It’s been almost a year since the pandemic began. While vaccines have been developed, it could be months until a sizable percentage of the population has been vaccinated. And now comes the disturbing news that a new more-contagious strain of the virus has been identified. Most of us are already wearing masks and social distancing as much as possible. But, is that enough? What do we know about this new strain of the virus and how can we protect ourselves from it?
What is this new variant?
The new variant, known as B.1.1.7, is fundamentally the same as the original COVID strain… with one notable difference: It’s 50% more easily transmitted than common variants. Scientists believe that this increased transmissibility is due to a change in the virus’s spike protein that can allow the virus to more easily enter cells.
While further research needs to be done as to why the virus is spreading so quickly, there is no question that is. In a December press conference, Chief Science Adviser of the UK, Patrick Vallance said that B.1.1.7, which first appeared in a virus isolated on 20 September, accounted for about 26% of cases in mid-November. “By the week commencing the ninth of December, these figures were much higher,” he said. “So, in London, over 60% of all the cases were the new variant.” Johnson added that the mutations may have increased the virus’ transmissibility by 70%.
The other concern about the new strain of the virus is the possibility that it’s more lethal. Sir Vallance suggested the new variant might increase the case fatality rate (CFR) by 30 percent. To put this in context, he said that out of 1,000 men in their 60’s infected with the old variant, 10 would be expected to die, compared to 13 with the new variant.
Since it was first discovered, B.1.1.7 has spread to many different countries, including the United States, where currently 144 cases have been identified… though the real number is likely much higher. In fact, the CDC has warned that B.1.1.7 could become the dominant SARS-CoV-2 variant in the U.S. by March.
And B.1.1.7 is not the only new variant. Another strain has cropped up in South Africa which some scientists suspect may end up evading existing antibodies (produced by vaccines or natural infection) some of the time.
There is good news though. While the new variants are more contagious, vaccines still seem to be mostly effective against them. However, with vaccine shortages across the country, we are in a race against time to stop COVID from taking more lives. This new variant will likely result in a lot more deaths before the pandemic is under control because higher transmissibility is generally more concerning than a higher mortality rate. In fact, a virus which is 50 percent more transmissible will kill far more people than one which is 50 percent more deadly.
How can we protect ourselves?
If you’ve already been wearing masks regularly and social distancing, you’ve got a good basis to protect yourself. However, because this strain is so much more contagious, even those of us who have been careful may need to make more adjustments. Here are some important tips to keep you and your family safe.
Level up your mask.
While cloth masks do help reduce transmissions, there are much better options available to protect yourself. COVID is spread through both large droplets and tiny aerosol particles. This new strain of COVID can likely pass through much smaller concentrations of both. Therefore, reducing your exposure is key.
N95 and surgical masks are still the best options to both protect yourself and the people around you. But, they aren’t always readily available. The next best type of face coverings are tight weaves that use multiple layers of material. It’s also important to make sure that the mask fits well. Masks that hang loose or have gaps can decrease the effectiveness by 50%.
Increase social distancing.
Many of us have already been mostly secluded since March, so it’s hard to imagine how we can socially distance ourselves even more. But, with the contagiousness of this new variant, even a quick trip to the grocery store can be a risk. Consider limiting essential outings to once a week and eliminating unnecessary shopping and other trips completely.
When you do have to go out, remember that the 6-foot rule is only a guideline and may not be enough to prevent transmission of this new variant. Aerosol concentration levels are highest in the space closest to an infected person, so increasing distance reduces the risk. And don’t just steer clear of people who are visibly ill. Remember that people are contagious days before they show symptoms and some may never show symptoms at all.
Consider the environment.
Going to the grocery store early in the morning is better than the middle of the day when there are more crowds. Big, open, well-ventilated places are better than small closed-in spaces. Basically, the less people, the more space, and the better the ventilation, the safer you’ll be.
Improve the quality of your indoor air.
Whether at home or in an office, managing indoor air quality can make a big difference in lowering COVID transmissions. There are two major ways to eliminate COVID from your indoor air: humidity and air ventilation or filtration.
Humidity: Stephanie Taylor, infection control consultant at Harvard Medical School, has conducted multiple studies showing how humidifiers can help reduce infection rates. She found that an indoor humidity level of between 40% to 60% has the potential to drastically reduce infection rates.
In 2013, Tayler studied how infections spread at a new hospital. After isolating almost every other factor, she discovered a strong correlation between infection rates and humidity in patient rooms.
She continued her research at nursing homes and schools and found more evidence to validate the connection between mid-range humidity and a reduction in illness transmission. She discovered that there are three main reasons that humidity impedes infection rates.
- Large droplets stay in the air longer when the air is dry.
- Airborne viruses that thrive in winter (like coronavirus) aren’t as infectious in moist air.
- Respiratory immune systems work better in greater humidity.
She concluded that an indoor humidity level of between 40% to 60% has the potential to drastically reduce infection rates.
Ventilation: The key to good ventilation is having sufficient air change. The CDC recommends a ventilation rate of 6-12 air changes per hour. Buildings with large windows and/or high ceilings can dramatically increase their ventilation by opening windows. But, for most standard homes and offices, the effect of opening windows is minimal. Add to that the impracticality of opening windows and doors in the colder months and it’s clear that another solution is necessary.
The good news is that air purifiers with True HEPA filters do an excellent job of filtering out COVID. That’s why the CDC recommends using air purifiers with HEPA filters in hospital rooms to eliminate any viral particles that may be lingering in the air.
Although the standard for HEPA filters is that they need to be able to filter out 99.95% or more of all particles which are 0.3 microns in diameter, they are actually capable of filtering out particles of almost any size. A True HEPA filter can trap dust, mold, smoke, pet allergens, PM2.5 (dangerous particles that are 2.5 microns or smaller), and even bacteria and viruses… which is exactly why the CDC has recommended them for help in slowing the spread of COVID-19.
A combination of a humidifier and a True HEPA filter is especially important in preventing this new variant of COVID from spreading.