What Have We Learned About COVID-19?

The challenges of COVID-19 taxed America and the world like few things in modern history.

It was a virus that attacked with the ferocity of a superpower, forcing us into a 21st century bunker mentality while causing whole economies to shut down. It cast a shadow across every time zone in the world.

This invisible adversary observed not a single rule of war. It simply waged an invisible, ruthless, and deadly campaign.

Now, halfway through the third year of COVID, what have we learned about this modern day plague? Has our knowledge of this virus moved us closer to victory or are we simply in a lull and waiting for a new variant?

Science assures us the new variants are out there. China and South Africa may be the virus’s latest test tube.

Dr. Carrie Horn, chief medical officer at Denver’s National Jewish Hospital, said the battle against COVID had its victories and its setbacks.

“For me, when I think of COVID, the highlights include the medical community,” Horn said. “It really came together to fight this thing.”

She also cited private citizens who formed teams to make masks when they were most in need or delivered food and drink, while others went into their garages and basements “pulling N95 masks out to donate.” 

But perhaps the biggest achievement was the hyper-speed in delivering a vaccine to thwart the death toll.

Pharmaceutical companies delivered the first vaccines within 10 months of the first U.S. COVID death. Normal timetables for new vaccines usually take around 10 years. But this one—actually three—couldn’t have come at a better time.  

“What amazes me the most is how quickly people pivoted and how quickly they got the genetic sequencing for the vaccine,” Horn said. “I can’t think of anything done that quickly.” Nearly as impressive, she said, “is how quickly people built swabs for testing.”

The death toll during the darkest days, weeks and months of the pandemic was very nearly surreal. In January 2021, across America, COVID killed slightly more than 95,000 people. People who were healthy just one month before were suddenly gone.

But with a current U.S. COVID death toll that the CDC says is still averaging 350 to 400 a day, Horn and others are stopping well short of declaring victory.

In a recent NPR Dallas interview, Scientific American senior editor Josh Fischman said it’s likely deaths actually exceed that number. The official cause of death appearing on documents may be more nuanced than listing COVID or not. 

“We know from epidemiological and community studies that a lot of people have died at home … not in hospitals. They could have as a cause of death pneumonia or heart attack so that’s one reason for an undercount.” They were in a COVID-caused weakened state of health before they died. It’s the difference between dying of COVID and dying with COVID, he said. 

The full impact of COVID won’t be known until researchers look carefully and examine all the variables of this viral equation. They will certainly study things that most of the COVID coverage over the last 30 months rarely or barely touched upon. 

It may take years for researchers to understand the impact on the untold numbers of children who were left without essential support. Many of these young children, he said, will deal with a significantly higher risk of mental health issues as well as physical, emotional, and sexual violence. Many of these children will also be more likely to suffer poverty, higher suicide risks, and chronic illnesses.

Studying the stealth side of COVID will also mean deep-diving into another reality of the virus. The CDC said that more than 250,000 COVID deaths occurred in the 18-64 age group, people who were still in the nation’s workforce. They were teachers, doctors, IT people, delivery persons; they were the everyday people we depend on to live our lives. The economic loss that will one day be associated with their deaths is as yet unknown.

More immediately, researchers are focused on long haul COVID which the American Medical Association defines as “persistent symptoms that often include brain fog, fatigue, headaches, dizziness and shortness of breath.”

It is also the condition Amalia, a 50-something retired educator and current yoga instructor from Northern New Mexico, is living with. She asked that only her first name be used.

After receiving both COVID vaccines and a booster, she thought she’d be OK. It was just the opposite, she said. “It started out with dryness and a scratchiness in my throat,” she recalled. The symptoms lingered, followed by pain in her joints.

She wasn’t sick but achy and fatigued. She thought she’d just wait it out before going back to the doctor. But things got worse, including headaches that she describes as feeling  “like my brain was slamming into my skull. I could hardly get up to go to the bathroom.” 

“On a bad day, I’m in bed. I get up and eat or watch TV or read. I try and not do anything more than moving about,” Amalia said.

Her doctors have set no timetable for her recovery. But after teaching a couple of yoga classes recently, she had a setback. “After the second class I felt like I had COVID again.” 

For now, she has found a way of handling her symptoms. Dealing with the mental side of long haul is another matter.

“You just can’t get yourself back going. It just makes you depressed.”

Unfortunately, as researchers along with long haulers have come to learn, depression is the fog that lingers with this condition. 

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