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How To Protect Yourself From New COVID-19 Variants

Customers at grocery store social distancing and wearing face masks.

Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Two new variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been detected, and they appear to increase the risk of transmission.
  • Preventive measures such as mask-wearing, distancing and handwashing are effective even on the new variants, so it’s important to keep practicing safety precautions.
  • Experts say the vaccines now being distributed are effective even against the new virus variants.

New and more infectious variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, that were first detected in South Africa and the U.K. have made their way to the U.S.

The U.K. strain, known as B.1.1.7, has been detected in several states including Colorado, California, Florida, and New York and “is likely spreading in communities across the nation,” according to a new report from the Brown University School of Public Health. 

Public health experts say the recently-approved vaccines are still effective against the U.K. variant. While the risk of severe illness or death does not seem to be increased, the variant is significantly more contagious than previous ones, according to the Brown report. 

Research from the Imperial College London estimated that the B.1.1.7 variant is 40% to 70% more infectious than the previous version, based on studies of people in the U.K. recently diagnosed with COVID-19.

So how do you protect yourself? Public health experts say follow all the same precautions already in place—social distancing, wearing masks, and hand washing. 

What This Means For You

At least two new versions of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been identified, and one has been confirmed in several U.S. states. Health experts say the virus may not be more dangerous, but it is more infectious and could increase your risk of getting sick unless you take the recommended precautions. Make sure to wear your mask, social distance, and wash your hands.

Staying Protected

“The good news is that at this point, there is no evidence that the new variant is resistant to currently available vaccines,” Gwen Nichols, MD, the chief medical officer of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, based in New York, tells Verywell. “However, the higher transmissibility makes the current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines of wearing a mask, social distancing, and regularly washing hands, even more important for prevention." 

Nichols shares some further measures you can take to prevent COVID-19 and its variants, including:

  • Staying away from crowded public places, particularly those indoors
  • Disinfecting surfaces and objects that are frequently touched
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Sneezing or coughing into your elbow rather than your hands

But health experts worry that “COVID-19 fatigue” could be making us loosen strict adherence.

"We need for people to really redouble their efforts to social distance, avoid large gatherings, wear masks in public, and definitely stay home if they are sick," S. Wesley Long, MD, PhD, associate professor of pathology and genomic medicine at Houston Methodist Medical Center Academic Institute, tells Verywell. "We need for people to seek out the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they are in an eligible group in their community…to help turn the tide against the COVID-19 pandemic."

Eric Ascher, MD, a family medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, tells Verywell the best way to protect yourself is still avoiding unnecessary social situations like travel.

"Wearing your mask properly covering your nose and mouth is still very important," Ascher says. "And if you or a member of your social circle travels, it is best to maintain distance for two weeks to ensure best protection against the virus.”

Like so many other health experts, Asher adds, “when offered the opportunity for vaccination, take it."

New Variants Are Expected

Health experts are not at all surprised that new variants have emerged. "Viruses are commonly mutating—or changing form,” Ascher says.

He says he wouldn't be surprised if there are still more variants. “With increases in travel and expanding social groups, the opportunity for increased spread of virus aids the potential for the virus to change form," he says. "Hopefully, with better decision making in regard to decreasing travel and increases in social distancing, we will stop the spread and likelihood of creation of new variants.” 

Even with the necessary precautions such as masks and social distancing, consider thinking through your interactions with other people each day to limit your risk of COVID-19, Sharon Nachman, MD, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, tells Verywell. “If you’ve already been out among people during the day, for example, maybe head to the grocery store the next day during a less crowded time,” she says. You’re not just protecting yourself, reminds Nachman, “you are part of a community.” 

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  1. Brown School of Public Health. New Coronavirus Variant Threatens A More Deadly Pandemic.

  2. Volz E, Mishra S, Chand M et al. Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 Lineage B.1.1.7 in England: Insights from linking epidemiological and genetic data. 2021. doi:10.1101/2020.12.30.20249034