5 New Things We Learned About COVID In October 2021

Here's the latest — from new mix-and-match booster guidance to official recognition of how mental health can affect risk.
Mix and match booster doses are OK, experts said in October.
Marko Geber via Getty Images
Mix and match booster doses are OK, experts said in October.

What we know about COVID-19 seems to change by the minute.

It’s understandable, given the massive scale of the pandemic. More than 245 million cases have been confirmed around the world since tracking began. And even now — as we’re inching closer to two full years of living with the coronavirus — the virus and ways to address it are still relatively new to the medical world, so researchers are learning as they go.

Still, the amount of information about the coronavirus is dizzying. It’s hard to keep track of what’s known, what’s myth and what guidance we should follow. That’s why HuffPost has rounded up five of the most important new things we learned about COVID in October.

1. It’s OK to mix and match booster doses

In September, federal health regulators approved booster doses of Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines for certain Americans, greatly expanding who is eligible for another shot.

People who are 65-plus, as well as adults 18 and up who live in a long-term care setting, have certain underlying health conditions or work in a high-risk environment, qualify for a booster dose of the mRNA vaccines if it’s been six months or more since their second shot. And anyone who is 18 and up who received a Johnson & Johnson shot is eligible for a booster dose two months after their initial vaccination, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.

After months of urging people to stick with the same shot they initially got, health officials now say it’s OK to get any of the three authorized vaccines for a booster dose.

There has been some data from Europe (which has different COVID vaccines than the United States) suggesting that people who switch vaccines produce a stronger antibody response. However, it’s important to remember that antibodies do not tell the full story when it comes to immunity. Immune cells like T-cells, which are much more difficult to measure, play a role, too.

For now, there just isn’t a lot of data on mixing and matching in the U.S.

“Some people may have a preference for the vaccine type that they originally received, and others may prefer to get a different booster,” the CDC says. The choice is up to you (maybe with some input from your health care provider).

2. FDA advisers say kids ages 5 to 11 can be eligible for the Pfizer vaccine

Younger children are one step closer to being eligible for vaccination, after an FDA advisory committee recommended that the agency approve the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. The advisers analyzed and debated data from Pfizer’s clinical trials in younger children, showing that the vaccine had a 90.7% efficacy rate in preventing symptomatic COVID. On Friday, the FDA officially authorized the vaccine for emergency use in kids. The CDC will weigh in next, and it’s expected that kids will be able to start getting shots in the coming days.

If approved, children in that age group will get two (significantly smaller) doses of the COVID vaccine. The vaccine also has a slightly different formulation that could make it easier to store in pediatricians’ offices, which health officials hope will be an important distribution site for families.

3. If you have a mood disorder, you’re eligible for a booster

In October, the CDC quietly expanded its list of health conditions that qualify someone for a booster dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines (everyone who received Johnson & Johnson is eligible after two months). The list now includes schizophrenia and certain mood disorders, including depression.

The addition reflects striking data that suggests people who have schizophrenia have the second-highest risk of COVID-related death — second only to old age — for reasons that remain unclear (though there are some theories). And people with depression are at higher risk of being hospitalized with COVID.

Mental health advocates had long been pushing for the change, and applauded the CDC for recognizing that mental health can impact outcomes at least as much as physical underlying conditions.

“This action has the potential to save many lives,” Lisa Dailey, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, previously told HuffPost.

4. COVID ‘brain fog’ can last for months

Researchers are continuing to learn more about so-called post-COVID conditions that affect people at least a month after they first were infected with the virus. A new study published last month shows just how serious the cognitive impact can be.

The research, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, tracked 740 COVID patients whose average age was 49. Several months after their initial infection, many study participants were still experiencing symptoms of brain fog. For example, 18% of the study participants were still having issues with processing speed (basically, how quickly they could take in new information), while 16% were struggling with executive functioning (basically, self-control). Roughly a quarter of participants were grappling with memory formation and recall.

The researchers argued that the findings raise important questions about how to best tackle long-term treatment of COVID-19, and pointed to the continued need for new research unpacking all the ways the virus can affect people months later.

5. Breathalyzers can help screen for COVID

Getting a COVID test typically requires a nasal swab, whether you’re going for a rapid antigen test or the “gold standard” PCR.

But researchers at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center published findings in October that show a breathalyzer test can be used to rapidly check patients for COVID-19 — and it’s highly accurate, they say.

The study was small, tracking 46 patients in the intensive care unit with respiratory failure. Some had COVID and others did not, which was verified with PCR tests. The breathalyzer test, which gave results within seconds, accurately identified who had COVID 88% of the time.

While the researchers say future studies are needed to see whether the breath test is as effective in patients who have less severe infections, they’re hoping to make it more broadly available soon. They have applied to the FDA for emergency use authorization of the breathalyzer test.

“The gold standard for diagnosis of COVID-19 is a PCR test that requires an uncomfortable nasal swab and time in a lab to process the sample and obtain the results,” Matthew Exline, lead researcher and director of critical care at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center University Hospital, said in a statement. “The breathalyzer test used in our study can detect COVID-19 within seconds.”

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.