New variants of the coronavirus are emerging across the world, and many U.S. states are grappling with the rapid spread of new variant cases. Florida is facing 186 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant (the U.K. strain), while California has 127 cases so far of the same variant. How can you keep yourself safe from catching the COVID-19 variants, especially when some strains, like the U.K. strain, are estimated to be 50% more infectious?
For one, you'll need to double down on the precautions you've been taking thus far. And because some researchers are seeing data that indicates the U.K. strain may be slightly more deadly and the CDC predicts the U.K. variant could become the main strain in the U.S. by March, it's more important than ever to implement proper coronavirus protection protocols for you and your loved ones.
The Facts About the Variants
The new variants seem to infect the cells in our body more effectively. Experts say that the variants' viral load and the time spent with an infected person don't have to be as high as the original COVID-19 strain for you to get infected. Those who do become infected with a variant can shed more of the virus, which increases the infectiousness for people around them.
According to Nathan D. Grubaugh, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health, it's still unclear how the variants are being transmitted. He surmises that "it might just be that when you’re infected, you’re exhaling more infectious virus." But it's difficult to know because the standard tests for COVID-19 can't determine if you have the original strain or a variant — the only way to definitively confirm it is to run a gene sequencing test. Unfortunately, the U.S. is lacking the critical infrastructure and organization to check for coronavirus genomes in every test.
Most importantly, the treatment for the original strain and the variants is the same: quarantine, track symptoms, get a test taken, and stay at home but use face masks if you must go out. Most experts agree that if you've already had a confirmed case of COVID-19, you have some natural immunity for another COVID infection. What's unknown is how long the protection lasts, and the Brazilian strain has been shown to reinfect people who've already had the original virus. Experts are also unsure if the vaccines will protect against the variants.
Don't Change Your Behavior
There is no difference in how the variants spread and how the original virus spreads. The highest risk comes from spending time in an indoor space with an infected person. Therefore, you should wear a two- or three-layer mask, layering face masks if needed for added safety. Keep away from people you don't live with and avoid crowds and crowded events. When outside, continue to keep your distance from others. When re-entering your car, sanitize your hands and avoid touching your face. When re-entering your home, wash your hands immediately.
Although it's mentally taxing to continue these habits, now is not the time to become lax about maintaining precautions. According to Dr. Ashish K. Jha, who is the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, "Anything risky under the normal strain just becomes riskier with the variant." Do not let your guard down over the next few months: cut out in-restaurant dining, frequent grocery trips, and hanging out with people outside of your household. As Linsey Marr, one of the world’s leading aerosol scientists, puts it, "I think there is no room for error or sloppiness in following precautions, whereas before, we might have been able to get away with letting one slide."
Masks as a Frontline Defense
Continue wearing masks, and upgrade to a high-quality multi-ply mask for errands, shopping, and spending time indoors with people you don't live with. Marr's lab tested 11 mask materials and found that a properly-fitted three-ply cloth mask (one with two layers and a filter sandwiched in between) does a great job of filtering virus particles. Masks should be fitted around the nose, and there should be no gaps between your face and the mask.
If you don't want to buy a new mask, wear two masks when you go out to crowded places. You don't need an N95 mask if you're already taking precautions like limiting shopping trips, avoiding group gatherings, and socially distancing. Dr. Jha recommends a KF94 mask, though they don't last as long as a cloth mask which can be laundered.
Continue to Reduce Risk
Although it's not known if current vaccines will be effective against the new variants, experts are cautiously optimistic. Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their vaccine works against some of the variants. Data exists that shows that other variants, like the one found in South Africa, could be more resistant to vaccines. However, the current vaccines, according to experts, create very high levels of antibodies that are more likely to prevent infection in immunized people.
Even though they're the best way to reduce risk, vaccines aren't available for everyone yet. Until then, look at where you can reduce exposure by limiting your time in public places and with people outside of your household. Try to reduce how frequently you go to the grocery store as well as how much time you spend inside the grocery store. Stay six feet away from others and start ordering more takeout instead of dining in restaurants. If you must spend time with people you don't live with, wear your best mask around them, stay in a ventilated room, and limit your time together.
Stay Healthy and Safe
Make sure to get enough sun, exercise, and sleep, and keep eating fruits and vegetables to keep up your immune system. The most important thing is to stay safe and prevent yourself from catching COVID-19 or one of its variants before you get your vaccine.
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