With more contagious variants of the coronavirus in circulation, the risk of getting COVID-19 is growing — but you can take steps to stay safe.
In the year since COVID-19 made its way into our lives, we’ve masked up, stayed home, and largely stopped entertaining. But over time, many people have inevitably slipped from strictly adhering to coronavirus prevention protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Now, with several new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus starting to circulate, experts say it’s time for all of us to get serious again, and also to take additional steps to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.
New Coronavirus Variants Spread More Easily
Viruses acquire mutations all the time, and the coronavirus has invariably been doing so since it first made its way into the world. But several variants that have emerged in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil have changed in ways that make them more dangerous. Scientists are in the process of studying these and other variants, but what they’ve learned so far is disconcerting.
The CDC recently warned that the version spreading rapidly in the United Kingdom, known as B.1.1.7, features several shifts from the original circulating SARS-CoV-2 virus in its telltale spike protein, which makes it more contagious. This variant already has a strong foothold in the United States, and “has the potential to increase the U.S. pandemic trajectory in the coming months,” says the CDC.
According to the CDC, the version that began in Brazil, P.1, shares some of these same mutations.
Especially troubling is the variant identified in South Africa, B.1.351, which not only is more transmissible but also might make the body’s antibodies (acquired either by vaccination or previous coronavirus infection) less able to recognize and neutralize the virus. (This is more than a theoretical concern. When Johnson & Johnson recently announced the results of its vaccine trial, it noted that the level of protection offered was 72 percent in the United States, but just 57 percent in South Africa.)
What does all this mean for people trying not to contract COVID-19?
If you encounter someone harboring one of these versions of the coronavirus, you need less exposure to make you sick than you would have before, says F. Perry Wilson, MD, an internal medicine physician at Yale Medicine and researcher at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.
Time to Tighten Up Your Safety Measures
The strategies that may have served you well and kept you from getting sick until now may no longer be sufficient.
“With the new variants, people need to be rethinking their concept of risk,” says Thersa Sweet, PhD, MPH, associate teaching professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Unsafe behaviors, like coming into close contact with a friend or eating in a restaurant, are even dicier now. “Just because you haven’t gotten infected doesn’t mean you can’t going forward,” Dr. Sweet says.
Here’s a recap of the safety moves you should be making.
1. Make Sure Your COVID Pod Is Secure
As the months have worn on, experts have given the nod to the idea of creating a social bubble, or “pod” that includes one other person, couple, or family that you have decided to mix with your household.
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A social bubble can still be a reasonable arrangement, Dr. Wilson says, but if you haven’t had “the conversation,” you must. “This has to be a monogamous relationship. You need to have a formal conversation, with consent, that they aren’t seeing anyone else and you aren’t either. Otherwise, the chain of transmission can grow,” he says.
2. Mask Up!
The CDC continues to recommend mask wearing every time you are around other people. (This is true even after you get the vaccine, since it’s not yet clear whether you can still spread the disease to others even if it doesn’t make you sick.)
Not convinced that masks are beneficial? Iowa researchers took advantage of the “natural experiment” provided last year when some states issued a mandatory mask mandate. As the scientists published in Health Affairs in August 2020, COVID-19 rates immediately fell in those states in the days and weeks after the orders were issued.
3. Be Sure You’re Wearing the Mask Correctly
If you’ve gotten lax about your mask-wearing habits as time has gone by, it’s important that you wear your mask properly now, Sweet says. It should fit snugly around your face and, importantly, fully cover both your mouth and nose.
Sweet has observed a number of people with their nose exposed, presumably because they find it more comfortable. “When you go for a COVID test they put the swab up your nose, which should tell you the virus is living there,” she says.
Any mask with at least two layers of protection (not just one, as many neck gaiters have) are fine to use. Wilson prefers cloth masks with a metal piece to conform the fit around the nose, or those with adjustments that tighten the fabric around the jaw, because they offer a stronger seal.
A study published in the November 2020 issue of London’s Infectious Diseases confirmed that N95 masks, the kind that should still be reserved for healthcare workers, provide the best germ barrier. But the researchers found that disposable KF94 masks, which come from South Korea and are much more prevalent (and easily purchased online) are just as effective.
4. Double Mask as Much as Possible
While not a formal recommendation, wearing two masks, one over the other, is coming to be seen by infectious disease experts as a good idea. Many people who attended the presidential inauguration in January could be seen double-masking in this way.
“There isn’t a huge study confirming the benefits,” Wilson says, but since each mask gaps around your face in a different location, double-masking provides a better seal around your nose and mouth.
Wilson recommends putting a cloth mask on first, because that can be washed, especially if you cough or sneeze in it. Top that with either a surgical mask or another cloth one. (Surgical masks can be worn for several days as long as they don’t get soiled, he says.) Or for even better protection, double-mask with a KF94 and then a cloth one.
5. Give Up Social Activities Indoors
Being outdoors with other people has proven to be safer than socializing indoors — although the CDC recommends staying six feet away from other people even when outside, and wearing a mask when you cannot.
Indoor activities, whether grabbing a coffee with a friend, attending a small dinner party in someone’s home, or joining a group of pals in a bar or restaurant, are much riskier, especially with the more contagious variants beginning to circulate, Sweet says.
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6. Skip the Haircut, Nail Salon, and More
People who are still partaking in truly optional activities, like getting nails done or having a massage, or even spending an afternoon browsing at a shopping mall, are putting themselves and others at even more peril.
Before the pandemic, Sweet used to go to the hair salon every few weeks for a root touchup. In the past year, she says, she’s been there just once, seven months in, when she desperately needed a cut. With the new variants coming into circulation, she says she won’t go back until the pandemic is under control.
Even grocery shopping is more optional than most of us think. With online delivery services or curbside pickup available in many places, spending 45 minutes or an hour inside a supermarket may not be required.
7. If You Socialize Outside, Be Sure You Really Are Outside
The safest way to socialize remains outdoors, with one or two other people (plus those in your household), staying six feet apart and masking (or double-masking).
The reason is that the risk of contracting the virus is much lower outside. But Wilson has seen restaurants advertise outdoor seating that is actually a fully enclosed, often-heated tent. “In a situation like that, you’re ‘outside’ in name only. There needs to be good airflow for you to benefit,” he says.
If a tent is set up outdoors, at a minimum one side should be fully open, the CDC notes.
8. Keep Practicing the Basics
With the emergency authorization of vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna (which, thankfully, still seem to offer protection against the new variants, although researchers have only begun to evaluate that closely) and hopefully more vaccines on the way, the end of the pandemic may finally be in sight.
Yet even if you’re one of the lucky few who has been vaccinated, or one of the unlucky many who have already contracted the disease, it’s important to continue with all safety precautions for now.
Remind yourself that those ladies’ nights out or evenings with the guys can eventually be restarted — but only if everyone survives these deadly, and now more contagious, coronavirus variants.
Article first published on EveryDayHealth