Sorry to disappoint, but Covid-19 is still a present and persistent threat. The United States is amid a months-long ascent of confirmed cases — with no sign of leaders reimplementing mask mandates and two new, potentially more infectious omicron subvariants rearing their ugly heads — just as summer party season is in full swing.
Among the tried-and-true mitigation efforts, like masking and ventilation, testing remains essential, regardless of vaccination status, particularly if you plan on gathering in any capacity. (While risk of infection is much lower for outdoor events, testing is important regardless of whether your party is inside or outside.)
“Testing really, really matters,” says Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician and researcher at Stanford University. “The problem is, as time goes on and people are more fatigued, they may not think that it matters.” Testing fatigue can materialize during large events like concerts, Karan says, primarily because you’re not as likely to see other attendees again. It’s highly unlikely you’d ever know if other concertgoers got sick.
After years of postponed vacations and celebrations, Karan says people may be hesitant to test themselves before these significant events out of fear they may have to skip the occasion if they test positive. Add in the potential cost for tests and logistical hurdles in even finding a testing center and it’s no surprise folks might skip this precaution altogether. However, the ignorance-is-bliss mindset causes more harm than good since there is an extremely high likelihood of transmission should an unknowingly infectious person attend a party.
Testing before a gathering is quick, low-cost, and relatively accessible compared to during the omicron surge of 2021 and early 2022. Here’s what to keep in mind about testing if you’re attending or hosting a party this summer.
If you’re swabbing before a bash, test as close to the start of the event as possible, Karan says. This involves some planning, as testing is no longer free for people without insurance — costing anywhere from $100 to $200 for PCR tests and $10 to $40 for rapid tests — and some testing locations have shuttered. Because PCR tests take longer to process (and you have a higher likelihood of getting exposed to Covid in the interim between getting the test and the event itself), Karan recommends partygoers use rapid antigen tests. “Antigen tests are very good at detecting if you have transmission potential, especially early in your infection,” he says.
Every American household is eligible to receive free at-home tests by mail or can get reimbursed from health insurance companies for the cost of rapid tests. The government also maintains a database of testing locations offering free or low-cost tests; some municipalities are distributing at-home rapid tests at libraries and community health centers.
If you have been exposed to someone with Covid-19, you should ideally test multiple times in the week before your event. “That’s how you’ll really pick up an infection and stop spread,” Karan says.
As disappointing as it may be, if you get a positive result on your pre-party test, do not attend the gathering. Tell your host you’ve tested positive for Covid-19 and you’ll have to miss the event but you’ll celebrate with them once you’ve recovered. “You have to be willing to say, ‘I’m not going,’ and that’s the trouble that we have,” says Donald Yealy, chief medical officer at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “We noticed that people, either with symptoms or occasionally when they’re positive, still want to try to have that social contact. And that just means that you become a spreader.”
While testing before a party can help you feel confident you won’t spread Covid to other attendees, your single negative test won’t have a major impact on spread if no one else at the event has tested. In cases where hosts aren’t requiring guests to test beforehand, or if you’re unsure of the protocol, check the community’s Covid-19 level online and make the best decision based on personal risk assessment, says David Souleles, the director of the Covid-19 response team at the University of California Irvine.
For example, if the county where your cousin’s indoor baby shower is held has a high level of transmission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing masks indoors in public regardless of vaccination status and improving ventilation (which you likely have very little control over). For immunocompromised or high-risk people, the CDC recommends wearing an N95 or KN95 respirator and talking to your doctor about treatments like oral antivirals.
“If you are vaccinated and boosted and are not at high risk, you may choose to test yourself and attend the event, and then test again three to five days following the event. You may also decide that you want to mask while attending the event even if your host is not requiring masking,” Souleles says. “If you are someone who is at higher risk for serious disease, or live with or are frequently around someone who is at higher risk, you might decide to pass on a particular event in order to reduce your risk.”
Party hosts have the power to dictate Covid protocols at their event. Should you require a negative Covid test from your guests before the event, it’s up to you to decide how to verify guests’ results, Souleles says. While most party-throwers are probably comfortable with an honor system, trusting their guests have indeed tested and would stay home if they’re positive, others may want to ask attendees to show a photo with a timestamp of their negative test. Another option, Souleles says, is to provide rapid tests for guests to take upon arrival — though, depending on how big your party is, this can get expensive if you’re paying $10 for a single test.
In the event you or another partygoer later tests positive and informs you, tell other guests as soon as you can, Yealy advises. Don’t tell the rest of the guest list who came down with Covid, but say, “I just wanted to let you know we had a guest who tested positive.” This way, guests can make a timely, informed decision about testing and whether to isolate.
In addition to swabbing prior to an event, Souleles says everyone should test again three to five days following the gathering just to be safe. If you’re traveling to a wedding and are extending your stay following the nuptials, pack a few rapid tests to take with you so you don’t have to scour local pharmacies for tests, Souleles recommends.
If you do test positive days after the party, again, tell your host or guests as soon as possible, Yealy says. “You won’t know the medical conditions and the risks for a serious version of Covid-19 of all the other people you came in contact with,” Yealy says. “The kind thing to do is to just let them know so that each individual can assess how worried do I need to be about that.”
While the process of informing your network can be “really tough psychologically,” Karan says, the sooner those around you are aware they’ve been exposed, the more likely they are to isolate and test and hopefully prevent further spread.
Testing is only one aspect of mounting a solid defense against Covid-19. When you can’t be sure if other party-, wedding-, or concertgoers have taken the same precautions as you, rely on other mitigating efforts, Yealy says: vaccination, masking while indoors or at crowded events, and improving ventilation. “Do the simple things,” Yealy says, “and do them well.”
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