Last week the government announced solid dates for opening Aotearoa New Zealand’s borders to the world. Despite my deep understanding for the plight of overseas kiwis trying to get home, I’m feeling pretty nervous. In general I’m not a fan of abdicating systematic health measures for individualist ones. But, we knew this day would come eventually. Best we can do is get ready.
Having lived in Europe for the past two years (I moved from Aotearoa to Germany February 2020lmao), I’ve developed a bunch of “pandemic habits” — rituals, big and small, to minimise the risk of catching or spreading covid. You probably have your own habits already in place. This is by no means a definitive list. Hopefully this can give you a small example of what someone else’sApart from mild asthma and bronchitis that occasionally flares up, I am otherwise a healthy ~30 year old with no dependents. Your risk tolerance might differ. pandemic habits look like, from someone in a place with less restrictions (and many, many more cases) than Aotearoa had.
A note on personal risk assessment
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in the past two years of pandemic living, it’s that constant stress can kill as much as any disease. So, putting a stake in the ground for your own risk tolerances and developing reusable rules (and ways you’ll update them!) can save from being stuck in a perpetual limbo of making what feels like life-and-death decisions every single day in an ocean of fear, uncertainty and doubt.
For me, I was not comfortable with the idea of getting or spreading covid at all, but both exercise and socialisation slammed to a halt, because 99% of the time I opted to stay home. Looking back on it, there were definitely times in the summer when I could’ve afforded to be much more social. The stress and depression that came with isolation meant that I lacked motivation for even low-risk activities, such as hiking and going for bike rides. Going into year 3, I’m definitely going to focus on getting out more. This doesn’t mean letting go of other mitigations, though.
I’d also developed an (entirely arbitrary, based on nothing but my gut feels) response to the daily city covid numbers (though ideally I’d like to only be checking it weekly). For example, my points of reference for test positivity rateThis of course assumes high levels of testing throughout the pandemic, which may not always be the case. But I wouldn’t worry about that in New Zealand, we’re pretty onto it with our testing. look roughly like this:
|Positivity rate||My inner dialogue|
|<1%||as far as things go, this is the good times|
|~3%||gettin nervous :/|
|~5%||time to rethink any indoor eating or drinking|
|~10%||i’m staying tf home :)|
|>30%||ok i’m REALLY staying tf home|
Other numbers that factor into how likely I am to opt out of events include the running 7-day average case numbers for my local area (>50 per 100,000For comparison, the winter wave in 2020/21 (in Munich) had a 7-day-average incidence of around 200; the omicron wave in the winter of 2021/22 currently is hanging over 2000. is when I’ll start getting nervous) and whether it’s trending up and down (assuming a 3-5 day lag between infectious-in-the-community and test result).
I have to reiterate that these reference points aren’t based in science or data or even much logical reasoning. That’s the thing with hard decisions: they happen when you don’t have enough data or knowledge and can’t reason your way out of it any more than you already have. I spent so much of my time checking statistics and reading studies and making back-of-an-envelope calculations, I was hitting diminishing returns and all that extra stressing was getting me nowhere. At that point, there’s only two things I can do: know what is important to me, and commit to a decision. After the commitment, either something works out or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, I can update my stakes in the ground. Whatever happens, I’ve done the best I can, and I shouldn’t beat myself up over it.
They say while variants might be able to escape vaccines, they can’t escape the laws of physics. Mask diligence is probably the most effective thing you can do to prevent transmission. Get the best masks you can find / afford. Elastomeric respirators with P3 filters are best (especially if you’re doing any travelling or visiting a hospital), but for everyday use, a handful of P2 masks that you reuse will be fine. If supplies are low, surgical is better than cloth is better than nothing. Remember to get respirators without exhale valves, to protect those around you.
sounds much more complicated than it actually is. Unless you’re in an infectious disease hospital situation, you only really need to
- Put on your mask
- Huff and puff
- Feel where the air is leaving the gaps and how much
For a reasonably well-fitted N95/KN94/P2 mask, I like to use 3M surgical tape to tape the nosebridge / undereye area, since that’s where air tends to leak on my face. A bonus is this will stop any fogging that occurs if you’re wearing glasses. (The downside is this can be a pain to remove, so prepare for that.)
For a surgical mask, I’d like to share a genius method my friend Kathy showed me: a well-fitting cloth mask over the surgical mask. On surgical masks, it’s the side/cheek area that tends to leak the most — wearing a well-fitted cloth mask on top holds the sides down and helps a lot of leakage.
For elastomeric masks, follow the fit testing instructions that come with it. A common one is negative-pressure testing: cover up the filters with your (clean) hands, and breathe in gently. You should feel resistance and no air leaking in around the mask.
At home I use what I call the yoghurt pot method: I wash out and collect used yogurt tubs (those 1L ones), then line them up on a shelf next to my apartment door. Each used mask gets its own tub, and sits suspended inside. Since I haven’t been going out much, I have only two masks in rotation — you may need more. Every time I come home, I put my mask in its tub, every time I leave the house I put on the one that’s been on standby the longest.
You could make a simple First In, First Out system by lining up your yoghurt pots and always taking from the leftmost or rightmost pot. When you demask, put your used mask in the empty pot you took it from, then move it to the end of the line and push everything left/right.
I’ve also seen a paper-bag method with days of the week marked on each bag, which looks like a much more compact (and visually nicer) storage method. As long as your used masks stay untouched for >72 hours, they should be safe for reuse (h/t @jwildeboer; thanks!).
Also, do not wash your P2/KN94/N95/FFP2 masks. The mesh fabric comes imbued with an electrostatic charge that helps with capturing smaller particles. Washing these masks will neutralise that charge. Thanks to @mcmillen for mentioning this!
The gross factor
Every time I see someone take off their mask to sneeze or cough, I die a little inside. Okay yeah, sneezing inside your mask is gross. But keeping our gross human juices inside the mask is kinda the whole point.
As the numbers go up, you’re going to want to keep that mask on for longer periods of time. The best way I’ve found to stomach this is to 1) mentally prepare by expecting it to get a bit gross. You might sneeze, your nose may run, you might all of the sudden notice the smell of your lunch. Just… be emotionally at peace with it. 2) Put a packet of tissues and hand sanitiser in your regular carry. When you get a moment outdoors, (preferably not around other people) you can de-mask and freshen up. 3) Always carry at least 1 spare mask.
In the before times I’d recant the Sacred Words every time I left the house: “keys, wallet, phone”. Now this incantation is, “keys, wallet, phone, mask”.
In my bag always now are: spare masks, hand sanitiser, tissues, and some 3M surgical tape.
Depending on how nervous I feel, I might leave maskless and mask up for public transit, supermarkets, shops and crowds. If the numbers are rising, I’ll opt to mask-with-tape before I depart, and leave the mask on my face for the entire time I’m out.
Case the joint
When arriving into any building, I’m immediately on the lookout for open windows and doorsAlso, always knowing where the exits are is just a good habit in general. Wow, am I outing myself with this right now? Sorry. I’m a chill person I swear, and will try and place myself next to one of those. I’ve awkwardly opened windows at restaurants before — yep, I’m one of those people. Sorry not sorry. Ventilation is key!
Of course, if you’re eating or drinking, outdoors (and not too crowded) is best. Don’t be shy if you’re not feeling comfortable — you can always find another place with outdoors seating.
Coming home ritual
Every time I come home, I do the following:
- Wash hands
- Gargle back of throat with mouthwash
1 and 2 are self-explanatory. 3 is a nice-to-have, but for me, worth doing. It won’t prevent you from catching covid, but if you have been exposed, lowering the viral load any way you can is good.
Opening windows and getting a good cross-breeze going is the easiest and cheapest way to remove buildup of viral areosols. When I went into the office in summer, the first thing I’d do when I arrived was to open up all the windows.
If you’re frequently spending time in a room with bad ventilation, a portable HEPA filter can’t hurt. Here are some recommendations from Wirecutter. You’ll, uh, need to actually run it, of courseI bought an air filter for my parents to use at the shop and they never turn it on!!! yelling!!!.
Air quality is something you can infinitely nerd out over when it comes to your own home (with CO₂ monitors, HVAC designs, etc), but it’s also the lowest risk environment you’ll likely be in. So unless you’re living with someone who’s sick, the impact/effort ratio is pretty low.
If we ever want to get back living somewhat like how we did BC (Before Covid), we’ll need to petition our workplaces, schools, healthcare centres and local governemnts to upgrade our shared spaces to take air quality into account. A reminder that your democratic duties include lovingly cyberbullying your local government in the name of public health, xoxo
Flights; long haul travel
There are unsurprisingly some extra things to take into account when you’re flying or travelling for a long period of time. The most important of which, I believe, is the mental preparation. Be patient, be calm, be kind. Processes take longer, tensions are high, everyone is stressed. Be extra kind and friendly to the people around you. Try and keep your spirits up. If others are rude to you, take a deep breath and let it go. Everyone is having a difficult time. If you can keep a positive spirit and a clear head, everything else will be fine.
Arrive extra early for everything. Be prepared for a lot more waiting around, lines, document checks, etc. Be patient!
For long-haul trips, you’ll be wearing a mask almost non-stop for about ~40 hours. Consider getting masks that secure around the crown of the head instead of the ears, or a selection of both that you can switch between. Though, I would keep de- and re-masking to a minimum.
Long haul travel is where I’m going to insist you get an elastomeric mask. Order one at least a month beforehand, to leave plenty of time for it to arrive. You’ll be able to choose filters for these as well: opt for the highest filtration you can get. This will be P100/P3/N100, depending on the country of origin. Get at least one spare filter set; two or three if you can afford it. Carry at least one spare set with you in your carry-on.
Have pre-planned rules for when you’ll remove your mask during your travel. Because aeroplanes with jet engines have HEPA filters and great air exchange already, I think it’s weirdly a lower risk environment than inside airports. My personal rule was to never remove my mask while waiting at the airport, and only to eat and drink on the plane. Note that while the plane is still on the tarmac, the air in the cabin is probably being recycled, so keep your mask on for taxi.
Remember when I said prepare for your mask to get gross? Multiply this by tenfold for long-haul travel. Especially for elastomeric masks — the seal is so good, they capture all the moisture from your breath and will form pools of water inside the mask. Bring tissues with you to soak up this condensation and wipe down the edges with hand sanitiser occasionally, when you find a quiet moment on the plane (I like to do this when everyone else is sleeping).
You’ll be able to find hand sanitiser everywhere, but I found a 50mL personal bottle to be super handy nonetheless. I also brought with me a 90mL bottle of Listerine mouthwash to gargle with as soon as I arrived in my destination accommodation.
You will need to remove your mask at the airport for passport checks. Be prepared, be swift, and put your mask back on as soon as you can.
Isolation / quarantine hotels
This section will be irrelevant very soon as NZ is getting rid of MIQ requirements at the border, but I wanted to mention a few things I did to minimise catching covid in a hotel where there is high likelihood that other people have covid:
- Use some fabric (I used the pants I wore on the flight) to plug the bottom of your hotel door. There have been cases where infections were explained by air leaking under doors.
- Be mindful of windows. Are they facing other hotel rooms? Are you a few floors off the ground where there’s a decent breeze? Are other windows open at the same time?
- If you have the space in your luggage, a small portable air filter can’t hurt. I had mine running 24/7 while I was at MIQ.
Take vitamin D supplements if you’re not going outside enough (which, in a pandemic, is likely). It’s not going to save you if you catch covid, but a vitamin D deficiency will make it more likely you get a severe bout of the disease.
Do some exercise. Eat your veges. Take care of yourself!
Obligatory vaccination mention
You’ve read this far so you’ve probably gotten yours already. So hey - well done! If not, what the fuck?! Go. Do it now. Know someone who got the first two but is putting off the booster? Text them. Do it now.
In general, my approaches are all attempts to reduce viral load. No mitigation is going to be perfect, but doing as much as I reasonably can at any given time will help a lot. Even if it doesn’t prevent my from catching covid in the end, hopefully the viral load will be low enough that I don’t get too sick, or become too infectious before my body gets rid of it. Long covid is a real fear for me. I rely on my brain for my livelihood, so the reports of chronic fatigue and brainfog is really worrying.
In general-er general, I hope by now we’re all seeing the writing on the wall: covid is not going away any time soon, no matter how much we wish it would. We’re not going to get out of this pandemic unless we implement some sweeping, infrastructural changes. My hope is that schools, offices, business and governments will start thinking seriously about air quality, ventilation and filtration. Seriously enough to actually implement upgraded fans and filters in buildings. Long after the pandemic is over, I hope we continue to wear masks on public transport and public indoor spaces like supermarkets and libraries. I haven’t gotten a cold in the past two years — wouldn’t it be great if we could be rid of airborne diseases once and for all?
Anyways, I hope this was at least somewhat helpful. I’m probably forgetting things — let me know if you notice something that should be here, and I’ll add it.
Good luck, Aotearoa. You’ve got more brains, vigilance, and most importantly, more love and care of each other than most other places I know. You’ve kept out the OG, you’ve squashed variants alpha through delta. You can do this.