5 New Things We Learned About COVID-19 In February 2021

Here's the latest on the coronavirus, from big news on the vaccine front to new variants circulating in the United States.
Pharmacist Madeline Acquilano fills a syringe with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 Vaccine before inoculating members of the public at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, on March 3, 2021.
Pharmacist Madeline Acquilano fills a syringe with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 Vaccine before inoculating members of the public at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, on March 3, 2021.

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

It’s understandable, given the massive scale of the global pandemic. Right now, there are more than 114 million known cases around the world and counting. And even a year into the pandemic, the virus is still relatively new to the medical world, so researchers are learning as they go.

The amount of information out there is dizzying. It’s hard to keep track of what’s known, what’s a myth and what guidance we should follow. That’s why we’ve rounded up five of the most important new things we learned about COVID-19 in February:

1. A new vaccine is available — and it works really well.

In February, Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine was granted emergency use authorization, which was big news for several reasons.

For one, it’s a single-shot vaccine, eliminating the need for two appointments spaced out over several weeks.

Also, it can be stored in regular refrigerators for months — in contrast to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which both require two shots and have very specific handling and storage protocols. As one vaccine expert put it in a recent interview with The Associated Press: “Simple is beautiful.”

Plus, it is very effective — a message that has been somewhat lost in news coverage of the vaccine. It falls short of Pfizer and Moderna’s efficacy rates (90 to 95% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19). But it appears to be 72% effective at preventing moderate to severe illness within the U.S., which means people who get the shot are far less likely to become seriously ill or to die from the virus.

The Biden administration is hopeful that the new vaccine could significantly accelerate the timeline for vaccinating every American, as Merck & Co is now partnering with Johnson & Johnson to manufacture its new vaccine. The president has now suggested that there could be enough vaccines for every adult in the United States by the end of May.

2. New variants are circulating in the U.S.

While February brought good news on the vaccination front, researchers also found that several new variants are circulating in the U.S. They could be more transmissible, and our current vaccines may not target them as well. (That doesn’t mean they’re useless, though.)

The so-called California variant (known as B.1.427/B.1.429 or CAL.20C) is possibly more infectious and may also be deadlier, researchers warn, though at this point it is too soon to say. It has been seen in 45 states and in a few other countries, according to experts.

Then there is also the so-called New York variant (B.1.526), which is also potentially more transmissible. Preliminary evidence suggests it too may be less easily targeted by our existing vaccines, but again it’s all pretty new.

Ultimately, while these new variants are certainly worthy of attention, infectious disease experts and public health experts say there is a crucial balance to find between fretting too much about them (particularly because they were expected all along), while acknowledging that we are very much so racing against them. Now more than ever it’s crucial to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible, and to stick to proven preventive measures that stop the virus from spreading and evolving — like wearing a mask, social distancing and getting the vaccine when it’s your turn and available to you.

3. Travel bans don’t really work.

Travel bans have been a major part of many countries’ efforts to curb viral spread at various points over the past year, including in the U.S. But research published in February adds credence to the idea that they are not particularly effective.

The researchers concluded that limiting travel really only makes a difference in the first stages of an epidemic, but does not necessarily reduce infection beyond that point. The new study joins a growing consensus from experts who have warned for nearly a year now that travel bans are basically too little, too late, and that testing requirements before travel may be a more useful approach to curbing spread.

4. Eyeglasses may offer some added protection.

According to a small study published in February, wearing glasses might provide some protection against COVID-19. Researchers found that glasses wearers were three times less likely to get the virus. (Although the study was preliminary and was not subject to peer-review, so its conclusions should be viewed with a very healthy dose of skepticism.)

Still, infectious disease experts like Anthony Fauci have said for months that covering one’s eyes with goggles or a face shield likely offers better protection than simply covering one’s mouth and nose with a mask.

And, of course, goggles or a face mask are an essential part of PPE for anyone caring for individuals with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.

5. Vaccination may cause enlarged lymph nodes.

At this point, the most common side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines are pretty well known, like pain at the injection site, fever, and in very rare cases, allergic reactions.

Now experts are trying to spread the word about another common side effect in recently immunized people: swollen lymph nodes.

As The New York Times reports: “The swelling is a normal reaction by the immune system to the vaccine, and occurs on the same side as the arm where the shot was given.”

But that “normal” reaction is important to know about, because it can otherwise be mistaken as a sign of cancer. That could be especially worrisome for patients who are being tested and screened after successful cancer treatment.

“This could really impact a lot of people if we don’t start recording vaccination status immediately at imaging centers,” one expert told The New York Times.

And it’s why groups like The Society of Breast Imaging have put out recommendations suggesting that all women wait four weeks between getting the COVID-19 vaccine and getting a routine mammogram. Experts say swollen lymph nodes after vaccination generally last about a week or so, but the exact timing varies, so anyone with questions about when to schedule routine cancer screenings should check with their doctor.

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.