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How to protect yourself from the new coronavirus strains

There are now several troubling variants of the coronavirus circulating, and a few seem to make the virus more contagious. One variant , the United Kingdom strain, is also more likely to make people sick or to kill them. The CDC believes that strain will become dominant in the U.S. as soon as March. William Brangham reports on what experts say about avoiding exposure.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Given that and the emergence of new, alarming strains of the virus, including one found in South Carolina, public health officials warn it's crucial that we redouble our protection efforts.

    William Brangham looks at the latest on both fronts.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, there are now several troubling new mutants of the coronavirus circulating today.

    A few of them seem to make the virus more contagious. One of them, known as the U.K. strain, not only is more contagious, but now seems more likely to make people sick or to kill them. The CDC believes that that strain will become dominant in the U.S. by March.

    Given these concerns, we wanted to look at the latest science about how best to protect ourselves.

    The first thing to remember is, these new variants, just like the initial coronavirus they come from, travel through the air. That's the main way people get sick. Someone who's infected breathes out the virus and someone who's healthy breathes it in.

    Dr. Linsey Marr at Virginia Tech studies airborne transmission, and she says that the coronavirus can travel on small airborne droplets or even smaller aerosols.

  • DR. LINSEY MARR, Virginia Tech:

    Droplets are large, visible droplets that fly out of our mouths when we're coughing or talking. Aerosols are really just smaller droplets. They're microscopic, and we release hundreds of those for every one large droplet that might come out.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    But according to Erin Bromage, who researches immunology and infectious disease at UMass Dartmouth, not everyone who's infected spreads the virus the same way or in the same amounts.

    ERIN BROMAGE, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth: We know that some people have a lot more virus, and it's not just twice the amount. It can be 100-fold or a 1,000-fold more virus, inside their mouth.

    And so those people, with talking, with sing, with shouting, breathing, for that matter, can release 1,000 times more of those viral particles into the air

  • William Brangham:

    With these new mutant strains, it's not totally clear why they're more contagious, only that they are.

    This only reinforces the need for mask-wearing. Numerous studies have now confirmed that wearing a mask can reduce the risk of transmission. But not all masks are created equally.

  • ERIN BROMAGE:

    So, virtually any covering over your face will deal with those large droplets. A handkerchief, a bandana, they all deal with those large droplets in roughly the same way.

    But there is a big difference between the quality of the mask being worn and the ability to both filter the small little aerosols out on the way out and filter them on the way back in.

  • William Brangham:

    There's still a great deal of confusion about what kinds of masks offer the best protection. N95s are considered tops, but since they're still in short supply, many say they should be left only for front-line health care workers.

    KF-94 masks, like these made in South Korea, are considered a good substitute, and while they can be found online, there are reports of fakes and counterfeits swirling around. So, what's a consumer to do?

  • DR. LINSEY MARR:

    Unfortunately, there aren't any standards for masks right now. Those are coming, but it's going to be several months. In the meantime, what we know is that tightly woven cloth works better than loosely knitted cloth. Two layers is better than one. Three layers is even better, as long as it doesn't inhibit you from breathing easily through the fabric.

    If you really want to upgrade your masks, the thing to do is to look for a mask with a pocket or a middle layer where you can insert a filter. Things like a HEPA filter, a high-efficiency particulate air filter, work very well, block 99 percent of particles.

    The other thing you can do is to use a surgical-type mask which filters really well, but probably doesn't fit so well, especially around the sides, and to layer a second mask on top of that, like a tight-fitting cloth mask, to help improve the fit and reduce gaps. That way, you get both good filtration and a good fit.

  • William Brangham:

    One of the things that seems, I think, so difficult for people is that they go to shop for a mask, and it's very hard to assess quality or whether or not something that is a surgical mask or claims to be one is, in fact, one.

  • ERIN BROMAGE:

    So, we want to look for certification seals if we are actually buying, say, surgical masks, so, the ASTM rating, one, two and three.

    A three is the best that you can get in regards to surgical masks. And then the FDA actually has a Web site that shows true from false. You have fake from real ones.

  • William Brangham:

    If masks are the first layer of protection, the second one is distancing. We have heard this mantra for months, avoid crowds as much as possible, and if you're around others, stay six feet apart. But six feet isn't some magical number.

  • ERIN BROMAGE:

    It really isn't a magic number. I mean, it's the closer you are, the more risk that you have.

    You know the analogy, which is not perfect, but it's a way that you can sort of think about it in your head, is if you're standing right next to a person smoking a cigarette, you're going to be inhaling a lot of that. It's the same with the virus.

    So, six feet is just a good standard. It's easy for people to visualize six feet. But 10 feet is better, three feet is worse, and it's not this instant cutoff of distance.

  • William Brangham:

    This is why outdoor gatherings are recommended. Infinite amounts of fresh air swirling around will often disperse the virus quickly.

    But those sealed restaurant tents you see everywhere? Not great. They're technically outside, but airflow is often minimal. Crowded indoor gatherings with people outside your family are by far the riskiest environments. There, if someone is infected, the virus can build up and linger in the air, and keeping your distance is no guarantee of safety.

  • DR. LINSEY MARR:

    You also want to pay attention to ventilation.

    But what you can do is just open the door or the windows. Just a few inches or a halfway open door can make a huge difference. And so that's one way that you can improve the ventilation.

  • William Brangham:

    With these new, more contagious variants spreading, public health experts argue, this is the time to redouble these safety measures.

    That also applies to people who've been vaccinated, because it's not clear if the vaccine also prevents people from transmitting the virus. These precautions, they argue, will save lives, avoid more lockdowns, and could get us through the next few months, until more people get vaccinated.

    Oh, and don't forget to keep washing your hands.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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