As the holiday season brings families together, health experts are expecting cases of COVID-19 to rise.
In the week following Thanksgiving 2022, hospitalizations from the virus increased significantly despite a lull in the early fall, just as health experts have seen this year, CNN reported.
Emergency room visits for COVID-19 have increased 7% from late September until Nov. 11, suggesting a case spike is on the horizon, according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In preparation, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it would again offer free COVID-19 testing kits delivered to your door beginning on Nov. 20.
Here’s what you need to know.
Is it COVID-19? The flu? RSV?
COVID-19 is just one pillar of the “tripledemic” making its way across the United States. The increase in cases aligns with both the annual flu season and the rise of RSV infections.
Many of the symptoms of all three respiratory illnesses overlap, so here’s how to tell the difference, according to the CDC.
Runny or stuffy nose, fever, cough, fatigue, sore throat, muscle pain, headache and vomiting are all symptoms of both COVID-19 and the flu.
However, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms are more frequent in the flu than with COVID-19.
Both illnesses can cause changes to taste and smell, but a total loss of one or the other is more likely with COVID-19 than the flu.
RSV symptoms also include a congested nose, cough, fever and sore throat, but the cough is more likely to be very dry and fevers are less severe, according to the Mayo Clinic.
RSV infections are more common in young children and older adults, including those with preexisting respiratory or immune conditions.
When to test for COVID
Symptoms can begin anywhere from two to five days after you’ve been exposed to the virus, the CDC says. In some cases, it may take as many as 14 days after exposure to show symptoms.
Anyone who knows they have been exposed to the virus should take a COVID-19 test between four and five days after they have been exposed to see if they have been infected. You should take the test even if you aren’t experiencing any symptoms.
If you don’t know whether you have been exposed to COVID-19 but start experiencing symptoms similar to the illness, take a test.
If you are experiencing any symptoms, you should also test before going to a family gathering or group get-together to prevent the spread of the virus.
How to get free testing kits
While you may have leftover COVID testing kits at home, the tests do have expiration dates, so it’s important to keep recent tests stocked.
“Every home in the U.S. is eligible to order an additional 4 free at-home tests beginning November 20. If you did not order tests this fall, you may place two orders for a total of 8 tests,” according to the HHS. “Your order of COVID tests is completely free – you won’t even pay for shipping.”
You can request updated, free at-home tests at covid.gov/tests.
You can find free, in-person COVID-19 testing locations at testinglocator.cdc.gov.
I’m positive for COVID-19. Now what?
First things first – stay home.
COVID-19 spreads from person to person when water droplets from one person, let out through a breath or a cough, are inhaled by another person. This is much more likely to occur in group settings or while eating, making Thanksgiving and other holidays this season the perfect opportunity for the virus to spread.
COVID-19 can also be spread as many as eight days after symptoms begin, the CDC says. This means you can continue to spread the virus even after you start to feel better.
The most recent CDC quarantine guidelines, updated in May, suggest quarantining from others in your home for a minimum of five days following a positive test.
If your symptoms persist the entire five days or worsen, the CDC says you should continue to isolate until you’ve gone more than 24 hours without a fever (without using fever-reducing medication) or your other symptoms begin to improve.
If you test positive but do not have any symptoms, you should still quarantine for five days while you are infectious, but can end your isolation after that time, the CDC says.
Preventing sickness this season
The newest COVID-19 booster was approved and released in mid-September, and targets the most variants to date.
“We know when we get to Thanksgiving, people are going to travel, they’re going to gather, and that’s when viruses spread,” CDC Director Mandy Cohen told Health. “Right now is the best time for folks to protect themselves so they can build up those antibodies ahead of the holiday.”
The shot is recommended for everyone over the age of 6 months no matter what prior vaccinations they’ve had for COVID-19.
Vaccinated or not, you should wash your hands frequently, avoid busy areas, cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, and wear a mask if you feel sick, the CDC says.