In the same report, the CDC said there’s no evidence that it causes more severe disease, which is always good news. Still, who wants to get sick at all? If avoiding infection is your goal, the standard best practice—keeping gatherings outdoors—still applies for reducing the spread of COVID-19.
Yet in many parts of the country, the temperatures are far from outdoors-friendly. “So much of the country is so cold right now that strategies that work in the south, like opening windows and blowing fresh air in with box fans, are just not feasible,” says Dr. Linda Yancey, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston.
However, recent CDC guidance highlighted one thermostat setting that might help reduce the spread of the JN.1 COVID variant during indoor gatherings. Here’s what infectious disease experts have to say about it.
What Is JN.1?
JN.1 is the most widely circulating variant in the U.S., explains a doctor from Cleveland Clinic.
“JN.1 is the more recent strain of the COVID virus that has a mutation in its spike protein that makes it more transmissible and/or evades the immune system more easily,” says Dr. Joseph Khabbaza, MD, a critical care specialist and pulmonologist at The Cleveland Clinic. “This mutation is felt to be a change from prior strains that made it ripe for causing the recent large surge.”
So, why does COVID circulate less outdoors? It all comes down to air circulation and exchange, says Tony Abate, an indoor quality and airborne illness expert. “In an outdoor setting, viruses are much less concentrated than they are indoors,” he explains. “Outdoor environments have natural ventilation to dilute the spread of the virus.”
The Thermostat Setting That Could Reduce COVID Spread
Dr. Khabbaza, a runner originally from Long Island, knows all about cold winters. The idea of chilling outside right now gives him, well, chills. “I attest to the winter often not being the best time to open windows to enhance ventilation,” he says.
A thermostat setting might help. Instead of putting the thermostat on “auto,” put it on “on.”
“Keeping the fan on through your thermostat will help keep air and the particles suspended in air moving more than if the fan is off or intermittently running,” Dr. Khabbaza explains.
Abate adds some more benefits of using this setting. “When your HVAC fan is running, your HVAC filters can capture airborne contaminants since the airflow will deliver them to the filter,” Abate says. “Also, other integrated air purification systems will only work when there is airflow.”
Dr. Yancey advises people to ensure their filters have been replaced recently for the best results.
Setting your thermostat to “on” is a simple way for some people to reduce the spread of COVID indoors. However, Dr. Sharon Nachman, MD, says it’s not the only way or a standalone precaution. It might not even be feasible for some people, depending on where they live and their thermostat. “It predisposes you to think that all of our thermostats are the same,” says Dr. Nachman, the chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. “That’s not true, and it’s especially not true if you’re in an apartment zone. Even in a house—one zone, two zones, three zones are all going to be different.”
The bottom line? “[A thermostat setting] is not the ultimate right answer, but everything we do helps transfer the virus. At the same time, everything we do can prevent new infections. Let’s go for the latter.”
On that note, Dr. Nachman says that some tools we still have in our toolboxes include:
- Hand washing
- Staying home if you feel sick
- Staying up to date with vaccinations, including COVID, flu and others you are eligible for based on your age and other underlying health conditions
- Wearing a mask, especially if you are at a higher risk for severe illness (or concerned about transmitting or catching COVID)
“Self-care is important as well as community care,” Dr. Nachman reminds people.