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Masks, handwashing and distancing remain key amid new U.K. coronavirus variant, doctors say

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WATCH: World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday commented on the new variant of the novel coronavirus being experienced in the U.K. and South Africa – Dec 21, 2020

As news of a new, faster-spreading variant of the coronavirus prompts global action from world leaders and a flurry of fresh concerns, doctors have unsurprising yet important advice for individual Canadians worried about the new development: keep following public health advice.

“At the end of the day, at an individual level, does this impact anything that we should be doing? No, of course not. It doesn’t,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist.

“The public health measures will work the same regardless of what variant of the virus is circulating. Masks, physical distancing, avoiding confined, crowded settings — these are all very helpful.”

Read more: ‘Good news’: Coronavirus vaccine will still protect against new U.K. variant, WHO says

The new virus variant caught the world’s attention when the U.K. announced that preliminary lab results indicated the mutated version of COVID-19 was spreading 70 per cent faster than its preceding iteration.

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The World Health Organization also confirmed on Monday that, as of yet, there is no indication the new variant will cause more severe outcomes among those who catch it.

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Coronavirus: WHO says new virus strain from U.K. being studied – Dec 21, 2020

Despite this, the faster spread alone was enough to prompt a worldwide response. Multiple neighbouring European countries have clamped down on travel to and from the U.K., and Canada has followed suit, restricting flights from the U.K. to Canada.

While the government is pushing to keep the new strain out of the country, doctors say Canadians shouldn’t panic if it does skip over the pond and into our communities.

“I’m not significantly worried,” said Dr. Zain Chagla in response to the news of the variant. He acknowledged, however, that there “may be more transmission.”

But, he noted, it’s within the power of Canadians to band together and try to keep our communities safe.

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“All of the things we keep on doing are just so much more important now to make sure we just don’t get rates of transmission in our community, whichever virus strain we have,” Chagla said.

“Lowering COVID-19 transmission is the biggest and most effective means to an end for all of this.”

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Keeping these transmission rates low is, in many ways, pretty straightforward: wear a mask, stay home, wash your hands, and maintain a social distance from those who don’t live in your household.

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When pressed on whether these new variants could prompt fresh guidelines from governments, such as requirements for more than six feet of distance, thicker masks, or longer handwashing, Bogoch said that the action of wearing a mask alone is enough to make a big difference.

“If we can get people to put on masks, we’re doing something right. Sure, it might be better if they have a three-layer mask, but again, whatever the public health measures are — it doesn’t matter what the strain of the virus is circulating — these public health measures will help,” Bogoch said.

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While the Public Health Agency of Canada has yet to change any of its recommendations for individual Canadians amid the news of this new strain — which has not yet arrived in Canada, as far as the feds are aware — some provinces are tightening their own restrictions.

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However, this move isn’t in response to the new variant. Instead, it’s a direct response to the threat posed by the original COVID-19 virus that is already within Canada’s borders.

Ontario is going into a “provincewide shutdown” on Dec. 26, a reaction to the spiking case counts within the province. Multiple other provinces have also had to tighten their restrictions as COVID-19 cases risk overwhelming the capacity that hospitals are able to accommodate.

Read more: Ontario to enter ‘provincewide shutdown’ on Boxing Day

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Meanwhile, in addition to its fresh travel ban directed at U.K. travellers, Canada has also had the Quarantine Act in place since March. This requires international travellers to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Canada, a move that Bogoch said may already have helped to prevent the new COVID-19 variant from worming its way into the country.

“If people arrive and are in a 14-day period of quarantine and, of course, adhere to that, that’s reasonable,” he said.

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Overall, Chagla and Bogoch said Canadians should be aware of the new variant and continue to adhere to public health measures, but that this development shouldn’t cause anyone to panic. The mutation is not going to impact the existing COVID-19 vaccines, the WHO confirmed on Monday, and variants cropping up don’t necessarily mean the virus is getting more dangerous.

“Often, if you’re changing one thing, you’re losing another,” Chagla said of virus variants.

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“And so a virus that could be a bit more reticent to deal with the vaccine, may lose the ability to replicate as well or transmit as well. So, again, these things all have biologic costs…every genetic change is a balance between (the virus) becoming more fit and what it has to give up to become more fit in that sense.”

He added that our bodies have excellent tools to combat viruses, even if they mutate into so-called fitter versions of themselves. In addition to that, we can bolster our body’s natural ability to take on these viruses with vaccines and by following public health measures.

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If Canadians are already following these recommendations, their day-to-day lives won’t really change, even if the new virus strain arrives in Canada.

“To the average Canadian, they don’t have to worry about this in terms of any big behavioural change,” Chagla said.

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“And again, the things they should be doing on a day-to-day basis are probably just even more important now that we need to minimize disease activity in our community to prevent something like this from spreading.:

One of the most important things, Chagla added, is being cautious when it comes to travel.

“We do have to make sure that people are quarantining aggressively, that they have access to testing, if they have symptoms, they’re isolating appropriately, and that’s probably going to be the biggest bang for the buck to prevent these events from coming into Canada.”