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To your Health! Double down or tie it up; Variant B.1.1.7 is here

Welcome, fellow passengers on the roller coaster that is 2020-2021! Let me introduce you to one of the newest performers at our coronavirus carnival: Variant B.1.1.7. Fresh out of the U.K., where it caused a lockdown that’s still in effect, this variant was introduced to America sometime in late November or early December. It’s now performing its nasty tricks here in Massachusetts, with 44 cases reported as of Feb. 21.

Why do we care?

Well, so what? Why do we care about 44 measly cases of a new variant? Because B.1.1.7 is a doozy. For one thing, it spreads much more easily than the versions of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) that we’ve dealt with thus far. Experts generally agree that B.1.1.7 is between 35% and 50% more transmissible than previous variants, and that the number of cases of B.1.1.7-based COVID-19 in the U.S. is doubling every 10-12 days. It’s expected to be the dominant variant in the country in mid-March.

And if that weren’t alarming enough, evidence is accumulating that B.1.1.7 isn’t just more transmissible; it’s also more deadly. How much more deadly depends in large part on age; as with garden-variety COVID-19, the older you are, the worse your odds. The BMJ reported in late January that if 1,000 60-year-old men were infected with the original variant, scientists would expect 10 of them to die. By comparison, if the same number of guys that age were infected with B.1.1.7, 13 or 14 of them would be expected to pass away. If you’re older than that, your situation with the new variant is worse; if you’re younger, it’s better, but still a bit worse than it was before.

What can we do?

Say it with me, folks! Keep your distance from other people. Wash your hands. Stay away from indoor crowds. Get vaccinated as soon as you can. And for goodness’ sake, wear a mask.

Better yet, wear two. When you think about it, it makes sense. If you’re facing a variant that’s more likely to infect you if it gets to your body, do something that makes it less likely that it’ll get there at all. Wearing two masks provides more layers in which any droplets carrying SARS-CoV-2 can get caught before they get to your nose or mouth.

In their newly published mask guidelines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even recommends a specific mask pairing: a disposable three-layer surgical mask underneath a three-layer cloth mask. The combo works well because the cloth mask helps close the side gaps that surgical masks leave open, while the surgical mask includes a handy nose wire to keep air from leaking out that way (and fogging your glasses). In addition, surgical masks are made from nonwoven fabric, most commonly polypropylene, which is very easy to breathe through. According to a study published by the CDC, wearing the two masks together prevented about 85% of cough particles spewed out by an unmasked person from getting to the person wearing the masks. (Compare that to about 51% for a cloth mask alone and 56% for a surgical mask normally worn alone.)

If the idea of two masks sounds too stifling, you can try what the CDC calls the “knotting and tucking” method: Wear one three-layer surgical mask and knot each ear loop where it joins the edge of the mask. Then fold the extra material underneath the edges of the mask to create a snug seal. The CDC’s study says that prevents about 77% of cough particles from getting through.

If we all do this together, we can beat it

But the coolest part of the CDC’s mask experiment was what happened when scientists used these newfangled masking strategies on both parties and simulated normal breathing. Whether they were wearing the knotted-and-tucked kind or surgical/cloth sets, having both people wear improved masks decreased exposure by about 96%. I don’t know about you, but I like those odds a heck of a lot better.

So, we’re not helpless against B.1.1.7. We can up our masking game to beat its increased transmissibility. And as soon as we can, we’re all going to get vaccinated, right? Because both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines do work against this sucker.

Hang in there, folks. This roller-coaster ride isn’t over. But there are still things we can do to keep one another safe while we endure it. And boy, it’s going to feel great when we finally get to step off.

Liz Ruark is the founder of and co-chair of COVID-Safe Schools, Harvard Public Schools’ community COVID-19 screening program. She holds a DVM degree from Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. 

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