It may seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has been with us forever. Days can seem like weeks and weeks seem like months. Even though it has not yet been a full year since COVID-19 arrived in the United States, pre-pandemic times seem like a distant memory. 2020 has been a long and tough year, indeed.
The good news is that there is help on the way, in the form of promising vaccines. But it will be a while before enough vaccines are available for everyone to receive one – and that means the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet over. In fact, it appears the very worst months of this pandemic are now upon us – new cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to increase and set records across the United States, including in Texas.
“We are going through a very challenging winter,” says Dr. Lynne Tilkin, a primary care physician. “We are seeing extensive community spread of COVID-19 just as people are spending more time indoors due to colder weather. This is hard, but we really need people to be patient a little while longer and continue taking all the necessary precautions to reduce the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.”
We all have an important role to play to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The proactive steps we take will not only protect us and our families, they will help reduce the strain on our healthcare system, which is at risk of being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. Below are the most important things you can do to protect yourself and others.
Keep Wearing That Mask!
Infectious disease experts agree that wearing a mask is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), wearing a mask protects both the mask-wearer and those around us. Here are the dos and don’ts of mask-wearing:
- Wear a double layer, washable cloth mask or a multilayer disposable mask
- Wear your mask anytime you are around others outside your own household
- Cover your mouth and nose with the mask, making sure it fits snugly on your face
- Remove it carefully, by grasping the ear loops (there may be germs on the mask itself)
- Wash your hands after removing your mask
- For children, use masks specifically designed for kids so they will fit better
- Wear neck gaiters or face shields; these are not effective at preventing the spread of germs. Gaiters are not thick enough to contain respiratory droplets from a cough or a sneeze and face shields allow droplets to escape because there is no seal against the face
- Wear N95 masks, which are intended for health care professionals
- Reuse disposable masks
- Wear masks that have ventilation valves, which defeat the purpose of mask-wearing by allowing virus particles to escape
- Put a mask on a child under the age of two
Avoid Crowds, Wash Your Hands & Disinfect
COVID-19 loves a crowd. The virus spreads easily from person to person through respiratory droplets that people emit by coughing, sneezing, breathing and talking. One of the reasons COVID-19 spreads so easily is asymptomatic transmission – that is when someone has the virus but is unaware because they have no symptoms. Despite not having symptoms, they may well be contagious and pass the virus to others.
The combination of asymptomatic spread and gatherings of friends and families is one of the primary drivers of new COVID-19 cases. An Arlington family found that out the hard way recently when they gathered for a birthday celebration for a few hours. Within days, all 12 of the family members who were present tested positive for COVID-19 and the virus spread to three additional family members who were not at the party.
“No doubt about it, COVID fatigue is real,” says Dr. Tilkin. “We are all tired of staying inside so much and we miss seeing our friends and family or just going out to have dinner or shop like we used to. It is frustrating, but we just have to hang in there a little while longer until the vaccines are widely distributed.”
In addition to avoiding gatherings and unnecessary outings, be sure to continue practicing good hygiene. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water and use hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol when handwashing is not possible. Avoid touching your face to further reduce the risk of getting sick. Wipe down frequently touched surfaces, like doorknobs.
Know the Symptoms, Get Tested
With COVID-19 cases continuing to surge, it is important to know the symptoms. Some of the more common symptoms experienced by people with COVID-19 include:
- Shortness of breath
- Fever and chills
- Muscle and body aches
- Sore throat
- Loss of smell or taste
- Congestion and runny nose
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
Of course, many of these symptoms are very similar to the seasonal flu or even to those commonly experienced by allergy sufferers. Additionally, COVID-19 affects people differently and may cause other symptoms in some people.
If you have any of these symptoms, you should get tested for COVID-19. Additionally, if you have spent time around someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or think you may have been exposed, it’s a good idea to get a test. Arrange for a COVID-19 test by calling your doctor’s office or by making an appointment at one of the many public testing sites available. You can locate one near you by going to the Texas Department of State Health Services website.
COVID-19 tests are easier to obtain now than they were in the early days of the pandemic and the results also come back much more quickly.
If You Have COVID-19
Most people who get COVID-19 only experience mild symptoms and can recover at home. If you are diagnosed, stay home and isolate yourself. If possible, isolate to one room in your house to reduce risk for others in your household. Use a different bathroom than others, if you can.
Get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. You can take an over-the-counter pain reliever/fever reducer containing acetaminophen to help you feel better. Follow any instructions given to you by your doctor and keep your doctor updated on your symptoms.
Should your symptoms worsen to the point where you have difficulty breathing, experience constant chest pain or feel confused, call 911 and seek emergency medical care.
“Most people who get COVID-19 will be under the weather for several days, similar to when one has the flu. For some, symptoms do become severe and require hospitalization. People who are over 65 or have underlying health conditions are at greater risk of severe illness and hospitalization,” explains Dr. Tilkin.
Continue to self-isolate as you recover from COVID-19 so that you do not infect others. According to current CDC guidance, self-isolation can end after:
- 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared AND
- You have been fever-free without the use of fever-reducing medications for at least 24 hours AND
- All symptoms are improving (except for loss of taste and smell, which can persist for several weeks).
- For people who test positive for COVID-19 but never experience any symptoms, they should isolate for 10 days following their positive test.
“Even for many patients with serious cases who require hospitalization, the situation is generally better than it was several months ago,” adds Dr. Tilkin. “We know more about how to treat the disease and there are a variety of treatments that have shown to lessen the impact and shorten the duration of COVID-19 for some patients. At the same time, this is still a very serious situation – tragically, thousands of Americans continue to die each day due to COVID-19.”
Hope on the Horizon: Vaccines
For nearly a year, the entire world has battled COVID-19 with measures designed to keep the coronavirus at bay – masks, social distancing, hygiene, avoiding crowds, etc. Soon, however, we will enter a new phase in the war with the coronavirus with the ammunition to defeat it once and for all. That’s because vaccines to protect against COVID-19 are beginning to be distributed.
In November, two pharmaceutical companies announced that their vaccine trials had proven to be a remarkable success. The collaboration of Pfizer and BioNTech developed a COVID-19 vaccine that shows to be 95% effective while Moderna’s vaccine is 94% effective. Both vaccines have been through what is known as a Phase 3 study, meaning research was conducted involving tens of thousands of people.
How do we know these vaccines are really safe and effective? Consider the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine. This Phase 3 study involved 43,000 people. Half were given the vaccine, while the other half received a placebo, a harmless injection of saline. In the placebo group, 162 people ended up contracting COVID-19, while only eight people in the vaccine group got the illness. Even for the few people who did get COVID-19 after receiving the vaccine, virtually all of the cases were mild. The makers of both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines indicate they found similar levels of effectiveness across all demographic and age groups with minimal, mild side effects.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for approving medication, including vaccines, for use by the American people. Before the FDA approves any new medication, it carefully evaluates it for both efficacy and safety. The FDA reviewed the results of the two vaccine studies and has granted emergency use authorization for these vaccines to be administered immediately. Additional vaccines are expected to be approved in 2021.
The biggest challenge with vaccines is getting the sheer number of doses produced and then distributed, especially since some of the vaccines will require special, sub-zero temperature storage. The number of available doses to be distributed will increase over time. For both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the vaccine is administered in two doses, given a few weeks apart.
Health care workers and nursing home residents will be the first people to receive vaccines in Texas. Those with underlying health conditions and those age 65 and older will be prioritized next, along with first responders. If all goes well, many senior citizens will be able to be vaccinated in the first quarter of 2021, and the rest of the population in the second and third quarters. Once a critical mass of the population has been vaccinated, we can begin to achieve “herd immunity” – that happens when the virus is simply unable to spread efficiently in a mostly-vaccinated human population. This is exactly how our society has defeated serious illnesses in the past, such as polio, rubella and smallpox.
Hang in There!
If all goes well, we will be through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic in a few months as vaccines are distributed and administered around the world. That’s the promise and hope that 2021 offers – we are just not there quite yet. We still have to get through a challenging winter that is bringing an unprecedented surge in new COVID-19 cases.
So, in the meantime, continue wearing your mask, social distancing, practicing good hygiene and staying home as much as possible. Stay connected with your family through video conferencing instead of having in-person gatherings. This is all definitely a continued sacrifice – but one that will well be worth it when we come out on the other side later this year with our families healthy and safe.
This article contains information sourced from: