Cohen Medical Associates is a family medical center and research center located in Delray Beach, FL.
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omicron covid-19 variant

How to Deal With the Omicron COVID-19 Variant

With COVID-19 cases soaring in Florida and the rest of the country, along with concerns about the new omicron COVID-19 variant, our primary care doctors in Delray Beach want to give you the latest guidance on ways to protect yourself and your family.

As we said a few weeks ago, there’s no need to panic about the omicron virus. We’re still in a better place than we were in March of 2020. We know more about the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and we have more tools available to prevent and treat it. On the other hand, there’s still a great deal we don’t yet know about the omicron COVID-19 variant.

But one thing we know already is that it has the highest transmissibility of any of the variants so far. In just a matter of weeks, it has become the dominant variant in the U.S. Rates of omicron is growing exponentially, with cases doubling as fast as every two days. Even if omicron proves to be not as deadly as its predecessors, it can still overwhelm us by sheer numbers.

Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) told CBS News’s “Face the Nation” recently that with its current rate of growth, we could soon be seeing one million new cases a day nationwide.

What we can do

Vaccines are the first line of defense against coronavirus. While we still don’t know how well the current vaccines will work against omicron COVID-19 variant, we do know that they have performed extremely well against the original strain and subsequent variants.

Laboratory data and real-world data on vaccine effectiveness are still at odds, and it will likely be several more weeks before we can draw solid conclusions.

But experts are leaning toward redefining the definition of “fully vaccinated” to mean three doses of the mRNA vaccines or two doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (or one J&J and one mRNA vaccine).

Especially if you are over 65, immunocompromised, or will be in contact with someone who is at high risk, you should definitely consider receiving a booster vaccine.

Ventilation is critical

The biggest danger from the coronavirus is from the aerosols exhaled by those who may not even know they are infected. Like cigarette smoke or strong perfume, these aerosols can linger in the air for hours, to then be inhaled by others.

That’s why indoor ventilation is key to protecting yourself and others. Fully opening doors and windows is the simplest way. If for some reason this isn’t possible, mechanical ventilation systems can reduce exposure.

In a paper published on the JAMA Network website, Joseph G. Allen, associate professor and director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of public health, points out that standards for building ventilation are set for bare minimums of fresher air, not infection control.

He recommends a target of at least four to six complete air exchanges per hour using a combination of “outdoor air ventilation; recirculated air that passes through a filter with at least a minimum efficiency rating value 13 (MERV 13) rating; or passage of air through portable air cleaners with HEPA filters.”

It’s fairly simple to make your own indoor air filter. Just use four MERV 13 air filters taped together and topped by a box fan. Instructions are easy to find on the Internet, including here.

Latest mask guidance

Because coronavirus particles linger so long in the air, well-fitting masks, worn properly, are second only to vaccines as an effective way to keep from inhaling the virus.

“Given the contagiousness of this [variant], I think we should get that mask back out of our drawer and put it on, particularly when we’re going indoors to group activities where there are congregations of people,” William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, told The Washington Post.

But some experts have begun to suggest that the high transmissibility of omicron calls for upgrading from cloth masks to surgical masks. In this category, surgical and N95 masks are best, they say. This guidance has changed from earlier in the pandemic when shortages meant that medical personnel might go without. That’s no longer the case.

Others worry that N95 masks are difficult to fit properly and in most cases aren’t reusable.

“Yes, they provide the best protection,” Dr. Daniele Lantagne, Tufts university professor, and World Health Organization (WHO) advisor told The Boston Globe. “But they are not intended for the community, and an unsealed N95 is almost as good as nothing.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using masks that:

  • have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric
  • completely cover your nose and mouth
  • fit snugly against the sides of your face and don’t have gaps
  • have a nose wire to prevent air from leaking out of the top of the mask

Face shields or masks containing exhalation valves allow virus particles to escape and are worthless.

If your mask doesn’t fit snugly, consider double masking, perhaps a cloth mask covered by a surgical mask. This can make the mask press more tightly against your face.

We’re all tired of this virus. But with omicron, we need to remain vigilant and keep up our defenses, at least until we know more.

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