Though less frequently seen now, a well-fitted mask can reduce...

Though less frequently seen now, a well-fitted mask can reduce the chance a person infected with COVID-19 spreads it to others. It can also protect the person wearing it. Credit: Bloomberg/Angus Mordant

Those social distancing stickers may have faded and life for most people has gone back to normal since the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But while we've been happily shopping, entertaining and dining like its 2019, COVID-19 hasn't disappeared. It's still around, though deaths and hospitalizations have plummeted and many experts now say it's OK for most of us to treat it like the flu.

Here's the latest on COVID-19, and why you should still be paying attention.

Why should I still worry about COVID-19?

Fewer people are getting seriously ill or dying from COVID-19 than they did at the start of the pandemic in 2020, but that doesn’t mean the disease is gone.

Nationally, “we still have about 1,000 people dying a week,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, public health professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “COVID is here to stay and we ignore it at our own peril.”

On Long Island, 476 people died from COVID-19-related causes in 2023, down from 1,675 in 2022, according to federal death certificate data.

Advertisment for rapid testing outside in Patchogue in 2022. COVID-related...

Advertisment for rapid testing outside in Patchogue in 2022. COVID-related deaths on Long Island dropped from 2022 to 2023. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

People who are older and have certain health conditions are still at high risk of getting severe illness because of the disease. Experts said even young people who are at lower risk can pass COVID-19 to their older or more vulnerable friends and relatives.

“I think initially people thought we would get immune to it and it would kind of just die,” Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. Gregson Pigott said. “COVID seems to keep reinventing itself.”

How serious is long COVID?

Researchers still are trying to understand the condition known as long COVID, in which people continue to experience symptoms months or years after the virus infection is gone. Those symptoms range from fatigue and brain fog, to shortness of breath and changes in taste or smell.

Some studies show people who had more serious COVID-19 illness, did not get vaccinated or had underlying health conditions before getting COVID-19 are more at risk for long COVID.

How many people have long COVID?

Estimates vary about how many Americans have long COVID, defined by federal health authorities as effects from the virus at least four weeks after initial infection, but the gap between men and women is consistent.

An October Census Bureau survey found more than 17% of adult U.S. women reported having had COVID-19 symptoms at least three months after infection, compared with about 11% of men.

Who should still get vaccinated?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone 5 and older get one dose of an updated COVID-19 vaccine. But the vaccine is especially necessary for people 65 and older, as well as those with compromised immune systems because they are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Most of the COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations in 2023 were among people 65 and older.

Staying up to date with vaccinations also cuts down the chances someone will get infected and develop long COVID, experts said.

Nassau and Suffolk residents have a lower vaccination rate for...

Nassau and Suffolk residents have a lower vaccination rate for the latest COVID shot than the state. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The immunity that exists across the larger population, helped by both those who were vaccinated and those who were infected, will wane as fewer people get shots.

“If you haven’t been vaccinated since 2021, you may be close to half-vaccinated and you need a booster even just to maintain your less-vulnerable self,” said Sean Clouston, professor and epidemiologist at Stony Brook University.

How do Long Island vaccination numbers compare to others?

Interest in the updated COVID-19 vaccine remains low. Only 22% of U.S. adults — and 42% of people 65 and older — reported having received an updated vaccine, as of Feb. 3, the CDC says.

Vaccination data for Long Island is incomplete because there’s no longer a requirement that adult vaccination records be reported to the state. But according to that incomplete data, 9.5% of Nassau residents and 8.8% of Suffolk residents have received the updated vaccine, compared with 11.9% statewide.

Do vaccinations protect against long COVID?

There have been some studies that show people who are not vaccinated and become infected with the virus may have a higher risk of developing long COVID than those who were vaccinated, according to the CDC. But experts said more research needs to be done.

People who had severe illness from COVID-19 also are more likely to have long COVID. While anyone who is infected with the virus is at risk, it might be higher for people who have had COVID-19 more than once, Clouston said.

What variants are currently circulating?

Alpha. Beta. Delta. Omicron. The SARS CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 has continued to mutate. Tracking the variants is key for scientists in determining how easily they spread, how serious each version of the virus is and if vaccinations and treatments are effective against new strains.

The current dominant variant JN.1 has gone from being just under 8% of cases at the end of November to 92% of cases in early March. Researchers said it is too early to know exactly, but that JN.1 appears to be more transmissible than the previous variant but does not seem to cause more severe disease. The CDC also has said recently that vaccines “continue to work well” against JN.1.

How have the CDC recommendations changed?

In early March, the CDC updated its guidance for respiratory viruses including COVID-19, RSV [respiratory syncytial virus] and influenza. It eliminates the five-day isolation recommendation, with the agency pointing out that weekly hospital admissions for COVID-19 decreased more than 75% and deaths more than 90% when compared with January 2022.

People who are sick should stay at home and away from others for at least 24 hours after symptoms improve and fever is gone without the use of medication. At that point, people can resume normal activities and take precautions such as wearing a mask, keeping distance from others and getting tested for respiratory viruses. Those at higher risk for severe illness should seek medical care once they start feeling ill so early treatment can begin if needed.

What should I do if I have to travel?

The CDC recommends people make sure they are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccinations before traveling. Anyone who is ill should not travel.

People should wear high-quality masks or respirators when they are in crowded spaces like trains, buses, airport jetways and airplanes when the ventilation system is shut off.

Are masks still useful?

Unlike some other respiratory viruses, the one that causes COVID-19 is primarily spread through respiratory particles in the air, the CDC pointed out. So when an infected person wears the mask, it reduces the chance it will spread to others. A well-fitted mask that covers the nose and mouth can also help protect the person wearing it from breathing in those particles.

“As people stop using vaccinations, masking becomes our only real response,” Clouston said.

Clouston said people need to think about wearing masks when the risk of exposure is high, such as visiting someone in the hospital, even if you don’t think you have COVID-19.

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