New COVID-19 variants renew public anxiety

Recently, multiple new SARS-CoV-2 variants have been circulating and spreading around the world. Three new COVID-19 variants have recently been discovered in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil that are genetically different from the one found in China. These new variants resulted from a mutation in the virus’s genes. To discover these changes, scientists closely observed the surfaces of the virus. These studies and genetic analyses of the virus helped scientists determine any new variants of the virus and their infectivity rate. 

According to COVID-19 specialists, the latest variants from the UK, South Africa, and Brazil seem to be spreading more easily and quickly than other variants. This difference has led to increased cases globally and could lead to more hospitalizations and deaths. 

The first new variant, B.1.1.7, was identified in the United Kingdom with many mutations this past fall. This variant has spread much more rapidly, and one study conducted in the UK reported that there may be an increased risk of death in comparison to the other variants.

“The UK strain appears to be more infectious and maybe more deadly, although that information seems a bit sketchy,” said Upper School biology teacher Robert Ryshke. “The vaccines seem to be effective against the UK strain. It is more widely circulating in the US currently.” 

In South Africa, another variant called B.1.351 emerged from B.1.1.7, the United Kingdom variant. The cases caused by this variant were reported in the United States at the end of January 2021. In this case, mutations may affect the variant’s ability to be detected by antibodies.

“The South African strain also appears to be more deadly; however, the data coming out of South Africa is still preliminary,” said Ryshke. “One study suggests the vaccine may not be as effective against this variant.”

 Finally, a variant called P.1 emerged in Brazil. This variant was first identified in the United States at the end of January 2021.

 The administration, nurses, and public health officials at Westminster have been hard at work trying to stop the spread of COVID-19 by enforcing old restrictions while implementing new precautions, such as regulating stricter social distancing, keeping lunch as safe as possible, weekly pooled sample testing, and of course, wearing masks. 

“From the start of the year, we’ve implemented weekly pooled sample testing and deployed rapid antigen testing in select situations like athletics from over the holidays. We’re also experimenting with wearable technology for contact tracing in the Lower School right now,” said dean of academics and curriculum Jim Justice. 

Ever since the first day of school in August, Westminster has been enforcing COVID-19 protocols to prevent the spread of the virus in the community and to avoid virtual learning. 

“We started with many other mitigation efforts, [including] mandatory two-layer snug-fitting cloth masks, re-configured spaces, reduced class sizes, and altered teaching schedules. We have also moved band and chorus to tents, installed bipolar deionization in the air-handling systems, increased air exchange, and increased the MERV rating on all filters,” said Justice. 

However, with the more contagious variants, new protocols have been set in place to ensure the safety of students and faculty. 

“The Upper School has added a few new protocols, particularly focused on lunchtime, when students are most vulnerable to the virus.,” said Upper School director of operations and communications Tiffany Boozer. “Those additional protocols include eating outside as long as it is not raining or freezing and eating only in designated areas that have better ventilation and capacity. We have also hired four new assistants to help remind students of our protocols. We have asked Flik to deliver bag lunches to Robinson to help spread out students and added Warren as a designated place to eat.”

While the COVID-19 procedures can be difficult to manage at times, they are necessary in ensuring the safety and health of all members of the Westminster community.

 “We know that the protocols ask all of us to sacrifice, but we all believe it is worth it for classes to be in-person, for athletes to complete their seasons, for performing arts to have their performances, and for all of us to just be together,” said Upper School dean of students Brooks Batcheller. 

One precaution the school has not yet implemented is double masking. According to the CDC, double masking can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. New research states that double masking can provide more protection against respiratory droplets, which are the main spreaders of the virus. A study conducted by the CDC simulating coughing and breathing between a pair of dummies found that solo cloth and unknotted medical masks kept 42 percent and 44 percent of particles from escaping. In contrast, double masking blocked 93 percent of the particles. 

“If double masking can help stop the spread of the new variants of COVID-19, I would be fine with it,” said sophomore Ryan Carr. “It would be harder to breathe, but if it helps keep us safe and gets things back to normal, I wouldn’t mind at all.” 

Although not required at Westminster, some students and faculty have begun to double mask in order to limit the possibility of contracting or transmitting COVID-19.

“I personally double mask every day,” said junior Dean Cureton. “It would be a bit safer if everyone did but maybe not necessary.”

Although COVID-19  has significantly affected many school activities, the school’s health protocols have helped keep students and faculty safe during these difficult times. COVID-19 testing every week and mandating social distancing around school are just a couple examples of what the administration, nurses, and health officials have been doing to ensure that students will have as normal a school year as possible. 

“Westminster students love a challenge,” said Boozer. “Navigating this pandemic may be one of their greatest yet, but we are able to be in-person together because our students and faculty have taken on the challenge and risen to it. Go Wildcats!”