We’re more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and, as expected when dealing with any virus, new variants are beginning to spread. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time." And several variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have been documented in the U.S. and globally.
One of the most quickly spreading is the U.K. variant, also called the B.1.1.7. variant. Cassandra M. Pierre, a physician specializing in infectious diseases and the medical director of public health programs at Boston Medical Center, says the U.K. variant is 50 to 70 percent more transmissible than the current dominant strain in the United States. As of January 31, more than 400 cases of the B.1.1.7. variant have been reported in 32 states.
"There is some concern and speculation that this may also start circulating dominantly in the U.S. as quickly as March," says Pierre.
Neha Nanda, medical director of infection prevention and antimicrobial stewardship for Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California, says while the new variant causes the same symptoms as the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, it’s more transmissible and may be responsible for more deaths.
Pierre says researchers are still trying to uncover why the new variants spread more easily than the previous strain. With the original strain, children under age 10 have less risk of being infected or transmitting it. "That could have broad implications on the number of people infected and hospitalized as well as the number of deaths," says Pierre.
Public health officials are encouraging eligible individuals to get the COVID-19 vaccine to reduce their risk of infection, but researchers are still uncovering the vaccine's effect on those variants. Based on preliminary data, Nanda says, it's likely the current vaccines will be effective against the U.K. variant, along with the South Africa and Brazil variants. "Anyone who is eligible should definitely get [the vaccine]," Nanda says. “Unless you have contraindications or are a special population, then talk to your doctor."
Because it'll take time to develop herd immunity, experts agree it's important for people to ramp up their protective measures. Here's what you need to know about how to stay safe.
Many of the protective measures you'll need to adopt are the same as before, just ramped up. According to Anne Liu, an infectious disease physician with Stanford Healthcare, it's more important than ever to layer protective measures, like mask-wearing and handwashing. "It's still a respiratory virus and spreads the same way," she says. "We just need to double down on the measures that are already recommended and to make sure as many of them are part of our consistent behaviors as possible."
Masking remains one of the most important safety practices. Before the new variants, Pierre says, a triple-layer cloth mask would be sufficient in filtering SARS-CoV-2, but the new variants may not behave the same way. For example, they could be more transmissible because infected people have more of the virus in their bodies or because the virus can travel farther than six feet.
N95 masks have the highest filtration capacity, which means they'll allow fewer particles in. But they’re also harder to wear because they seal so tightly around the face, which can cause irritation and even pain after long wear. And while there’s not a severe N95 shortage as there was last spring, Pierre says some hospitals are still scrambling to shore up their supplies, so it's best not to order N95s in bulk.
If you're making quick trips outside where you can physically distance, Pierre says upgrading to an N95 might not be necessary. Supplies of surgical masks are more abundant and they're generally more protective than a cloth mask. According to Pierre, they fit your face better and they generally filter more effectively than a triple-layer cloth mask.
On the Today show, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said double-masking likely offers added protection. But Pierre says wearing two masks makes comfort and breathing more difficult. If you decide to double-mask, she says a surgical mask worn underneath a cloth mask allows for easier breathing and adds durability to your surgical mask. "It's important people remember the care of these masks won't change," she says. If you're single-masking with a surgical mask, wear it once a day before discarding it, and always launder your cloth mask at least once a day.
The most important thing is to make sure you're wearing your mask properly. "Whether you wear more than one mask or an N95, a mask worn improperly isn’t going to provide as much protection as a single mask worn properly," says Melissa Hawkins, an epidemiologist and public health professor at American University. Always make sure your mask is snug to your face, that it fully covers your mouth and nose, and that you don't pull it down to talk to people.
If you shop for PPE online, you’ll need to do some legwork to make sure you’re buying a quality, effective mask. "People need to do their research to ensure [they’re buying from] a reputable vendor that has a track record of putting out quality PPE," Pierre says. The CDC has an extensive list of approved N95 masks, including this one from 3M and these RespoKare N95s. If you're looking for surgical masks, there are quite a few options to be found, including this 25-pack on Amazon and this pack of 50, which also comes in black.
Hawkins suggests choosing an N95 by a CDC-approved manufacturer. Some people are buying KN95 masks, which are primarily manufactured overseas, but one analysis found that many of them do not meet U.S. standards for N95s. There is a chance KN95s are more beneficial than cloth masks, but you'll need to vet your options before buying, ideally choosing an one that meets U.S. manufacturing requirements.
According to Liu, physical distancing and hand-washing are still effective and important ways to stay safe during the pandemic. Make sure you're physically distancing at least six feet from other people and thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water after you've been out.
There are a few other behaviors you can practice to prevent transmission and infection. If you're in a crowded place where you can't physically distance or a small room with poor ventilation, Pierre recommends wearing eye protection. A mask covers your nose and mouth, but the virus can also enter through the eyes. Choose safety glasses or goggles that cover the entire perimeter of your eye. You can also wear a face shield to protect your eyes, Pierre says, but only as a barrier for your eyes, not as a replacement for your mask.
It's also a good idea to avoid unnecessary excursions. If you're not an essential worker and you can order groceries and other essentials online, Pierre says it makes sense to limit your exposure as much as possible. For those who have no choice but to go to stores in person, she recommends doing everything possible to limit your time outside the home: Opt for curbside pickup, limit your excursions to off-peak hours, and make a list beforehand so you don’t dawdle in aisles.
It may also be time to think about closing your quarantine pod, especially if you’re worried that someone’s behavior could put you at risk. "If you have individuals who may not adhere to safety standards and you can't account for where they go or who they engage with, it may be time to evaluate their place in your quarantine," Pierre says.
And you probably don't need to start wiping down groceries or packages. According to Liu, surface transmission seems to be less of an issue than initially thought. "If you have a limited amount of energy, I would put it into masking and staying indoors as opposed to wiping down your groceries," she says.
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