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Staying Safe – And Staying Well – During a Pandemic Winter

By Eliza Skoler

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is not going away just yet, and as the weather grows colder and the holidays approach, you may have questions about how to keep yourself and others safe this winter. Here’s how to know (and lower!) your risks, plus tips for staying as healthy as possible

As cases of COVID-19 are spiking across the globe, the weather is also growing colder in many parts of the world. As we are starting to see in the United States, winter is intensifying the effects of the pandemic:

  • Due to the cold weather, people are moving outdoor gatherings indoors, where the risk of COVID-19 transmission is much higher.

  • For the same reason, it’s harder for people to be physically active outside to keep themselves healthy.

  • With the holidays approaching, many people are making plans to travel or visit loved ones, bringing the virus with them.

  • It’s flu season, and it can be dangerous to get COVID-19 and the flu at the same time – read our article “Flu Shots Are Even More Important During A Pandemic.”

These factors can all be scary for people with diabetes, who are at an increased risk of severe COVID-19 illness. In this article we’ll answer the questions you might have, and we’ll discuss ways that you can keep yourself and others as safe as possible this winter. You can find more resources on COVID-19 here.

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How is the virus spreading?

Coronavirus is transmitted through contact with infected people, whether or not those people show symptoms. COVID-19 is primarily spread through the droplets that come out of an infected person’s mouth or nose when they talk, breath, cough, sneeze, laugh, or sing. The virus is carried through these small droplets. Anyone close by can be infected by the virus if the droplets enter their mouth, nose, or eyes. Droplets can also land on surfaces (like door handles or food at the grocery store) and infect someone who touches a contaminated surface and then touches their face. Finally, according to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 can sometimes spread invisibly when tiny droplets stay in the air for an extended period of time after they are released.

With many ways for COVID-19 to spread, avoiding public spaces and people who do not live with you can dramatically reduce your chances of infection. We know that not everyone can stay home – if you are an essential worker, thank you for the work you are doing and please be as careful as possible. If you’re not an essential worker, do your part to slow the spread and stay at home whenever possible. Read our article “Not Everyone Can Work From Home: Addressing Worker Safety During COVID-19” for more information.

Know your risks: how can I stay as safe as possible?

The best thing you can do this winter is evaluate your risk. What does this mean? Over the next few months, every time you are considering doing something outside of your home, you should consider your chances of getting COVID. Here are the questions to ask yourself:

  • Is COVID-19 spreading in my community? Check out this interactive, county-level, risk assessment tool from researchers at Georgia Tech.

  • Will I come into close contact with other people who are not in my household? If so:

    • How many people might I encounter? How long will I be around them?

    • Will people be wearing masks?

    • Will I be indoors or outdoors? Will I be able to keep six feet away from others?

  • How will I get there? Will I have to travel to other cities or states?

  • Do I, or others in my household, have diabetes or other health conditions that increase risk for severe illness?

The CDC states, “In general, the more people you interact with, the more closely you interact with them, and the longer that interaction, the higher your risk of getting and spreading COVID-19.” These questions can help you understand the risk of an activity, to determine how it may affect your health or the health of your loved ones. Below we’ll talk about the risks – and ways to lower those risks – for gatherings and travel.

Is it safe to gather with family and loved ones?

The holidays this year may be challenging and different than what you are used to. Given the chances of COVID-19 transmission, many families are asking whether they should visit each other and celebrate together, especially if they have to travel to do so. For families with diabetes, it’s even more important to consider the risks of exposing yourself and others to additional people. 

Every time you come into close contact with a new person there is a risk of being infected with COVID-19, or infecting that person (if you have COVID-19 at the time, whether or not you are showing symptoms). The best way to stay safe is to minimize contact with other people; even a small gathering can be quite dangerous.This may mean that your family will celebrate the holidays virtually, rather than through an in-person gathering. The CDC recommends that people who have diabetes or who live with someone who has diabetes avoid in-person gatherings with people outside of their household.

If you do decide to see others, here are some of the best ways to be careful:

  • Do not host or attend a gathering if you or someone you live with has symptoms of COVID, may have been exposed to someone with COVID, or is waiting for test results, tested positive for COVID less than days ago, or has a fever.

  • Strongly encourage everyone who will attend to quarantine for 14 days before the event, avoiding contact with anyone outside their household. This will greatly reduce their chances of catching COVID and transmitting it to other guests.

  • Limit the number of guests as much as possible, and try to include only people from your local area.

  • Gather outdoors whenever you can; if people will be inside, open windows to increase air flow.

  • Have hand sanitizer and masks on hand to help keep people healthy.

What are the risks of travel and transportation?

As with every activity, when you travel, you run two risks: getting COVID, or infecting others with COVID. Here are the main questions you should ask if you are considering travel to a new place:

  • Is COVID-19 spreading at your destination?

  • Are you – or someone you live with – at an increased risk for severe COVID-19 illness?

  • Will you be around many people while you are in transit? If so, will people be wearing masks and taking safety precautions?

Each type of travel carries its own risks. What type of travel are you considering?

 

Risks

Benefits

Air travel

  • Close contact with people and high-touch surfaces while waiting in lines, going through security, or spending time in the terminal

  • Flights may be crowded making it impossible to social distance (not all airlines have social distancing policies)

  • Even if your airline requires that passengers wear a face mask, people are more likely to take off masks to eat and drink on longer flights

  • Air circulation and filtration on an airplane reduces the spread of germs

Bus or train travel, and public transportation

  • Social distancing is hard on public transportation, and you may be in close proximity to others for extended periods of time

 

Car travel

  • Stops along a road trip (for gas, food, or bathroom breaks) can expose you to other people and to high-touch surfaces

  • Most of your travel time is spent around just a few people

When traveling or using public transportation, you should always wear a face mask when you are in public spaces. As much as possible, stay at least six feet away from people not in your household and avoid touching any surfaces. Wash your hands (or use hand sanitizer) frequently, and upon arrival. Read more about travel recommendations from the CDC here, or read about transportation safety here.According to the CDC, the lowest-risk options are to travel short distances by car with the people you live with, or to stay home. The highest-risk option is air travel with airport layovers.

What other precautions should I still be taking?

It’s important to continue following the guidelines that recommend to protect yourself whenever you are outside of your home. Here are some basic steps you can take to prevent the spread of COVID-19:

  • Social distance by staying at least six feet away from other people.

  • Wear a cloth face covering when around other people in public. Your mask should fully cover your mouth and nose and fit snugly against your face. Read more about wearing and cleaning masks in our article, “The Latest on COVID: Staying Safe as The Pandemic Surges.”

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol when you don’t have access to soap and water.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Cover coughs and sneezes. Do not remove your mask to cough, sneeze, or talk to others.

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick, even in your home.

  • Monitor your health and be aware if you begin developing any symptoms.

One of the most important parts of being careful is wearing a mask – please wear a face mask when you are out in public, and encourage others to do the same! Face masks are essential to reducing COVID infection rates this winter. Learn about face masks, why they work, and what type to buy in this article from Johns Hopkins Medicine.

What can I do to keep my body as healthy and strong as possible?

It’s not too late to get a flu vaccine! This year, flu shots are more important than ever to avoid getting the flu and COVID at the same time – especially for families with diabetes. Read “Flu Shots Are Even More Important During A Pandemic” to learn how to tell the difference between the flu and COVID, and read “Get Your Flu Shot Now” for more information on how having diabetes can affect recovery from the flu.

For people with diabetes, it is especially important to carefully manage your blood glucose levels. Keeping your blood glucose levels stable will keep your body healthy and ready to fight off an infection. Please continue to take your medication, and keep extra medication and diabetes supplies at home, as well as supplies for low blood sugar events.

It’s also a good idea to maintain habits for healthy eating and exercise. Check out our delicious, low-carb recipes from Catherine Newman, including comfort foods and winter soups. As the weather grows colder, it may be harder to exercise outside, however, the American Heart Association has tips for staying active during the winter.

Finally, remember to take care of your mental health. The combination of the pandemic, diabetes, and the winter can be really challenging for many people. You can find our guide to managing stress and anxiety during the pandemic, and a list of free mental health resources here.

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