Like all viruses, Covid-19 mutates all the time—but most of those mutations don’t cause any noticeable difference in the virus’ symptoms or how it spreads. However, back in September a new strain was identified in the United Kingdom that has been found to be 56 percent more contagious than other strains in circulation, meaning it spreads much more quickly and easily.
This variant, called B.1.1.7 (or the “UK variant”), is already circulating in the U.S. through at least 22 states (and counting). “If the variant becomes common in the US, it’s close to a worst-case scenario” in terms of the burden on hospitals, according to former Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director, Dr. Tom Frieden. It’s projected to become the dominant strain here by March.
In addition, the CDC reports additional new strains emerging in South Africa and Nigeria. This month, researchers at Ohio State University even found new, concerning variants that appear to have originated in the U.S.
Understandably, people are extremely concerned. With the pandemic already raging, how will these developments impact families? Here are answers to some of parents’ most pressing questions about these new Covid strains.
How does the new variant affect kids? Is it any different from the strains we’ve already been dealing with in terms of infection rates, symptoms, etc?
An early report from December 2020 in London found a larger proportion of kids infected with the UK variant, compared to the older strain. However, it wasn’t clear whether that was just because the new mutation made it better at infecting kids, or if kids were just exposed at higher rates because they’d been in school without mask requirements. This caused some initial alarm. However, the latest research shows that young kids are at about the same risk of getting infected, and passing the virus on to others, as earlier strains.
However, kids (like everyone else) will still be more likely to get Covid-19 with these new variants circulating, simply because the variants are so much more contagious. As Dr. Angie Rasmussen, virologist at Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security, said in a recent episode of the In the Bubble: From the Frontlines podcast (hosted by Dr. Bob Wachter, Chair of the Department of Medicine at UCSF), “I think the message that people need to take home is your children, no matter what, are susceptible to being infected with SARS Coronavirus-2.”
As for symptoms, Dr. Nimisha Amin, a pediatrician in Bakersfield, California, says not much has changed with the new variants. “Children can often be asymptomatic, she told a local news station, “but if they do develop symptoms it is very similar to a viral syndrome.” Parents should continue to watch for fever, headaches, body aches, sore throat, congestion, runny nose, cough, or abdominal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain or diarrhea. “Children can also lose their sense of smell and taste, just like adults,” Dr. Amin stated, but kids tend to feel sick for a shorter period of time than adults.
Dr. Amin urges parents to get kids tested if they show any of these symptoms—not just so you’ll know whether or not you need to isolate, but also for future illnesses. If your child develops the rare MIS-C complication in two to four weeks, knowing they were Covid-positive will help you get a diagnosis and treatment faster.
Given that the UK variant is multiple times more contagious, what can parents do to step up their safety precautions?
Experts agree, we don’t necessarily need to add new precautions to our safety list—“What people need to be thinking about is really doubling down on the measures they should have already been taking,” says Dr. Rasmussen.
Every risk reduction measure you take adds up, so “the more you can apply, the better,” she says. Everyone is exhausted with pandemic restrictions, but it’s more important now than ever to:
- Avoid gatherings, and stay home if possible.
- If that’s not possible, make sure you’re always wearing a mask and physically distancing.
- Ventilate the space that you’re in as much as you can (open windows and doors, turn on air filtration systems, etc).
- Limit the time that you’re around people who live outside your household.
- Wash your hands.
- Disinfect high touch common surfaces.
You need to be particularly careful indoors, where spread is more likely. Masked, properly distanced outdoor activities are still relatively safe in comparison.
Some experts are saying now is the time to truly restrict indoor activities outside the home, avoiding even the grocery store as much as possible and doing curbside pickup or having food delivered instead.
Also, be aware that not all masks are created equal—single layer cloth masks don’t really offer the protection you and your kids need. If you can’t get high-quality surgical masks, make sure your cloth mask has multiple layers and fits tightly around the face. You can wear two masks at once for even greater protection. Part of the reason masks work is that, even if you still are exposed to a few particles of virus, you’re protected from being exposed to enough to make you sick. With the new variants, you’re more likely to be exposed to more particles—so using physical barriers, like masks, is more important than ever.
What is this likely to mean for school re-openings or summer camps?
It’s still not entirely clear what this will mean for kids gathering in places like schools or summer camps, but for now it seems not much is expected to change.
One of the most important factors in whether schools can safely open continues to be the overall prevalence of Covid-19 in the local community. Once SARS Coronavirus-2 is prevalent in your area—regardless of which strain it is—”at some point, you’re going to get to the place where it’s not safe to have kids going to school, at the very least because they might get infected at school, bring it home and transmit it to other more vulnerable people in their households,” Dr. Rasmussen explained.
The other important factor is how strictly risk mitigation requirements are enforced in schools. Despite being more contagious, even the new variant can be controlled with universal mask-wearing, good ventilation, distance between students, and hand hygiene. As long as those measures are followed closely, many experts are hopeful that schools can stay open.
Some experts, however, feel that closing schools is just a matter of time once the variants become dominant here. “If we’re not going to close other kinds of activities, we shouldn’t close schools, because schools are more important than almost anything else that we do in terms of what they produce and what they allow the rest of society to do,” Harvard’s Marc Lipsitch said—but the virus many not give us a choice. “The U.K. has decided to close schools, and I think we might find ourselves there in not too long.”
When/how might we know whether the current vaccines will also protect against this variant? Will it change the timeline for community protection?
The short answer is that yes, the existing vaccines should be effective against the new strains of this coronavirus. But the longer answer is a little more complicated.
The problem is that the vaccine could become less effective at protecting us as the virus continues to mutate, depending on what those mutations are. And the virus has more chances to mutate the more it spreads—which it can do a lot faster with these more contagious variants. That means we’re in a bit of a race. We’ll need to vaccinate people even faster, to make sure we’re protected before the virus has a chance to mutate in a way that makes the vaccines less effective. It could also mean that we need to vaccinate more people overall to achieve herd immunity.
In the meantime, we need to do everything we can to slow the spread—wear masks, stay physically distanced from those outside your house, wash your hands, stay home as much as you can. As Dr. Wachter put it in his podcast, “This is some scary stuff. And yet, we need to understand it—that’s really been the theme for the entire pandemic. It’s scary, but we have control. We can take actions … the most important advice is to double down on the things we already know are the right things to do.”