This week, there was another legal loss against COVID-19 protections as the Senate passed a defense bill repealing the COVID vaccine mandate for troops. As concerns around Covid continue to dwindle, new reports are surfacing on thousands of long Covid deaths and 300 to 400 people are still dying every day.

The Latinx community accounts for 15.5 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., but represents only 18.6 percent of the population. It’s too soon for us to throw precautions fully to the wind and finding middle ground is the best way to move forward in an evolving pandemic.

Due to the widespread apathy in our communities about the pandemic fueled by strong voices of misinformation, people are no longer wearing masks in public, even in high transmission zones, which is especially concerning when considering that Latinx people are among the groups that are one and a half times more likely to contract the virus and twice as likely to die from COVID-19 in comparison to their white counterparts. Uptake of vaccine boosters is also dismal with only 37% of those eligible getting their first booster and 24% getting a second booster.

All of this feels like a punch to the gut to me. As an Infectious Disease physician that started seeing COVID-19 patients in March 2020, emotions still overtake me from the trauma of seeing countless COVID-19 patients hypoxic and afraid on the way to ICU.

Many hospitals – like the Yale New Haven Health System where I work – are still close to capacity, financially burdened, and understaffed without enough rooms for patients (who are still being treated in waiting rooms). Additionally, another COVID-19 surge is a real concern, especially in the setting of other circulating respiratory viruses such as RSV.

But there is a middle way to safely move forward in the midst of covid.

Stay current on covid boosters. I recently finished two weeks in the hospital and saw a variety of patients with COVID-1—all of them had been vaccinated but were not up on their boosters.  One of them (who had come in with lung clots in the setting of COVID-19) said to me, “ I am tired of injections,” and simply didn’t understand why the initial two vaccines weren’t enough.

The initial vaccines provided excellent protection against severe disease and death. Unfortunately, protection from the initial vaccines decreases over time.  For this reason, your immune system needs a battery change or boost. Data shows that being boosted makes a difference with prevention of hospitalizations and deaths. Please consider getting the new bivalent booster (which covers the newer omicron variants). 

Furthermore, uptake of the boosters has been lowest in both Latinx and Black communities. I urge these communities, my communities, to strongly consider getting up-to-date on boosters.   

Don’t completely disregard masks. Public masking is quickly becoming a thing of the past as public voices (yes, David Leonhardt, that includes you) downplay the importance of masks.  With respect to masking –I know that throughout this pandemic, initial communications from national health experts were confusing (and wrong at times) about masking against covid. Then masking became political, and now it seems like mentioning wearing a mask is taboo. However, data shows that masks work and can prevent infections, as was recently shown in schools. This is why hospitals will likely continue to enforce masking despite the latest CDC recommendations. 

My advice is to at least wear a mask during periods of high transmission like the wintertime and in the holiday season as people visit friends and family. Consider wearing a mask in congested areas such as: airports, airplanes, trains, supermarkets, and places of worship such as churches and temples. If people cough next to you, put on a mask. Personally, I will continue wearing a mask in indoor public spaces (and remove it when outdoors) to protect myself and vulnerable people in my life.

Make use of covid testing kits and treatments. We are now in an age where any “cold” has to be ruled out for COVID-19. If you attend social events or visit vulnerable family and friends, test yourself with an antigen test – especially when you show signs of a respiratory illness (sore throat, congestion, etc.). Antigen tests are a good measure of whether a person is contagious or not, but test kits can be expensive and inaccessible to some, especially in rural Latinx and Indigenous communities. Your insurance providers should be covering a certain number of test kits each month. If they are not, call and urge them to start doing so.

If you do get sick with covid, take medication as prescribed. Oral treatments, such as Paxlovid have been shown to keep people out of the hospital.

Finally, there is so much we don’t know.  Long COVID is still a huge question mark and disproportionately impacts Latinx and Black populations. While vaccination has done extremely well with preventing severe disease (hospitalizations and death) it may not completely protect against long covid.  A recent study showed that even in the setting of mild COVID there was an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and clots a year after infection — which included people under 50. While vaccination did decrease the risk of getting long COVID; protection was only noted to be partial. Therefore, we do need to consider employing other methods to protect against COVID-19 and its possible long-term complications – please keep this in mind this winter.

While there has been major progress in the fight against COVID-19, the pandemic remains mentally and physically exhausting. Yes, I am an infectious disease specialist, but I am also a human. I want everyone to be able to live their lives without constant COVID-19 concerns and I would like to do the same. Simultaneously, I know that our individual actions affect – and can possibly endanger – the lives of other people. Let’s stay vigilant and take the middle way this winter and holiday season to protect our health and those we love.

Heidi Zapata

Heidi Zapata, MD, PhD is a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd project at Yale University. She is an Infectious Diseases Physician and Assistant Professor at the Yale School of Medicine.