Two years into the pandemic, the emergence of yet another COVID-19 variant has brought home the fact that the virus is here to stay. That means the world will need to find long-term strategies to coexist with delta, omicron and the strains to come.
As governments reopen at varying paces, there are things individuals and companies can do to navigate a careful return to some kind of normalcy. Simple but permanent changes in how people live and work can limit the risks.
"So far, the governments have been responsible for people’s behavior but I don’t think they will intervene so much anymore, and it’s becoming individual choice,” said Benjamin Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong.
The potential for omicron to evade vaccines, while still unknown, underscores the danger of just relying on inoculations to return to normal life safely. While elimination of the virus is an impossibility in most of the world at this point, adjustments in individual habits and communal spaces can help slow the pace of outbreaks and keep high-risk groups safer.
Here are some ideas, distilled from health experts and practices observed in different parts of the world.
A new focus on air quality
Very fine droplets and particles carrying the virus will continue to spread through the air in enclosed spaces and can accumulate. That means offices, restaurants, schools, buses and trains need to be made safer.
In buildings where air is recirculated, the air should go through filters that remove particles and possibly viruses, said Lidia Morawska, director of the International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health at the Queensland University of Technology. The transmission risk can be higher at restaurants that just have standard air conditioning without ventilation and patrons have their masks off when eating, she says, recommending a carbon dioxide monitor on the wall of every public space.
Easy measures include installing carbon dioxide monitors to identify poorly ventilated areas, opening windows and doors, and turning on fans to remove virus-laden droplets from indoor air. The harder part is setting national standards and requiring every building to have a proper ventilation system to meet those benchmarks. Morawska points to Germany, which started working on addressing the air quality risk early on — the government said in October 2020 it would invest a total of €500 million ($565 million) to improve ventilation systems in public buildings, such as offices, museums, theaters and schools.
Hepa filters and other air cleaning tools are already used by health conscious households in Asian cities that face chronic or recurrent pollution; COVID-19 simply adds urgency to addressing the issue of air quality.
Normalize cheap, fast and frequent testing
Rapid at-home tests for COVID-19 are crucial for resuming normal social and economic activities, but the cost varies country by country. In the U.S., they can start at $14 for a two-pack, if you can find them, while tests are provided free in the U.K.
"The biggest problem of COVID-19 is the airborne transmission from asymptomatic people,” said Kenji Shibuya, an epidemiologist and research director at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research. "A negative test result gives you scientific proof that you are not infectious so that you can continue with your life.”
The U.K.’s National Health Service recommends people do a rapid test twice a week and self-isolate if the virus is detected, launching a campaign earlier this year to provide free rapid tests to the nation. Germany has brought back free rapid tests for all at sites sprinkled across cities. The kits can be bought for around €2 ($2.30), and used to be even cheaper.
Singapore’s vaccinate-or-regularly-test regime is a well thought out program, Shibuya said. The country, which has sent out millions of free antigen rapid test kits to households, will require medically eligible employees either to be vaccinated or to undergo testing at their own cost before entering the workplace from next year. Primary school students were told to take a rapid antigen test once every two weeks.
Masks will become a permanent part of life, in some form
Get used to wearing a mask indoors, and even outdoors in crowded settings. This may mean masks on in winter, on public transportation and planes.
Donning a face mask more than halves the risk of getting COVID-19, according to a review of eight studies published in the British Medical Journal.
Anyone aged 2 and older who isn’t fully inoculated should wear a mask in indoor public places, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An additional precaution for those who can’t avoid crowded or indoor settings: wear a mask, and open the windows to increase ventilation, says the World Health Organization.
For those concerned about the environmental impact of billions of masks being used and discarded, there are choices. Brands worldwide are making efforts to craft reusable masks using cotton, hemp and other sustainable materials.
Less crowded workplaces and commutes
Allowing flexibility to work from home isn’t just about keeping employees mentally happy, but helps to limit the health risk as well. The reduction in the number of people traveling in trains and buses during rush hour as people adopt hybrid work models would reduce crowding across the day.
The risk of airborne transmission could be cut fourfold by halving the occupancy of an office, modeling by scientists including Paul Linden at the University of Cambridge shows. Most workers in well-ventilated, quiet offices are unlikely to infect each other via airborne particles, but the risk becomes greater if the space is poorly ventilated or if the workers are involved in activities that require more speaking, according to the study published in the journal Indoor and Built Environment.
Once in the office or school, measures such as spacing desks further apart, reducing the occupancy of meeting rooms, and wearing masks when speaking will help, the experts say. On trains and buses, passengers should be masked and discouraged from speaking — a measure taken by Singapore since the start of the pandemic and already a cultural norm during flu or pollen season in Japan pre-COVID.
Germaphobia is OK
It may seem obvious, but frequent hand-washing is still one of the best ways to protect people from getting sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with its well publicized guidance to scrub with soap for at least 20 seconds, especially after being in a public place or after coughing or sneezing.
If soap and water are not available, hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol content can help, says the CDC. The difference is that hand washing removes all types of germs, while sanitizers act by killing only certain germs on the skin, it says.
Hand sanitizer dispensers are now ubiquitous in schools, office buildings, malls, museums and restaurants in cities like Singapore and Tokyo, a practice that can be made permanent now that it’s taken hold. Some offices also provide plentiful disinfecting wipes for employees, wax paper for water dispenser handles and antibacterial coatings for door handles.
For communal dining experiences like buffets, installing hand washing stations at the entrance is a trick already employed in some places.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.