Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19 — January 26, 2022

  “Shared expectations lead to predictability.”

456. The Omicron variant will peak at different times throughout the country.

         QHave we finally peaked so we can now hope for a return to normal?

         A:  “The Worst of the Omicron Wave Could Still Be Coming,” is the title of an article Katherine J. Wu wrote for the Atlantic.  “A prolonged descent from a peak in cases could exact a larger toll than even Omicron’s blistering ascent.  What we can say is that the higher a wave crests, the longer and more confusing the path to the bottom will be. We need to prepare for the possibility that this wave could have an uncomfortably long tail—or at least a crooked one.”   The core of her argument is that as the number of cases daily decreases, the virus continues to trickle into more rural, sparsely populated parts of the country.  A smattering of regional peaks could slow and lengthen the overall decline. We tend to talk about “the peak” as if it’s one monolithic thing, but it’s an aggregate of asynchronous outbreaks.  Each community will experience its own, unique Omicron spike.  The national trajectory depends heavily on how long it takes to merge from different parts of the country.  She supported the title of her article by emphasizing that a cliff-like drop might give way to a series of rolling hills. How we react to the curve could also stretch it out, and she feels that’s the biggest wild card of all. When people hear that we’ve passed the top of a peak, psychologically, they loosen up.  Masks come off.  Schools, workplaces, and leisure venues reopen.  People rejoin social circles or enter new ones. “Smaller shifts such as these, multiplied by millions, can turn a waterfall decline into molasses.”

This is a good warning for our UUS:E community.  In our daily activities from home, we need to continue using masks and practice distancing even if others around us aren’t doing the same.  To feel safe while in a reopened church building, we must always wear an N95 or KN95 mask, and everyone eligible should have taken a booster shot.

457. It is important to know which face mask to use, and why and how to wear it.

         Q: What is the difference between an N95 and a KN95 face mask?

         A:  The common wisdom is that the N95 face mask and the KN95 face mask are the same things.  The material on each filters the inhaled and exhaled air passing through it the same for both.   These face masks have passed standards imposed by the Occupational Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) with five layers of “blown fabric” that filters out  95% of very small (0.3 micron) particles.  The N95 masks, made in the U.S., were the ones originally made, and have elastic straps that connect each side of the mask, one behind the head, the other the neck.  A mask developed and used in China was made of the same blown fabric but had two elastic straps, one on each side to loop over each ear.  This was found to be equally effective in filtering out small particles but has been designated as “KN95”  The only difference between the two is the placement of the elastics.  Many have found the KN95 easier to put on, but masks with ear loops are harder to get a good seal against the face.  Fogging of eyeglasses in cold weather illustrates this.

Researchers have rigorously tested masks in EPA’s laboratories in Chapel Hill and Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Their findings on how effective different types of masks filter the air passing through the filtering material include:

  • Surgical masks (which are designed to prevent airborne bacteria to be exhaled into an operating room.)  Those with ties provided 71.5% filtration.  Those with ear loops provided 38.1%
  • A three-layer knitted cotton mask blocked an average of 26.5%.
  • A washed, two-layer woven nylon mask with a filter insert and metal nose bridge blocked 79%

They also have tested a variety of modifications to improve the fit of commercially available medical procedure masks, like tightening ear loops, placing rubber bands over the top and bottom of the mask to reduce gaps, and covering an N95 or KN95 mask with a cloth mask – or placing a cut-out piece of nylon stocking over the mask to seal the gaps. The filtration ability improved by 60.3 to 80.2 percent depending on the modification made. As the fit of the medical procedure masks improved, so did their filtration efficiency.

458. Being fully vaccinated and if eligible, having a booster shot makes a difference.

         Q:  What difference does it really make to get all your shots?

         A: The Connecticut Department of Public Health has calculated the increased risk (lowering of safety) of contracting Covid-19 and the chances of bad outcomes if one becomes infected.  Late last week, the following current data was reported. Compared to those who are vaccinated, those who are unvaccinated have the following relative risk:

  • 3 Times higher risk of being infected with COVID-19
  •  7 Times higher risk of being hospitalized with COVID-19
  • 14 Times higher risk of dying from COVID-19

The latest Covid Act Now data shows that 76% of the Connecticut population is fully vaccinated – meaning that one-fourth of the people in the state who are not already infected have the above-stated risks of serious consequences for their not getting their shots!

459. “Pooled testing” (more than one person using one test kit) is not a good idea.

         Q: We have only one rapid Covid test.  How can the three of us use it collectively?

         A:  It is now becoming common practice to collect nasal samples from two or more people and use the “pooled” samples on a single test to see if all in the group might be negative,  In an article published January 20 in the Atlantic, Alan Malda explained why this is not a good idea.  Since the Omicron variant began its high-speed march across the United States, at-home tests have become nearly impossible to find.  So some Americans, desperate to find out whether they’re infected have tossed aside the rapid-test instructions. To stretch their resources, they’ve started combining samples in their home. When a group test is negative, they conclude that everyone is in the clear, and several testing kits can be saved for future use.  If that test is positive, further testing can ensue. But experts say that using rapid tests off-label like this won’t produce reliable results. Also, “sticking the same swab up multiple noses is, to put it scientifically, gross.”

This approach to rapid testing draws its inspiration from pooled testing, a well-established and efficient method used by schools, sports leagues, and hospitals to screen for the virus.  In standard pooled testing, people without symptoms might be divided into, say, groups of 10. Mucus from each person is collected using a fresh swab for each.  A lab later mixes together a bit of each sample from the group of 10 and then tests the pooled sample using the PCR method. If a pool is positive, each individual specimen can be retested to figure out who’s carrying the virus.  Pooled PCR testing works because the process was designed with that in mind.  The samples are each mixed with just the right amount of chemicals to combine into one working test. The rapid tests currently available to Americans don’t come with all the swabs, chemicals, and test tubes necessary to accommodate multiple samples, and using that equipment could lead to contamination or unwanted chemical reactions.

From a public-health perspective, the idea of sticking one swab up each other’s noses can almost guarantee that if one member of the group is infected, all members will contract the disease.  “Intranasal promiscuity is a surefire way to increase those numbers, and spread untold other germs besides,”  one expert stated as a conclusion in Alan Malda’s article.

460. Retail shelves becoming empty is directly related to the Omicron variant.

        Q:  Why are store shelves becoming empty again?

        A:  Last week, Bloomberg News published an analysis on how “Omicron Ate Your Groceries.”   Writer Andrea Felsted identified that “the micron (Omicron) wave is also making groceries scarce again.”  She explained that food sector workers and truck drivers are calling in sick, keeping food from being packaged and delivered.  Meanwhile, quarantining Covid-19 patients are eating more comfort food, driving up demand.

Information Resources, Inc. (IRi) is a company founded in 1979 to provide information to businesses helping them to anticipate marketing issues that affect their operations.  A wide series of analytics have been developed, the most recent being the shortage of goods available in retail stores as a result of Covid-19 especially the recent effects of the major surge of cases caused by the Omicron variant.  Andrea Felsted listed the most common recent shortages in grocery stores.  The six most difficult items to find on shelves are, in ranked order: crackers, cold cereal, snack bars, carbonated drinks, ice cream, and beer.

Because this phenomenon is directly related to the Omicron surge, returning to normal availability of supplies should quickly follow the rapid decline in the number of cases being reported.