A South King Fire & Rescue firefighter places a used test swab into a secure COVID test vial on Nov. 18, 2020, at a Federal Way testing site. (Sound Publishing file photo)

A South King Fire & Rescue firefighter places a used test swab into a secure COVID test vial on Nov. 18, 2020, at a Federal Way testing site. (Sound Publishing file photo)

Masks are still king in combating new COVID strains

A top UW doctor talks new strains, masks and when normal could return.

New variants of the coronavirus are circulating in King County, but health experts say the same measures that have proven effective in stopping the virus so far should continue to offer protection.

The global pandemic took root in the U.S. in February 2020 at Kirkland’s Life Care Center. Since then, the pandemic has led to nearly 500,000 deaths and nearly 28 million cases across the country. Several variants of the virus have emerged, often bearing the names of the countries where they were first noticed.

One variant which was discovered in the U.K. is expected to be the dominant strain in King County by March, according to Dr. Seth Cohen, medical director of Infection Prevention at the University of Washington Medical Center. This strain is thought to spread more easily and quickly than other variants.

The Centers for Disease Control also reports that it may increase the risk of death compared to other variants of the virus, but more studies are needed to confirm that. It was first detected in the U.S. in December, and in King County in January.

There are two other major variants — one first detected in South Africa and another in Brazil. Both of these variants were detected in the U.S. in January as well, according to the CDC.

This means the virus is mutating. There’s the possibility that the virus could mutate to a point where currently developed vaccines become less effective against it, but the CDC states that, currently, it appears the vaccines still work. However, there’s evidence that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines may have reduced effectiveness against the South African variant, the Washington Post wrote on Feb. 18.

That’s the bad news, but the upshot, Cohen said, is that the same precautions and safety measures that were effective against the original strain of COVID-19 offer protection against the new strains. These include physical distancing, mask wearing, practicing good hygiene and proper ventilation of enclosed spaces.

“The big variable in my mind that would let rates start to creep up again is if people change their social behaviors and start to really pump the brakes in terms of masking and distancing,” he said.

After the inauguration of President Joe Biden in January, where several members of the cabinet and Congress were seen with two masks, the idea of double masking has become more common. Cohen said he’s glad people are talking about how many masks they should be wearing, instead of whether they should wear one or not.

He pointed to the CDC recommendation that people should be wearing something over their mouth and nose that’s at least two or three layers thick, and properly sealed so air doesn’t leak out around the sides. That can be satisfied by either one high-quality mask or two. The most important part of the mask equation is that everyone wears one.

“The best double masking is when one person is masked and the other person is masked,” he said. “As long as everybody in a particular encounter is masked, that’s the most important thing.”

There are also questions around when King County and the country could get back to normal, or something resembling it. Cohen said for him, normal means having his kids back in school in-person, and being able to see other generations of his family like his parents. That will happen once his kids, grandparents and himself are vaccinated.

“We’re certainly hoping that most people will be vaccinated by the summer,” he said. “There is a lot that can happen between now and then, but really thinking about summer as a goal of feeling a little more normal would be terrific.”


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