I have never had COVID-19. Does that mean I’m in the clear? How to continue to avoid it?

We are now more than two years into the pandemic.

Although some state health authorities are suggesting that everyone will get COVID-19 and people are catching the virus twice, there are still plenty of Australians who have never tested positive.

How many Australians have never caught COVID-19?

It’s impossible to know for sure because some people may have had the virus but weren’t tested at the time, probably because they didn’t have any symptoms.

Without a positive test result, this type of case would not be counted.

And now that rapid antigen tests (RATs) are in widespread use, official figures rely on people self-reporting their positive results.

The data we have includes only confirmed cases reported to state and territory health authorities.

Starting Monday, over 7.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in Australia throughout the pandemic.

It’s not a small number.

But if you consider that to include repeat infections and compare it to Australia’s estimated population of over 25.8 millionwe can say that there are still quite a few Australians who have not had the virus.

How can I avoid it now that the restrictions have been fully relaxed?

Mask mandates and even quarantine for close contacts have been scrapped in most Australian jurisdictions.

But while we’re in a different phase of the pandemic, University of Sydney infection control expert Marilyn Cruickshank says the ways we can protect ourselves haven’t changed.

“It’s still the same methods we had before – social distancing, wearing a mask and good hand hygiene – really are the best ways to avoid it,” Professor Cruickshank said.

What mask should I wear?

An N95 or P2 maskif you can get them.

Professor Cruickshank said they are the leading masks for something as transmissible via airborne particles as the Omicron variant.

Then comes surgical masks and, at the bottom of the ranking, homemade cloth masks.

“Fabric is better than nothing,” she said.

Of all the masks you can wear, N95 or P2 masks are the best to protect you. (Provided: 3m.com.au)

What places should I avoid?

The problem is that because COVID-19 has become so prevalent, the places we can’t really avoid can also be quite risky.

Professor Cruickshank said it was highly likely that if you contract COVID-19, you will catch it from someone you live with.

“The biggest problem is when household members get infected,” she said.

“You cannot wear masks and social distancing in your home.”

And it’s not like you can avoid your own home.

Professor Cruickshank said a case of COVID-19 could self-isolate once they tested positive ‘but, beforehand, you don’t know’ and that’s when transmission could occur.

She also said social events such as weddings and birthday parties could be high-transmission events, even when people were careful, as people often took off their masks to eat and drink.

COVID-19 spreads more easily in poorly ventilated indoor spaces, so avoid those places where you can.

Are there more subtle ways to be safe?

If your friends or family have already had COVID-19, they might be more relaxed about protective measures.

But there are still a few things you can do as a group to help reduce the risk of COVID to yourself and others.

Professor Cruickshank said heading outside was your best bet.

She suggested sitting outside when you go out to a coffee shop and hosting events in the backyard when people come to your house.

A group of young people enjoying a night out with wine and food
To reduce the risk of transmission when reuniting with friends and family, opt for outdoor dining. (Provided: Adobe Stock/Mirko Vitali)

Wear a mask if you can’t social distance and consider the airflow when indoors.

Open windows and doors to let in as much fresh air as possible, but consider how the air filters.

If you use a wall-mounted air conditioner – for heating or cooling – the World Health Organization recommends opening the windows for a few minutes every hour, as the unit will likely only recirculate air.

The same goes for the fans.

However, you can keep a room closed with a central air conditioning system if it is set to a setting that introduces more outside air into the room.

Also, if you’re driving, use the climate control setting that brings in outside air.

If I’ve dodged the virus so far, am I safe?

Maybe but don’t count on it.

“Theoretically there could be people who won’t get it,” Professor Cruickshank said.

Although there have been cases where people have lived in the same houses as people with COVID-19 and have not contracted the virus, the professor said it was likely that it was simply due to luck.

“That doesn’t mean you won’t get it,” she said.

And, if you already had it, you might get it again.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 isn’t like chickenpox or measles, where you catch it once and you’re immune.

Professor Cruickshank said it was closer to the flu, where there is a different strain every year.

“People have had COVID two or three times,” she said.

“If you had Delta you can get Omicron or the original Alpha and if another strain comes along you can get it again.”

A negative COVID-19 rapid antigen test and the instruction document sitting on a wooden table
Just because you’ve come this far without contracting COVID-19 doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. (ABC News: Danielle Maguire)

If I’m likely to contract COVID-19, why bother to protect myself?

“The take home message is that we still don’t know what we don’t know,” Professor Cruickshank said.

She said that while some people have mild cases, others can get very sick from the virus.

“We see people who are at a higher risk of getting diabetes and we see people who have had heart attacks who have had COVID. Shane Warne was a good example of that,” she said.

And then there is long COVID.

“People feel really tired and exhausted for a while,” Professor Cruickshank said.

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At 105, May Harrison has survived COVID – but experts are warning Australians to be careful.

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