Winter is almost here. After weeks of steady decline, COVID-19 cases appear to be on the rise again.
Is a surge inevitable? How should families think about the winter ahead? What can they do to prepare and get through this period safely?
CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, who is an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, discussed these questions. She is also author of a new book, "Lifelines: A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health," and the mother of two young kids.
CNN: Do we need to be resigned to another winter surge?
Dr. Leana Wen: No. If there's anything we've learned from the pandemic, it's that the future is not pre-ordained. There is a lot that is up to us.
Yes, we are dealing with a very contagious virus, the delta variant of the coronavirus. Yes, we are unfortunately seeing an uptick again in cases. And yes, I am concerned about what will happen this winter, because we saw from last year that when the weather is colder, people go indoors, where the risk of transmission is higher. The upcoming holidays do also worry me, because of the increase in indoor gatherings.
However, unlike last year, we have vaccines that add an important layer of protection. We also have other tools, like testing, that can help.
I don't think we need to be resigned to a winter surge. We can prevent it if we work together.
CNN: What's your advice for families to try to stay as healthy as possible this winter?
Wen: Anyone eligible to be vaccinated should do so. That includes children ages 5 to 11 years old, who are newly eligible.
Those who are eligible to receive their booster shots should get them, too. There is increasing evidence that immunity wanes over time and getting a booster will help protect against breakthrough infections — and probably reduce the likelihood of spreading COVID-19 to others too.
Let's also talk about non-coronavirus aspects of health. To begin with, make sure to get the flu vaccine. It can be given at the same time as a coronavirus vaccine or booster. The flu vaccine reduces the likelihood of contracting the flu and the severity of illness if you still end up getting influenza. This is particularly important because last year was a light flu season, which means that many people don't have immunity to influenza. We want to prevent the possibility of a "twin-demic" of the flu and COVID-19.
For children, make sure they are up to date on other immunizations too. And for both children and adults, pay attention to other health maintenance issues. Many medical appointments have been delayed due to COVID-19. Now is the time to get your mammogram and cervical and colon cancer screenings, to get a checkup for your blood pressure and diabetes, to visit the dentist, and in general, to get on top of your other medical issues.
It's also vital to mention mental health, which is just as important as physical health. The pandemic has been very challenging for many people. Mental health was already an unmet need before COVID-19. Now is the time to work on mental health wellness, and to seek help if you need — just as you would for physical health issues.
CNN: Are there any supplies you'd recommend people stock up on, from a COVID-19 standpoint?
Wen: All households should have a standard set of supplies when it comes to caring for ill family members. That includes a thermometer, fever-reducing agents (acetaminophen and ibuprofen), and rehydrating solutions (like Pedialyte).
High-quality masks (N95, KN95, KF94) are now widely available. Make sure to have at least five masks for every household member. These should be worn when in indoor, crowded areas.
I'd also highly recommend stocking up on rapid tests. Your family should have at least one, ideally two, rapid tests for every member of the household. These are tests that are available for purchase over the counter at your local pharmacy. Results come back within 15 minutes. That's different from the gold-standard test, the PCR test. In many places, you need to get a doctor's note to obtain a PCR test or you may need to go to an urgent care to be seen. That adds expense; also, results may take 24 hours or more to return.
Because PCR tests are not as readily available, rapid tests can be helpful if someone starts having symptoms, especially if it takes time to get a PCR test and then obtain the results. Rapid tests are also very useful for screening purposes, for example, before you get together with friends and relatives indoors.
CNN: What do you say to those who are really sick of COVID-19 and want to get back to pre-pandemic normal?
Wen: I'd say that I hear you! I'm also sick of COVID-19 — we all are.
Here's the thing, though — COVID-19 is not quite done with us yet. We still have more than 80,000 new daily infections and more than 1,100 Americans dying every day from the coronavirus. We are at a much better place than we were last year, thanks to the vaccine, but we are not out the woods yet.
That said, there is a lot that we can resume doing to try to get back to normalcy. Consider making a list of all the things that you want to do. Go through the list and see how many things can actually be done now, with improved safety.
For example, you can have holiday meals with loved ones, even if you have children who are not yet fully vaccinated. There are some additional precautions that still need to be taken, but you can gather with friends and family again.
I know that the pandemic has been so hard for so many families. We can get through this winter — if we all work together to reduce risk, while restarting the activities we most miss.