A vaccination record card and face mask on a table.

June 22, 2021

What We Know Now That We Didn't Know Then

While we’re not out of the woods yet, there’s a feeling of optimism in the air. As summer replaces spring, hope is nudging out fear. With over a year of COVID-19 under our belts, we can look back and reflect on all that we’ve been through and the many lessons we’ve learned.

“I remember in June of last year (2020) wishing I had a New England Journal of Medicine from June 2021,” says infectious disease and internal medicine specialist Linda Yancey, MD. “It was all so new to all of us back then. And now here we are.”

Dr. Yancey shares what she has found most remarkable about our collective COVID-19 journey, along with some surprising things we learned along with way.

The Effectiveness of Masks

“Early on, I think we underestimated how effective simple masks—even bandanas and scarves—could be in preventing the spread of COVID-19,” says Dr. Yancey. “We (infectious disease specialists) were used to using masks to prevent the spread of tuberculosis, a disease which is transmitted via the respiration of smaller droplets. Stopping the transmission of tuberculosis requires the more substantial, N95 mask. But as it turned out, even simple masking devices have proven to be really effective in the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, given the disease is transmitted by larger droplets.”

The Vital Importance of Ventilation

“Buildings these days are hermetically sealed,” says Dr. Yancey. “They’re insulated, and they have these closed circuit systems that are designed to maintain indoor air quality. But in fact, where COVID-19 was concerned, they actually hurt us. The analogy I like to use is of someone smoking in a conference room full of 100 people. Eventually, that room will fill up with smoke, whereas in the olden days, we would open a window to let the smoke out of the room. Earlier in the pandemic, we realized the need for better ventilation, and many hospitals installed high-flow air circulators in place of hospital room windows, to make the rooms safer for the nursing staff to go into.”

The Confusion Regarding Masks in Outdoor Settings

Dr. Yancey says the guidance on masking has been “the opposite of consistent.” Whereas mask-wearing proved to be a major deterrent to the spread of COVID-19 indoors, we eventually learned that masks weren’t necessary to avoid the spread of infection in many outdoors settings. “To date, there has not been a single documented case of COVID-19 transmission from casual outdoor interactions, such as walking past someone on a street or eating at a nearby table,” says Dr. Yancey.

The Overestimation of Surface Transmission

In the early days of the pandemic, bleach and antibacterial, antiviral and just about anti-everything cleansers and disinfectants flew off store shelves (along with toilet paper, go figure). Shoppers shared disinfectant sightings on social media, and hyper disinfecting became the norm. But over time, we learned more about how people become infected by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19—through exposure to respiratory droplets carrying the virus (those same droplets that we learned could be thwarted by those simple masks), and not so much by exposure to contaminated surfaces or objects.

The Powerful Effect of COVID-19 Health Measures on Flu Cases

Dr. Yancey says that for many years, the medical community has wondered if widespread masking, social distancing and diligent hand hygiene might reduce the spread of the flu, “but we couldn’t exactly say, ‘Okay, this flu season, everyone in Oklahoma needs to wear a mask’ to find out.” The pandemic provided a way to find out, on a global scale. And the results were nothing short of astounding.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year in the U.S., there are about 45 million illnesses, 810,000 hospitalizations and 61,000 deaths attributed to the flu, which generally peaks between December and February. As of Feb. 5, 2021, there were only 1,455 cases in the U.S. No one knows if or to what extent the flu will rebound post COVID-19, and medical experts strongly urge people to continue to get their annual flu shots.

The Power of COVID-19 Vaccines

Dr. Yancey says a silver lining to all of this was how surprisingly effective the COVID-19 vaccines have been. “I underestimated what would happen when every scientist on the planet pivoted to focus on solving one problem—coming up with an effective vaccine to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They definitely delivered,” she says.

Protect yourself and your family. Get vaccinated today. To learn more, visit here.

The information in this article was accurate as of June 22, 2021.

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