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There’s been a lot of talk going around about new variants of COVID-19. To date, scientists have identified more than 4,000 COVID-19 variants over this past year. Some of these strains, including the one that originated in the UK known as B.1.1.7, seem to be more infectious than other variants. Another strain, a variant first identified in South Africa (called 501Y.V2), has mutations on the so-called spike protein that is giving vaccine developers pause. Moderna has already found that its vaccine is slightly less effective against the South African variant.

Around the country, although cases of COVID-19 seem to be going down, the majority of the US is still experiencing high levels of coronavirus infections overall. As researchers and public health officials have pointed out, the longer we allow COVID-19 to spread, the more chances the SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes the disease) has to evolve. And the more the virus mutates, the more chances it has to evade one of our vaccines. So here’s what you can do right now to protect yourself from getting a new COVID-19 variant.

Wear an appropriate mask—and double-up when necessary

It has been almost a year since the pandemic began, and handfuls of well-done studies show it’s clear that masks are a key and effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At the beginning of the pandemic, medical-grade face coverings, like surgical ones and certified N95 masks, were in short supply which led to the explosion of homemade and store-bought cloth masks.

Studies show that the best masks are ones that are properly fitted with as few gaps as possible and are multi-layered. According to a recent study (published online and yet-to-be peer-reviewed), the most effective mask has three layers: A filter that has a cloth layer on either side. As we’ve reported before, a pro tip is to look at the mask under a bright light. If light can’t easily penetrate through the mask, it’s likely an effective one.

The pre-print study also confirmed what other researchers have been finding: That you don’t necessarily need an N95 mask (or similar masks that block out a high percentage of viral particles, like KN95 and KF94 ones) to get proper protection. In terms of filtering out viral particles, in the US, N95 masks are the gold standard. But right now, they are hard to get, often expensive, and should be prioritized for medical professionals. That’s not to say you shouldn’t use an N95 mask if you have them, but there’s evidence that you can get sufficient protection from doubling up on cloth masks.

When to double mask

If the masks you own aren’t up to par (they are single-layered or don’t pass the light test), and you don’t want to buy new ones, you can (and should) double up your masks. A new trend is to also double up on two effective multi-layer masks, such as wearing a surgical mask underneath a cloth mask or even a certified N95 mask underneath a cloth mask. A well-fitted N95 should offer superior protection. But the study shows that doubling up with two high-quality multi-layer masks can provide protection that’s almost as good as an N95 mask.

If you are following proper social distancing measures, not spending time indoors with people you don’t live with, and washing your hands, a multi-layer cloth mask should be sufficient. But if you want extra protection, say if you need to go into a grocery store, travel on public transit, or visit your doctor in person, doubling up is an effective way to ensure you have good protection.

Keep social distancing

I know this advice sounds tired, but it’s crucial. We are really in the final miles of an agonizing marathon here—the home stretch. By keeping up with your social distancing, hand washing, and mask-wearing, you will thank yourself later. This can be hard in the winter months when it’s more difficult to meet up outdoors, but these actions will do three important things: Prevent you from getting COVID-19 now, reduce the strain on the healthcare system, and increase the chances that the vaccines in the works now will be effective against the virus.

Let’s unpack that last point. As National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease head Anthony Fauci has pointed out, the longer COVID-19 lingers uncontrolled, the more chances it has to mutate. While all mutations are normal and most are relatively harmless, some shifts can change the structure and function of the virus in ways that will make the vaccines we currently have available less efficacious. In fact, both authorized vaccines in the US (Moderna’s and Pfizer’s) have been shown to be slightly less effective against the variant in South Africa. In a news conference on Friday, Fauci said this news should be a warning for us all.

“It’s really a wake-up call for us to be nimble and to be able to adjust as this virus will continue for certain to evolve and mutate,” Fauci said.

The bottom line is: The more we follow pandemic public health best practices, the better off we will be in the long run.

Get vaccinated when a vaccine becomes available to you

Ultimately, vaccines will be our way out of this pandemic. And while the vaccination initiatives in the United States have gotten off to a rocky start, they are slowly getting on course. So, when a vaccine becomes available to you, don’t hesitate to get it.

It’s also important to be concerned about vaccine safety. So here’s the latest update: As we’ve reported, around 22 million people in the United States have received a COVID-19 vaccine and, though it’s still early, there have not been any reports of long-term side effects. Of the 9,000 people who have reported a side effect—which is exceedingly less than 1 percent of the people who have been vaccinated—the bulk of those reports were fatigue, nausea, chills, and headaches. And of the 1,000 that had what’s considered a serious side effect, all of those people were treated successfully.

Another key point is that the vaccines that we currently have are highly effective, between 94 and 95 percent effective against the virus, according to late-stage clinical trials. Additionally, the vaccines are nearly 100 percent effective at preventing severe COVID-19, which is an often under-appreciated component. Severe COVID-19 disease, which often results in hospitalization and even debilitating, long-term effects for the patients, also puts a huge strain on the healthcare system. Getting vaccinated could essentially get rid of severe COVID-19 completely, the benefits of which would be huge.

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