Update from the COVID Medical Advisory Group

North Carolina has seen a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, including the delta variant and, increasingly, the more-highly-contagious omicron variant. Hospitals and the healthcare workforce are strained. As weary as we all are of the restrictions and inconvenience COVID has caused us, we hope you will not let down your guard. We still have much to learn about the omicron variant.

Vaccines are your best protection against serious COVID disease, hospitalization, and death. They also reduce the likelihood that you will transmit the virus to others. They are available in most pharmacies and in community clinics, free of charge, for those 5 years of age and older.  Boosters are available, also free of charge, for those 12 years of age and older; the latest guidance recommends a booster 5 months or more after completion of the initial vaccine series.  We urge vaccination and boosters for all those who are eligible. You can obtain your flu shot at the same time! Please do your part to keep our community healthy and to keep our healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed.

Breakthrough infections are possible, even in vaccinated people.  We urge the use of masks and social distancing indoors whenever you are exposed to those who are unvaccinated or those of unknown vaccination status, whether in private or public settings.  Double masks are more effective than a single mask; N95 and KN95 masks appear to offer the best protection.  Eating and singing together indoors are particularly high-risk activities.  For vaccinated people who gather indoors, particularly if they will be unmasking to eat, testing for the COVID antigen immediately before gathering adds assurance that someone is not unknowingly infected with COVID and thus capable of spreading the virus.  When a gathering includes high-risk individuals—elderly, pregnant, immunocompromised, or unvaccinated people (eg, children under age 5) or partially vaccinated people—testing for COVID before gathering becomes more important.  It will be necessary to make appointments well in advance if you plan to use a pharmacy for testing prior to an event. Home antigen test kits are available in some pharmacies and big box stores (eg, Abbott’s BinaxNow), to keep on hand for the times they are needed; however, these are currently in short supply. Persons 18 years and older and or parents of children 2-17 can request free kits through www.pixel.labcorp.com/nc.  Please note that antigen tests typically do not become positive until 3-5 days after exposure; thus, someone may test negative on, say, day 2 and become positive (and presumably contagious) shortly afterwards. A negative test 6 days after the most recent exposure is more reassuring.  See the following link for a graph that is useful in timing tests and interpreting negative test results: https://i.insider.com/61c4825a1f3fca0018a53794?width=2000&format=jpeg&auto=webp.