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, along with one identified in California, have caused a surge of 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.
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.”
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.