Please note: The content of this article was accurate on the day of publication. For the most up-to-date information and recommendations, visit the CDC website.
We’re in the midst of a COVID-19 surge throughout the United States, and the recent Thanksgiving gatherings threaten to send numbers even higher. Vaccines are promising, but for most of us, it will be at least a few months before we can count on their protection. So, we’re facing a high risk of infection as we wrap up 2020 and head into 2021. Here’s what you should know.
“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we must all work together to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by continuing to wear masks in public settings, avoiding large gatherings, practicing social distancing, and washing our hands often,” said Helen Arnold, RN, a senior infection preventionist at Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa, AZ.
What to do if you think you’ve been exposed to COVID-19
Step 1: Get tested
The CDC recommends testing if you’ve had close contact with someone who has COVID-19. Close contact means:
- You’ve been within six feet of that person for a total of 15 minutes or more in 24 hours (It’s not a precise measurement. Contact closer than six feet and for longer times increases your exposure risk.)
- You cared for someone at home who is sick with COVID-19
- You hugged or kissed someone with COVID-19, or shared eating or drinking utensils
- Someone with COVID-19 sneezed or coughed on you
Step 2: Stay home & quarantine yourself
You should stay home for 14 days after you’ve had contact with someone with COVID-19 unless you’ve tested positive for COVID-19 yourself within the past three months. The same time frame (14 days) also applies to those who tested negative for COVID-19. “Even if you test negative you must still self-check for signs and symptoms and protect yourself and others from the virus. You remain at risk for contracting COVID-19 even if you test negative. You may need to get a repeat test if you develop symptoms,” Arnold said.
Your local health authorities may allow a shorter quarantine, based on local conditions and needs. Options they may consider include stopping quarantine:
- After 10 days if you haven’t been tested
- After 7 days after receiving a negative test that occurred at least five days after your exposure
However, the CDC continues to encourage quarantining for 14 days.
What to do if you have symptoms of COVID-19
According to the CDC, you should watch for these symptoms of COVID-19:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
If you have these symptoms, call your healthcare provider. You can also check out the Banner Health symptom checker to help you make decisions about testing and your care. And don’t write off mild symptoms as “just a cold.” While fever and cough are common symptoms of COVID-19, you can be infected without having those symptoms.
Symptoms may appear 2 to 14 days after you’re exposed to the virus. And of course, you might not know when you were exposed.
How to get tested for COVID-19
Many pharmacies and health centers offer viral tests that can tell if you’re infected. You can visit your state or local health department’s website to find out more about testing options in your area. You can also find a Banner Health testing location in your area by visiting bannerhealth.com. While you’re waiting for your test results, you should stay home, away from others and not leave the house unless seeking medical care.
What do my test results mean?
A negative test for COVID-19 means you were probably not infected when you were tested. You might have been infected since then.
A positive test for COVID-19 means you are likely infected. You should stay home, rest, stay hydrated, and take over-the-counter medications for pain or fever if needed. Most people can recover at home. Stay in touch with your doctor for guidance and potential treatment options and get care if you have trouble breathing, chest pain, confusion, trouble staying awake, or a blue tinge to your face or lips.
Stay away from other people to make it less likely you’ll spread the virus. According to the CDC, you can be around other people again after you meet all three of these criteria:
- 10 days have passed since your first symptoms and
- You haven’t had a fever for 24 hours and you’re not taking medication to reduce fever and
- Your other symptoms are improving (not including loss of taste or smell, which could last for weeks)
If you experience severe illness from COVID-19, your health care provider may recommend you stay in isolation for a longer period, possibly up to 20 days.
If someone in your home is infected with COVID-19 have them stay in a room separate from other household members and use a different bathroom, if possible. Try to avoid having them in contact other family members or pets. Don’t share cups, towels, silverware or other household items with them. Have them wear a mask if they need to be around other people.
The bottom line
Vaccines that can protect you from COVID-19 look promising. But they won’t be widely available for at least several months. Now is not the time to ease up on your precautions. With case counts climbing, it’s more important than ever to wear a mask, stay at least six feet away from other people, avoid crowds, and wash your hands frequently.
“We are all in this together. Stay safe and do not hesitate to seek medical care when you need it. The Banner Health website has patient resources and ways to easily access care,” Arnold said.
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- Understanding the Different Types of COVID-19 Tests