With vaccines finally rolling out across the country, we figured it was time to provide an updated overview of the current situation surrounding COVID-19—including a refresher about the virus itself and its impact, precautions we should all continue to follow, and progress towards a post-COVID reality.
What We Know
First, a quick overview of the virus itself. COVID-19 (short for coronavirus disease 2019) is an infectious disease caused by a novel form of coronavirus, which is the same group of RNA viruses responsible for SARS, MERS, and some strains of the common cold. The virus causing COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan, China in December of 2019. Although we still do not know the precise origin of the COVID-19 infecting people, it is believed to have spread to humans from contact with an animal. Despite this, the CDC asserts that the degree of transmissibility between animals and humans remains unclear. By far the predominant source of new infections is from person to person, with respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing, or talking appearing to be the primary vehicle for viral transmission.
Recent months have seen several new variants of the COVID-19 virus begin to spread around the globe. These new variants are the result of mutations occurring in the original virus as it spreads to more and more people. Documented variants include:
- B.1.1.7, first discovered in the U.K. in fall 2020
- B.1.351, detected in South Africa in October 2020
- P.1, first observed at an airport in Japan in travelers from Brazil in January 2021
Each of these variants have now been detected in the United States. Definitive information about these new variants—including their severity compared to the original strain—is still limited, although the CDC states that these variants do appear to spread more easily than the original strain.
The Current Landscape
As previously mentioned, the earliest reported cases of COVID-19 in the US appeared in January 2020. Since that time, the New York Times reports that over 27.6 million million cases have been recorded nationwide, with over 485,000 deaths; worldwide, total cases are nearly 108 million with over 2.3 million deaths.
Promisingly, new reported cases have recently dropped to a daily average of under 100,000 for the first time since November 4. This is less than half the daily average from one month ago. Even so, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky says that new cases remain more than 2.5 times the daily average of last summer, and urges continued vigilance: “We need to all take responsibility to decrease that community spread, including mask wearing so that we can get our kids and our society back.”
At the federal level, an Executive order has been put in place to require federal workers to wear masks, with another order to coordinate a government-wide response to COVID-19. Continue to stay up to date with your specific location’s mandates by checking your state and county websites.
Since March 2020 there have been two rounds of stimulus checks: one for up to $1,200 for single individuals and $2,400 for married households, and one for up to $600 for singles and $1200 for married households. Currently, there are plans to distribute a third stimulus check starting at $1,400 for single households with an income threshold of $75,000. This is expected to receive a vote on February 22, 2021 with a goal of distribution by late March. Learn more about plans for the third round of stimulus payments here.
Signs of Infection
The disease appears to affect people in different ways based on a number of possible factors including age and immune health. Healthline advises that symptoms appearing in the order listed below are likely to indicate a COVID-19 infection.
- Muscle pain
- Nausea and vomiting
Other telling symptoms include new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. If you have symptoms or have had exposure, it is recommended to stay home except to get medical care. This includes getting a COVID-19 test to confirm a positive infection.
Advanced cases of COVID-19 show more pressing emergency warning signs. If someone is showing any of these symptoms, seek emergency medical care immediately:
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- New confusion
- Inability to wake or stay awake
- Bluish lips or face
It’s important to stay in touch with your doctor when experiencing any symptoms. Depending on your county’s occupancy, call ahead of time to make sure your local hospital or urgent care center can take you in when experiencing an emergency. For medical attention, any treatments should be taken under the care of your physician. So far, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved one official drug, Remdesivir (Veklury), to treat COVID-19.
We have also now discovered cases of people who have had the infection experience lingering symptoms for weeks and months after testing negative for COVID-19. With the virus only having infected people for a little over a year, research is still ongoing about what is causing lingering symptoms in these “long-haulers” and what treatment options are effective.
Given the nature of COVID-19 to spread via respiratory droplets, the key methods of preventing exposure and transmission remain mask wearing and minimizing close contact with others. Masks should cover the face from nose to chin, and should be worn at all times while in public or when interacting with those outside of your household. Maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from others and limiting interactions to 15 minutes or less are effective ways to reduce your risk of exposure when out of the house. Washing your hands frequently, avoiding touching your face, and sanitizing food and other items brought into your home are additional ways to keep your risk low.
Travel, while sometimes unavoidable, remains a high-risk activity with potential for COVID-19 exposure and transmission. This is why the White House recently enacted an Executive order requiring masks to be worn on most forms of transportation, among other regulations and recommendations regarding travel (particularly air travel). The CDC currently recommends that people avoid travel whenever possible, and provides a set of recommendations on their website for those who must travel at this time.
What Comes Next?
Several COVID-19 vaccines have been developed that are in various processes of approval and distribution throughout the US and the rest of the world. Two vaccines in particular—one developed by Pfizer and one by Moderna—have received Emergency Use Authorizations by the FDA and are currently being rolled out across the country. Supply of the vaccines remain limited as these companies increase their production of doses, and distribution is currently being implemented strategically to protect the most vulnerable populations. That being said, vaccine rollout is currently exceeding President Biden’s goals, with an average of over 1.5 million doses now being administered every day. State and local governments have developed their own plans for vaccine administration under guidance from the ACIP, so consult your appropriate state or local government website for more information regarding vaccine eligibility in your area.
The two vaccines currently being distributed in the US have very similar reported effectiveness at nearly 95% each, with the main difference being logistical: the Pfizer vaccine must be kept under much colder refrigeration and expires more quickly than the Moderna vaccine, which has potential implications for availability and distribution of the two.
There has been concern ragarding vaccine effectiveness against the new variants of the virus. Initial research shows that the Pfizer vaccine has had a strong response and has been effective against the new strains, while information on the effectiveness of the Moderna vaccine is still being collected as people finish up their second round. As we speak, scientists are continuing to monitor the efficacy of the current vaccines and tweak it to address the new strains.
With that being said, there are over 100 vaccine candidates currently in pre-clinical and clinical trials. As more are being developed, there are hopes that these will prove effective against new variants and aid in overall distribution to get as many people vaccinated this year.
We hope this overview has brought you up to speed with the developing information on COVID-19. The vaccines are a crucial component of ending the COVID-19 crisis worldwide, and their increasing distribution is an encouraging step forward. Still, new cases—though on a downward trend—are still high, and warrant continued vigilance and precautions. Staying safe until the vaccines are available to all of us is the current challenge we each must strive to meet.