Worried about catching Covid in the office? How to stay healthy

Workers are starting to return to the office, whether they like it or not. Many seem to share one obvious concern: Covid.

A recent Gallup poll found that one in three US workers are “very” or “moderately” concerned about exposure to Covid in the workplace. The findings come as many companies — including Apple, Goldman Sachs, Peloton and Capital One — are implementing new back-to-the-office plans.

The trend toward in-person work has accelerated in recent months: By June, 50 percent of U.S. workers were already spending their time between home and the office, and 20 percent were all in-person, according to another Gallup survey. Google brought most of its employees back to the office three days a week in April — and its employees were hit with regular Covid infections and exposure notices, CNBC reported last month.

The US is still experiencing a steady pace of new Covid cases: The nation’s seven-day average topped 60,000 on Thursday, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s expected to increase this fall and winter as many people’s immunity to the Covid vaccine wanes and Americans spend more time indoors, where the virus spreads much more easily.

A recent Gallup poll found that two-thirds of respondents said they expect Covid cases to increase “a lot” or moderately this fall and winter. If you still have to be in the office, here’s how you can stay healthy.

Keep up to date with your Covid vaccines

Keeping up to date with your vaccines is the best way to protect yourself from Covid. This means completing your core series and getting the booster shots you are eligible for.

Adults who have already received their primary series are eligible for an updated booster vaccine that targets both the original Covid strain and omicron’s BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. Together, these subvariants account for nearly 87% of cases circulating in the US, according to the latest CDC data.

Pfizer’s injection is approved for people 12 and older, while Moderna’s is for those 18 and older. At least two months should pass since the last dose of any Covid vaccine, the CDC says.

If you’ve recently recovered from a Covid infection, you should consider waiting three months after a negative test before getting your updated vaccine, agency advisers note. Appointments for the new boosters are likely available at a vaccination site near you.

Wear a mask at some settings

Mask mandates have largely been lifted by employers and local governments across the country. However, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends wearing a mask in the office if:

  • You have not completed your main series.
  • You have completed your primary series but are immunocompromised
  • You have completed your main series and are in an area with a significant or high level of Covid prevalence. Use CDC’s Data Tracker to check infection and hospitalization rates in your area.

Even if you don’t fall into any of these categories, wearing a mask to the office can still provide you with an extra layer of protection against Covid.

If you don’t wear a mask in the office, consider not wearing one when traveling to and from work. The CDC recommends wearing a mask on indoor public transportation, such as the subway or bus, especially if it’s crowded or poorly ventilated.

Wash your hands often

Frequent hand washing can help prevent Covid, CDC says. When soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Specifically, it’s a good idea to wash your hands in the office before, after, or during these activities:

  • Before, during and after food preparation
  • Before eating food
  • Before you touch your face
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • After using the toilet
  • After touching garbage
  • After you have been in a public place, including public transport.

Keep your distance from others if you can

The CDC eased its social distancing recommendation last month, removing the six-foot distance standard established at the start of the pandemic.

But keeping a distance between yourself and others can still help prevent exposure to Covid, the agency stresses. This is especially important when your county has a medium or high level of Covid prevalence, the CDC says.

Instead of measuring six-foot distances in your head, try to assess the quality of the air you breathe around you, White House Covid Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha advised at a virtual event hosted by the Chamber of Commerce Foundation of USA last month.

“In a crowded indoor space with poor ventilation, you can become infected in minutes. If you’re outdoors with obviously … good ventilation, you can be outside for long periods of time and not get infected,” Jha said. “So context matters, crowds matter, ventilation matters. This is an important new update.”

Know what to do if you test positive, have been exposed or have symptoms of Covid

HHS says you should stay home from work if:

  • You have tested positive for the virus
  • You have symptoms of Covid
  • You are not up to date on your Covid vaccines and have been in close contact with an infected person

Regardless of your vaccination status, the CDC says you should get tested:

  • Immediately if you have any symptoms
  • After five days if you have been exposed to Covid and have no symptoms. Testing too early can give you a false negative.

If you test positive for Covid, the CDC says you should:

  • Stay home and isolate yourself from others for at least five days. That’s probably when you’re most contagious.
  • Wear a high-quality mask if you must be with other people, whether at home or in public.
  • Follow CDC guidelines for ending isolation.

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