Worried about catching Covid in the office? How to stay healthy

Workers are beginning to return to the office whether they like it or not. Many seem to share one glaring concern: Covid.

A recent Gallup poll found that one in three US workers is “very” or “moderately” concerned about Covid exposure in the workplace. The results come as many companies — including Apple, Goldman Sachs, Peloton, and Capital One — implement new return-to-office plans.

The in-person work trend has accelerated in recent months: according to another Gallup poll, 50% of US workers are already splitting their time between home and the office, and 20% are working in-person exclusively. Google returned most of its employees to the office three days a week in April – and its employees have been plagued by regular Covid infections and exposure reports, CNBC reported last month.

The US is still experiencing a steady bang Covid cases: The country’s seven-day average was more than 60,000 on Thursday, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is expected to increase this fall and winter as many people’s immunity to Covid vaccines wanes and Americans spend more time indoors, where the virus spreads much more easily.

The latest Gallup poll found that two-thirds of respondents said they expect Covid cases to increase “very sharply” or moderately this autumn and winter. If you still have to be in the office, here’s how to stay healthy.

Stay up to date on your Covid vaccines

Staying up to date on your vaccines is the best way to protect yourself from Covid. That means you’ll complete your primary series and get the booster shots you’re entitled to.

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Adults who have already received their primary series are eligible for an updated booster shot targeting both the original Covid strain and subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 of omicron. Together, these subvariants account for nearly 87% of cases circulating in the US, according to the latest CDC data.

Pfizer’s shot is for ages 12+ and Moderna’s is for ages 18+. You must be at least two months from your last dose of a Covid shot, the CDC says.

If you’ve recently recovered from Covid infection, you should consider waiting three months after testing negative before getting your updated vaccination, agency advisers note. Appointments for the new booster shots are likely to be available at a vaccination center near you.

Wear a mask in some environments

Mask requirements have been largely rolled back by employers and local governments across the country. Still, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends wearing a mask in the office if you:

  • You have not yet completed your main series.
  • Have completed your primary series but are immunocompromised
  • Have completed your primary series and are in an area with significant or high prevalence of Covid. Use the CDC’s data tracker to check infection and hospitalization rates in your area.

Even if you don’t fall into any of these categories, wearing a mask in the office can still give you extra protection from Covid.

If you don’t wear a mask in the office, you should wear one on your commute to and from work. The CDC recommends wearing masks on public transportation like subways or buses, especially when they’re crowded or poorly ventilated.

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Wash your hands frequently

Frequent hand washing may help prevent Covid, CDC says. If soap and water are not readily available, use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

In particular, it is advisable to wash your hands in the office before, after or during these activities:

  • Before, during and after preparing food
  • Before the meal
  • Before you touch your face
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • After using the toilet
  • After touching trash
  • After being in any public place, including public transport.

If possible, keep your distance from others

The CDC eased its social distancing recommendation last month, dropping the two-meter standard set at the beginning of the pandemic.

But keeping your distance from others can still help prevent exposure to Covid, the agency stresses. That’s especially important if your county has a moderate or high spread of Covid, the CDC says.

Instead of measuring six-foot distances in your head, try assessing the quality of the air you breathe around you, advised White House Covid response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha, at a virtual event hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation last month.

“In a crowded indoor space with poor ventilation, you can become infected within minutes. If you’re outside with obviously… good ventilation, you can be outside for a long time and not get it,” Jha said. “So context matters, crowds matter, ventilation matters. This is an important new update.”

Knowing what to do if you test positive, are exposed or have Covid symptoms

HHS says you should stay home from work if:

  • You test positive for the virus
  • You have Covid symptoms
  • You are not up to date with your Covid vaccines and have been in close contact with an infected person
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Regardless of your vaccination status, the CDC says you should get tested:

  • Immediately if you have any symptoms
  • After five days if you have been exposed to Covid and have no symptoms. Testing too early can lead to a false negative result.

According to the CDC, if you test positive for Covid, you should:

  • Stay home and isolate yourself from others for at least five days. That’s likely when you’re most contagious.
  • Wear a quality mask whenever you need to be with others, whether at home or in public.
  • Follow the CDC’s guidelines for ending isolation.

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