The COVID-19 pandemic recently reached an all-time high in the United States. While officials predict that the worst is over while vaccines are distributed and received by elderly patients and frontline workers, we may be staring down the barrel of an extended pandemic due to the new COVID-19 variants.
The three new strains, mutations of the novel coronavirus, were first found in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil. Many experts believe two of these strains may have reached the U.S. already, and there is some evidence to support that: we have seen a few cases of these new variants already. But because of the new strains' infection rates, they could spread much more quickly in the upcoming months, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Here's why face mask protection is a necessary line of defense to protect you and your loved ones from these new forms of COVID-19.
Higher-Than-Average Transmission Rates
There's more data available for the U.K. strain, and current estimates indicate that the new strain is between 30% and 80% more transmissible than the original virus. In fact, the new COVID-19 variants have been found to have spread across the world. Experts say that the new strains' contagiousness is double-edged. First, the strains affect more people more rapidly, meaning that is more likely for you to run into someone who has the virus. Second, the virus is more infectious, so you're more likely to catch it from someone who is already infected.
For many countries whose healthcare systems are inundated and overwhelmed, this new strain has the capacity to completely wipe out entire departments of frontline workers. It may require healthcare leaders and public health officials to start allocating staff and resources in an unideal manner. If patient capacity continues to be flooded by the number of new patients waiting to be admitted, deaths could accelerate even faster.
In the U.S., we've had anywhere between 199,000 to 308,000 new infections per day and between 1,400 to 4,400 deaths per day in just January. With our current exponential growth in new cases and deaths, it's unclear how these new variants will affect the spread of the virus and if we're experiencing the new strains already or not.
It's also uncertain what effect the new strains will have on the global and national economies. Fortunately, information has emerged from scientists and researchers that the new variants are not more deadly than the original virus, and they do not cause more severe infections in patients. Although this brings hope to many of us, the fact remains that we need to dampen the risk of infection so that hospitals can manage their resources and beds.
What We Can Do to Stop the Spread
Epidemiologists say that the U.S. can still stop the spread of the new variants with a mix of mitigation measures we already have in place and new ones. We need to increase testing and expand genomic testing to start charting where we're seeing new variants. We should start quarantining and contact tracing more aggressively.
The current measures we have in place, like social distancing, mask-wearing, hand-washing, and reducing unnecessary risks, are only effective if we all abide by them. For these new, more infectious strains, it'll take teamwork and constant effort. U.S. hospitals depend on Americans getting vaccines, frequently sanitizing, and staying vigilant about possible dangers like indoor spaces and crowded events. At a time when hospitals are exhausted and the public is itching to resume normal life, the new variants will test our ongoing precautions in an unprecedented way.
More About the New COVID-19 Strains
The COVID-19 virus has been mutating quickly from its inception, which is normal for a virus. While most mutations didn't seem to stick, the U.K. strain, called B.1.1.7, and the South African strain, named 501Y.V2 or B.1.351, have picked up the pace. The U.K. strain has been confirmed in Maryland, Connecticut, and Indiana, not to mention its spread in more than 30 other countries including Canada. Experts believe the strain found in South Africa and Zambia is in the U.S. already as well.
A third variant, named P.1, was found in Japan in four travelers who came from Brazil. Upon further inspection, Brazil found that in the Amazon's largest city, Manaus, the P.1 variant was present in 42% of tests sequenced in late December. Since then, there has been a surge in cases, which leads experts to the conclusion that the P.1 variant can cause re-infection in patients who were infected by the original virus. In Manaus, 75% of the population had been infected by the original strain.
The B.1.1.7 strain has an unusual amount of mutations, and the B.1.351 variant is believed to be related to the B.1.1.7 strain. We don't know much about the P.1 strain yet, it's clear that it may cause a different type of issue. According to Maia Majumder, a computational epidemiologist at the Boston Children's Hospital, just because the viruses aren't more deadly doesn't mean we can relax on our efforts for mitigating the spread. She added, "We may see a larger volume of deaths in its presence simply because there will likely be more infections than there would be without it."
Working Together to Save Lives
It's incredibly depressing to hear about the new COVID-19 variants at a time when successful vaccine trials have brought us great hope. But we may be reaching the end of the pandemic, and to carry us through with a minimal amount of deaths, we need to work together to mask up, social distance, and stay home.
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