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Covid: How should I protect myself now?

people clinking pint glasses in pub

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For the first time in months, Monday brings the promise of socialising indoors with friends and family whom we don’t currently live with.

Covid cases are much lower now, but it’s still out there. Here are some of the things we can do – and the hazards to remain aware of – to reduce our risk of catching the virus.

1. You can stop doing the ‘pavement dance’

The closer you are to an infected person, the more likely you are to catch the virus.

Infections are most commonly contracted when people are very near to one another, particularly inside the home.

It’s a combination of how near you are to someone, and for how long.

So, while many of us have got used to doing the “pavement dance” – to avoid passing too close to fellow pedestrians – it is unlikely such a short period of exposure would lead to an infection, especially outdoors.

Grid showing the risks of being outside, in a mask or not, for a short time or a longer period

We don’t know exactly how much virus exposure is necessary to cause illness – and it will vary by age and health – but it does have to reach a critical mass before it overwhelms the immune system.

And it’s worth remembering the NHS Test and Trace app only alerts contacts who have been close to a confirmed case for 15 minutes or more.

2. Don’t worry so much about what you touch

At the start of the pandemic, a lot of focus was on surfaces. People washed groceries and avoided touching buttons at pedestrian crossings. Councils shut playgrounds and cordoned off park benches.

Yet it’s been all but impossible to find an outbreak that can be linked to an infected surface.

“It’s to do with how the virus actually enters your system – it’s through the airways,” says Dr Eilir Hughes, a GP and campaigner for more protective PPE for NHS staff.

The virus takes hold in the body via the respiratory system – that’s why testing for it involves a swab up the nose and down the back of the throat.

It would take an unlikely chain of events for infected droplets on an object to end up being transferred into someone’s respiratory system just by touching it.

They would have to lick their fingers or put them up their nose – and even then, the likelihood of enough virus surviving this chain of events to make someone ill is slim, most experts now believe.

Dr Hughes cautioned people to avoid “hygiene theatre” – where people focus excessively on washing hands and surfaces, or avoiding touching objects.

Such actions can make us feel more in control, but he said it would be better to focus on “duration, proximity and avoiding enclosed spaces”.

Similarly, ventilation expert Prof Cath Noakes, from the University of Leeds. said the perspex screens some restaurants put between tables may have created a reassuring appearance but wouldn’t have blocked aerosols. Indeed, they may even have increased infection risk by interrupting airflow.

3. Remember the benefits of getting fresh air

The Covid virus spreads in particles that come out of our nose and mouth when we breath, cough, sneeze and speak.

Larger particles fall to the ground with gravity, like raindrops, and probably only hit people within 2m. But some particles are so small they can float in the air – similar to a deodorant or hairspray.

Graphic showing the difference between droplets (larger blobs) and aerosols (a fine mist that drifts further)

Contrary to what was believed at the beginning of the pandemic, even the smaller particles appear to cause outbreaks. That may well be how people have caught Covid from the opposite sides of buses, restaurants and even quarantine hotels.

Experts believe more emphasis should be placed on ventilation. Good airflow dilutes and blows away droplets and disperses aerosols, making it less likely you’ll inhale enough to become ill. It’s like being in being in a closed room with someone smoking compared with someone smoking by a window, or outside.

It’s important to “make sure you’ve got some means of getting fresh air in and out of a space”, says Prof Noakes.

So, at home it’s a good idea to keep a window or door open. And check that restaurants and pubs you visit are doing the same.

At the start of the pandemic, going for a walk with a friend wasn’t allowed – and in the summer crowded parks and beaches created headlines – but understanding has moved on, and scientists are now confident being outdoors is much safer than being indoors.

4. Think about how many people are in the room

More people means more chance one of them is infected – and more targets for them to infect. Crowding also makes it more likely people will come into close contact.

And the possibility of airborne transmission means even if you only interact with a handful of people, you could still catch it from someone on the other side of the room.

Grid showing the relative risks of being in a well-ventilated and poorly ventilated room, with masks on or off

5. Get your vaccine when you can

Covid jabs protect the vaccinated from becoming ill and go a long way to preventing them from making other people ill too.

The chance of a vaccinated person transmitting Covid to an unvaccinated person is small. But the chances of infection spreading between two fully-vaccinated people are vanishing.

If you’re in a room with people who are all two weeks past their second dose, you have a very good level of protection before you even start to think about any of the other measures.

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