How Does Infection Control Work on COVID-19 Variants Like Omicron?

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COVID-19 has changed a lot of practices for frontline healthcare workers, from screening employees and patients at entrances to wearing masks all the time.

The pandemic has also taught us more about variants.

As a virus like COVID-19 spreads, it can mutate and change — these changes are known as variants, such as the Delta and Omicron variants.

New variants of viruses are common. Fortunately, the strategies healthcare workers use for infection control are designed to work regardless of the variant, said Dr. Abigail Carlson, an Infectious Diseases physician with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The tools that we use for infection control work. And the way they work for COVID-19 hasn’t changed,” Carlson said. “It’s all the more important to keep using those tools in the right way at the right time to prevent the virus from spreading, including any of these new virus strains.”

Why Are There Variants of Viruses Like COVID-19?

Viruses have new strains, variations, or mutations all the time. COVID-19 is no exception.

Viruses have specific genes that carry instructions for making new copies of themselves. Every new copy contains those instructions as well.

Sometimes mistakes are made during the copying process. When the instructions are copied wrong, the new viruses come out slightly different, with the mistake included in the instruction genes.  Some mistakes make the virus not work anymore, so it’s a dead end.

When the new virus is still able to function even with the mistake, that’s how a new strain is created, because all copies from that virus will carry that mistake.

“Viruses create new strains or variations or mutations regularly,” Carlson said. “This isn’t unusual. It’s something we know about, we know that it happens. We know that it will happen on a regular basis. This is why we hear about different strains of the flu every year and why you can get a cold more than once. Those viruses change in small but important ways for the body that the body recognizes or that the body loses sensitivity to.”

Infection Control in the Face of New Variants of COVID-19

Researchers are working to understand how new COVID-19 variants differ.

The good news is that, even though new strains are around, the basic pieces of the virus are still the same.

That means recommended infection control actions still work and are still needed to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

CDC has this infection control guidance for frontline healthcare workers:

  • The recommended PPE hasn’t changed – an N95 respirator will still prevent you from breathing in virus that’s in respiratory droplets.
  • Masking for source control keeps your respiratory droplets out of the air so others can’t breathe them in.
  • Physical distance also helps people avoid breathing in each other’s respiratory droplets.
  • Good indoor ventilation is important for clearing air that might have respiratory droplets in it.
  • Cleaning your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is important.
  • Disinfecting products on EPA’s list N are known to kill SARS-CoV-2, including the new strains.

What Else Can You Do to Promote Infection Control?

Healthcare workers can learn more thanks to CDC’s Project Firstline.

Project Firstline is a training and education collaborative designed to ensure all healthcare workers, no matter their role or educational background, have the infection control knowledge and understanding they need and deserve to protect themselves, their patients, and their coworkers.

Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio is working with the National Hispanic Medical Association to bring Project Firstline content to frontline healthcare workers to protect themselves, their facilities, and their patients (from Latino and all communities) from infectious disease threats.

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“Healthcare teams in hospitals, nursing homes, and other care settings are the front lines against the spread of infection,” said Dr. Amelie G. Ramirez, director of Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio. “CDC’s Project Firstline is bolstering those efforts by developing evidence-based tools that can be delivered in a variety of ways to make infection control learning convenient and accessible for busy healthcare staff.”

LEARN MORE ABOUT PROJECT FIRSTLINE!

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a collaboration between Salud America!, the National Hispanic Medical Association, and the CDC’s Project Firstline. To find resources training materials, and other tools to bolster knowledge and practice of infection control, visit Project Firstline and view Salud America!’s infection control content.

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