What do people need to know about these new sub-variants, especially as many gather for celebrations such as Mother’s Day and graduations? What kind of precautions should they take? How can people measure their own risk, and are there any gatherings people need to skip?
Dr. Leana Wen: We know that the original Omicron variant was already more transferable than previous variants like the Delta variant. People infected with Omicron tended to have milder disease than those infected with Delta. And although the vaccines are less effective against Omicron than against some previous variants, vaccines and boosters still provide excellent protection against serious illness due to Omicron.
The same seems to be the case with these new Omicron sub-variants. There is no evidence that they cause more serious illness and vaccination and boosters are still the best form of protection against serious illness. However, they appear to be even more transmissible than the original Omicron BA.1, which means it’s even harder to avoid coronavirus than before.
CNN: Are these new sub-variants still spread in the same way?
When: Yes. As a reminder, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, is a respiratory virus that can be spread by close contact and via the airborne route (through the air). If you are near someone who is infected and they cough or sneeze, these particles can be transmitted to you.
Because Covid-19 is airborne, it can also be transmitted simply by someone breathing or speaking. There is also the theoretical possibility of surface transmission, which means that if an infected person touches a door handle, then you touch it and then you touch your nose or mouth, you can become infected.
These new varieties are so contagious that a fabric mask just isn’t enough. You really should wear a high quality breathing mask, like an N95, KN95 or KF94. Make sure the mask fits snugly. Adults who cannot tolerate such masks, or children who are too young to wear these masks, should wear at least one 3-layer surgical mask. To ensure a better fit, they could also wear a fabric mask on top.
CNN: What kind of precautions should speople take it when they go to graduation parties, Mother’s Day celebrations and other events?
When: There are three main types of precautions – vaccines, testing and masking. How many you decide to take depends on your medical conditions, the level of Covid-19 in your community and your own risk calculation for how much you want to keep avoiding Covid-19.
Let us first talk about the three precautions. Vaccines and boosters protect very well against serious illness. They also reduce the risk of infection. Make sure you are up to date on your booster, including deciding on another booster if you are eligible.
Taking a quick home test just before gatherings can also reduce the risk. These tests measure how contagious you are at the time, so they should be taken as close to the assembly as possible. Having a negative test three days ago only says that you do not have enough Covid-19 at that time to appear in the test; it does not say that you are not contagious now. If everyone takes a negative test just before they meet, it also reduces the risk.
Of course, masking also reduces the risk. I do not think it is very practical to ask people to meet for dinner mask, and many social events involving food and drink can not realistically enforce masking. However, if you are a person at high risk for serious Covid-19 disease and really want to avoid coronavirus, it is always a choice for you to mask, even when others around you are not.
You can attend a graduation ceremony in an N95 or other high-quality mask. You can go to the reception after where others eat and drink, but you choose not to do so. And you could choose to only go to a small gathering for Mother’s Day with the close family, who are all careful and tested just before, rather than a big party.
CNN: Would you recommend that events have vaccine and test requirements?
When: It depends on the event. If it’s outdoors, I do not think both requirements are necessary. Indoor events with many people, especially in areas with higher Covid-19 transmission, should consider requiring proof of vaccination and ideally boosters. Having the same day test also reduces the risk.
If you are at high risk for Covid-19 complications, or if you really do not want to get coronavirus, you can take additional precautions yourself. Wear a mask, as I mentioned above, and skip indoor events with food and drink unless you are OK, and give up food and drink and masks all the time. Make a plan in advance, including choosing to leave if you feel uncomfortable.
I would also advise people that every time you associate with others, you run the risk of getting Covid-19. That does not mean you should not hold any gatherings. This means that you need to be aware of your risk and think in advance about how much you want to keep avoiding coronavirus. If you want to avoid it, take further precautions. Know that the new and even more contagious subvariants mean it is even harder to avoid coronavirus than before.
Some people may decide that they really want to attend an event with higher risk despite the risks. If so, they should be tested three days after the incident and determined before visiting immunocompromised family members. Also know in advance if you are eligible for treatments such as antiviral pills.
At this point in the pandemic, it is unrealistic to ask people to avoid gatherings. But we can help people understand and weigh their own risks and also take precautions both at the events and after to reduce the risk to themselves and others around them.