It’s understandable, given the massive scale of the pandemic. More than 263 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 a 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 November.
1. Omicron is the newest variant of concern.
In late November, the World Health Organization identified a new variant of concern: omicron. It has now been detected in roughly 20 countries (the first case was detected in the U.S. on Dec. 1), and global health experts are on high alert because it has a significant number of mutations — many on the all-important spike protein. Those mutations could be linked to “increased transmissibility and immune evasion,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has warned.
Whether omicron is more transmissible, makes people sicker or is more able to evade our current vaccines is not clear at this point. There have been some heartening early reports indicating that the symptoms associated with omicron are relatively mild, but those are anecdotal. The reports also don’t give any insight into potential long-term effects. Experts hope we will have more answers about what omicron means for the pandemic in the next few weeks.
In the meantime, the new variant makes it more important than ever to mask up in public indoor settings or situations where social distancing isn’t an option, and to get as many people as possible vaccinated and boosted.
2. Boosters are being recommended to pretty much all fully vaccinated adults.
In mid-November, federal health officials greatly expanded the pool of Americans eligible for booster shots. Once omicron was detected, that recommendation took on greater urgency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now advises all Americans to get a booster if it’s been six months since their initial Pfizer or Moderna shots, or if it’s been two months since they got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“The recent emergence of the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529) further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters, and prevention efforts needed to protect against COVID-19,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. “Early data from South Africa suggest increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, and scientists in the United States and around the world are urgently examining vaccine effectiveness related to this variant.”
3. 1 in 100 COVID patients may have brain complications.
Throughout the pandemic, studies have tracked the neurological impact of COVID-19, looking at everything from brain fog to long-term memory issues. A sobering new study presented at a conference in November found that roughly 1 in 100 patients who are hospitalized with COVID develop serious complications of the central nervous system, including stroke, hemorrhage and swelling of the brain.
The team behind that study argues that its findings point to an ongoing need to study all of the organs that can be affected by COVID, not just the heart and lungs. They also suggest that health care providers consider taking a closer look at the potential impact of COVID-19 on the brain, even in patients who are not severely ill.
“There should probably be a low threshold to order brain imaging for patients with COVID-19,” said study researcher Dr. Scott Faro, a professor of radiology and neurology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
4. Women are more likely than men to be COVID long-haulers.
A study published by a team of Mayo Clinic doctors and researchers who have been treating patients in a post-COVID care clinic found that women were more likely than men to be grappling with symptoms of long-haul COVID.
Women in that study also had an enhanced immune response that may have helped them fight off initial infection, but it may have been the source of their lingering symptoms months later.
“I think women can really handle the acute COVID probably better than men, their immune system can,” Dr. Ryan Hurt, head of Mayo’s post-COVID research and clinical efforts, told Kare11. “But that really pronounced immune response may also linger on longer than it should.”
Experts are still learning about post-COVID conditions in real time because the virus is still relatively new. According to some estimates, roughly one-quarter of COVID-19 patients develop long-haul symptoms of some kind. Those symptoms can run the gamut from ongoing difficulties in breathing and fatigue to sleep problems, menstrual changes and changes in taste and smell.
5. The first COVID pill could be here in a matter of weeks.
At the end of November, a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel endorsed Merck’s oral COVID pill, paving the way for it to be approved in a matter of weeks. However, the vote was close, and several panelists raised questions about the “moderate” efficacy of the pill and called for it to be made available only to the unvaccinated.
The Merck pill is one of two antivirals that, if approved, could help treat COVID at home. (Pfizer has also developed a COVID pill and will likely apply for emergency use authorization soon.) The hope is that taking these pills early on in the course of a person’s illness will stave off serious illness or death — though experts have been quick to caution that, even if the COVID pills are approved, they will not be a replacement for vaccines.
“It’s an additional strategy that we have to help manage infection for people who are infected, but does not replace the value of vaccination,” Dr. Erica Johnson, chair of the Infectious Disease Board of the American Board of Internal Medicine, previously told HuffPost.
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.