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Experts on Newsday panel urge vigilance in safe practices to stem spread of coronavirus

Medical experts answer questions about the new COVID-19

Medical experts answer questions about the new COVID-19 variants: what they are, what they do and how to protect against them. Sign up for COVID-19 text alerts at newsday.com/text.

Panelists include David Hirschwerk, M.D., Attending-Infectious Diseases, Interim Chair of Medicine Donald & Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell; and Alan Bulbin, M.D., Director of Infectious Diseases and Antimicrobial Stewardship, St. Francis Hospital.

The sad truth when it comes to the battle against the coronavirus, experts say, is that the pandemic will likely get worse again before it get better.

Speakers on the latest NewsdayLive webinar, "Health & COVID-19: What Do We Know About Variants?" said Thursday that the fear is new variants — such as those recently found in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil — will soon be driving an increased rate of spread.

But vaccinations and the emphasis on building herd immunity against the coronavirus remains the goal to winning the war. And in the meantime, vigilance remains key.

Vigilance, they stressed, in wearing masks, social distancing practices, and good hygiene protocols — even vigilance in remaining vigilant.

Calling the battle "a war against time," panelist Dr. Alan Bulbin, director of St. Francis Hospital’s division of infectious diseases and antimicrobial stewardship, said the ultimate goal is to build "immunity in enough people," meaning herd immunity, in an effort to ultimately limit the spread of all strains of coronavirus — and to limit the severity of the illness in those who do contract it.

If we can reach that goal, he said, COVID-19 and its variants would become more like the seasonal flu: still a concern, but not something resulting in pandemic.

Dr. David Hirschwerk, attending infectious diseases interim chair of medicine at the Donald & Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University / Northwell Health, said that is the very reason "it remains important we continue to adhere to strategies" of masking, distancing and safe practices and why it's important you get vaccinated against the coronavirus as soon as possible.

He said while there remains a slight chance vaccination won't prevent you from getting sick or even spreading COVID and its variants, those practices will reduce the severity of how sick you might get — and help limit any spread.

The issue with the new variants, both doctors agreed, is that they appear in the range of from 40% to 50% more easily spread than the initial strain of COVID-19, due to how the viral variants attach themselves to cells in your body.

In lay terms, Bulbin said, the new variants are "stickier" and that means the spread is more efficient.

As a result, Hirschwerk said, the Centers for Disease Control has suggested a variant in how we mask. Tested on mannequins, he said, the new goal isn't, as some have suggested, to double-mask with surgical-type masks but rather to make certain the mask you wear is always as tightly sealed as possible over your nose and mouth. And that, when possible, you cover that mask with a layer of cloth in order to add an additional barrier.

Hirschwerk said, it makes for "a harder barrier to cross" for the virus and, in turn, helps limit spread.

The panelists said the U.K. variant has already been discovered on Long Island and that while the three known variants have so far shown themselves to have differences in how they work and spread, the underlying virus remains largely the same. Which is why getting vaccinated as soon as possible, even if you've already had the coronavirus, remains key.

Even if you may need a booster shot, similar to an annual flu vaccine, at a later date.

"You can't get the vaccine too soon," Bulbin said. "Soon is not soon enough. Any immunity is better than no immunity," adding that even if you were to catch a variant you would still have a better chance to fight it than if you haven't received the vaccine. "You could be talking the difference between serious disease or mild disease," he said. "The best way is to be vaccinated. Soon."

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