The coronavirus pandemic is, unfortunately, still ongoing around the world, over two years since it was officially declared in March 2020.
But with two years of spread, mutations and changes in public health guidance, it's a little bit less clear what to do to keep yourself and others safe from COVID-19.
Here's some of the latest information on how to test for, vaccinate against, and monitor levels of COVID-19 in Southern California, with information from the Executive Director of UCI Health's Family Health Centers.
Why and When Should I Get My First, And Second, Booster?
If you haven't already gotten vaccinated, Executive Director of UCI Health's Family Health Centers Dr. José Mayorga said, it's still a good time to start. The vaccines help train your immune system to hone in on COVID-19, so it can be more precise if and when you run into the virus for real.
"When we get infected by a virus, in this case omicron, our immune system throws everything and the kitchen sink at it," Mayorga said.
That's not always the most effective way of taking down the virus. With a vaccine, even if you catch COVID anyway, your body is better prepared to help you feel better, faster.
"What the vaccines are doing, it’s being very stealth and focused on the virus itself," getting your body used to recognizing and fighting off COVID more effectively than your immune system on its own, Mayorga said. It's "better to be more precise and accurate... and that’s what vaccines do."
There are a number of studies underway to see whether surviving COVID-19 once means you need to be vaccinated to reach the same level of immunity against the virus. But the consensus so far is that, even if you've been sick already, a vaccine can give you "a lot better protection," Mayorga said.
By the same token, boosters help train and refine your body's response to COVID-19 even further than the first two doses of vaccine, which is important as immunity fades over time and the new variants of the virus emerge.
It's especially important for deadly viruses like COVID-19, which isn't just a mild cold, and which can have severe long-term health effects for adults and for children.
And multiple vaccines aren't exclusive to COVID, Mayorga said.
"What we know and understand of vaccines, in general, it takes a series of vaccines to become fully protected against an infection," he said. That's the case for chicken pox, for tetanus, and pneumonia.
Plan Your Vaccine: How and where to get vaccinated.
Rather than thinking of COVID vaccines in terms of "extra" doses, it's more accurate to think of the boosters as a series, the same way there's a series of vaccines for those other diseases.
Getting a booster when it's medically recommended for you, he said, is just a matter of getting "fully up to date with their vaccine."
Here's the latest guidance from UCI Health and the CDC on who is eligible for which vaccines, including boosters, and when.
That schedule depends a bit on your specific medical situation and risks, but in general, you're eligible for your first booster shot five months after your second COVID-19 dose.
You can get the second booster shot about four months after the first, according to UCI Health, if you're age 50 or above. Kids ages 5 to 11 may soon be eligible for a second booster shot as well, if the CDC recommends.
Mayorga has three children of his own between the ages of 5 and 11, and they're all fully vaccinated, he said. "When the booster becomes available for their age group, I will definitely get them up to date."
"We put on our seatbelts when we get in cars, we put our kids in car seats, a lot of people use rain gear when it rains," Mayorga said. "Why venture into a pandemic, why expose yourself and not be protected?"
What is COVID Transmission Like in SoCal Counties?
The CDC has a "Know Your COVID-19 Community Level" tool that allows users to check how much coronavirus is moving through their county.
The "low, medium, or high" designations for each community are determined by "hospital beds being used, hospital admissions, and the total number of new COVID-19 cases in an area" at a given point in time.
People in low-community-level areas should get tested if they have COVID-19 symptoms. In medium-community-level areas, individuals at a higher risk of severe illness should talk to their doctor about wearing a mask and taking other precautions, and the testing suggestion still stands for everyone.
In high-community-level areas, everyone should wear masks indoors in public, and people with a higher risk of severe illness should consider taking other precautions.
In all areas, the CDC recommends staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccines.
As of Wednesday, May 18, 2022, here's how each county in Southern California looked when it came to COVID-19 levels.
- LA County: Low
- Ventura County: Low
- Orange County: Low
- San Bernardino County: Low
- Riverside County: Low
Where Can I Get a COVID Test?
California offers a map of COVID-19 testing sites, which you can search by zip code. That map tool is available here.
According to Mayorga, it's a good idea to take a COVID test if you're experiencing any COVID-like symptoms -- even if you think it's allergies.
The availability of at-home tests has been "a game-changer" in that regard, he said, making it easier for people to check any suspicious, flu-like symptoms.
If you're at all worried that your cold might be COVID, take one of those widely available at-home tests "within about 12 hours of the onset" of those symptoms. If it's negative, wait a couple of days and then take the test again.
In the meantime, he added, "be mindful, be cautious," and reconsider going out while you feel sick -- but in any case, a "good mask" is important.
That kind of testing is "really important" to minimizing how many others get sick, Mayorga said.
The federal government announced earlier this week that it will ship a third round of free, at-home COVID tests to your home.
You can also find local county testing information for your county on the county's COVID-19 website. See those sites below: