As New York City approaches the one-year mark of shutting down during a global pandemic, positivity rates for the virus are still too high to return to life as we knew it. New variants of the coronavirus virus are now circulating in the U.S., including here in the city. On Friday, the U.K. announced its variant is potentially 30% deadlier than the original strain and spreads up to 70% faster. Other versions of the virus are flourishing in Brazil and South Africa. What do these new variants of COVID-19 mean for protecting ourselves during daily life? We asked Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, and Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at George Mason University in Virginia.

On Masks

Morse: For the various cloth masks we’re using, there aren’t yet any real standards (such as filtration efficiency), and it’s difficult to advise people when there are so many different varieties.  In an ideal world, we’d have N95s (which give the best protection against infection) for everyone, and everyone would know how to use them properly.  But we’re not in that ideal world, and anyway, N95s aren’t for everybody.  People with breathing difficulties generally shouldn’t be wearing them, for example.  Men can’t have facial hair, as it interferes with the fit.  Right now, N95s are in short supply, even for the frontline healthcare workers who need them the most.   

However, used properly, almost any mask is better than none. Trained PPE wearers know the importance of proper fit.  The general public often neglects this, but a number of recent studies show that making sure the mask fits your face well, without any gaps, will greatly improve the performance of even the inexpensive blue “surgical” (procedure) masks you see everywhere.  There are several YouTube videos showing how to use rubber bands or other tricks to make these masks work better.

Whatever mask you’re using, it’s important not to get a sense of false security and to be careful when you take your mask off.  You’ve heard this many times, but it bears repeating: Avoid touching the front of the mask, and always wash your hands after removing your mask.  It may seem surprising, but even healthcare professionals make mistakes while doffing (taking off) their N95, and these mistakes have resulted in infection for the wearer.

Layering masks is fine if the masks are still comfortable and fit well.  If I’m wearing a cotton cloth mask, I’ll generally wear a blue surgical mask underneath (which also makes the inside of the cloth mask more comfortable for me).

On Face Shields

Morse: Don’t forget eye protection!  Face shields are a good, added precaution, especially when distancing is difficult, for example in stores or mass transit.  Face shields should always be worn with masks, as they don’t provide sufficient respiratory protection by themselves.  I think many people have avoided them because they look funny (until we get used to seeing them).  

On Distancing

Morse: These variants are more transmissible because they have mutations in their S, or spike, a protein that allows the virus to attach better to our cells.  When you have this much circulation of the coronavirus, evolving to better transmission is not very surprising.  The vaccines still seem to be just as effective with these variants, but we can’t take that for granted forever.  It's a good reason to prevent as many infections as we can in the first place.

Notice that our influenza rates are down, too. That's not a coincidence. All these precautions were originally recommended for flu pandemics.

Popescu: Six feet of separation is the minimum, so that’s always the goal. But if you can do more, go for it!

On Hygiene

Morse: The new variants really shouldn’t require a change in hygiene practices if we’re doing these things well to begin with.  Just keep them up!  Some people may feel uncertain and ramp them up for reassurance.  Remember, the main purpose of the hygienic precautions is to avoid having anything contaminated with the virus (which are most often fingers) come in contact with your nose, mouth, or eyes.  You also want to prevent virus-laden particles from entering your breathing space.  That’s the main function of masks and distancing, but hygiene can help.

Popescu: Routine cleaning and disinfection are still important. But these are just two pieces of infection prevention, and they should be done in conjunction with masking and social distancing. I handle my groceries the same way I did pre-COVID, meaning that I don’t wipe them down with disinfectants. But, I do routine cleaning, wash perishables, and also use hand hygiene.

On Errands

Morse: Continue avoiding crowded indoor places as much as possible, and try to be quick, and careful, when going to places like the grocery store.  Try to keep those trips to a minimum, same as before. But if you need to make a grocery run, then just make sure to wear a mask, distance, be mindful of not touching your face, and clean your hands routinely. I also encourage people to go during off-hours.