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Health experts say those who are at high risk for serious illness from COVID-19 can still go out and enjoy the outdoors, but should avoid congregating in settings where there are large groups of people. Getty Images
  • The pandemic has put a damper on many summer plans.
  • This is especially true for many who find themselves at high risk for serious complications if they develop COVID-19, such as older people, and those with compromised immune systems or conditions like heart disease.
  • Health experts say there are ways to strategize how you spend your time outside to ensure you’re being responsible.
  • Outdoor activities like hiking, canoeing, or just going on a day trip to enjoy nature in a secluded space are all ways to safely take advantage of the season.

We’re in the second half of the summer. The sun’s out, it’s nice weather outside, and you might be thinking about taking some well-earned vacation time. In normal years, this would be a time for travel and fun.

Of course, now that we’re living through the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns over the coronavirus have put a damper on many summer plans.

Infection rates are continuing to climb throughout the United States as we head deeper into summer.

As a result, many who are high risk for developing severe illness if they contract the coronavirus — older people, and those with compromised immune systems or conditions like heart disease — are wondering how to enjoy the summer while protecting themselves and others from COVID-19.

During a time when we are asked to shelter-in-place and physically distance ourselves, can we still go outside and embrace the summer?

Dr. Timothy Brewer, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, told Healthline that it’s all about minimizing your exposure.

The more people you’re in close contact with, the greater your risk of contracting the virus. He said there is a way to strategize how you spend your time outside to ensure you’re being responsible. This doesn’t mean being a shut-in and avoiding the summer months altogether.

“If you’re traveling, make sure you aren’t around a large concentration of people at any one time,” Brewer said. “You can go out and enjoy the outdoors, but don’t congregate in settings where there are floods of people.”

Think of all the images of people clumped together closely at beaches or at summer parties without masks. Avoid these types of settings.

Brewer advised wearing a mask or a protective face covering, and keeping yourself physically distanced at a distance of about 3 to 6 feet if you have to enter a store or an enclosed area with other people, for instance.

Also, wash your hands frequently with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer.

Basically, adhere to the essential public health recommendations for COVID-19. Use common sense, Brewer stressed. If you’re not feeling well and haven’t been recently tested for COVID-19, stay at home to prevent possible transmission to others.

While the weather is nice, before the fall and winter chill sets in, the desire to try to embrace the summer as usual runs understandably high. For many who have been cooped up inside for months on end, the warm weather and blue skies can offer a temptation to ease up on preventive measures.

Brewer emphasized that you should avoid this kind of thinking.

“I think the thing to remember is really we all are in this together. Not only do you want to protect yourself — you don’t want to become sick — but you want to protect those around you. This means both your loved ones plus people you don’t know,” he added.

“[It’s] important to remember the virus is not going away. We are still in the middle of a pandemic.”

Brewer said outdoor activities like hiking, canoeing, and going on a day trip to enjoy nature are all ways to safely take advantage of the season.

Sunning yourself on the beach is still a possibility. Just wear a face covering and sit away from others, or go during a time that might be less crowded.

“It’s all about ‘How can I take advantage of the summer while at the same time not increasing my risk or the risk of anyone else of getting SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19]?’” he said.

“Again, it’s not only your own health, but the health of those around you.”

Brewer added, “You have to remain vigilant, but it doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of the summer, with particularly outdoor activities being at lower risk.”

Dr. Humberto Choi, a pulmonologist at Cleveland Clinic, told Healthline that the nicer weather has put some people who have been strictly sheltering since the outbreak began in a position where they are learning how to transition back to the outside world.

He has patients with conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who’ve been without much physical activity while staying at home for 2 or 3 months in a row. These patients share with him their concerns about how to get back to exercise and moving around outside.

“They are now beginning to come to my office for their lung problems. They haven’t been able to do a lot of physical activity at home all this time and they’ve lost endurance and lost muscle mass as well,” Choi explained.

“I do advise them to try to start a new routine, something very simple like walking in the neighborhood.”

He said he tells patients who are at higher risk for serious complications from COVID-19 to practice these new routines during a time of day that might be less busy outside.

Anyone taking a walk down an empty path in the middle of the afternoon can remove their mask, but they should make sure they put their face covering back on if others approach them on their walk, he added.

“I usually advise them to plan ahead in order to still try to do some physical activity during this pandemic. Now might be the time to get out of your comfort zone and try to do physical activity that is more individual like yoga — they may be able to do that just by themselves,” Choi said.

For these people, he added that he emphasizes it’s important to regain endurance and strength for their lung and overall health.

As some venture outside in the summer weather for the first time since before the coronavirus outbreak, he said it’s important to be realistic with goals and expectations.

Just as people have been trying to think outside the box of how to safely socialize during this time, you might have to be creative in how you approach physical activity outside this summer.

“It’s important to realize, ‘I may not be as strong as I was 3 months ago.’ As a runner myself, if I don’t do any running for a week or so, I won’t be able to runs long as I could before,” he added.

“It’s even more difficult if you are just slowly trying to get into an exercise routine that is safe right now. It does require more planning than before.”

Every summer, there are concerns over how the intense heat of the season can affect people’s health. In normal years, just on their own, heat waves can impact everything from travel to health dangers for children and older people.

Summer heat can pose a serious risk during all hours of the day, not just during the typically sunny hours of the morning or midday.

COVID-19 has exacerbated some of these concerns, adding a dangerous pandemic on top of usual worries over how heat waves can endanger people’s health. Many of the people most at risk for developing severe illness if they contract the coronavirus are also most affected by summer heat.

Sabrina McCormick, PhD, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at The George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, recently published an essay on Medium highlighting the “double exposure” threat that COVID-19 and summer heat waves pose.

Dr. McCormick indicates that these dual health threats disproportionately affect low-income Black and Latino communities, especially in major cities that face the brunt of extreme heat waves.

“While this extremity of impact seems newly disproportionate, it is actually an echo of this previously dangerous environmental health phenomenon caused by an even larger, looming public health crisis — extreme heat exposure driven by climate change,” she wrote, highlighting how this isn’t just a summer-driven COVID-19-era phenomenon, but part of the larger threat of global climate change.

Given that many people in these communities don’t have access to or can’t afford life-saving air conditioning for their homes, many find themselves stuck inside facing extreme heat while trying to adhere to stay-at-home guidelines to protect against COVID-19.

It presents a difficult public health tightrope to walk. People in this situation have to try to survive a pandemic while also staying cool. But climate change-driven heat is difficult to avoid for communities that face systemic roadblocks preventing them from staying safe.

“In the United States, there is a very tight correlation between temperature and class and race, while race and class tend to be tightly correlated to communities of color,” McCormick told Healthline.

“Predominantly African American and Latino communities tend to have higher temperatures in cities across the country as the summer heat gets worse. It will get worse in August, and then on top of that, lower income communities tend to have less access to air conditioning.”

Given that Black and Latino communities have been hit particularly hard by the virus, this presents a public health concern that is often under-discussed in the greater conversation we’ve all been having this year surrounding the pandemic.

McCormick said that as temperatures continue to escalate in tandem with COVID-19 numbers the deeper we get into summer, it’s important to try to avoid indoor environments while also remaining cool.

She said one solution has always been seeking out green space that includes the necessary shade of trees. The conundrum is a lot of low-income communities of color lack access to plentiful green space, especially inner city areas.

McCormick said this once again feeds into the larger concern of climate change — this green space is necessary for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

People in these communities looking for options might have to travel to find such spaces.

Brewer added that in the past the recommendation would be to seek out an air-conditioned movie theater or an indoor shopping mall.

With those options particularly dangerous during the pandemic, it might be prudent to reach out to your local public health department to see what arrangements have been made for vulnerable individuals who lack air conditioning systems in their homes.

Brewer said fans can be helpful depending on the level of humidity. They don’t work well during particularly highly humid periods.

He stressed that staying hydrated is key right now. Make sure to drink a lot of water, especially if you don’t have a way to easily stay cool while sheltering at home from COVID-19.

Some groups within these communities are at higher risk than others. Older people and those with chronic health conditions who also happen to live in underserved low-income communities have to be vigilant during the pandemic and summer heat.

“It’s another similarity between heat and COVID-19 — older populations are at risk for both,” McCormick said.

“We also have to be especially concerned about those with pre-existing conditions like diabetes, obesity, heart conditions. Both COVID-19 and heat test our immune system, so the double exposure to COVID-19 and heat is really testing those with weaker immune systems.”

She added, “It’s harder for them to sustain that double exposure.”

McCormick also included pregnant women and young children as part of these at-risk groups. She said Black women in this country have high rates of premature births and mortality, risks that are made worse by the pandemic and the summer heat waves.

“These are our most precious resources. The most vulnerable people are babies and pregnant women. To protect them, you have to think about the air and the climate, the heat,” she said.

McCormick added that people at large haven’t fully wrapped their heads around how tackling climate change and air pollution is a part of dealing with these dual threats.

Higher air pollution and lower air quality, increased temperatures, and systemic blockades preventing people from staying cool and accessing healthcare easily all make the ravages of COVID-19 more deadly.

“What we do know is that improving the air quality, decreasing air pollution, will help us both from climate front and the COVID-19 front,” McCormick stressed.

“If we don’t address air pollution, don’t address this escalating heat from climate change, and we also aren’t addressing COVID-19 fully — well, we don’t then understand the importance of the interconnection of these things. The evidence is quite solid.”

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