It’s been a long pandemic, and COVID is still going strong. But along the way, we’ve at least learned a lot of things. Just as we stopped obsessing over hand-washing, there are plenty of other ideas we once had (or still have) about COVID that need to be updated. Here are some of the biggies.
Natural infection no longer gives complete protection
There was a time when, if you got COVID, you could assume that you were protected from getting it again for at least a few months after you recovered. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case for the strains that are circulating currently, including BA.4 and BA.5, both variants of highly transmissible Omicron, which seem to be particularly good at causing infection even in people who have previously recovered from COVID.
That said, the situation is not as dire as some recent headlines have implied. One article claimed, before it was corrected, that reinfections confer “no immunity,” which is false. It also cited a report of Omicron infections occurring shortly after Delta infections, suggesting it meant one could be infected with Omicron over and over again, which isn’t the same thing.
What we do know is that if you’ve recovered from a previous strain of the virus, you may still be able to get sick again from a different strain. The good news is that previous infection still probably provides at least some protection. One preprint suggests that even if you’re still able to get sick, you may have pretty good protection against severe disease. And the even better news is that the vaccine is still effective against severe disease, as well.
“Your mask protects me, my mask protects you” is outdated
Yeah, that was a cute idea back when people were actually wearing their damn masks. It was also the limit of our understanding in the very very beginning of the pandemic. We knew that masks were pretty good at blocking droplets that come out of our mouths and noses, but we didn’t know whether they would do much to block droplets or even aerosols that might go in. Turns out they do.
This is good news for when you go to a crowded place where others aren’t wearing their masks. A well-fitted mask, especially if it is made of high-quality filter material like an N95, will do a lot to keep you safe no matter what others are doing.
There’s nothing special about six feet
The ubiquitous six-foot rule about social distancing was based on the splash zone for respiratory droplets. Your breath or speech are only likely to send globs of spit flying about three feet. A cough or a sneeze can go farther, so six feet seemed like it should work pretty well as a rule of thumb.
But then we learned that the coronavirus is pretty good at becoming airborne. If you’re in an enclosed space with other people, there’s probably virus in the air even if you never get within six feet of anybody. Keeping your distance still probably helps a little, but it’s not enough to consider yourself safe.
The protection we can expect from vaccines has changed
This has changed, and then changed back. When the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized, the FDA only had data showing how well they prevented severe or symptomatic illness, not on whether they prevented people from carrying the virus in the first place.
After a while, it looked like the vaccines did prevent people from getting infected at all, even asymptomatically. We got used to thinking of the vaccine as making us basically invincible; we were encouraged to take off our masks. But the virus had other ideas. Now, it’s very possible to get infected, and even to get sick, even if you’ve been fully vaccinated (and even with recommended boosters).
The bottom line is that the vaccine does not prevent us from catching the virus, but it does make us less likely to get life-threateningly ill. So the vaccine and its boosters are worthwhile, but we shouldn’t be so eager to eschew other protections.