Time to mask up again? Avoid crowds? Here’s what COVID experts are doing

Dr. LaMar Cochran, left, an ER doctor and VP Training/Clinical at DriveThru Urgent Care by Viral Solutions, and nurse practitioner Yasmin Sealy, talk to drive–thru patient earlier this week. With a new COVID strain on the rise, the AJC asked Dr. Cochran and other medical experts what the public can expect in the coming months. (Natrice Miller/natricemiller@ajc.com)

Dr. LaMar Cochran, left, an ER doctor and VP Training/Clinical at DriveThru Urgent Care by Viral Solutions, and nurse practitioner Yasmin Sealy, talk to drive–thru patient earlier this week. With a new COVID strain on the rise, the AJC asked Dr. Cochran and other medical experts what the public can expect in the coming months. (Natrice Miller/natricemiller@ajc.com)

No doubt COVID-19 trend lines have improved considerably over what they were in the early days of the pandemic. Yet the constantly mutating virus remains ever-present.

Around the country, infections have crept up in recent weeks after holding steady for much of the year.

We asked medical experts what a weary public can expect in the coming months and how they, as health care professionals, are personally navigating these days when the virus is safer but not safe. We also wanted to know if they plan to take the latest injection, approved earlier this week.

Responses have been edited for space and clarity.

Dr. Abubakr Chaudhry; Dr. LaMar Cochran and Michael Eriksen

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Q: How concerned are you about the latest uptick as we head into fall and winter months?

Dr. Abubakr Chaudhry, pulmonologist and medical director of quality and patient safety at Northside Hospital: An uptick in any virus can affect the most vulnerable among us. However, our saving grace is that we have treatments that are keeping people out of the hospital and helping them recover faster.

Dr. LaMar Cochran, chief clinical officer of DriveThru Urgent Care by Viral Solutions: I’ve accepted that COVID is here to stay, and I understand that we will get seasonal upticks. Like many of us, I have seen the worst of COVID when we were in the middle of the pandemic, and we are nowhere close to that level of hospitalization and death. At the same time, people are still dying from COVID. So, it is still important to take precautions — such as, if you’re having cold and flu-like symptoms, staying home and wearing a mask in public.

Michael Eriksen, founding dean of Georgia State University’s School of Public Health: The good news is that nearly all Americans already have some antibodies for the coronavirus, either through prior infection or vaccination, so that should help. But I think we’re still getting to know the coronavirus, which has been fickle and unpredictable. So this winter season will tell us a lot.

Dr. Cecil Bennett, Dr. Spencer Lee and Kari Love

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Credit: Contributed

Q: Will you get the new updated vaccine as soon as available? Or will you wait until we are deeper in the fall or winter season? Will you also get a flu vaccine?

Dr. Cecil Bennett, medical director of a primary care center in Newnan and an adjunct professor at Morehouse School of Medicine’s Family Medicine Program: When the COVID vaccine is available ― and I hope to have it in my office ― I will get it. I’ll encourage my entire staff to get vaccinated and, of course, encourage all my patients to get vaccinated. I am also getting my flu shot.

Dr. Spencer Lee, pulmonary disease and critical care specialist at Northside Hospital Cherokee: I will get the new updated vaccine as soon as it is available. I recommend getting up to date on all recommended vaccines heading into the fall. That includes making that recommendation to my family and friends.

Q: Are you taking any additional precautions now? Are you going to restaurants, movies, football games? Do you mask up ever?

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Dr. Mandy Cohen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: We’re back to doing all the things we love, visiting family, going to restaurants. But my 9-and 11-year-old daughters, my husband and I will also be getting vaccinated for COVID and the flu. We can do all of the things we love, but we have to live with this so we want to use tools to protect ourselves.

Chaudhry: As a family, we do go out to eat and recently went to the theater with our kids. As we are all vaccinated, currently, we don’t wear masks in public places unless we are feeling unwell. We do encourage hand hygiene, so we love to see sanitizing stations in public spaces.

Cochran: As long as I don’t have upper respiratory infection symptoms, I will go out to restaurants, professional sporting events or other gatherings. I just hope most people have the mindset to stay home if they are sick. COVID is here to stay and, as long as I’m taking appropriate precautions, I’m going to enjoy life and not live in constant fear. This is also important for your mental health.

Eriksen: I’m behaving roughly the same now as I did earlier in the pandemic, except eating inside restaurants more often now. I’m still avoiding large indoor events. I only wear a mask when going to the doctor or hospital, or flying.

Kari Love, a registered nurse and corporate director of infection prevention at Emory Healthcare: I will eat at a restaurant as long as there is an outdoor seating area, or it is not too crowded and has adequate airflow. If we begin to see a surge like we did in the past with the omicron variant, I may limit these exposures. As far as movies or football games, depending on the size of the crowd, I will take the precaution of wearing a mask. I always have hand sanitizer with me and have continued to disinfect my hands in all public places.

Q: What do you tell your friends and family about protecting themselves and others?

Bennett: The most important thing is being vaccinated.

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Cochran: Stay home if you’re having upper respiratory infection symptoms. If you must go out with symptoms, you should wear a mask and avoid those who are high risk.

Love: Be aware of the situation you are going into. Have a mask available and carry hand sanitizer. Stay away from anyone who is ill. We learned a valuable lesson from COVID: Masking works, and they can provide protection if worn appropriately.

Dr. Jayne Morgan, executive director of health and community education for Piedmont Healthcare: I tell my friends and family to do what they can about the factors we can control: Wash your hands, stay home when sick, and get vaccinated for flu and COVID. If you have some sniffles or a mild cough, do not assume it is nothing. Make sure you test yourself for COVID or stay home.

Q: Have you either had COVID recently or an exposure? What was your takeaway from the experience?

Eriksen: I got COVID last summer while vacationing in Italy and had to isolate for half the trip. Fortunately, Italy is so lovely that I still had a good time after finally testing negative.

Love: I had COVID about a year and a half ago, and I was able to access the approved antiviral medication (Paxlovid), which can reduce the severity of illness. I have been exposed recently. Fortunately, I was masked and had hand sanitizer available, so I did not develop COVID.

Chaudhry: I believe I’m one of the fortunate few who have not experienced a COVID infection. I attribute that mostly to luck, but also to my hospital’s focus on preventative measures, early vaccinations and good hand hygiene.

Q: We are well past three years in the pandemic now. What is your general feeling about where we are?Are you sleeping better at night?

Cohen: Well, look, we’re in a better place than we have been in the past. However, we can not put COVID officially in the rearview mirror.

Chaudhry: I am hopeful with the advancements in targeted vaccinations. I do believe that Mother Nature has a way of adapting and surviving. This battle against viruses and diseases will be ongoing. But, as our tools become more effective, I believe we will be able to save more lives. Regarding sleep, I believe any sleep now is better than the sleep quality during the pandemic.

Lee: There were so many unknowns at the start of the pandemic, but we are now in a much better place. I am confident in all areas from testing to treatment across the board.

Bennett: I’m not sleeping better at night ― not necessarily because of the risk of this being a bad COVID season. I’m not sleeping well at night for one reason: There’s still a significant amount of misinformation that’s being spread about vaccines. And that’s detrimental to the U.S population going forward for at least a decade. A million Americans died within a two-year period of COVID. A million Americans. And look at the reaction. It’s almost like ‘Oh, well.’ Has there been any mourning in this country? Any outcry? Any outrage that this can’t happen again? I’ve not seen it. I am not seeing it at all. And that’s a problem.