As the weather cools and coronavirus cases spike in the United States and around the world, many are worried about what the winter will bring: In addition to the flu season and concerns about indoor gatherings, spread of the virus is increasing and hospitals are becoming overwhelmed with patients.
TODAY Health spoke to several experts in mental health, infectious disease, family medicine and more to find the answers to all the questions you have about preparing for the winter.
Try to shrink your social bubble
Experts fear that the cold weather might help spread the coronavirus, since it's expected that people will begin to gather indoors, where transmission is easier. One way to stay safe is to limit your social bubble as much as possible.
"People are opening their social circles and bubbles are sort of loosening; bubbles are getting bigger," Barun Mathema, Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, told TODAY over the summer. "Various bubbles are merging. There is sort of a collective pandemic fatigue, like 'We've been there, done that, now we're on the other side.' I would caution against that attitude. I don't think we have enough evidence to say that we're on the other side."
Limiting your social contacts right now is coming at a difficult time for most families: The holiday season is just around the corner, and many traditions involve gathering together.
"It's the height of flu season, and we've seen research that family gatherings even in the summer have been a source of outbreaks," said Gregg Gonsalves, Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut, in September. "I think Thanksgiving and Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa this year are going to be very different. We're going to have to figure out how to adapt."
Experts suggest that it could be best to make holiday gatherings virtual this year, especially if you tend to invite people from several different areas or people who are at a higher risk for the virus.
However, it's important to make sure that people are getting the social interaction they need to manage their mental health. Complete isolation, especially in a stressful situation like a pandemic, could be damaging to many, so experts recommend trying to come up with safe ways to connect with friends, family and loved ones.
"I think we're all trying to figure out how to engage in rituals that are positive," said Rebecca Berry, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor at NYU Langone. "In some ways, what's really important are our social connections. We can reduce social isolation by connecting in ways that are safe: Over Zoom, or outside and socially distanced. Humans need some sort of social connection, there's just no question."
Develop some back-up plans
While it can be scary to think about the worst-case scenarios, experts said it can help people feel more in control if they know what they'll do in some realistic situations.
"I think that COVID has made all of us anxious," said Claude Mellins, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. "There's a lot of uncertainty and there's a lot of things we can't control, and so being able to focus on what we can control is ... not everything, but it is definitely a small piece."
If you have children, know what you'll do for childcare if their school or daycare closes. Try to have a plan in place for if your family needs to quarantine: Will friends be able to drop off food and meals, or will your family use online delivery services to get groceries?
"Knowing that you have the basics in your house to care of yourself and your family, should things get to a point where we really need to isolate or if there's another run on toilet paper ... Certainly having enough of everything definitely helps people feel safer," Mellins continued, adding that she thought people should avoid hoarding unnecessary amounts of products.
It can also help to make sure that you can prepare for some extended time at home by having what you need for recreational activities. Mellins said that having an idea of what activities you'd like to do, and making sure you have the supplies necessary to continue those activities, can help make quarantine feel less overwhelming.
However, be careful not to plan so much you stress yourself out — try to focus on the realistic, likely scenarios, not the scary, worst-case possibilities. Be aware of your risks and what you need to do, but don't become fixated on the things that could go wrong.
"You really have to know your own anxiety about the future and how you are handling uncertainty," said Berry. "We don't want to assume the absolute absolute worst and overdo it. We want to just make reasonable plan and set up reasonable accommodations ... We don't want to hoard paper towels and toilet paper, but we want to make sure we have a plan as to how we're going to get supplies. Overdoing plan making can lead to a spiral."
Make sure you have the supplies you need
While you're planning, make sure you have what you need to spend at least a few days in quarantine. Experts recommend having some food and groceries stocked, which can be especially helpful if stores begin to experience shortages.
In addition to food, make sure you have supplies for basic care at home. While you should immediately go to a hospital or seek medical help if you are experiencing any severe symptoms, minor coronavirus symptoms can be treated with over-the-counter medications.
"Having things like Tylenol, or anything with acetaminophen, is great," said Dr. Kristin Dean, a family physician, in early October. "That's a fever reducer, and it can help with the headaches, body aches and muscle aches that you might experience with any of those illnesses."
Make sure you also have supplies for seasonal allergies or other winter illnesses like the flu or strep throat. If you take medication regularly, try to make sure you have enough to get through a few weeks without being able to go to the pharmacy.
It's not all about keeping the cabinets stocked. It's also helpful to make sure your home is winter-ready. Check brickwork to make sure that you don't have spaces where rodents can get into your home, and make sure to double-check the areas around doors and windows to make sure no cold air is getting inside.
Get your flu shot
Health professionals are urging people to get the flu shot in the hopes of preventing a 'twindemic' of the flu and the coronavirus.
Go to any local pharmacy or doctor's office to get your flu shot. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to become fully active in your body, so try to get it as soon as possible for maximum effect.