Disclaimer: As always, I’m not a medical professional. I just read a lot of different articles and synthesize the information as best I can from the most reputable sources.
Reading Time: 20 minutes
My last post on BA.5 got a lot of traffic. And, I was asked the same questions again and again:
- Am I really still wearing a mask that often? Doesn’t living that way make it impossible to go out and do things?
- How much longer am I really going to keep doing all this? Isn’t it exhausting? Do I plan to never get COVID?
- Doesn’t having strong COVID agreements with my housemates remove our personal freedom and agency?
Those questions make sense.
We’re living through something that none of us has any experience with. We don’t have wise elders available to pass on relevant knowledge and teach us how to cope. We don’t even have strong role models in most of our political leaders.
We’ve had to figure all this out on our own.
I’ve been lucky enough to live in two different community houses during the pandemic, each with 6 adults. We’re people who highly value authentic connection, clear communication, and autonomy. So we’ve experimented a lot to find the right balance between (a) freedom/flexibility and (b) care for self and others.
Here’s the good news: What we’ve come up with has not limited our ability to fully live our lives.
My partner and I are known as being on the pretty extreme end of COVID safety (and we’ve been lucky enough to have never been infected). But despite that…
In the last month alone, all of this has been possible for us:
- Attending a large 5-day conference in indoor auditoriums with hundreds of people packed close together (including helping to break a world record for most people dressed as dinos);
- Attending two large music festivals, including dancing for hours right up against people;
- Attending a big multi-day wedding, including eating all meals with other people, dancing, singing, posing for photos, and facilitating group activities;
- Plus, a lot more: men’s group, book club, massages, acupuncture, gym workouts, meals with friends, etc.
Yes, we were able to do all those things—while also staying safe. It doesn’t have to feel hard.
Let me explain.
(By the way, if you’re curious why I’m still being COVID-cautious at all, here’s my latest post on BA.5—including lots of scientific sources—and, here’s my latest thread on why Long COVID is the real thing to be careful of.)
First, let’s quickly review what you need to know about the current state of BA.5 so that you’ll better understand the precautions I’ll be suggesting:
- The BA.5 sub-variant is much more transmissible than earlier variants, meaning it’s much easier for you to be infected if you’re around someone who has it (especially before they even start experiencing symptoms).
- The vaccines and boosters are no longer really preventing you from getting COVID. But, they are preventing you from getting COVID bad (i.e., death or hospitalization). So please still get vaccinated and boosted.
- The natural immunity you get from having had COVID only applies to the current variant. In other words, even if you had, say, Delta, that immunity no longer applies to Omicron BA.5. And, new variants can appear every few months. So don’t count on being safe just because you’ve had COVID.
- Outside is still much safer than inside, but BA.5 makes even outside less safe than it used to be. Distancing still works quite well, but the 6ft rule was always just a rough approximation and not a firm indicator of safety.
- The #1 most effective safety measure is still masking, specifically with N95’s and KN95’s. All of this really comes down to ventilation and air movement.
- Indoors is safer with windows open, and fans and air filters on.
- Pop-ups are safer outside without walls.
- You’re safer hanging out with friends in an open field than leaning against a wall.
- You’re safer when there’s a strong breeze.
- You’re safer if the breeze is blowing in a direction that goes away rather than bringing other people’s out-breaths toward you.
Now, before I tell you about my personal precautions, I want to explain one quick thing:
My unearned advantages mean this won’t apply to everyone.
I’m a white guy who works for himself from home.
I recognize that there are a whole lot of people in our society who are not able to prioritize their health and safety as strongly as I’ve been able to. For many people, their income is reliant on physically working in environments whose safety measures are dictated by others.
Plus, being someone with marginalized identities means having to do more emotional labor and take on more stress just to move through the world every day. So, it makes sense that many such people might be so exhausted by the pandemic that they simply don’t have any energy left for all these precautions.
I have so much empathy for you if you’re in those circumstances. Some of the rest of this post might still apply to you, and some might just be for people who are lucky enough to live in circumstances more like mine.
Ok, let’s move on to the specific ways I take care of myself around BA.5.
Here’s how I operate in a variety of situations nowadays to have fun out in the world while still staying safe:
Going for a walk alone in my neighborhood:
Don’t do anything special other than trying not to breathe in right as I’m passing someone next to me.
Sometimes I’ll cross the street or walk around people, and sometimes I’ll just hold my breath for a moment. Not a big deal.
Going for a walk alone in an area with more people (like a busy park):
Same as above, but bring my KN95 mask with me.
I usually just wear it around my wrist nowadays, which causes me very little discomfort. If I want to stand near people or walk through an area dense with people, I’ll slip my mask on then take it off when I’m done.
Going for a walk with friends:
If they’re people I highly trust who I know are being COVID-cautious, no special precautions are necessary. If I’m not sure, it’s not really fun for me to have COVID conversations anymore, so I simply wear a mask most of the time so I don’t even have to think about it.
I promise you: I’m someone who very much cares about deep connection, and I don’t believe that my wearing a mask has impeded that.
Another option if the road/path is wide enough is for me to just keep 6ish feet away and not wear my mask. As long as we’re in motion, I feel safe enough.
Standing still or sitting down for a while to chat for friends:
Same thing—either sit close and wear a mask, or sit farther away and don’t.
But, if we’re going to be sitting still for a while, I’d prefer more like 10ft than 6 unless there’s a strong breeze.
Working out at the gym:
I personally work out at home, but my partner has been going to Orange Theory group fitness classes for two years.
My partner is often the only one in the class still wearing a mask, but they haven’t gotten COVID. How? By wearing a KN95 every time (with a bracket like this to make it easier to take big breaths while working out).
Driving in a car with people outside my bubble:
Open the windows and wear masks.
Staying with friends or having friends stay at my house for a few days (or, going to a special event where I don’t want to have to wear a mask):
This is a coming together of two COVID bubbles—mine and theirs. If we know that both bubbles are super safe or hermit-like (i.e., spend almost all their time together at home), no special precautions are necessary. Otherwise, we ask everyone to:
- Take a Rapid PCR test the morning before coming together (late enough to avoid any new exposures but early enough to get the results back in time, which is typically less than two hours for Rapid PCR’s); and,
- Since even a Rapid PCR test won’t detect COVID unless it’s been in your system for a while, ask everyone to be extra careful for several days before the Rapid PCR test. That means masking with anyone outside their bubble for 3 days (and ideally 5 days) beforehand.
Eating with other people:
This is the single hardest thing on this list. I haven’t eaten indoors at a restaurant in a long time now, and I suspect I might not again for a very long time. I’m ok with that. It’s easy to order in, get take-out, or sit at outdoor tables.
One big challenge though is small outdoor tables (like picnic tables). I typically try to arrange two people so I’m on the far-left end of one side and they’re on the far-right end of the other side. But even that feels too close sometimes, and it’s impossible with three or more people.
So, if I’m sitting at a very small table, here are a few options:
- I stand up while eating;
- I wear my mask and briefly lower it for each bite;
- I eat without a mask but look away to breathe in;
- We alternate: One person eats first while the other masks, then we swap;
- But yeah, those last few get a bit too crazy 😉 So much easier is just: Get the food to go and eat in a nearby park.
By the way, notice that most of those situations required nothing from anyone else I was with. Sure, it’s even safer if everyone wears a mask, but the vast majority of the time nowadays it’s just me. Luckily, even one-way masking has been shown to be very effective, especially if it’s with an N95 or KN95. So, no need to worry about burdening others by requiring them to do things for your safety. Just take care of yourself.
What if I don’t like wearing masks?
I get it: Wearing a mask can feel annoying. But, if you have a comfortable one, it’s honestly not the end of the world. I’ve worn mine for many hours straight, even in 90+ degree weather at festivals. It felt fine. (And if you get Long COVID, it’s going to be more uncomfortable than wearing a mask.)
Many masks are uncomfortable. But not this one.
I’ve tried probably 10-15 different masks at this point, and Well Before’s 3D KN95 mask is by far my favorite. Lots of color options too!
(And, since the straps are easily adjustable, I sometimes loosen my mask when I want to prioritize even more comfort, and I tighten it when it feels like more caution is important).
But masking consistently requires more than just the right mask.
Feeling able and willing to mask regularly nowadays requires two things from you:
(1) Focusing on your “why.”
Yes, masking is more work. So why is it important to you to stay safe? Is it that you highly value your physical health? That you highly value your mind and don’t want to risk the brain fog and fatigue of Long COVID? That you don’t want to unwittingly spread COVID to others?
In my case, my biggest motivator is that we already know that Long COVID is bad, and it could turn out to have even more long-term lasting impacts that we don’t know about yet because it hasn’t been long enough.
- You have a roughly 1 in 16,000 chance of dying in a car accident over a normal year. If you get COVID, your risk of Long COVID—if fully vaccinated—is 1 in 33, and—if not fully vaccinated—it’s several times more likely.
- This applies even if your COVID symptoms were mild. And it applies even to people who are young and otherwise healthy.
- Long COVID can include not only brain fog, debilitating fatigue, and shortness of breath, but also increased risk of heart attack, diabetes, and erectile dysfunction, even months to years after having had COVID.
- We still don’t know if Long COVID is less likely with BA.5, but I’ve chosen to continue my caution just in case.
(2) Confidence and clear self-image.
At a festival of 300 people, my partner and I were literally the only two people wearing masks. We were also often apart, so I typically felt like the only one in a very large group wearing one. And at the end of the day, who cares? I’m taking care of my needs, and I need to own that.
That’s where the confidence comes in. And the self-image part is that I see myself as someone who prioritizes health, so staying safe from Long COVID is just a part of who I am. It’s like choosing to be the type of person who simply doesn’t litter, or who doesn’t smoke.
To be fair, I’m lucky to live in liberal Oregon, and I can imagine it might not feel safe in some parts of the country to be so obviously “other.” But, if your actual safety is not in jeopardy? The only thing holding you back from feeling ok being the “odd one” is you.
Prioritize your own needs over the external approval of others. People might look at you weird, sure. And so what? If they make fun of you for masking, feel free to reply with something like, “Oh, what a relief. I’m glad it’s not a big deal. I actually just got a positive test result this morning and I’ve felt really uncomfortable in this mask, so I’ll just go ahead and take it off now since you don’t care!” 😆
What about living with 5 other adults? Doesn’t requiring each other to be careful remove everyone’s freedom?
Here’s the house attitude that we’ve come to together:
- We highly value freedom and autonomy, so everyone can do whatever they want.
- However, choices have consequences, and we also highly value informed consent.
- Therefore, we ask that everyone clearly communicate the choices they’ve been making that might impact other people in the house. That allows everyone to take care of themselves and choose which actions they’d like to take to feel safe.
- Example A: I tell my housemates that I want to have a friend spend the night at our house.
- Great, my housemates ask if I know about this person’s living situation and COVID precautions. Yes, I talked with my friend and confirmed that they still live with just one partner and they’re both quite cautious (according to my and my house’s standards).
- Awesome, nothing special required.
- Example B: I send a Slack message to my housemates letting them know that I’m on my way home from a crazy sex party where I hooked up with five strangers.
- Great, my housemates congratulate me on living my best life and ask me to wear a mask before coming in the house. They say I’m free to do what I want in my room, but they ask that I wear a mask at all times in common spaces and get PCR tested after 5 days. Awesome.
- Alternatively, if I told them that I have really bad asthma right now and wearing a mask is quite challenging, they might offer to let me go mask-less and then keep themselves safe by wearing masks themselves for the 5 days until I can get tested.
I hope you can see that this type of arrangement is far from freedom-restricting. Rather, it’s about promoting a culture of informed consent, clear communication, mutual trust, self-governance, and emotionally-mature boundary-setting.
Finally, I’ve been asked a lot: Am I still imagining I’ll never get COVID? Is that realistic?
It’s certainly getting tricky at this point.
At the beginning of the pandemic, my attitude was that I never wanted to get COVID. Then, around the time of the Delta variant, I began to think that maybe I should just lower my caution and get COVID out of the way.
My reasoning back then was that it would give me some nice natural immunity and then I could stop worrying so much. But, before intentionally allowing myself to get infected, I wanted to wait on more studies about the effects of Long COVID (since we didn’t know much about it back then).
Fast forward to today, and two major things have changed:
- We now know that Long COVID is actually quite bad for millions of Americans, and
- This new sub-variant no longer grants natural immunity against other variants.
Therefore, there’s unfortunately no more silver lining in getting COVID. In fact, the research seems to be showing that each time we get COVID again, our chances of hospitalization and Long COVID might increase.
(To be fair, it might still not be the end of the world to get COVID once or twice, but, say, four or five times might begin to take a real toll on your body, so I want to be careful to not “use those up” for as long as possible).
I’m hoping that the Omicron-specific shot in the Fall will help, but it’s also possible that future mutations will get even more virulent rather than less. I know many of us heard the story early in the pandemic that viruses like this mutate to get milder over time until they basically turn into the common cold. Turns out, that might have been wishful thinking.
So yes, at this point, I’m still hoping to never get COVID. That said, it’s been a crafty virus, so in all likelihood I’ll end up getting it at least once or twice over the next few years. But, hopefully the practices I’m using to stay safe will prevent me from getting it too many times.
I’m an optimist when it comes to science, so I’m sure hoping we’ll develop the technology to completely eradicate COVID (and many other illnesses) in the relatively near-future.
But, there’s also a fair chance things will be like this for years.
So, each of us has to find strategies that will be sustainable long-term.
I can imagine completely lowering my guard once in a while for major important events, like if I were getting married or going to a once-in-a-decade family reunion.
Otherwise though, I personally feel like wearing my comfortable mask isn’t too terrible, and going without it is not worth risking Long COVID to me.
I’m the type of person who works hard at my health (daily workouts, organic food when possible, 8.5+ hours of sleep, etc.), so it feels reasonable to me to take extra precautions to protect my body. But, I recognize that’s not the same for everyone, and that’s ok.
Everyone’s situation is different.
For some people, it’s too much to have to wear a mask and be careful all the time.
(Plus, like I said at the beginning, some people aren’t even allowed that choice if they work in industries that don’t allow masking or where it’s not feasible.)
But, for people like me who are lucky enough to have a choice, I see it like health in general: Some people choose to be very careful with managing their nutrition, and other people decide that that’s more work than they want to put into it.
Or, maybe you’re someone who puts a lot of work into looking good—choosing your outfit, doing your hair and makeup, whatever. Think about how much daily time and effort you put into that, and compare that to the effort of distancing and masking when in higher-risk situations. Is masking really that much more onerous?
Or, maybe you’re someone who’s already socially anxious (or, say, you just moved to a new place where you don’t know many people). And maybe wearing a mask would make you feel like too much of an outsider. Fair enough—please take care of your needs. Connection is so important, so maybe being able to feel belonging means not wearing a mask and that’s a fair trade-off for you.
Ultimately, it’s up to each person to decide how much staying COVID-safe costs them, and where they fall on the balance of risk versus reward.
Bottom line: I hope this post has shown you that being cautious doesn’t have to be the end of the world.
Social connection is hugely important—just as important as other forms of health.
And, it’s still possible to go to dance parties, festivals, weddings, potlucks, and all sorts of yummy social events while still taking care of yourself and others.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a nourishing day.