NAVIGATING MANDATE LIFTS: SHOULD WE BE LETTING OUR GUARDS DOWN?

Now that the mask mandates have been lifted, communities have been divided into two crowds; people who wish to continue wearing masks and those who don't. With new variants such as the BA.2 "stealth" variant and Deltacron on the rise, in addition to having a high number of people unmasked, is it important now more than ever to upgrade our protection and stay prepared?

Regardless of which crowd they belong to, we know that people are tired, frustrated and feeling pressure from different angles. We all just want to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, and two ways we can ensure this is by ditching our surgical mask and donning an N95/KN95, as well as staying up to date with the newest information regarding these evolving variants.

NEW VARIANTS ON THE RISE
THE BA.2 "STEALTH" VARIANT: WHAT WE KNOW

We're seeing the new "stealth" BA.2 sub-variant take over Europe as well as North America, and the CDC now, at the time of writing, estimates that 35% of new COVID-19 in the US cases are due to this strain. Due to recent studies, there is no doubt that the BA.2 sub-variant of Omicron is more transmissible than the Omicron BA.1. 

Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, says, "BA.1 swept through communities because of how contagious it is. BA.2 appears to be even more contagious than BA.1. The UK Health Security Agency estimates that BA.2 is growing 80% faster than BA.1. Here in the US as well, BA.2 appears to be on its way to overtaking BA.1 to become the dominant variant."

In Canada, two public health experts say that Quebec has now entered a sixth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that this has been driven by the new BA.2 variant. Dr. Don Vinh of the McGill University Health Centre stated that the province has seen an increase in cases in long-term care homes and seniors in general. Additionally, there has been a 60% jump in the number of health care workers off of work due to the virus.

Saskatchewan and British Columbia are also experiencing upticks, with over a quarter of cases in Saskatchewan between March 13th and 19th caused by the BA.2.

A family doctor in Saskatoon, Dr. Adam Ogieglo, noted in a Global News article that he has also seen an increase in the number of children under the age of 12 who have come into his office with COVID-like symptoms. This increase seems to be initiated by the mask mandate lift, thus proving the effectiveness of masks and the importance of staying prepared, even when these mandates have been lifted.

This new BA.2 variant has been given the name "stealth", as its genetic mutations make it more difficult to differentiate from the delta variant when looking at PCR test results, unlike its predecessor (the BA.1 omicron variant). The BA.2 does not provide the same signal as the BA.1 when being presented through a PCR test, making it more stealthy and not as easy to detect.

Benoit Barbeau, a virologist at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal says that we are better prepared to handle this wave in contrast to previous ones, due to a combination of vaccinations and higher levels of natural immunity (i.e., those who have been previously infected). With this in mind, Barbeau said that the increase in BA.2 cases is a reminder to us all that the pandemic is not over. He emphasized the importance of protecting ourselves and others, even if mandates and restrictions have been lifted all over the country.

THE DELTACRON VARIANT: WHAT WE KNOW

The Deltacron variant was first discovered in mid-February when scientists in Paris noticed a different-looking genetic sequence of the coronavirus. A majority of this genetic sequence matched Delta's, but the part related to the virus's spike protein was from Omicron.

How does a combination variant occur? WHO’s (The World Health Organization) Dr. Mike Ryan states that the chance of this happening has always been probable.

“Recombination occurs when two viruses infect the same person or the same animal and what you then have is … effectively two viruses can exchange large amounts of genetic information and you effectively get a new virus out the other end … that is how we generate pandemics of influenza."

Statements made by other health officials indicate that the Deltacron is still in its early stages and that more experimentation and data are required in order to come to any final conclusions about the severity of the variant. However, they have concluded that it has most likely spread across borders, increasing the need to watch over its development and stay prepared.

This means continuing to mask up, practicing social distancing and refraining from spending time in high-risk areas. 

As Benoit Barbeau mentioned when discussing the BA.2 variant, the pandemic is not over.

UPGRADING YOUR MASK: N95/KN95 VS. SURGICAL 3-PLY MASK

In previous articles, we discussed why cloth and, more specifically, 3-ply surgical masks are not the right mask to equip ourselves with when wanting optimal protection. The construction of these masks results in substantial amounts of unfiltered air escaping, increasing risk of infection. These masks are designed to protect the wearer from fluid splatter, not airborne viruses. Infection, when equipped with a surgical mask, can occur within one hour.

An N95/KN95 mask is designed to trap harmful aerosols from escaping, as it provides a tight facial and a better fit overall. There are also different types and styles of N95/KN95 masks, allowing us to personalize our fit even further. Their construction and materials allow them to filter out a minimum of 95% of harmful aerosols, making them superior to the surgical 3-ply mask. When wearing an N95/KN95 mask, an infection can take 25 hours to occur, especially when wearing an N95 that is secured at the back of the neck and crown. This is obviously quite a significant difference from the surgical 3-ply disposable mask.

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CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Now that we have two variants on the rise in addition to more individuals going around unmasked than ever before, we can see that in order to maintain our safety, wearing a high-quality N95/KN95 mask is a crucial practice during these times.

With so much still unknown about these evolving variants, why take the risk? How do we know that those walking around unmasked are consistently taking the right measures to ensure the health and safety of themselves and those around them? The answer is, we don't. And the only way to avoid the risk is by not letting our guards down. 

We'll be staying tuned to the evolving data surrounding both variants, and we encourage you to do the same! Knowledge is another form of protection on top of staying masked!

Stay safe!

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