How to Protect Yourself Against Coronavirus Variants
Upgrading your mask and staying vigilant are more important than ever.
By Abraar Karan
Dr. Karan is an internal medicine physician at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School who worked on the Massachusetts government response to Covid-19 last year.
March 3, 2021
The hospital where I work is now treating fewer people with Covid-19, after enduring a deadly resurgence of the coronavirus this year. In the United States, the number of people hospitalized with Covid-19 has dropped 29 percent in the past two weeks, most likely thanks to rising immunity resulting from vaccinations and prior infections, as well as the success of government-imposed restrictions. It feels as if we can begin to exhale.
But the situation remains delicate. The number of new Covid-19 cases reported each day has declined substantially since the peak in early January, but more recently the rate has stabilized as new variants of the virus threaten to reverse our modest progress. Some of these new variants are more transmissible and may be more virulent. They may also be less susceptible to some vaccines than the previously dominant lineages of the coronavirus. A variant discovered in Brazil infected people who already had some immunity to Covid-19 because of previous infections.
People should get vaccinated as soon as they’re able, and in the meantime, the best way to prevent infection with a new coronavirus variant is to stick to the fundamentals that we know work.
Keep wearing a mask — preferably a better one
Masks are the single most important tool for controlling the spread of the coronavirus, aside from vaccines. Any mask is better than no mask. But since some of the new variants are more contagious, upgrading your mask is even more important now. Choose one that effectively filters airborne particles — like an N95, KN95 or KF94 — or get a surgical mask and adjust it to fit your face properly. These can better protect you from droplets and airborne particles, and they can prevent you from infecting others if you have the coronavirus.
If you cannot find a mask specifically designed to filter aerosols, a cloth mask worn over a surgical mask provides significantly better protection than a single cloth mask. It’s especially important to use the right mask (or masks) in crowded indoor settings where ventilation is poor. Since scientists are still studying to what degree vaccinated people can still transmit the virus, immunized people should still wear masks around those who haven’t gotten a vaccine.
Because Covid-19 primarily spreads through the air in the form of droplets and aerosols, proper ventilation of indoor spaces is crucial for controlling viral spread. It’s most important to maximize ventilation when people can’t avoid being around one another, such as in schools, workplaces and grocery stores, or when traveling in a taxi, in a ride-share or on public transit. To improve airflow indoors, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends opening doors and windows, using fans to increase air circulation and installing high-efficiency particulate air filtration systems, among other measures. The government should provide financial support to small businesses that cannot afford such measures.
After nearly a year of isolation, our need for socialization is acute. The C.D.C. will soon release guidance for people who have been vaccinated to make clear which activities are and are not safe. But Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser for Covid-19, has said that people who have been vaccinated can safely gather in private with others who’ve had the vaccine.
While vaccinated people might still transmit the virus to one another, vaccine trial data suggests that this would most likely result in only mild illness, if symptoms emerged at all. But people who are not vaccinated should continue to avoid activities that are considered high risk, like spending time indoors with people outside their family or small social group, gathering in crowds and skipping masks.
Get a vaccine — any vaccine
All three of the vaccines that have been approved for emergency use for the coronavirus are excellent at stopping severe disease. When it comes to getting a shot, the question should not be which vaccine to get, but when you can get it. If you have been vaccinated, do what you can in your community to communicate the safety and efficacy of the vaccines to those who may be reluctant to get a shot.
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It takes only one person to start an outbreak, and everyone can take steps to stop one. After all, the emerging variants still spread in the same way. That means the same interventions still work, as long as we use them consistently.
Abraar Karan (@AbraarKaran) is an internal medicine physician at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.