‘COVID is still with us’: steps you can take to protect yourself this winter

We all know how to protect ourselves against Melbourne’s bitterly cold winters – black puffer jackets, black umbrellas, and of course, black coffee.

But as we experience our first ‘normal’ winter after two years of closed borders and staying at home, it has become even more important to make sure we’re taking extra steps to protect ourselves against the many illnesses that circulate more easily with everyone huddled inside during winter.

Professor Rhonda Stuart, Director of the Monash Health South East Public Health Unit, says, “we can’t forget that COVID is still with us.”

“The new strains of COVID that have become dominant in our community are causing re-infection with people who have already had the illness, even within the three-month period when our natural immunity is strongest, so it means having COVID once before doesn’t mean you’re ‘safe’.

“With international travel resuming, we’re also seeing large spikes in the spread of cold and flu viruses. Protecting yourself against these viruses is vital because they can cause anyone of any age or background to become very unwell.”

There are a few simple steps that we can all take to stay healthy and well this winter.

Stay up to date with your vaccinations

Vaccination will give your immune system the best chance to fight off the flu and COVID viruses.

“While vaccination doesn’t mean you can’t catch a virus, it will reduce the severity of the illness, which could mean that you don’t become critically ill or require hospitalisation,” said Professor Stuart.

“Vaccination is critical for people over 65 or with compromised immune systems. We’re also seeing many children become very unwell with the flu this year. So don’t just consider vaccination for yourself, but ensure your family members get vaccinated too.”

The Victorian Government recently extended the offer of free flu vaccinations for all Victorians until 10 July, so speak with your local GP or pharmacist to ensure you’re protected.

It’s essential to ensure you are up to date with your COVID-19 vaccination, which means getting your third or fourth winter dose if eligible. To learn more about eligibility and where to get vaccinated, visit the Victorian Government’s COVID-19 website.

Wear a mask when you can’t physically distance

While masks are no longer mandatory in most settings, they are highly recommended as an easy and effective way to reduce the chances of catching a cold, flu or COVID virus.

For most people out and about in the community, Professor Stuart says a mask can provide extra protection to keep people safe.

“There are lots of times where you might end up in a situation where you can’t physically distance over winter, like busy shopping centres, cinemas or theatres, or restaurants and cafes.

“Choosing to wear a mask is a small step that offers great protection, and for anyone vulnerable to becoming very unwell, they are really important to keep wearing.”

Don’t forget some other basics, like washing or sanitising your hands often and coughing or sneezing into your elbow, which also help to reduce the spread of illness.

Stay home when you’re unwell

If you are unfortunate enough to become unwell, whether it’s during winter or any time of year, it’s important that you stay home to rest and recover.

Heading into work or school when you have cold or flu symptoms might mean you spread the viruses further, or if you’re unlucky, you could even catch more than one virus.

“It is possible to become unwell with both the flu and COVID at the same time, so it is worth taking any measures you can to reduce your chances of getting sick,” said Professor Stuart.

“If you do catch a cold, flu or COVID virus, most people can recover safely at home, and it protects the more vulnerable members of our community if you stay home when you are still experiencing cold or flu symptoms.”

Get tested and report positive results

If you have cold or flu symptoms, you should seek a rapid-antigen test (or RAT) to check if you have COVID-19. If the test is positive, share your result with the Victorian Department of Health.

Professor Stuart said reporting your result is key to ensuring you’re offered the correct treatment.

“If you test positive for COVID-19, all Victorians are offered care by the COVID Positive Pathways program.

“Depending on your circumstances, if you’re considered at-risk for becoming ill, you can be offered additional treatments to reduce the likelihood of you becoming critically ill with COVID.

“However, these treatments are most effective when provided early, and we can only offer these treatments if you report your result.”

To learn more about where and how you can be tested for COVID-19, visit the Victorian Government’s COVID-19 website.

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