It’s more contagious than the original and spreading quickly. Upgrade your mask and double down on precautions to protect yourself.
New variants of the coronavirus continue to emerge. But one in particular has caused concern in the United States because it’s so contagious and spreading fast. To avoid it, you’ll need to double down on the same pandemic precautions that have kept you safe so far.
The variant known as B.1.1.7., which was first identified in Britain, doesn’t appear to cause more severe disease, but it has the potential to infect an estimated 50 percent more people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has predicted that this variant could become the dominant source of infection in the United States by March. Variants with the same mutation have been reported in Brazil and South Africa, and now scientists are studying whether a variant with a different mutation, and first found in Denmark, has caused a surge in cases in California.
The new variant spreading in the United States appears to latch onto our cells more efficiently. (You can find a detailed look inside the variant here.) The change suggests it could take less virus and less time in the same room with an infected person for someone to become ill. People infected with the variant may also shed larger quantities of virus, which increases the risk to people around them.
“The exact mechanism in which it’s more transmissible isn’t entirely known,” said Nathan D. Grubaugh, assistant professor and epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health. “It might just be that when you’re infected, you’re exhaling more infectious virus.”
So how do you avoid a more-contagious version of the coronavirus? I spoke with some of the leading virus and infectious disease experts about what makes the new variant so worrisome and what we can do about it. Here’s what they had to say.
How can I protect myself from the new coronavirus variant?
The variant spreads the same way the coronavirus has always spread. You’re most likely to contract the virus if you spend time in an enclosed space breathing the air of an infected person. The same things that have protected you from the original strain should help protect you from the variant, although you may need to be more rigorous. Wear a two- or three-layer mask. Don’t spend time indoors with people not from your household. Avoid crowds, and keep your distance. Wash your hands often, and avoid touching your face.
“The first thing I say to people is that it’s not a different virus. All the things we have learned about this virus still apply,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “It’s not like this variant is somehow magically spreading through other means. Anything risky under the normal strain just becomes riskier with the variant.”
And let’s face it, after months of pandemic living, many of us have become lax about our Covid safety precautions. Maybe you’ve let down your guard, and you’re spending time indoors and unmasked with trusted friends. Or perhaps you’ve been dining in restaurants or making more trips to the grocery store each week than you did at the start of lockdowns. The arrival of the variant means you should try to cut back on potential exposures where you can and double down on basic precautions for the next few months until you and the people around you get vaccinated.
“The more I hear about the new variants, the more concerned I am,” said Linsey Marr, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and one of the world’s leading aerosol scientists. “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.”
Should I upgrade my mask?
You should be wearing a high-quality mask when you run errands, go shopping or find yourself in a situation where you’re spending time indoors with people who don’t live with you, Dr. Marr said. “I am now wearing my best mask when I go to the grocery store,” she said. “The last thing I want to do is get Covid-19 in the month before I get vaccinated.”
Dr. Marr’s lab recently tested 11 mask materials and found that the right cloth mask, properly fitted, does a good job of filtering viral particles of the size most likely to cause infection. The best mask has three layers — two cloth layers with a filter sandwiched in between. Masks should be fitted around the bridge of the nose and made of flexible material to reduce gaps. Head ties create a better fit than ear loops.
While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.
The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.
No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
If you don’t want to buy a new mask, a simple solution is to wear an additional mask when you find yourself in closer proximity to strangers. I wear a single mask when I walk my dog or exercise outdoors. But if I’m going to a store, taking a taxi or getting in the subway, I double mask by using a disposable surgical mask and covering it with my cloth mask.
Do I need an N95 medical mask?
While medical workers who come into close contact with sick patients rely on the gold-standard N95 masks, you don’t need that level of protection if you’re avoiding group gatherings, limiting shopping trips and keeping your distance from others.
“N95s are hard to get,” said Dr. Jha. “I don’t think people should think that’s what they need. Certainly there are a lot of masks out in the marketplace that are pretty good.”
If you’re working in an office or grocery store, or find yourself in a situation where you want added mask protection, you can get an alternative to the N95. Dr. Jha suggested using a KF94 mask, a type of mask made in South Korea that can be purchased easily online. It resembles an N95, with some differences. It’s made of a similar nonwoven material that blocks 94 percent of the hardest-to-trap viral particles. But the KF94 has ear loops, instead of elastic head bands, so it won’t fit as snugly as an N95.
The KF94 is also disposable — you can buy a pack of 20 for about $40 on Amazon. While you can let a KF94 mask air dry and reuse it a few times, it can’t be laundered and won’t last as long as a cloth mask. One solution is to save your KF94 mask for higher risk situations — like riding a subway, spending time in a store or going to a doctor’s appointment. Use your cloth mask for outdoor errands, exercise or walking the dog.
Are there additional ways to reduce my risk?
Getting the vaccine is the ultimate way to reduce risk. But until then, take a look at your activities and try reducing the time and number of exposures to other people.
For instance, if you now go to the store two or three times a week, cut back to just once a week. If you’ve been spending 30 to 45 minutes in the grocery store, cut your time down to 15 or 20 minutes. If the store is crowded, come back later. If you’re waiting in line, be mindful of staying at least six feet apart from the people ahead of you and behind you. Try delivery or curbside pickup, if that’s an option for you.
If you’ve been spending time indoors with other people who aren’t from your household, consider skipping those events until you and your friends get vaccinated. If you must spend time with others, wear your best mask, make sure the space is well ventilated (open windows and doors) and keep the visit as short as possible. It’s still safest to take your social plans outdoors. And if you are thinking about air travel, it’s a good idea to reschedule given the high number of cases around the country and the emergence of the more contagious variant.
“The new variants are making me think twice about my plan to teach in-person, which would have been with masks and with good ventilation anyway,” Dr. Marr said. “They’re making me think twice about getting on an airplane.”
Will the current Covid vaccines work against the new variants?
Experts are cautiously optimistic that the current generation of vaccines will be mostly effective against the emerging coronavirus variants. Earlier this month, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their Covid vaccine works against one of the key mutations present in some of the variants. That’s good news, but the variants have other potentially risky mutations that haven’t been studied yet.
Some data also suggest that variants with certain mutations may be more resistant to the vaccines, but far more study is needed and those variants haven’t yet been detected in the United States. While the data are concerning, experts said the current vaccines generate extremely high levels of antibodies, and they are likely to at least prevent serious illness in people who are immunized and get infected.
“The reason why I’m cautiously optimistic is that from what we know about how vaccines work, it’s not just one antibody that provides all the protection,” said Dr. Adam Lauring, associate professor of infectious disease at the University of Michigan. “When you get vaccinated you generate antibodies all over the spike protein. That makes it less likely that one mutation here or there is going to leave you completely unprotected. That’s what gives me reason for optimism that this is going to be OK in terms of the vaccine, but there’s more work to be done.”
If I catch Covid-19, will I know if I have the new variant?
Probably not. If you test positive for Covid-19, the standard PCR test can’t definitively determine if you have the variant or the original strain. While some PCR test results can signal if a person is likely to be infected with a variant, that information probably won’t be shared with patients. The only way to know for sure which variant is circulating is to use gene sequencing technology, but that technology is not used to alert individuals of their status. While some public health and university laboratories are using genomic surveillance to track the prevalence of variants in a community, the United States doesn’t yet have a large-scale, nationwide system for checking coronavirus genomes for new mutations.
Treatment for Covid-19 is the same whether you have the original strain or the variant. You can read more about what to do if you get infected here.
Are children more at risk from the new variant?
Children appear to get infected with the variant at about the same rate as the original strain. A large study by health officials in Britain found that young children are only about half as likely as adults to transmit the variant to others. While that’s good news, the highly contagious nature of the variant means more children will get the virus, even if they are still proportionately less contagious and less prone to getting infected than adults. You can learn more here.
If I’ve already had Covid-19, am I likely to have the same level of immunity to the new strain?
Most experts agree that once you’ve had Covid-19, your body has some level of natural immunity to help fight off a second infection — although it’s not known how long the protection lasts. The variants circulating in Brazil and South Africa appear to have mutations that allow the virus to evade natural antibodies and reinfect someone who has already had the virus. The concern is based on lab tests using antibodies of people with a previous infection, so whether that translates to more reinfections in the real world isn’t known. The effect of the vaccine against these variants isn’t known yet either. While all of this sounds frightening, scientists are hopeful that even if the vaccines don’t fully protect against new variations of the virus, the antibodies generated by the vaccine still will protect people from more serious illness.