What You Need to Know About the New COVID-19 Variants

Rose Hoonan Fact Checked
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© CACTUS Creative Studio / Stocksy United

Let’s start with the not-so-great news: COVID-19 variants are popping up and spreading quickly.

According to Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant director of UW Medicine’s Virology Lab, there are three main variants of concern from Brazil, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

The B.1.1.7 variant, which emerged in the U.K., recently surfaced in Washington state. Like the other variants, it has proven to be more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus. One study estimates that this variant is 56% more transmissible than preexisting variants. 

With the majority of the population still unvaccinated and pandemic fatigue setting in, seeing how easily these COVID-19 variants spread from person to person is concerning.

So what’s the good news? There are effective ways to reduce the risk of transmission — and they’re similar to what you’ve been doing for the last year or so. 

Why the variants are more easily transmissible

All viruses mutate as they evolve over time, and the coronavirus is no exception.

In the case of the B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant, it has an N501Y mutation in the receptor binding domain of the spike protein that the virus uses to bind to the human ACE2 receptor. 

Huh? Same here. Greninger breaks it down.

“The N501Y mutation leads to increased transmissibility,” explains Greninger. “The strongest determinate of transmissibility is how strongly the virus binds to human cells.”

Because the COVID-19 variants are better at latching onto human cells, it makes them more easily spread from person to person. That means it requires a smaller amount of virus and less time in the same room with an infected person for someone to catch the mutated coronavirus.

How to reduce your risk of exposure

First and foremost, the most effective way to protect yourself from the new COVID-19 variants is to get vaccinated.

“The vaccines can protect against these variants,” says Greninger. “Moderna and Pfizer are really excellent vaccines.”

But if you’re still waiting your turn to get vaccinated, there are steps you should take to reduce your risk of exposure.

Wear masks with multiple layers

“Upgrade your mask,” says Greninger. If you’ve been sporting a mask that is made of just one layer, consider adding a second or third layer of fabric. Masks made of tightly woven fabrics are preferred.

Or, if you have a non-medical grade surgical mask, you can put it under a cloth mask, says Greninger. Wearing a non-medical grade surgical mask under a cloth mask adds a layer of filtration, which helps block out aerosols and droplets that carry COVID-19. The combination can also create a better fit and close the gaps between your face and your mask. 

One study tested the effectiveness of various masks and found that a fabric mask with a third filter layer (such as another mask or an inserted filter) can stop 70 to 90% of viral particles. The paper has yet to undergo peer review.

If you work in a healthcare setting, there are data to suggest that medical grade surgical masks are sufficient in preventing transmission.

Whichever type and combination of masks you choose, it is most important to wear your most protective option when spending time indoors in public, such as at the grocery store. (And make sure it is comfortable enough to wear consistently when you’re out and about around others.)

Shop short and smart

Running essential errands like going to the grocery store is still a low-risk activity, says Greninger. (Especially if you’ve added another mask to the mix.)

Just take steps to reduce your risk: Cut down on time in the store and go at less busy hours. If you’ve been swinging by the supermarket several times per week, plan ahead and go once a week. 

You can also opt for pickup or delivery to eliminate your time in the shopping aisles altogether.

Wear your mask when you’re within 6 feet of others outdoors

Whether you’re hitting the slopes this winter or taking a rainy neighborhood walk, spending time outdoors is still safe — and has health benefits.

“Just make sure to mask and distance. And cover up for the rain,” adds Greninger.

These guidelines also apply to when you’re hanging out with people outside your household: If you’ve planned an outdoor gathering with friends or family, keep your mask on and keep your distance. 

“It can be hard to actually execute that. Make sure you stand apart from one another,” says Greninger.

Avoid air travel and public transportation, if possible

That vacation or family visit might feel long overdue, but Greninger recommends keeping travel plans on pause for now.

“I personally wouldn’t fly,” says Greninger. “I haven’t been on a plane now in a year.”
As for public transportation?

“Try to keep it to people who absolutely have to use it,” he says. 

If you need to take the bus to work, wear a mask with multiple layers and make sure to keep your distance from other passengers.

The bottom line

Figuring out how to safely navigate everyday life during the pandemic is stressful — and seeing new, highly transmissible variants pop up in our community only adds to the worry.

But by following these precautions, you can reduce your risk of getting COVID-19.

“The big picture is not putting yourself in risky situations and avoiding indoor encounters,” says Greninger. “Every week you delay that encounter, that’s a quarter million people who are not at risk in Washington state because they’ve gotten the vaccine. We’re talking about just a couple more months here.”

Soon enough, we’ll all get our vaccines and make it to the other side of this pandemic. And in the meantime, Greninger offers up some advice.

“If there’s any time to follow the guidelines, it’s now,” says Greninger. “It’s a great time to Netflix.”

The info in this article is accurate as of the publishing date. While Right as Rain strives to keep our stories as current as possible, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve. It’s possible some things have changed since publication. We encourage you to stay informed by checking out your local health department resources, like Public Health Seattle King County or Washington State Department of Health.