Masks versus no masks; vaccination versus no vaccination. There is a lot of confusion out there about COVID-19, the Delta variant and what it means for each of us.

I became a public health nurse shortly after we realized that acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) was caused by a virus that could be transmitted through the sharing of bodily fluids.

When COVID-19 came on the scene in Dec. 2019/Jan. 2020, I recognized some similarities to what I saw during the AIDS pandemic: the same confusion, a search for clear directives and then, slowly, as irrefutable data came in, the move forward toward constructive change to slow the course of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

We did not have a cure or a vaccine for HIV. We still don’t. Our only tools then were to educate the public about important, effective behavioral changes.

But now, with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, there are scientific facts to guide us:

• Viruses have short generation times.

• Viruses have high rates of mutation. Most mutations are not beneficial to the virus and it is rendered nonfunctional. Other mutations, genomic changes that make the virus more able to survive and spread, get embedded into the genome of a virus and are passed on. Since these mutated viruses are more robust, more able to survive, they quickly become the dominant strain. We’ve watched that happen and it is still happening.

• Viruses have many offspring, so any mutated genes can be passed on to many offspring quickly.

• The more the virus replicates, the more opportunities there are for mutations to occur.

We have already seen, in the case of SARS-CoV-2, genetic changes (viral variants) in the shape of the spike protein. This surface protein is what the virus uses to infect our cells, and it is also what our vaccinated, primed immune system must recognize, bind with, to protect us.

The scientific truth is that the more this virus replicates, the more chances it has to turn into something even more virulent, more frightening, more deadly … you pick your nightmare (not to minimize the current situation). We still have no cure for AIDS and no vaccine to stop HIV. However, behavioral changes have slowed the AIDS epidemic and it is being managed, for the most part, as a chronic illness. Thank goodness we have a vaccine to slow the transmission and thus, replication of SARS-CoV-2, and we can do something as simple as donning a mask to make a difference.

Wendy Ostlind, MS, RN, is Sheridan College E.A. Whitney Endowed Health Science Chair. 

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