick. If you want to help them by bringing them groceries or food, he says that’s not a problem — just leave it outside their door instead of going into their home.
New COVID-19 boosters are expected to be released later this week — and Schaffner recommends getting one if it’s recommended for you. “Getting vaccinated is one of the best ways to lower your risk of serious complications if you happen to get infected,” he says.
Your COVID resources cheat sheet
There are a bunch of online resources that can help with specific questions. Here are some of the most helpful ones:
How long should I isolate? An isolation period calculator can help you figure out when you can leave your home
Where can I find COVID tests? These tests are no longer covered by the government and many private insurers no longer cover them. But they’re readily available at Amazon, CVS and other online retailers.
Are there still COVID testing centers? Yes, you can find testing centers at pharmacies and health centers in your area
Where can I get Paxlovid? Calling your doctor is always a good option, but CVS pharmacists and many other pharmacists can now prescribe it. Check out this COVID-19 test to treat locator for more.