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Assessing your risk for COVID-19 when choosing activities

Dr. Tammy Penhollow is a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. She offers advice for safely returning to work, restaurants, or fun.

PORTLAND, Maine — As the number of COVID-19 cases seems to be dropping and vaccine doses are rising, people are starting to feel more comfortable getting out of their homes; but there are a lot of things to consider about your own personal risk.

Dr. Tammy Penhollow specializes in osteopathic medicine. She says we all have varying degrees of risk when it comes to contracting the virus, or spreading it; some of those factors include underlying health conditions; medications you're taking; and your level of exposure at work.

1) What is the social activity and where is the activity? Indoors is higher risk than outdoors. Fewer people present is better than larger gatherings.

For example, at restaurants I recommend being seated outside and only eat there if the tables are at least 6 feet apart and there’s not a lot of foot traffic in front of your table. The wait and service staff should be masked, as should you (and your guest), except when actually eating. Wash your hands (or use hand sanitizer you’ve brought with you) after you touch the menu, if you touch the salt/pepper shaker, to clean your credit card if you’ve handed it off, if you use a pen to sign the check. Alternatively, meet friends or family outdoors at a home or a park and bring your own picnic and plenty of hand sanitizer.

Children at camp, birthday parties, outing with friends: outside is better than inside activities. Think large groups inside a pizza parlor versus kids outside at a park or even a large backyard with thoughtful placement of chairs, maybe individually wrapped plasticware, plenty of hand sanitizer and a sink for washing with soap/water when hands are visibly dirty. Prepare your children ahead of time to continue to have good hand hygiene, send them with a mask and their own hand sanitizer. Don’t send them if they’re running a temperature >100.0F

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2) Who is the activity with? High risk versus low risk participants including yourself. As a healthy person without any comorbidities, I may be lower risk in a social setting than someone undergoing cancer therapy or who is older. But if, for example, I’m also a healthcare worker, exposed to 40 patients and staff each day (even if we’re taking precautions and using PPE), I’m at a slightly higher risk of being an asymptomatic spreader of the disease and may not want to expose my elderly grandmother or cousin with rheumatoid arthritis who is taking immunotherapy and is on steroids.

3) If you’re on the fence about going out or allowing your child to go to a social event, consider going and allowing yourself time to assess the situation: even if I had reservations at a restaurant, or a barber’s appointment and they said all these safety measures were in place, I would arrive and observe: Are people wearing masks? How many people are being allowed in what square feet of space? If it looks okay, and you and they are wearing masks, go ahead. If you do not feel comfortable with something you see at a restaurant, hair salon, etc., say why and leave.    

In the end, every person is different and each situation they are placed can be evaluated on its own and the answer may change from day to day. Is it a want? I want to go to the coffee shop with a friend and sit outside to catch up in person. Is it a need? I need to go to work in person every day because I’m a frontline worker. Or is it both? I want and need to see my family for the first time in 3 months because I miss them and I’m getting depressed by only spending time at work and home. Mental health is important and we’ve all taken on the emotional and physical stressors of the pandemic and the economic crises.

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