The hospital where I work is now treating fewer people with Covid-19, having suffered a deadly resurgence of the coronavirus this year. In the United States, the number of people hospitalized for Covid-19 has fallen 29% in the past two weeks, likely thanks to rising immunity from previous vaccinations and infections, as well as the success of restrictions imposed by the government. It’s like we can start to breathe out.
But the situation remains delicate. The number of new Covid-19 cases reported every day has declined dramatically 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 newer variants are more transmissible and may be more virulent. They may also be less sensitive to certain vaccines than previously dominant lines of the coronavirus. A variant discovered in Brazil has infected people already immune to Covid-19 due to previous infections.
People should get vaccinated as soon as they can, and in the meantime, the best way to prevent infection with a new variant of the coronavirus is to stick to the basics that we know work.
Continue to wear a mask – preferably a better one
Masks are the most important tool in controlling the spread of the coronavirus, aside from vaccines. Any mask is better than no mask. But since some of the newer 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 airborne droplets and particles, and they can prevent you from infecting other people if you have the coronavirus.
If you can’t find a mask specifically designed to filter aerosols, a fabric mask worn over a surgical mask offers significantly better protection than a single fabric mask. It is especially important to use the correct mask (or masks) in crowded indoor environments where ventilation is poor. Since scientists are still studying how well vaccinated people can still transmit the virus, people with immunity should always wear masks around those who have not been vaccinated.
Because Covid-19 spreads primarily through the air in the form of droplets and aerosols, adequate ventilation of indoor spaces is crucial to controlling the spread of the virus. It is very important to maximize ventilation when people cannot avoid being together, such as in schools, workplaces and grocery stores, or when traveling by taxi, carpool or public transit. To improve indoor airflow, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends opening doors and windows, using fans to increase airflow, and installing cooling systems. high efficiency particulate air filtration, 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 dire. The CDC will soon release guidance for people who have been vaccinated to clarify which activities are and are not safe. But Dr Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser on Covid-19, said people who have been vaccinated can safely reunite in private with others who have received the vaccine.
Although vaccinated people can still pass the virus to each other, data from vaccine trials suggest it would likely only lead to mild illness, if symptoms were to appear. But people who are not vaccinated should continue to avoid activities considered high risk, such as spending time indoors with people outside of their family or a small social group, gathering in crowds, and skipping masks.
Get a vaccine – any vaccine
The three vaccines that have been approved for emergency use against the coronavirus are excellent for stopping serious illness. When it comes to getting vaccinated, the question shouldn’t be which vaccine to get vaccinated, but when you can get it. If you have been vaccinated, do what you can in your community to communicate the safety and effectiveness of vaccines to those who may be reluctant to get vaccinated.
It only takes one person to start an outbreak, and anyone can take action to stop one. After all, emerging variants always spread the same way. This means that the same interventions always work, as long as we use them consistently.
Abraar Karan (@AbraarKaran) is a physician in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.