What to Do If You Think You Might Have COVID in 2024

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Although we may not be in lockdown anymore, COVID-19 is far from over. We used to have a decent handle on proper COVID protocol, wearing masks, getting tested, and quarantining after a positive COVID result. But in the years since, there’s been a slew of different COVID symptoms, variants, complications like long COVID, and recommendations from the CDC, making it a little more confusing to know what to do if you test positive for COVID in 2024.

Modern COVID protocol and recovery is further complicated by the presence of a new COVID strain called JN. 1. This variant is not yet entirely understood, but it’s already responsible for 44.2 percent of COVID cases in the US, according to data released by the CDC in December 2023. Based on wastewater data, COVID cases are also spiking again, with over 34,000 people hospitalized with COVID in January 2024.

“As the current cold winter weather drives people indoors and flu, colds, and other seasonal respiratory viruses circulate, SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has continued to mutate and spread,” says Raj Dasgupta, MD, a quadruple board-certified physician and chief medical advisor at Sleep Advisor. “As of today, it’s still important to get vaccinated and get tested if you suspect you may have the virus to prevent spreading it to others.”

With the presence of vaccines and the end of the public health emergency in May of 2023, life looks and feels a lot different than it did at the beginning of the pandemic. Hospitals now only need to report laboratory-confirmed COVID cases. Masking is no longer mandated. But the data proves the virus is still causing significant problems in 2024, and the damage is cumulative. So if you do end up getting COVID, or worry you might’ve been exposed, read on for up-to-date information that’ll help keep yourself and others safe.

Quarantine

If you suspect you’ve been exposed to COVID, the first step is to quarantine. That means staying home and not allowing anyone outside of your household to visit. “If you have had close contact, less than six feet away for 15 minutes, with someone who was potentially contagious with COVID-19 and has since tested positive, you should quarantine,” says David Cutler, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center. The previous recommendation was a full 14 days, but Dr. Dasgupta says that — while the science behind COVID transmission remains the same — many experts agree that “easing isolation timeframes would not significantly increase community transmission or severe outcomes, mainly because the virus has been circulating at high levels even with more restrictive guidance in place.”

The current CDC recommendations vary depending on symptoms and vaccination status. For people without symptoms or up-to-date vaccines, the CDC recommends five days of quarantine, followed by five days of masking, watching for symptoms until 10 days after the initial exposure. If you’re up-to-date on your vaccines, the CDC says you don’t necessarily need to quarantine unless you develop symptoms.

Monitor Your Symptoms

Keep an eye out for any of the primary COVID symptoms, and talk to your doctor if you’re concerned. This is especially important given the recent uptick in JN.1. “There is no evidence that JN.1 causes more severe disease, the CDC notes, but its rapid spread suggests it is either more transmissible or better at evading the immune system than other circulating variants,” Dr. Dasgupta says.

According to the AMA, many people with this variant experience symptoms like sore throat, congestion, runny nose, cough, fatigue, and headache. But previously, shortness of breath, fever, loss of taste or smell, nausea, diarrhea, and muscle aches were also common. “Self-monitor your symptoms and contact your doctor if you start to get sick,” says Sandra Kesh, MD, a deputy medical director and infectious disease specialist at Westmed Medical Group.

Get Tested

“If testing is available, get tested, and by ‘tested,’ I am referring to a diagnostic test (often performed as a nasal swab), and not an antibody test,” Dr. Kesh says. If testing is available, you should wait at least a few days after exposure to be swabbed, but “the ideal time is within five to seven days,” Dr. Kesh says. These days, at-home antigen tests can also help you determine whether or not you need to isolate.

If you already have symptoms, the FDA recommends testing immediately, then testing again if your first result is negative. If you don’t have symptoms, it’s ideal to wait at least five days from the initial exposure before testing. This will help prevent inaccurate results. You may also consider testing before seeing high-risk individuals, including people who are immunocompromised.

Isolate

If you end up testing positive, the CDC recommends staying home and isolating for at least five days, (although for more severe COVID cases, that number increases to 10 days). Isolation means staying away from anyone who isn’t sick. “If you have COVID-19, you can spread the virus to others especially when you are symptomatic,” Dr. Dasgupta says. “There are precautions you can take to prevent spreading it to others: isolation, masking, and avoiding contact with people who are at high risk of getting very sick.”

If you had symptoms, the CDC says you can end isolation after five days as long as your symptoms are improving and you’ve been fever-free (without the help of fever-reducing medication) for 24 hours. If you didn’t initially present with any symptoms, you can end isolation five days after your positive COVID test. Either way, you should still take precautions for the full 10 days, including wearing a mask.

Recover

If you end up getting COVID, there are some things you can do to recover more comfortably. “Getting quality sleep while you have COVID-19 is extremely important for your recovery,” Dr. Dasgupta says. “Use a humidifier if you’re having a dry mouth and nasal passages at night while getting over COVID-19.” He also suggests drinking plenty of fluids, eating healthy foods, and following the instructions for over-the-counter or prescribed medications.

Tell Anyone You’ve Been in Contact With

Even if you haven’t developed symptoms or tested positive, it’s probably a good idea to give people a heads-up that you’ve been exposed. “Talking to others about their potential exposure to COVID-19 is similar to talking about sexually transmitted infections,” says Michael Richardson, MD, a medical director at One Medical. “Whether you start to feel symptoms or not, if there is a chance that you could have the virus, it’s a good idea that you inform others they may have been exposed too so they can understand their level of risk and get tested if available.”

POPSUGAR aims to give you the most accurate and up-to-date information about the coronavirus, but details and recommendations about this pandemic may have changed since publication. For the latest information on COVID-19, please check out resources from the WHO, CDC, and local public health departments.

— Additional reporting by Chandler Plante

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