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As COVID-19 and the pandemic evolve, so do the questions about what we should be doing to keep ourselves and our community safe.
Dr. Amir Barzin is here to help.
The director and lead physician of the Carolina Together Testing Program answered 10 commonly asked questions about COVID-19, the omicron variant and the best ways to stay safe this semester.
1. How is omicron different from delta and other COVID-19 variants?
I think this is a very common question that we get asked in the medical field. One of the things that we have seen in early data that’s come out from countries such as South Africa and the U.K. is that the length of time of illness and the severity of illness tends to look like it’s shorter. What we have seen is faster transmission, but it hasn’t had a proportionate increase in the rise to hospitalizations and ICU stays, as we would expect if it was another variant like delta.
2. What is different about COVID-19 testing this semester?
Because omicron has a shorter incubation period and can be more rapidly transmitted, our testing mitigation strategies that we did before for large swath testing — maybe on a weekly basis or a biweekly basis — may not be as effective now. What we wanted to do — knowing that some members of our community really rely on this testing to use as another tool in their tool belt — is to make sure that if you were getting tested, we had adequate ability to give you a fast response.
Let’s say, for example, if 5,000 people got tested in a day, that would really strain our lab to be able to give a timely result. So if it takes us four days to get you a lab result that you took earlier, that lab test is really no good. And so our goal is to try to trim that test result time as much as possible, and we can do that by helping regulate the number of tests that are coming through on a daily basis. So we’re asking members of our community this year to use Hall Pass to actually register for a test. And so you basically book a reservation when you go to hallpass.unc.edu.
You can still go to the Carolina Union to be tested. It’s still the same collection method. It’s still the same process. But as opposed to allowing walk-ins as well, we’re working off a reservation system.
3. How can I get a COVID-19 test if I am asymptomatic?
We still have the ability for people who are asymptomatic to be tested through the Carolina Together Testing Program.
We don’t necessarily recommend widespread testing of asymptomatic individuals because what we’re trying to do is think about the global picture of testing supplies and then also adequacy in testing. The other thing that I really want people to take to heart about testing is that that test is only really as good as that test in that moment of time that you take it. Just because you get a negative test result doesn’t mean that the next three, four or five days takes you away from any exposure that you could have to COVID.
So these are the important elements that I think are very pivotal to making sure that people view tests in the right way and utilize them in the right way. It doesn’t take away 100% of the ability to say, “I had a negative test, there’s no way I’m going to get COVID in 24 to 48 hours.” That’s one of the reasons why this context of asymptomatic testing may not be as helpful. But again, we know that our community has asked for it, and that’s why we’re continuing the testing program to have access to it.
Reservations can be booked online at hallpass.unc.edu and utilizing that on the schedule of Monday through Friday testing.
4. What are the common COVID-19 symptoms now?
With symptoms, sometimes we use them as a correlate to what we can think of in terms of disease. For a lot of the respiratory illnesses that we have that usually happen at this time of year, you would feel like you would have very similar symptoms. So cough, fever, headache, chills, body aches, all those things tend to be the most prominent symptoms.
More so with delta and prior strains of the coronavirus or COVID 19, we saw a loss of taste and smell. I’m not necessarily saying that that can’t happen with omicron, just not as prevalent.
5. What should I do if I have COVID-19 symptoms?
That’s a really good question. I think we get asked this a lot, “What do you do in the case of when you have symptoms, and what are the best things to do?”
In general, we would hope that people understand that if you’re feeling ill, the best thing to do, especially if you work at the University or if you’re a student at the University, is to stay at home. Don’t come to class. Don’t go to work. Get tested to see if you are positive because that actually starts the clock on your isolation period, which is really important for us to know, too, and being able to say, “I had a prior infection. It’s safe for you to get back into school or to work.”
For some of our members of our community, they could potentially, if they are positive, be eligible for outpatient treatments, such as monoclonal antibodies or a couple of the new oral medications that have come to market. Paxlovid or molnupiravir are two newer oral medicines that help treat the symptoms of COVID-19 in the outpatient setting, as opposed to being in the hospital.
6. What are the best tools to reduce the chances of getting COVID-19?
When we think of our best mitigation efforts, our best mitigation strategies, it’s really doing two things. One: People who are vaccinated have a lower chance of contracting the omicron variant or COVID-19, and that number actually goes down even more — or there’s more protective effects — if you’re boosted. So the No. 1 best strategy that we can say for our community members is get vaccinated. And then when you’re eligible for a booster, get a booster.
A second one is to wear a mask whenever available, and we’re encouraging people to wear a well-fitted mask.
7. What guidance do you have about selecting and wearing a mask?
In terms of masks, I again would encourage people to go to the CDC’s website where they recommend how you should wear a mask. The most important thing for masking is that if you are wearing a mask, it should be what we call a “well-fitting mask.” So that means a mask that’s not very loose. Not one that’s hanging down below your nose or below your chin. Not one that has a lot of extra gaps on the sides.
The CDC does say that cloth masks are acceptable if they’re a three-ply cloth mask, and then also surgical masks are beneficial. KN95 masks or N95 masks have been asked a lot about. Do we need to wear those all the time? Do we have to have them? The thing that I caution about, with KN95 or N95 is, again, if it’s not fitted appropriately and it’s loose all the way around, you’re just as susceptible to being able to get the virus.
The most important thing is that you wear a well-fitted mask.
8. What should I do if I am a close contact of someone who has COVID-19?
This is really a challenging situation because there are different progressive routes based off of your status on how you’re vaccinated and boosted. But the current guidance on this: Based off of what the CDC has recommended, if you are a close contact of someone and you are vaccinated and have received your booster, then what you can do is monitor for symptoms. You don’t need to quarantine or isolate, but you should monitor for symptoms and you should be tested if you develop any symptoms.
If you are unvaccinated, or if you are negative with a primary series but you have not received your booster, then you are to quarantine and monitor for symptoms. But then you should receive a test later on — at around day five, if available.
What we’re basically saying — and I think that the important part in this is that really the key measure is to get tested if you’re symptomatic — monitor for symptoms and wear a mask as much as possible.
9. What are some of the key steps to follow to make this semester safe and successful?
What we’re trying to do here is maintain a semblance of our community and importance of learning in an on-campus university and an instructional mode that makes the most sense. So what we want is for students to thrive in college, to be able to learn and for our faculty to be the excellent educators that they are. I do believe that one of the ways that the University has tried to do this is by promoting the use of vaccinations and boosters in our community as much as possible.
At last count, about 93% of our students and about 93% of our faculty had received their primary immunizations. We are going to turn on the ability in our same platform where you told us if you had received a vaccination to be able to tell us also if you have received a booster. So we are encouraging people to please do that because I think it’s going to help us just have a semblance of understanding how many people in our community are boosted.
The other thing that I mentioned is really trying to mask as much as possible and to use good judgment whenever you’re around a lot of people. One of the things that I want to promote is like when you’re in a dining situation, try to limit the amount of time that your mask is down. It’s always helpful if you can try to congregate in smaller groups. Outdoor activities — I know that the weather is changing and it’s cold — but it’s also sometimes nice to be out in some brisk weather and just enjoy the outdoors on a walk or being in a group with others.
Those things are also helpful in terms of being able to decrease the threshold of being around the virus for a prolonged period of time, if it’s in the setting that you’re working at or you’re around others that have it.
10. Any final thoughts?
I would say that there’s really like two big keys to our semester being successful: really pushing and making sure that people are promoting and encouraging their friends or family or community to get vaccines and boosters, and then masking as much as possible. There’s nothing wrong with wearing a mask all the time if you feel more comfortable wearing a mask all the time. There hasn’t been a widespread recommendation that masking outdoors is beneficial at this time. But if a person feels more comfortable just leaving a mask on all day, we should encourage that on our campus.
We do definitely want everyone to abide by the masking rules in the residence halls and in our classrooms and to make sure that masking is done in an appropriate way at all times. Some people have asked if the University has provided certain types of masks. If you go to the UNC web page and the maps portion of that, I believe it’s maps.unc.edu, the web page actually outlines the masking stations that do have the three-ply masks, disposable masks that are available there. So if someone needs to pick one up, they can go to one of those stations, pick up a mask and use that for their classroom or while they’re on campus.
For the latest news on COVID-19 for students and their families, for faculty and staff, and for neighbors and visitors, check the Carolina Together website frequently.