Health Plus Medical Correspondent

MYTH: COVID-19 is just a normal virus.

TRUTH: COVID-19 now has five variants in less than 18 months of emergence.

Let’s face it: there’s a debilitating virus out there and it’s not going away anytime soon. And that means we all must make a lot of decisions that involve personal risk. And for many of these daily decisions, there is no single right answer. While we take guidance from Centers for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization recommendations, or expert advice from Healthcare professionals, it ALL comes down to our personal ability to assess our RISKS.

Is it safe to go to the grocery store? And, how often is okay?

How safe is it to use a public bathroom? Get a haircut?

Should I avoid a friend whose son/daughter works someplace where someone tested positive?

Health Plus wanted to enable you to make the best decision for the safety and wellbeing of you and your family.

We already calculate risks every day

We already must make daily decisions about what is safe or less safe, and how much risk we’re willing to accept. Each time we decide to drive, or take public transport, or visit a relative, we make judgements about our safety with or without precise data, specific guidelines, or expert advice for our situation.

A new CDC guideline on venturing out shares ways to lessen risk for certain activities: frequent handwashing, wearing a mask, keeping your distance, and other familiar protective measures feature prominently. While helpful, the guideline will not tell you whether it’s okay to visit your cousin, drive to a favourite hiking spot, or engage in physical activity within your “Bubble”.

But each of us must make our own decisions about all of the things in the middle — including activities within our Bubble and it stems in understanding this

FACT: My behaviour affects not only my health but may affect the health of others. And the behaviour of others can affect me.

Based on duration of exposure, setting, and “dose” (the amount of virus to which you’re exposed), we do know that some activities are riskier than others. Spending 15 minutes or more in a small room with someone who is coughing while neither of you wears a mask is considered high-risk. Going for a walk outdoors, with persons all properly masked and maintaining physical distancing, is low risk.

Then there are the VARIANTS: what we know

Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants emerge and persist. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the United States and globally during this pandemic.

In collaboration with a SARS-CoV-2 Interagency Group (SIG), CDC established three classifications for the SARS-CoV-2 variants being monitored: Variant of Interest (VOI), Variant of Concern (VOC), and Variant of High Consequence (VOHC).

There are currently five VOCs documented:

P.1: This variant was first detected in the US in January 2021. P.1 was initially identified in travellers from Brazil, who were tested during routine screening at an airport in Japan in early January.

This is the variant we are aware of currently in Trinidad and Tobago.

B.1.1.7: This variant was first identified in the US in December 2020. It was initially detected in the UK.

B.1.351: This variant was first identified in the US at the end of January 2021. It was initially detected in South Africa in December 2020.

B.1.427 and B.1.429: These two variants were first identified in California in February 2021 and were classified as VOCs in March 2021.

These variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19. An increase in the number of cases will put more strain on health care resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths. So far, studies suggest that antibodies generated through vaccination with currently authorised vaccines recognise these variants. This is being thoroughly investigated and more studies are underway.

What we do not know

Scientists are working to learn more about these variants, and more studies are needed to understand:

– How widely these new variants have spread

– How the disease caused by these new variants differs from the disease caused by other variants that are currently circulating

– How these variants may affect existing therapies, vaccines, and tests

Public health experts are studying these variants quickly to learn more about how to control their spread. They want to understand whether the variants: Spread more easily from person-to-person and/or cause milder or more severe disease in people. However, much more research is necessary to make informed decisions on these variants and the risks attached.

How can you make decisions around personal risk?

If you’re concerned about your safety and wellbeing, consider these three important steps:

1. Think about your risk factors for developing a severe case of COVID-19; do the same for others with whom you will have contact.

2. Find out if community spread is common where you live, if the variants are present.

3. Gauge how risky the activity is.

Let’s take the example of using a public bathroom. What’s the best way to use a public bathroom?

Given the choice between using a public bathroom and doing anything else, some people will always choose the latter. That image is hard to shake even in normal times, but COVID-19 has done nothing to make public bathrooms more appealing, as they come with high-touch surfaces and often lidless toilets. Essentially, they are “hotbeds of infection.” Regardless of the urgency or however pristine it’s reported to be, the space comes with an ick factor especially within a pandemic.

The fundamental steps are: Put a mask on before you enter. Wash your hands immediately after. You can also wear glasses to protect your eyes. There are a number of high-touch surfaces, and the virus, along with bacteria, can exist on them. It’s good to minimise contact by using your foot or toilet paper when lifting, turning, or pulling anything.

Contact before going to the bathroom isn’t as important, since you’ll be washing your hands, but even if you touch a surface, the virus won’t go through your skin. The main thing is to not touch your face, specifically your mouth, nose, or eyes, before washing. And before you leave, use your foot, elbow (if possible), or a paper towel to open the door, and once outside, spray your hands with a sanitizer. Notice at each point, you found yourself assessing the RISK.

Be Mindful of your Risk

We will all have to continue to make challenging decisions each day about how to behave in this pandemic, until far more people are immune due to infection or a vaccine, or until we have effective treatments. And that could be many months or even years away.

Think about your decisions and how they may affect you and others. Try to be reasonable, consistent, but flexible in considering new information. Talk about your plans with those with whom you are sharing space. When there is no right answer and our decisions may affect each other, it’s especially important to understand others’ perspectives.