Multiple variants of COVID-19 have emerged in the U.S. Some spread more easily among people, and data are beginning to suggest that some may be more threatening. While this wasn’t unexpected — it’s common for novel viruses to evolve to become more infectious — it is still concerning, experts say.

“It’s like opening a lock. If you’re trying to open a door with a bobby pin, that’s going to take a little longer, but if you have the key that fits the lock, it’s now a lot quicker to open the door,” says Michael LeVasseur, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University. “The virus itself is becoming better suited to infecting cells. It’s more efficient.”

So what does this mean for you? This could mean that it takes less time and less virus to get infected if you’re exposed. And rules like staying six feet apart and limiting your exposure time to 15 minutes — which never eliminated the risk to begin with — may not be as effective. So how can you protect yourself? Here’s what experts say you should know.

The core advice is the same.

While researchers are continuing to learn more about how each variant works, much of the advice remains the same. Wear a mask. Practice social distancing. Wash your hands. Avoid large groups. Don’t spend time with people who aren’t from your household.

The mutations of the virus haven’t changed the way it spreads, which means these principles remain as important as they’ve always been. Experts strongly encourage you to do your best to fight pandemic fatigue, recommit to minimizing unnecessary risk, and look ahead to the finish line of getting vaccinated.

We need to think back to March and April, and get back to that level of heightened awareness, but not necessarily the anxiety — you don’t need to wash your groceries, just don’t lick the milk carton,” says Krys Johnson, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Temple University.

» READ MORE: Social distancing dos and don'ts

Even though case numbers are trending down, going to the gym or dining indoors is risky.

Gyms and indoor dining have reopened in Philadelphia, and new coronavirus cases are falling nationwide. But experts say more contagious variants could reverse this trend, especially if vaccine rollout doesn’t accelerate.

“The curve is going down, and that’s great, but this information isn’t like a weather report. We shouldn’t use it to determine what level of risk we’re willing to take,” says LeVasseur. “If suddenly a bunch of people go out and dine indoors, we’re going to see an increase in case numbers, and with the variants, it’s possible it becomes a situation of throwing gas on a fire.”

LeVasseur says that he doesn’t plan to get a haircut anytime soon, let alone dine inside a restaurant. But these decisions are personal. If you choose to partake in indoor activities outside of your home, as always, seek out places that are complying with the rules, and know that the risk is higher now. Be ready to change your plans if crowds are larger than expected or rules aren’t being enforced.

“I would not step foot in a gym right now, but if you feel you must go, pick one that requires masks and requires wearing them correctly,” says Johnson.

» READ MORE: Is it safe to go back to the gym?

Consider double masking.

It’s time to double down on masks. You’re always advised to wear a mask when you leave your house. But if you were someone who was taking walks around the city without one, now’s a good time to change that. Smaller encounters may be more risky, though researchers are still trying to find out exactly how much more contagious the variants are.

“There’s still a lot we just don’t know,” says Johnson.

With the variants have been found in the U.S., Johnson has been doubling up on masks for weeks now when she leaves the house. It’s an approach White House chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci publicly endorsed on NBC News’ Today as a “common sense” way to increase protection.

Johnson suggests using a surgical mask as a base layer, and then using the cloth mask on top to provide a tighter seal. However, if double masking creates a poor fit, stick to a single mask. Any gaps will eliminate the potential benefit of wearing an extra layer. Likewise, if it’s uncomfortable and you’re constantly readjusting, that extra layer could end up increasing your risk.

Save your best masks for situations when you know you’ll be around people, like going to the grocery store. This could be a KN95 mask or a mask that has multiple layers and fits well.

» READ MORE: It's probably time to replace some of your fabric masks

It’s probably OK to hang outside with a friend, with extra precautions.

Since variants pose a higher risk, does that mean it’s now unsafe to chat with someone outdoors, even if you’re masked and six feet apart?

“I’d still feel comfortable with an outdoor hangout, but with increased vigilance,” says LeVasseur.

You’re still advised to limit contact with people outside your household, but if you’re going to see a family member or friend, the lowest risk remains in outdoor settings where you can keep a distance. Don’t let that distance gradually slide under six feet, and, ideally, stay a little further apart than that.

“It should be under a scenario with no food or drinking, and I’d have everyone double mask,” says Johnson.

You don’t necessarily need to avoid the doctor’s office or grocery store.

Yes, the virus is learning how to become better at spreading itself, but you don’t have to put off the necessities of life. We’re roughly a year into the pandemic, and getting everyone vaccinated is expected to take months.

Everyone should still be going to their routine doctors’ appointments. Other diseases and conditions continue to happen while COVID is going on,” says Johnson. “That said, offices should be taking extra precautions with things like social distancing and sanitizer, but I’ve been to a couple doctors’ appointments now, and it’s felt like one of the safest experiences I’ve had.”

For grocery store trips, stick to the basics, like doing your best to maintain distance from others, and minimizing the time you peruse the aisles. Consider double masking. Opt for delivery or curbside pick up when you can.

Getting vaccinated is still crucial.

Variants can make vaccines less effective. But experts are optimistic that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will still protect against the three variants that are currently of most concern (those first detected in the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil). But there is some evidence that the vaccines’ effectiveness may be slightly reduced.

The good news: Both vaccines were found to be 95% effective in clinical trials, which is notably high. Even if the variants reduce their effectiveness, experts believe they’ll still help us reach the roughly 70% herd immunity needed to halt the pandemic. The vaccine is also likely to decrease how sick you get in the event you end up still contracting the virus.

“When we talk about the annual flu vaccine, depending on the year, it has a 50% efficacy, and I still get that vaccine every year,” says LeVasseur. “If I still come down with the flu, my illness will be less severe, and that’s going to be the same thing here. Your immune system is already primed.”

With every new infection, there’s an opportunity for the virus to mutate and learn how to better infect people, which is why experts urge you to get vaccinated as soon as the opportunity becomes available. The more people who are vaccinated, the fewer mutations that will emerge.

» READ MORE: Our best pandemic tips: Read our most useful stories about COVID-19

Expert sources:
  • Michael LeVasseur, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University

  • Krys Johnson, epidemiologist and assistant professor at Temple University