Just when info about COVID-19 was getting somewhat less overwhelming, new COVID variants from the U.K., Brazil, and South Africa were found to be spreading globally. Though vaccines will help curb the spread, the new variants are thought to be more contagious, and you might want to know if you should change your COVID safety habits to keep yourself safe.
While doctors don't yet know everything about COVID variants, this turn of viral events isn't unexpected. "It is very common for viruses to change as new copies are made," says Dr. Stephanie Sterling, M.D., M.P.H., the chief of infectious diseases at NYU Langone Hospital–Brooklyn and co-lead of the NYU Langone Vaccine Center's vaccine research clinic in Brooklyn. "These changes, or mutations, cause new variants." So while it's not surprising that there are now variants of COVID going around, it's good to stay up to date on what that means for your health.
Is The New Variant More Dangerous?
"There is no evidence that our current vaccines and treatments do not work against the known strains," Dr. Sterling says. That's good news — but scientists still aren't sure whether the new COVID variants cause more severe illness. So far, they don't seem to make people sicker than the predominant strain, but that doesn't mean they don't carry their own risks.
"The new SARS-CoV-2 variant that has made its way to the U.S., known as B.1.1.7, is believed to be a more transmissible variant of the virus," says Alyssa Billingsley, PharmD, the director of strategic program development at healthcare service company GoodRx Research. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it has been found in at least 24 states. "And based on modeling data, it could become the more predominant variant here in March." That means that this isn't just a passing phase.
Variants of COVID-19 may continue popping up. "It is important to remember that the virus will continue to change," Dr. Sterling says. "The most important step to keep everyone healthy is to do everything possible to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection and, thereby, prevent COVID-19."
Will The Vaccine Protect Me From COVID Variants?
Although the new variant does seem to be spreading quickly, Billingsley said that doctors do expect the current COVID vaccines to protect against the rising variants. Both Moderna and Pfizer confirmed that their vaccines are effective against the B.1.1.7. variant, and are largely effective against other emerging variants.
So no, you don't necessarily have to worry about a completely new timeline for things going back to normal — but you do have to make sure you're still keeping safe. "As a result of increased spread, a rapid rise in cases can put additional strain on hospitals," Billingsley tells Bustle. "So following public health measures and getting vaccinated is important in fighting these new variants."
Is It Safe To Go To The Grocery Store With The New Variant Spreading?
Dr. Sterling tells Bustle that checking in on how your state and region are faring with COVID cases is an important first step in assessing what risks you're willing and not willing to take. When rates in your community are high (AKA if your community's percent positive is approaching or above 5% ), she recommends minimizing grocery trips and other non-essential activities. If you've been going to the grocery store a few times a week, try to consolidate it to one big grocery run to minimize your risk of exposure.
"When possible, you may want to consider using grocery delivery or curbside pickup services in place of making a trip in person," Billingsley says. "But that’s not always attainable, depending on budgetary constraints and the resources made available to you." If you do need to go to the grocery store IRL, she tells Bustle, make sure you're continuing to wear your mask, keeping your distance from other people, and washing your hands frequently. Consider going when the grocery store is likely to be less crowded, too.
Should I Stop Seeing My Friends?
Especially if you live somewhere that the COVID variant is spreading rapidly, you might want to postpone your next outdoor friend hangout, and definitely make a rain check on any indoor plans.
"The best way to decrease the likelihood of growth in our communities is to prevent it from being passed from one person to the next," Dr. Sterling says. If you do decide to see your friends, keep it masked, outdoors, and socially distant — or better yet, virtual.
It might be exhausting, Dr. Sterling says, but exercising extra caution now can help shorten the pandemic in the long run. "We need to continue to keep our guard, and masks, up in order to emerge from the pandemic, and the restrictions it has brought with it, in a matter of months rather than another year."
How Can I Protect Myself From New COVID Variants?
Protecting yourself and your community from new variants of COVID is all about staying vigilant about the COVID safety measures that have become a fact of life. Dr. Sterling says that the most important thing to focus on is making all efforts to avoid getting infected to begin with. "These prevention strategies are: mask or facial covering (especially when unable to maintain social distancing), maintaining social distancing (especially when indoors), and hand hygiene."
In addition to your regular mask routine, some health experts are saying that getting ahold of N-95 masks wouldn't be a bad idea. Combining cloth and surgical masks might be able to provide a literal extra layer of protection against the new variants, NPR reports. If you haven't got any medical-grade masks on hand, NBC News reports that double masking with two high-quality cotton masks should do the trick.
Make sure you're getting tested if you have any viral symptoms, Dr. Sterling adds, including mild congestion or low-grade fever. In other words, the new COVID variant means that you should recommit to business as usual — and business as usual during a pandemic translates to being extra safe.
Dr. Stephanie Sterling, M.D., M.P.H., chief of infectious diseases at NYU Langone Hospital–Brooklyn, co-lead of the NYU Langone Vaccine Center's vaccine research clinic in Brooklyn
Alyssa Billingsley, PharmD, director of strategic program development at GoodRx Research