Coronavirus Variants & the Vaccines
Variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have emerged in countries across the globe, including the United States — and in Austin specifically. Esther Melamed, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Neurology, explains what we know about them and how vaccine manufacturers are responding.
Mutations in viruses are not new or unexpected, Melamed says. They happen when there’s a change in the virus’s genes. The variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, are arising through mutations in different parts of the virus, including its spike protein, she says.
“Mutations in this region are particularly worrisome because they allow the virus to be more infectious and potentially less responsive to the body’s ability to neutralize them and less responsive to vaccines,” Melamed says. “However, the variants that we’ve seen so far do not seem to be necessarily causing more severe disease.”
Overall, the coronavirus seems to be evolving relatively slowly, she says.
As for the vaccines, Melamed says early research suggests they can provide some level of protection against the variants. Manufacturers are also looking into creating booster shots to improve protection against future variants.
“Right now, scientists are working hard to learn more about these variants, to understand how far they have spread, how they impact patients and how they may affect existing therapies, vaccines and diagnostic tests,” she says.
In the meantime, Melamed says everyone should continue taking precautions to avoid spreading COVID-19, since slowing transmission also slows the opportunity for the virus to mutate.
“We all need to continue wearing masks, to continue to socially distance and avoid travel when possible,” she says. “And, of course, get the vaccine when it’s your turn.”
COVID-19 Vaccines: Myth vs. Fact
Fact: The vaccine will not give you COVID-19.
Some people are concerned that the vaccine is going to cause them to have the disease. This will not happen, Avalos says.
“The vaccines teach our immune system how to recognize and attack the virus,” she says. “And in doing so, they can cause some symptoms such as fever. But that’s not causing the disease.”
Fact: People who have recovered from COVID-19 should still get vaccinated.
There are several reasons why people who have had COVID-19 and recovered should still get the vaccination, Avalos says, including:
- COVID-19 is associated with severe health risks.
- COVID-19 reinfection is a possibility.
- Experts don’t know how long we’re protected from getting sick again after recovering from COVID-19.
Fact: The vaccine does not alter your DNA.
The messenger RNA in the COVID-19 vaccine does not alter — or even interact with — our DNA. The mRNA teaches our bodies how to make a protein that triggers an immune response, Avalos says, and it does so without entering the nucleus of a cell, which is where the DNA is.
COVID-19 Reinfection & Vaccine Possibilities: What Doctors Hope to Learn
Instances of coronavirus reinfection after recovering from COVID-19 are rare and the information about them is limited, Aliza Norwood, M.D., says. But doctors and researchers are interested in what reinfections can tell us about natural, long-term immunity and a possible vaccine.
Someone who has recovered from COVID-19 may test positive for the coronavirus up to three months after their symptoms are gone, if they still have traces of the virus in their system, says Norwood, an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine and Department of Population Health. This is different from reinfection, which occurs when the recovered person becomes infected with a slightly different strain of the coronavirus.
“Even if reinfection is possible, a vaccine is a powerful tool that helps our bodies recognize the most common virus strains early and prevents against severe COVID-19 disease,” Norwood says. “It gives our bodies a leg up in the fight against the virus by teaching our bodies what to look out for and creating little antibody armies ready to fight if and when we are exposed to the virus.”
While a COVID-19 vaccine would help people who have not been exposed to the coronavirus, Norwood says a vaccine might also provide an added layer of protection for people who have been infected, since health officials do not know how long protection from natural antibodies lasts.
“We hope that the vaccine will give us a more powerful antibody that may be able to protect us from different strains of COVID if it mutates in the future,” she says.
However, a vaccine is only one aspect of prevention.
“A vaccine is a hugely important tool in the fight against COVID, but it alone likely won’t be enough to completely stop COVID in its tracks,” she says.
Norwood stresses that people must continue practicing social distancing, washing their hands frequently and wearing a mask in public to reduce transmission.
“In order to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe,” she says, “we need to continue to do all the things that reduce virus spread, even after a vaccine is here.”
“Post-COVID Syndrome”: When Coronavirus Symptoms Linger
Esther Melamed, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Neurology, explains potential long-term complications of COVID-19. Known as “Post-COVID Syndrome,” for some people, symptoms linger weeks and months after they become infected with the coronavirus.
Melamed cites a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey that found about one-third of people who tested positive for the coronavirus reported they had not returned to their pre-COVID-19 health two to three weeks after their initial infection, including younger adults with no chronic medical conditions.
“In the beginning of the pandemic, we thought that the primary symptoms of COVID-19 were related mainly to the lungs,” Melamed says. “But it has become clear that the virus causing COVID-19 can also affect many other parts of the body, such as the gastrointestinal tract, the brain, the spinal cord and muscles. Different people can develop different symptoms related to these body organs.”
These so-called COVID-19 long-haulers can experience a variety of long-lasting symptoms, Melamed says, including trouble breathing, headaches, memory difficulty, fatigue, loss of taste and smell and worsening of pre-existing conditions such as diabetes.
Melamed says people should focus on preventing coronavirus infection in the first place by wearing masks and practicing social distancing. She also urges people to “remember the cornerstones of health.”
“Make sure that you’re getting adequate sleep, proper nutrition and sufficient hydration throughout the day, and return to exercise when you’re able to,” Melamed says. “It is also really vital that you continue to engage in meaningful activities in your daily routine to help maintain both physical and emotional health.”
Get Your Flu Shot Now to Prevent a “Twindemic”
Coburn Allen, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics and program director of the Pediatric Emergency Medicine Fellowship, explains how getting your flu shot now can help avoid a later “twindemic” — when flu season converges with COVID-19 — that could overwhelm hospitals.
Like COVID-19, the flu spreads via tiny droplets that shoot through the air when people cough, sneeze or talk. Allen says the flu vaccine will help reduce the amount of severe flu cases that may require hospitalization, allowing health care workers to focus their efforts on caring for people who have the coronavirus.
“It’s very confusing to try and make sense of who has COVID and who has the flu in the middle of a season that has both,” Allen says.
A good model for the U.S. is the Southern Hemisphere, he says, where flu season runs from April to September. For example, Australia just experienced a record low flu season. That’s likely because about four times as many people have been vaccinated for flu in Australia than this time last year.
The flu vaccine prevents about 40% to 60% of cases on average, Allen says. The benefits are even more stark in children: They’re about 50% less likely to die of the flu, if they’ve been vaccinated for the virus.
“The flu vaccine works,” Allen says. “It’s not perfect, but when you look at the severe cases, it decreases hospitalizations significantly.”
Almost everyone over the age of 6 months should get a flu shot, especially those in high-risk groups. That includes adults over 65 years old, people with underlying conditions like heart disease, pregnant women, caretakers and essential workers.
What To Do if Your Roommate Is Sick
Susan Hochman, who works at The University of Texas at Austin’s University Health Services and Counseling and Mental Health Center, advises on what to do if your roommate is sick with symptoms that may indicate COVID-19.
First, Hochman says, if the person who is sick is a student, they should contact University Health Services and begin self-isolating. Then, you and your other roommates will need to follow suit to limit any possible spread.
If you live on campus, the university will then help relocate your roommate who is sick, so they can self-isolate, Hochman says. The university will also help you and your roommates with resources for effectively self-quarantining, such as food delivery.
If you live off campus, Hochman says your roommate who is symptomatic should self-isolate by avoiding shared spaces and remaining in a room that isn’t used by anyone else. If they do need to be around others, they should wear a mask and not share things like food, dishes, glasses or clothes. They should also eat in their own room.
If your living arrangement makes it impossible for someone who is sick to self-isolate — for example, because they share a bedroom or bathroom with other people — the city has a designated hotel where people can self-isolate for free, Hochman says. University Health Services can help you with the arrangements.
“As always,” Hochman says, “everyone in your living space should practice good hand hygiene by washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, multiple times throughout the day.”
Contact Tracing 101
Darlene Bhavnani, Ph.D., MPH, explains what contact tracing is, how it’s used to stem the spread of the coronavirus and how it will be used at The University of Texas at Austin this fall. Bhavnani is an epidemiologist in the Department of Population Health at Dell Medical School.
What Is Contact Tracing?
Contact tracing is a method of tracking down people who have been exposed to the coronavirus by interviewing people who test positive about where they’ve been and who they’ve seen while they were infectious, Bhavnani says. Contact tracers reach out to all of the people who’ve been exposed to notify them and recommend that they isolate or quarantine and get tested themselves.
Throughout the process, the contact tracers do not release the names of people who have tested positive, Bhavnani says.
How Contact Tracing Works
If you or someone you know tests positive for the coronavirus, the contact tracing team will get in touch. They will try to notify you up to three times, and if they do, they will “ask you questions that are meant to keep others around you safe,” Bhavnani says.
“Contact tracing is just one of many strategies that we’ll need to keep our community safe,” she says. “We’re all in this together as a community, and it will be important to make thoughtful decisions about where we go and who we come into contact with.”
How to Properly Wear & Clean a Mask
John Salsman, director of environmental health and safety at The University of Texas at Austin, explains how to properly wear and clean cloth face coverings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Wearing a mask in addition to practicing frequent, proper hand-washing and social distancing is the best way to stem the spread, Salsman says.
Type of Mask
Salsman says the recommendation for low-risk individuals is to wear a cloth mask that’s at least three layers of fabric deep, preferably made of polyester or a cotton blend that is tightly woven. Disposable surgical masks work, too.
However, Salsman says, neck gaiters and bandanas are not optimal because they do not provide proper protection.
Wearing Your Mask
After washing your hands, place your mask over your nose and mouth and breathe normally.
When you’re in public, Salsman says, keep your mask on your face the entire time: Don’t put it around your neck or on your forehead. Also, avoid touching your mask, and if you do, wash your hands.
To remove your mask, untie it from behind your head or unloop the strings from behind your ears. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth while doing so, and fold the mask in half by the outside corners.
Washing Your Mask
Unless your mask is disposable — in which case, throw it away when you’re done wearing it — frequently wash your mask after wearing it, Salsman says.
If you add your mask to your laundry, use regular laundry detergent and the warmest water setting that is appropriate for the type of cloth. In the dryer, use the highest heat setting and and leave it there until it is dry.
If you wash it by hand, use a diluted bleach solution and then lay it flat until it is completely dry. If possible, place it in direct sunlight.
COVID-19 Prevention, Basics & Risk Assessments
Elizabeth Matsui, M.D., MHS, breaks down the basics of how to protect against catching the coronavirus. She explains how the virus spreads, what you should to do protect against each method of spread and what to consider when assessing the risk of an activity.
First, she explains, it’s important to understand the three main ways the coronavirus spreads:
- Airborne droplets: The virus travels through the droplets that someone produces when they sneeze or cough. Typically, they travel a bit in the air and then drop to the ground.
- Airborne viral particles: Smaller than airborne droplets, viral particles are sent into the air when people breathe, talk and shout. These travel farther and remain in the air longer than the droplets.
- Contaminated surfaces: Since the coronavirus can linger on surfaces, if you touch a contaminated surface and then touch your face, the virus can then infect you through your nose or mouth.
Now, how do you protect yourself? Matsui offers advice based on each type of spread:
- Protecting against airborne droplets: Stay at least 6 feet away from other people — aka social distancing — to avoid catching the droplets they produce before the droplets hit the ground. The farther away from someone you are, the lower the risk.
- Protecting against airborne viral particles: In addition to practicing social distancing, wearing a mask reduces both your chance of catching someone else’s particles and the number of particles you send into the air that could infect other people if you’re infected with the coronavirus and don’t realize it.
- Protecting against contaminated surfaces: Disinfect high-touch surfaces, such as doorknobs and light switches; frequently wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; and avoid touching your face, in case you inadvertently touched a surface with the coronavirus on it.
Putting all this together helps you assess how risky a certain activity is, Matsui says. Here, there are four main variables to consider:
- Number of people present;
- Behaviors of the other people;
- Duration of the activity;
- Amount of ventilation.
In general, the fewer the people, the lower the risk. If the other people are wearing masks and practicing social distancing, even better. Next, the less time you spend in an enclosed space with other people, the lower the risk. Lastly, well-ventilated areas are better than areas with poor air circulation: Look for indoor spaces that feel like the outdoors, with windows and doors open and air flowing through.
For example, if you need to pick up groceries or a prescription, the methods with the lowest risk are having them delivered or picking them up at curbside or through a window. These scenarios bring you in contact with the fewest people, allow you to take adequate precautions like social distancing, take the least amount of time to complete and keep you outside the building or in your own home.
Adhering to these precautions and carefully assessing the risks of activities, Matsui says, will drastically reduce your risk of catching the coronavirus.
Debunking Mask Myths
Elizabeth Matsui, M.D., MHS, debunks myths regarding why people should wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic. Matsui is a professor in the departments of Population Health and Pediatrics at Dell Medical School.
Myth No. 1: I was told I didn’t have to wear a mask a couple months ago, so I don’t need to wear one now.
“Well the reason the recommendations have changed is because of science,” Matsui says. “You’re actually witnessing science in action with the changing of the recommendation.”
Matsui says health officials have learned two things about the virus since the original mask recommendations were issued:
- People who are asymptomatic can not only spread the virus, but actually appear to be responsible for much of the spread.
- Breathing and then talking, shouting or singing shoots the virus into the air, where it can spread to other people.
So even — perhaps especially — if you don’t have symptoms, wearing a mask reduces the chances of you spreading the coronavirus to other people.
Myth No. 2: Wearing a mask doesn’t do anything to help me.
While wearing a mask helps you less than it helps other people, Matsui says, the mask does still protect you.
Additionally, wearing a mask sends the signal to other people that masking up is the appropriate thing to do. The more people who wear masks in the community, the lower the infection rate will be.
Myth No. 3: If I’m wearing a mask, I don’t have to worry about social distancing.
This is false, Matsui says. The farther away you are from someone, the less likely you are to be exposed to a large amount of the virus. While wearing a mask provides some protection, it does not replace social distancing.
For more information on how to properly make, wear and wash cloth face masks, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
Caring for Chronic Conditions Amid COVID-19
Brandon Allport-Altillo, M.D., MPH, assistant professor in the departments of Population Health and Internal Medicine, explains how people with chronic conditions can safely continue to manage them while also protecting against COVID-19.
In addition to following the general recommendations to avoid getting COVID-19 — stay home unless you need to go out to get something essential; when you do go out, wear a cloth face covering and stay 6 feet away from other people; wash your hands and clean high-touch surfaces often — Allport-Altillo recommended people with chronic conditions take four steps to stay on top of their care:
Keep in contact with your health care provider.Don’t be afraid to call if you have concerns, and ask about telehealth options, where you can talk to your doctor by phone or video chat instead of going to the office. Keeping up regular care can prevent an emergency room trip later. Stay on top of your treatment plan.Don’t skip medications or alter your plan without checking with your provider first. Also, make sure you have at least two weeks’ worth of medications on hand in case you need to stay home for a while. Monitor your condition at home.If you have high blood pressure, it can be helpful to have a blood pressure cuff. If you have diabetes, it’s helpful to have a glucometer. Ask your provider if you don’t have the instruments you need; insurance companies often cover these types of supplies. Write down your readings and symptoms each day, so your provider can see how they change over time. Take care of your physical and mental health.This is a stressful time, and many people are feeling anxious. Stay physically active, such as exercising outdoors — which is considered a low-risk activity if you take the proper precautions — and find ways to reduce stress, such as deep breathing.
Do Not Delay Emergency Care
Kristin Mondy, M.D., advises people to go to the emergency room or hospital if they think they’re having an emergency, despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Mondy, the chief of the Division of Infectious Disease in the Department of Internal Medicine, says some types of symptoms that would prompt an ER visit include:
- sudden chest or abdominal pain;
- signs of an acute stroke, such as difficulty speaking or numbness in an arm or a leg;
- sudden difficulty in breathing; and
- new fatigue or dizziness that is extreme.
The ERs and their staffs are prepared — for both emergencies and people who have COVID-19. Hospital staff are taking precautions such as wearing personal protective equipment, and people who have symptoms of COVID-19 are kept in separate areas of the hospital, away from people who do not have those symptoms.
If you think you are having an emergency, Mondy says, do not delay going to a hospital.
How to Care for Yourself if You Have COVID-19
Terrance Hines, M.D. — executive director and chief medical officer of The University of Texas at Austin University Health Services — explains four ways to take care of yourself if you’ve been diagnosed with coronavirus.
Stay home and away from other people to prevent spreading the virus. If you are around people, stay at least six feet away. You will need to stay home a minimum of seven days from the onset of symptoms plus three days after becoming fever-free, with improvement in respiratory symptoms.
Phone a Friend
Ask a friend to put together a self-care kit that might include a digital thermometer, hand sanitizer and a water bottle so you can stay well-hydrated. Most people with COVID-19 have mild illness including fever and cough but are able to recover at home without medical care.
If you’re thinking of going to the doctor, call first to get guidance. However, if you develop emergency warning signs such as trouble breathing or persistent pressure in the chest, get medical attention immediately.
Practice Strict Hygiene
Cover your mouth and nose when you cough. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Don’t share dishes, towels or other items with people at home. Clean surfaces you touch a lot: your phone, doorknobs, remote controls, etc.
Care for Your Mental Health
Isolation can further contribute to the stress of this challenging time. Reach out to a mental health care provider if you are having difficulty dealing with emotions like worry, depression or anxiety. If you have additional questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to your health care provider.
What to Do if You Live With Someone Who Has Coronavirus
It’s important that you sleep in a different room. If you have to share a bathroom, wipe down frequently touched surfaces — like doorknobs, the toilet handle, the sink and the countertop — immediately after the person with the virus uses the bathroom.
The person with COVID-19 should wear a face mask to come out into a common space. Open a window or turn on the air conditioning, because the air movement can help disperse the virus.
There is some concern that animals can carry the virus between people, so if there are pets in your home, you should reduce any interaction between the pet and the person with the virus.
Use Separate Utensils & Dishes
The person with COVID-19 should use separate plates, silverware and cups. They should also prepare their own food and wash their own dishes, if possible. If you have to do these things, wear a mask and gloves. Put the used mask and gloves in a plastic bag, then throw it in the trash. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
Keep Visitors Away
This goes without saying: You should have no visitors in the home that are not people who have to be in the home.
As always, wash your hands frequently with soap and water for 20 to 30 seconds throughout the day and avoid touching your face. Wipe down commonly touched surfaces in the house at least once a day or immediately after the person with the virus uses them.
Handling Mail & Packages Safely
If you are concerned about contracting COVID-19, you can either leave your mail and packages in a safe spot outside for 24 hours before opening them or wear gloves. But every time you put gloves on or off or touch anything from outside your home, you should always wash your hands for 20 seconds. That is the best way you can protect yourself and your family.