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Airborne experts explain how to protect yourself from the new highly contagious coronavirus strain

By Suresh Daniala, Distinguished Professor of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering at Bayard D. Clarkson, Clarkson University, and Byron Erath, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, University of Clarkson

A rapidly spreading variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has been found in at least 10 states, including Oregon, and people are wondering: How do I protect myself now?

We have seen what the new version, known as B.1

.1.7, can do, as it spread rapidly across south-east England in December, leading to a jump in case numbers and triggering stricter blocking measures.

The new variant is thought to be 50% easier to transport than conventional variants, although it appears to affect people’s health in the same way. Increased transmission is thought to be due to a change in the virus’s protein, which can allow the virus to enter cells more easily. These and other studies on the new version were published before the peer review to share their findings quickly.

In addition, there is some evidence that patients infected with the new variant B.1.1.7 may have a higher viral load. This means that they can emit more virus-containing particles when they breathe, talk or sneeze.

As professors studying the dynamics of liquids and aerosols, we study how virus-carrying particles propagate in the air. There are still many things that scientists and doctors do not know about the coronavirus and its mutations, but there are some clear strategies that people can use to protect themselves.

In the air, particles are still the biggest problem

SARS-CoV-2 variants are thought to spread primarily in the air rather than on surfaces.

When someone with a coronavirus in the airways coughs, talks, sings, or even just breathes, infectious respiratory droplets can be released into the air. These droplets are small, mostly in the range of 1-100 micrometers. By comparison, human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter.

Larger droplets fall quickly to the ground, rarely traveling farther than 6 feet from the source. The bigger problem with disease transmission is the smallest droplets – those less than 10 micrometers in diameter – that can stay in the air as aerosols for hours.

How effective are the different types of masks? UNSW / Thorax.

Because people probably have more viruses in their bodies and the virus is more contagious, everyone needs to take extra care and precautions. Wearing face masks and social distancing are essential.

Places and activities that were previously considered ‘safe’, such as some indoor workplaces, may pose an increased risk of infection with the spread of the variant.

The concentration of aerosol particles is usually highest right next to the individual emitting the particles and decreases with distance from the source. However, indoors, aerosol concentration levels can accumulate rapidly, similar to the way cigarette smoke accumulates indoors. This is especially problematic in poorly ventilated rooms.

With the new option, aerosol levels that were not previously a risk can now lead to infection.

What can you do to stay safe?

1) Pay attention to the type of face mask you use and how it stands.

Most ready-made face coatings are not 100% effective in preventing droplets from falling out. With the new variant, which spreads more easily and probably infectiously at lower concentrations, it is important to choose coatings with materials that are most effective in stopping the spread of droplets.

When available, N95 and surgical masks perform best. Otherwise, front coatings that use multilayer materials are preferred. Ideally, the material should be tightly woven. An example is cotton sheets with a high number of threads. Proper fit is also crucial, as gaps around the nose and mouth can reduce efficiency by 50%.

2) Follow the guidelines for social distancing.

Although current guidelines for social distancing are not perfect – 6 feet is not always enough – they offer a useful starting point. Because aerosol concentration and infectivity levels are highest in the space immediately surrounding each virus, increasing physical distance can help reduce the risk. Remember that people are contagious before they start to show symptoms and many of them never show symptoms, so don’t expect to see signs of illness.

3) Think carefully about the environment when you enter a closed area, both for ventilation and how people interact.

Limiting the size of the collections helps to reduce the possibility of exposure. Controlling the internal environment in other ways can also be a highly effective risk reduction strategy. This includes increasing the ventilation rate to introduce fresh air and filtering existing air to dilute aerosol concentrations.

Personally, it is useful to pay attention to the types of interactions that occur. For example, many people who shout can create a higher risk than what a person says. In all cases, it is important to minimize time spent indoors with others.

The CDC warned that B.1.1.7 could become the dominant variant of SARS-CoV-2 in the United States by March. Other rapidly spreading variants have also been found in Brazil and South Africa. Increased vigilance and compliance with health guidelines must continue to be a top priority.

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