SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing Covid-19, like any circulating virus, undergoes mutations (changes) that result in different variants of the virus. These changes may have an effect on the infectiousness, the symptoms it produces and their severity, or resistance to existing vaccines. In other cases, the changes have little or no effect on the characteristics of the virus.
For this reason, epidemiological surveillance services and health organisations, experts and researchers monitor new mutations and their impact on public health. Thus, the appearance of variants that posed a greater risk to global public health, at the end of 2020, led to the use of the specific categories of “variant of interest” (VOI) and “variant of concern” (VOC), in which those with a greater health risk were catalogued, with the aim of prioritizing monitoring and research on a global scale as well as establishing new pandemic control and prevention measures.
As of November 2021, and until today, the dominant globally circulating VOC is Omicron (more than 90%) and its numerous subvariants (more than 10, named with the letters BA followed by a number), of which the most common are BA.1, BA 1.1. and BA.2, with the new variants BA.4 and BA.5 becoming more dominant quickly. All of them with high transmissibility and lower efficacy than current vaccines but which have not shown greater severity of infection. Other current variants of concern, such as delta, account for less than 10% of cases.
After an increase in the number of cases in the last months worldwide, the situation stays stable, at the start of October 2022 in terms of new infections a worldwide decrease of 6%, and number of weekly deaths decreased by 12%. If we look at Europe we see that in some countries the infections are increasing again (France, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Hungary, Croatia, Poland).
Symptoms of the current outbreak
Symptoms can be variable depending on the different subgroups of Omicron circulating. In general, they are similar to an influenza-like or catarrhal illness manifested by the following symptoms:
- Fever (seen to be more common in unvaccinated individuals) or low-grade fever (<38°C)
- Sore throat (more intense in the last waves)
- Muscle pain
- Significant tiredness
- Loss of taste and smell
Other less frequent symptoms:
- Skin rash/rash.
- Shortness of breath, persistent high fever more than three days, chest pain, mental confusion.
In case of alarming symptoms or in high-risk patients, medical attention should be sought.
In case of mild symptoms, it is recommended to stay at home and seek medical treatment at home:
- Plenty of hydration.
- Antipyretics/analgesics (paracetamol) if fever or headache.
- Anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen) in case of a sore throat and pain when swallowing
- Rest at home.
- In case of a very disabling dry cough, a cough suppressant may be prescribed.
In 5-6 days on average, most patients recover, although residual symptoms such as cough or loss of smell may remain for a few weeks.
Preventive measures and contagion
- Vaccination. Vaccines have proven to be highly effective against some variants and less effective against others but have drastically reduced complications and deaths. A new vaccine is being introduced this fall which also protects better against the new variants.
- Use masks in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces and when it is not possible to maintain a distance of at least one metre.
- Choose outdoor activities rather than indoors.
- Ventilate spaces regularly and daily.
- Cover mouth and nose when coughing/sneezing.
- Wash hands frequently with soap and water. Use sanitising hand gels.
- Take a rapid antigen test if you have any symptoms and especially before visiting people at risk.
- If you feel unwell (with any of the symptoms described) you should stay at home in isolation and avoid social interaction for 8-10 days, especially with vulnerable people, if possible, telework and wear an FFP2 mask.
Recommendations for international travel
It is advisable not to travel in case of symptoms compatible with Covid-19.
If travelling abroad:
- It is recommended to have the complete and updated vaccination schedule.
- There are no general global restrictions/protocols, each country decides the protocols to be followed and requirements for allowing travellers to enter and depending on the place of origin.
- The rules for travel depend on where your journey originates and your destination. These can change frequently or suddenly if a health scare arises in the country.
- In the European Union, EU citizens can travel freely with a Covid vaccination certificate. If this is not available, in some cases, negative proof is required. During the last months this requirement has been eliminated in many EU-countries, although you should check before traveling, as legislation can change quickly.
- The health requirements and the epidemiological situation of the country you are travelling to must be reported through the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
- If you are in a high-risk group for severe Covid-19 but are not fully vaccinated and do not have immunity from a recent previous Covid-19 infection, consider postponing travel to areas where Covid-19 is widespread.
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