It’s understandable, given the massive scale of the global pandemic. Right now, there are more than 102 million known cases around the world and counting. And even though it’s been nearly a year since COVID-19 was declared a global health emergency, there’s still so much experts are working to understand about the virus. 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 things we learned about COVID-19 in January:
1. New COVID-19 variants are spreading rapidly — and changing the pandemic
In early January, headlines about SARS-CoV-2 variants dominated the global news cycle, with reports of new strains emerging in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. New variants are now in the United States.
News that the virus is mutating is certainly unsettling, but infectious disease experts and public health officials were fully prepared for that likelihood, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even called it “expected.”
Our current vaccines appear to protect against the known variants of the virus currently circulating, although they’re less potent against the South Africa strain. And vaccine manufacturers are working on boosters that might better target new strains. So the emergence of new variants does not mean the pandemic is suddenly spiraling out of control.
Still, the fact that these COVID-19 variants are even more contagious than the original strain ― and that they seem to have spread widely ― has changed the trajectory of the virus. We are now in a race between the variants and our ability to vaccinate millions of people in the U.S. and around the world. Given that, some infectious disease experts are now calling for as many Americans as possible to receive one dose of the vaccines currently available (rather than the recommended two), though that recommendation is controversial.
But all experts agree: Now is the time to be especially diligent about maintaining social distancing, washing hands and wearing masks (more on that below). And everyone should make an effort to stay informed about the new variants, which may present with slightly different symptoms.
2. It’s time to double-mask
Given that the new variants are more contagious, many health officials are now recommending that Americans get in the habit of double-masking.
As HuffPost’s Lindsay Holmes explained: “The new variants are thought to have an easier time binding to our cells, so the more layers we have covering our noses and mouths, the less likely we’ll be exposed to viral particles that can infect our cells and make us sick.”
Putting on two masks creates a more robust shield. Plus, it is a relatively easy prevention strategy that is actually doable for most people (as opposed to wearing N95 masks, which are the gold standard in protection but aren’t necessarily easy to find).
Put the mask with the best filtering capabilities on first, then layer on a cloth option. But be mindful of overdoing it: If wearing multiple masks makes it too difficult to breathe, you’re less likely to do it. And the real key to masking is getting widespread buy-in.
3. More at-risk groups have been identified
Since the pandemic began, experts have warned that people with conditions that can weaken their immune system ― like those currently undergoing cancer treatment ― are at higher risk of getting severely ill with COVID-19.
But a somewhat surprising study published in January found that people with inactive cancer are also at greater risk of getting very sick if they become infected with the virus. And rates of severe illness and hospitalization were particularly high among Black cancer survivors.
Furthermore, a study published in January found that people with schizophrenia are almost three times more likely to die from COVID-19. And that increased risk wasn’t explained by other health factors that often accompany schizophrenia (like higher rates of heart disease and smoking).
Experts believe that research aimed at identifying groups who are at the highest risk of severe illness are essential because it can help inform individual behavior, but also because that research can and should influence who is prioritized to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as the rollout continues over the next several months.
4. Schools are NOT superspreaders
Evidence has been mounting for months that schools are not major sources of COVID-19 transmission in communities. And in January, a team of researchers with the CDC effectively made the case for reopening schools when possible.
The experts published a highly publicized piece in the scientific journal JAMA that argued “the preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring” and that “accumulating data now suggest a path forward to maintain or return primarily or fully to in-person instructional delivery.”
The researchers made it clear that schools can only reopen safely with certain protocols in place, like masking, proper ventilation, efforts to maintain physical distance in the classroom and expanded testing. They also caution against indoor sports and competitions, which can increase transmission risk.
Still, the CDC researchers expressed cautious optimism that schools can return to in-person instruction soon, and certainly by the next academic year. “There is much hope on the horizon for a safer environment for schools and school-related athletic activities during the 2021/22 school year,” they wrote.
5. ‘COVID tongue’ is a thing
Since the pandemic began, experts have expanded the list of potential symptoms. And now they’ve become aware of another possible one: COVID tongue. There is growing anecdotal evidence that people with the virus may develop white patchiness on their tongues, or “strange mouth ulcers.”
A patchy tongue is not on the official list of common symptoms of COVID-19, which includes things like cough, fever and sudden loss of smell or taste. And experts warn that plenty of other conditions can cause tongue-related issues (such as oral thrush, a common fungal infection).
Still, tongue-related symptoms are potentially something to look out for, and experts are constantly reviewing the symptoms of COVID-19 to help make sure cases are not missed.
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.