Doctor putting on face mask

The federal government is giving away free rapid tests – and it could be the key to a return to normal.

Are you confused? Me too. I think everybody is. This last month, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) changed everything, from its quarantine guidelines to its mask recommendations. And last week, the Supreme Court chirped in by overturning federal vaccination-or-test requirements for large private businesses, while enforcing vaccination mandates on hospitals and their healthcare workers.

It’s no wonder we are nearly two years into this pandemic. Every pandemic should only be a public health issue. Instead, this one’s been a political and legal one, too.

And then there was the recent news: musician and staunch anti-vaxxer Meat Loaf died…apparently of complications from COVID-19. His vaccination status remains unknown, but the assumption is that he was not.

There’s a lesson here. The best way to make sure you don’t get really sick or die from COVID-19 is to not only make sure you’re vaccinated, but to get boosted as well. A new study shows that getting boosted was 90-percent effective at preventing hospitalizations from the Omicron variant. Boosters also lower transmissibility and emergency department visits.

I want to talk about what I’ve been seeing. Working in the emergency department seems different now than during the start of the pandemic, or when I was in a COVID-19 field hospital last winter. Patients who are getting admitted with COVID now tend to have one thing in common: they’re not vaccinated. It truly seems like a pandemic of the unvaccinated.

My fully vaccinated patients have presented with a headache, sore throat, the sniffles, or no symptoms at all. One asymptomatic patient was called in to the hospital to receive an organ transplant, only to have their hopes dashed and surgery postponed after testing positive.

The other big difference is that there’s so much Omicron because of its ridiculously easy transmissibility, to the degree that no effort can be made to segregate patients in emergency departments. The only thing that protects healthcare workers and non-infected patients from those with COVID is properly wearing the best quality mask possible.

Many of us have been wearing simple surgical masks or cloth ones. Those aren’t good enough. I’d recommend double-masking while indoors, if that’s all you’ve got. Better yet, wear an N95 or KN95, which are readily available for purchase online.

I’m still surprised that I was the only masked member in the gym one early morning last week. I kept my distance from a few people who were coughing and made no effort to even cover their mouths. It’s important to try to live normally, but it’s more important to be considerate of others, especially the elderly and immunocompromised – or to not actually try to get infected.

So-called “Long COVID,” which means long-term symptoms after the acute illness, are real, and even though vaccinations are safe and super-effective at preventing hospitalizations, they don’t 100-percent guarantee that you can’t get sick.

And what about testing? My opinion is that PCR tests for Omicron are basically worthless. They are difficult to schedule, take too long to get results, and don’t tell you if you have a transmissible infection.

You can test positive for weeks and even months after you’ve recovered from COVID, as a PCR test might still detect non-infectious viral fragments.

Even in emergency departments, results typically return hours after a patient has been discharged. Special tests offering quick results are reserved only for those patients when it’s urgent to know. Too many patients are simply showing up because they want a test.

Did you know you can get four free tests sent to your home? Just go online to “COVIDtests.gov.” These rapid antigen tests are the best. You should use them if you have flu-like symptoms so you can isolate if you test positive for COVID, or when you test because you want to safely gather with friends or family. It’s the best way to protect yourself and protect others. These rapid tests are our ticket to the new normal.

As for the future, Omicron won’t be the last variant, but I believe the pandemic will end soon. Just like with the common cold and the flu, COVID isn’t going to go away. We can live with it. It still means that wearing the best mask you can get and practicing social distancing will lower your risk of getting Omicron now.

But it’s vaccines that remain our best protection. One of Meat Loaf’s most well-known songs is “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.” He was right, but three out of three is so much better. Get boosted if you haven’t yet. It may save your life.

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