How to keep Wales safe from Covid and slow the spread of the Omicron variant this Christmas
Dylan Jones, Lecturer in Biomedical Sciences at Bangor University
As we look towards our second Christmas day with the spectre of Covid-19 looming over the festivities, it is only natural to feel resentful about how our lives are being dictated by something unseen, and annoyed at the continued restrictions and the continual see-sawing from restrictions to relaxation that we have all experienced these last two years.
I would, however, like to take this opportunity to beg you about the importance of sticking to the restrictions. Whilst they may be an inconvenience, to someone they may be the difference between life and death.
So, what can we do to protect ourselves, our family, our friends and our neighbours during this festive period?
Firstly, if you are eligible, please get the booster vaccine. Wales has played a part in the development and manufacturing of many of the vaccines in use to prevent death and serious disease from Covid and the reception to the vaccines has been excellent. At the time of writing 1.35 million of us Welsh have received our boosters.
A recent scientific study has confirmed that vaccines are incredibly safe and are vital in providing a much needed “boost” to the levels of antibodies in our blood. These antibodies are what allows our immune system to recognise and remember infections in the future and then respond to the infection in a timely manner preventing the majority of serious illness.
If you are concerned or would like more information about the vaccines please make sure you only use trustworthy sources such as Public Health Wales (who have excellent resources on Covid) and do not rely on word-of-mouth or social media which can be unreliable.
How often should you use an LFT?
Test yourself regularly using the rapid lateral flow tests (LFTs). These tests can be ordered from the UK Government website as well as picked up in local pharmacies and other collection centres.
These tests should be done multiple times a week, preferably each day you are thinking of going out to visit someone or shopping. Don’t do a test on a Monday and think that’s it for the week!
The LFT for Covid-19 look for the presence of virus in your throat/up your nose and work in a similar way to home-pregnancy tests in which there are tiny beads covered in a material that will recognise the Covid virus and stick to them which causes a line to appear if you are positive.
Over the pandemic, these LFTs have received quite a bit of flack for being unreliable, with many reports showing they will only identify about 77% of active Covid infections. But this rate depends on how the test was carried out (proper technique is important and don’t skip steps in the instructions) and how much virus was present in the individual (the more virus the more likely you are to show as positive).
I would argue however that recognising 77 out of every 100 asymptomatic cases (these tests should not be used if you are symptomatic, we’ll get to that later!) is incredibly important in allowing individuals to make informed choices about their actions. And by reporting each test, be it positive or negative, you are helping our NHS to build up a clearer picture of the state of Covid in Wales.
Should you wear a mask?
Face-coverings are key in helping prevent the spread of the virus in Wales. Recent work has shown that countries that have used strict mask-wearing have had fewer Covid deaths than countries that did not strictly enforce mask-wearing. Masks have also been shown to halve the rate of Covid-19 incidence and are one of the single most effective public health measures we have in stopping the spread of the virus.
Masks should be worn indoors and should cover both the mouth and the nose, as Covid can infect or be spread via both the nose and the mouth for maximum protection. Masks should also not be taken off to cough or sneeze and try and make sure the mask is as snug a fit as you can tolerate ensuring that the virus isn’t able to bypass the fabric. Face-coverings should also always be paired with hand-washing (also shown to reduce incidence by a half) as regularly as possible with soap and water or the use of sanitizing gel.
Should you reduce socialising?
Perhaps one of the ways to keep safe during the Christmas period that will require the greatest personal sacrifice is to follow the advice of Professor Chris Whitty who advised us on the 15th of December to try and reduce socialising as much as possible during the festivities. This is incredibly difficult given that Christmas is a time for families and friends and we missed out so much last year.
In the absence of any official Governmental guidance the temptation is to think “it must be ok” – but please consider. This virus moves with people and the more people move the more the virus spreads. If you absolutely must go out and meet people make sure you do an LFT just before you go out and make sure you wear a mask as much as possible.
Restricting gatherings is even more important this holiday season due to the appearance of the Omicron variant a few short weeks ago which has already become one of the most dominant strains of Covid-19 due to how quickly it can spread.
What about if you have symptoms?
Finally, if you have any symptoms please get yourself tested by a PCR test (not a LFT). By now we all know the usual Covid symptoms (cough, loss of smell/taste and fever) but the latest Omicron strain may also have some additional symptoms that we need to be aware of, these symptoms include: muscle aches, runny nose, headaches and a sore throat.
If you have any of these symptoms please don’t assume it’s just a cold and please get tested using a PCR. The PCR test is incredibly effective and instead of looking for chunks of virus (such as the LFT) is able to detect the genes of the virus in incredibly small quantities. Because it looks for genetic material it is also possible to have a rough idea of whether or not a patient has the Omicron strain or the Delta strain.
There are a number of drive-in PCR testing centres in Wales but if you are unable to get to one please order a PCR test kit either online or over the phone.
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