By Dr. Oliver Brooks | Op-Ed 

As we settle into the new year, COVID-19 continues to evolve and change. Public health experts continue to track the emergence of additional strains of COVID-19, underscoring the importance of choosing to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 and the flu.

Two years after the rollout of the vaccine, California has administered over 87 million doses of the vaccine. We’ve learned a lot about how to protect ourselves and our communities, and we have the tools to stay better protected. Testing, treating, vaccinations and boosters are key factors in staying healthy against COVID-19.

It is great that people can be out and about, spending time with family, and attending church services, concerts and events. But it is important that we use the tools we know work to slow the spread and lessen the severity of viruses. Spending time in close proximity to others, particularly indoors, poses a higher risk to COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses. That’s why it’s important to stay home when sick or wear a mask in indoor public spaces to limit the spread of germs.

Although progress has been made over the past two years, so we cannot afford to let our guard down, especially now that respiratory infections are like COVID-19 and the flu are circulating.

Testing remains a critical element in the fight against COVID-19. Testing regularly helps identify if treatment is needed especially if you are experiencing symptoms such as fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headaches, loss of taste, sore throat, congestion, nausea or vomiting or diarrhea. Because these symptoms are similar to the flu and common cold, it’s important to know what you are dealing with.

You can self-diagnose at-home for COVID-19 with home tests. Every household in the U.S. is eligible to order four free at-home test kits this winter. If you have not already, order your test kits today at www.covid.gov/tests.

Treatment is also an essential tool. If you test positive for COVID-19, you should contact your doctor or a test-to-treat site immediately to seek treatment. Treatments work best when started right after symptoms begin and can reduce your chances of severe illness. Do not wait for symptoms to get worse. COVID-19 treatments are safe, highly effective and recommended for anyone 12 years of age and older who are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness, such as those 50 years and older, obese, with diabetes, or other conditions.

Choosing to protect yourself and your community by staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccination, including getting an updated bivalent dose when eligible, is critical to maximizing protection against COVID-19. Vaccinations and boosters continue to be our leading defense to limit severe illness, hospitalization and death. Declining immunity over time is primarily responsible for breakthrough infection and vaccines are our most effective tool against COVID-19. This continues to be true as the virus evolves and new variants present.

I encourage you to stay healthy this new year and keep your immunity strong with the updated, most protective booster. And if you are not vaccinated, get vaccinated. That is the best thing we can do for ourselves, family and community to help stop the spread of COVID-19 so that hopefully one day the virus will be eliminated.

To find a dual COVID-19/flu testing site near you or to schedule an appointment for a vaccination or booster, visit MyTurn.ca.gov. Flu testing is also now available at all state COVID-19 testing sites. Results take about 30 minutes and help people determine the best course of action to take to feel better.