New COVID-19 Resources for the Post-Omicron Spring
The Omicron surge is finally ebbing. As we regroup, let’s use some newly available resources to keep an eye on where we are.
Update September 2, 2022: Free rapid tests are no longer being mailed to households by the US government.
It's been a long, tough Omicron winter here in the United States. COVID-19 cases spiked to levels we’d never seen before. Hospitalizations and deaths followed, largely in those who remained unvaccinated. The numbers were astonishing and numbing.
But as any epidemiologist will tell you, all infectious-disease surges eventually wane — as Omicron’s devastating surge is finally doing in the US. In our case, that’s due to both the protection that those who are up to date on vaccines have against the virus, and to the fact that Omicron hit so many unvaccinated people, giving them a measure of post-infection immunity. In addition, warmer weather is returning — or soon to return — to many states, and we know now that COVID-19 has a seasonal component. It’s time for us to take a breath and regroup.
Part of that regrouping will be getting used to a new way of assessing COVID-19 risk: the CDC’s COVID-19 Community Levels. Rather than simply tracking COVID-19 case numbers, the Community Level also takes into account the number of people admitted to local hospitals with COVID-19 over the past week, as well as the number of hospital beds occupied by patients with the virus.
Why did the CDC make this change? Because all COVID-19 cases are no longer equal. Vaccinated people who get infected are significantly less likely to get sick enough to need to go to the hospital. Now that so many people in the US have been vaccinated, high case numbers don’t necessarily mean a lot of people are getting very sick — in theory, they could all be mild cases in vaccinated folks. But if the hospitalization and inpatient numbers are also rising, then the virus is starting to make lots of people very ill. And if severe cases continue to rise, the local health-care system might soon get overtaxed. Those are the situations where public health measures like masking become more important.
You can easily keep track of your local Community Level by entering your state and county in the CDC’s COVID-19 County Check widget. In Worcester County, Massachusetts, where I live, the widget tells me that the level is currently low, which means I don’t have to wear a mask unless I have COVID-19 symptoms, have tested positive, or have recently been exposed to someone who has the virus. (There’s a link to more information on extra protection for folks who are immunocompromised.) If my county’s level was medium or high, the recommendations would be different.
If I do get symptoms or am a close contact of someone who tests positive, there’s something else I can easily do now that I couldn’t do a few months ago: test myself at home. Not only are rapid tests much more widely available online and in pharmacies, but every household in the US can now order two sets of four free rapid tests from the federal government either online or by calling 1-800-232-0233 (TTY 1-888-720-7489). I’ve got my family’s first set of four tests ready and waiting on our kitchen table, should we need them. If I need more than that, I can purchase up to eight tests per person per month and get reimbursed by my health-insurance provider. Military beneficiaries, folks with Medicare, and others can get additional tests through other avenues.
After two years of living with COVID-19, we all know it’s not a good idea to underestimate this virus. With millions of people around the world still unvaccinated, we know that another variant even more transmissible than Omicron could arise and set us back again. Yet for now, the forecast for the post-Omicron spring and summer looks cautiously hopeful here in the US. Let’s take this moment to recharge our batteries — while continuing to test when we need it, and to keep an eye on what the virus is doing in our area. If and when the next surge happens, we’ll be ready.