It’s been over a year since the first known case of coronavirus surfaced in China, the threat of the virus overtook normal life stateside, and phrases like “social distancing” and “contact tracing” became lodged in our collective vocabulary. From unemployment statistics to drug trials, new information about this pandemic emerges constantly, and dozens of theories about the disease get advanced or disproven on any given day. As the pandemic moves well into its second year, questions loom large about everything from how to keep track of who’s been vaccinated to how to prepare for the inevitability of future pandemics. We’ve put together a guide to everything you need to know about this pandemic—be it how to keep your children entertained or how this outbreak is affecting the economy. We’ll be updating it regularly to help you keep track of all aspects of this rapidly evolving situation.
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Basic BackgroundWhat the coronavirus is, and when it became a pandemic
The 2019 coronavirus is one of hundreds we know of, and one of seven known to infect humans. These viruses affect the lungs and also cause fever and sometimes gastrointestinal problems. The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus situation a global emergency in January 2020 and a pandemic in mid-March. The pandemic will likely end, but some experts now say it’s possible the virus will become endemic and stick around in a less lethal form. We don’t know exactly when and how the virus jumped from bats to humans, though efforts are underway to trace SARS-CoV-2 back to its origins.
The most common symptoms of Covid-19 are dry cough, fever, and shortness of breath. Others include diarrhea and loss of smell or taste. Some people develop severe blood clots. The disease is mercurial—fairly mild for some and fatal for others. Scientists can’t say definitively why, but women are less likely to die than men. We know that older people, especially those with underlying health issues, are more at risk. And children fare better than adults, but for babies, toddlers, and kids with other conditions the disease can be severe. On the long road to recovery, people have experienced “brain fog”, heart issues, and a spate of other long-haul problems.
Social distancing and safety issues
Social distancing is about staying away from other people for long enough to slow the spread of the virus. When you do have to be near others, like at the grocery store, while delivering food, or going for a walk, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends staying 6 feet away. To enforce this, many states have implemented shelter-in-place orders at points throughout the pandemic. As places have started to reopen—and rolled back reopening plans—everyone has questions about what’s safe. You should still avoid travel, especially by airplane. Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how the virus spreads through air, especially in dense cities. To navigate life amidst the pandemic, some public health experts have also made color-coded guides. But there’s no foolproof way to calculate risk. The only way to avoid spreading Covid-19 is to follow all of the public health guidelines we have as much as possible.
How long coronavirus lasts on surfaces (and how to disinfect them)
We now know that you’re far more likely to get coronavirus from shared air than a shared surface. That said, it’s not a bad idea to regularly clean and disinfect high-touch belongings and surfaces like doorknobs, remote controls, and counters. One of the most important things you can do, of course, is wash your hands! You’ll want soap or disinfectant. You can also make your own sanitizer at home.
Wearing and making masks
The CDC recommends wearing a mask if not doubling up in public places where social distancing measures are hard to maintain. They’re a must-have, and here area few of our favorites. When you’re stocking up, remember that not all masks were created equal. You should layer a disposable surgical mask beneath a fabric face covering. Here are our tips for making a cloth outer mask—all you need are a t-shirt and two rubber bands.
New virus variants
All viruses mutate over time, as they spread from person to person. The novel coronavirus is no exception, but recently several new strains have emerged that seem to be more infectious. The good news is that, so far, the vaccines we have are still effective enough at protecting against these new variants. And not all variants are cause for alarm. As scientists boost genetic sequencing to trace these and other mutations more effectively and vaccination drives continue, the advent of these strains means it’s more important than ever to abide by social distancing guidelines.
Testing, Treatment, and VaccinationThe latest testing updates
At times, especially over the holidays, many people have operated on the assumption that a negative test means it’s safe to gather with others. But as we know from last fall’s superspreader event at the White House, we need to do more than just test to keep the virus from spreading. And even the test results themselves don’t necessarily account for the nuances of the disease.
At the moment, there’s no definitive treatment for Covid-19. Some researchers investigated chloroquine, the malaria drug touted by President Trump, but there’s no evidence that it’s a viable treatment. Others looked into using an anti-influenza drug and Crispr to treat the disease. The antiviral Remdesivir may also be helpful, though expensive. The hope is that research will find old drugs effective for treating Covid-19, thereby simplifying the drug discovery process. All in all, though, Covid-19 drug research has proven to be pretty messy.
For the time being, generic drugs could be helpful for those battling Covid-19. Blood from recovered patients is also promising. Though we don’t know exactly how effective it is, and getting it to those in need is a challenge, the Food and Drug Administration has OK’d its emergency use. Researchers are also investigating antibodies from the rare people who seem to have strong defenses naturally in place. And AI is being used to accelerate everything from diagnosis to drug discovery. Most of all, it’s important to remember that finding treatments takes time, and there are a lot of dubious theories circulating online. Whatever you do, please don’t try drinking bleach.
In December, the US approved its first two Covid-19 vaccines, from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. This was a blazingly fast scientific achievement, all the more so when you consider that both are the first-ever approved vaccines that use mRNA to train the immune system to recognize and fight off SARS-CoV-2. Though very few serious adverse reactions have been reported, many people experience side effects, typically a day or two of feverlike symptoms. The fact that these vaccines were authorized for emergency use could have some bearing on the fate of their ongoing trials. And now that they’ve been approved for use in adults, trials for use in teens and tweens are underway. In late February, the FDA also approved a third vaccine, from Johnson & Johnson. Though it paused the vaccine’s use for a short time in April due to concerns about rare blood clots, the shot is now back in use, as its benefits outweigh the risks.
Meanwhile, trials for a number of other vaccines are ongoing. This is a good thing: We’ll need many vaccines to inoculate everyone, and it’s always possible that vaccines in trials now may prove even better than the ones we already have. Now that more and more new variants are emerging, research has also begun to figure out how to update existing shots.
Where rollout is concerned, two questions have loomed large: What order should people get the vaccine in, and how can they get vaccinated as efficiently as possible? Two of the three shots approved for use in the US right now, from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, require two doses and must be stored at very cold temperatures, two factors that have complicated distribution. There’s also the issue of supply. So far, many Americans have had difficulty figuring out when they’re eligible and scheduling an appointment. Some experts have floated the idea of setting up mass vaccination clinics, but even this wouldn’t fully address issues of equity and access. Distribution plans disproportionately favor people with time and internet access, often sidelining those most in need. On top of all this, there’s the importance of building trust among the vaccine-hesitant, especially within communities that have historically borne the brunt of medical racism. For the pandemic to truly end, even vaccinated people need to take precautions and everyone worldwide will need access to vaccines.
What to do if you or a relative is ill
Whether you’re raising a family or living alone, it’s best to isolate at home and keep your space clean. And whether you’re sick or healthy, it’s important to look after your mind and body.
Epidemiology and TrackingHow Covid-19 spreads
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We know that the virus is passed from person to person when someone coughs or sneezes. Germy dust could also be a disease vector. Outbreaks spread exponentially at first but that rate slows over time, especially if additional measures are taken to flatten the curve. And some researchers are exploring the possibility that the virus could return seasonally like the common cold. Flu season was a nonevent during the pandemic, which means that our measures for curbing spread work, and also that [future flu seasons] (https://www.wired.com/story/covid-lockdowns-prevented-other-infections-is-that-good/) could be worse than we’re used to.
How other countries have handled it
Some countries opted for strict lockdowns. Others, like South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, seemed to have squashed the curve early on thanks to widespread testing and tracing efforts. Though travelers coming from the US and Europe later spurred an increase of cases, there’s still a lot for the US to learn. As far as disseminating information, censorship and misinformation have proven to be issues worldwide.
How coronavirus is being tracked
To build useful models and fully understand the coronavirus, we need to know how it has spread. Lots of countries are either using smartphone apps and location data to track the spread of the virus or are working to put a contact tracing system in place. To mitigate concern that this contact tracing would be an infringement of privacy, companies like Apple and Google collaborated on a Bluetooth-based system that would track coronavirus and notify people who have been exposed without surveilling users.
Beyond smartphones, some countries and workplaces have started using thermal cameras to detect potential fevers, and wearable devices and sewage surveillance may also prove helpful. In some places, the QR code is having its moment. And some city and state officials are skeptical about digital tracing, employing thousands of people to do the tracing instead. At the federal level, there has been talk of creating a national pandemic prediction agency to study Covid and get ahead of future pandemics.
As vaccination becomes more widespread, there’s also the question of if and how to keep track of who has received their shots. Vaccine passports, or ways to verify immunity, are in the works. But even before many exist, they’ve already been the source of controversy. Some have also floated plans for registries and apps.
Staying SaneHow to stay entertained
From video games to streaming services, we’re living in the golden age of digital entertainment! You can cope with cabin fever by working out, meditating, or getting really into bread baking like everyone else on the internet. Maybe there’s a drive-in movie theater near you, or you have access to a roof. And if you’re really feeling ambitious, you can always do your taxes. Whatever you do, promise you’ll try to avoid doomscrolling?
How to work from home
Even if you’re lucky enough to be working from home, staying productive out of the office is an adjustment. The right gear and a good internet connection make a world of difference. So does mastering the art of Zoom. Our recommendation: Commit to the home office and invest in a standing desk, or even a treadmill desk!
Keeping in touch with others
Staying social is important for staving off isolation while we’re all sheltering at home. The right gear can help, and a well-placed joke and sense of self-awareness go a long way. And if you’re a parent, it’s worth noticing how this may be affecting your child or teenager differently.
Looking out for your mental health
It goes without saying that this pandemic has done a number on everyone’s mental health. Here are a few tips for staying relaxed and calm, and for finding a therapist who works for you during this crazy time. Especially as the light at the end of the tunnel seems like it’s coming into focus, it’s important to be gentle with yourself. And as your world does begin to reopen bit by bit, small tricks and routines can help with reentry.
Business and EconomicsHow the coronavirus is worsening inequality
As unemployment rates and death tolls rose last spring, it was evident that this pandemic was affecting everyone. But the way it’s hit some of America’s most vulnerable populations—children and patients without an internet connection at home, people without a home to shelter in, members of the Navajo Nation, incarcerated individuals—illuminates many of the chasms that divide society. How much you make determines how well you’re able to prevent getting sick. It’s been particularly distressing to see the disease’s disproportionate impact on communities of color, a reality much of the Covid-19 data we do have doesn’t fully reveal. Churches and courts are two of many institutions that have struggled with the unequal impact of this pandemic. Hot spots have also emerged in poorer, densely populated cities in the global south. And even in Silicon Valley, Big Tech’s shadow workforce is barely scraping by.
How it’s changing different industries
From airlines to influencers, every industry will be changed by this pandemic. Those that have adapted quickly—whether that means taking your business online or placing robots on the assembly line—indicate that embracing technology may be necessary for survival. For essential businesses, this crisis has spurred new conversations about workers’ basic protections and benefits, like sick pay. As some businesses reopen, workers who fear returning face difficult decisions. From pro sports to patio dining, everyone is trying to come up with ways to keep patrons and participants safe. And creatives are coming up with new ways to make and put out their work. Tech companies whose employees are all at home have modified their workplace perks accordingly. And when those of us working remotely do return to the office, it likely won’t look the same. Some may never go back to the office at all, or they may go back only some of the time.
How it’s changing education
When and how to reopen schools for in-person classes remains a hot topic across the country. For students and institutions alike, the switch to remote learning last spring was a challenge. No one knows exactly how much of a risk it is to resume in person, and decisions about reopening have been made on a slapdash, case-by-case basis. Many schools have opted for a hybrid model and some went fully remote, though the digital divide makes this tough for some students. And those school buildings that are open for in-person classes have mulled or adopted new technologies like facial recognition thermal cameras and improved ventilation. Parents have been faced with a slew of challenging questions, from how to set up a good learning environment at home to whether or not to pod.
As for higher education, the American college experience hasn’t been anything like usual, whether students are learning in-person or online. Many institutions bungled their reopenings last fall. But there are some changes that have occurred during the pandemic that could actually make higher education more accessible in the long run.
How the pandemic might affect climate change
You’ve probably seen pictures of car-free city streets and unpolluted skies, but the pandemic’s effect on climate change hasn’t been uniformly positive, and the good changes probably won’t last. Single-use plastic is making a comeback, the Trump administration rolled back emissions regulations, and the renewable energy industry is taking a serious hit. Coronavirus deaths tend to be higher in areas with worse air pollution. Not to mention, dealing with natural disasters is much harder when we’re also faced with a pandemic, as we’ve seen with wildfire and hurricane seasons.
How the pandemic is impacting cities
Urbanists have heralded the pandemic as a potential opportunity to boost small cities and remake big ones for the better, prioritizing the experience of pedestrians and bikers over cars and figuring out ways to make buildings breathe better. Other researchers have noticed that the ways urban crime dropped in 2020 provide important information that could help cities increase safety, and do so more equitably, even after the pandemic. Still, there’s no doubt that the pandemic has taken a toll on urban life. One example: Mass transit, the lifeblood of cities like New York, is in serious jeopardy.
Government InterventionsWhat’s happening at the state level
One of America’s many pandemic blunders is the extent to which states have been left to fend for themselves. Last spring, that created confusion as each governor charted a different path toward reopening businesses. And as cases worsened in the winter, piecemeal decisionmaking spelled disaster for some states amid rising Covid cases. To coordinate decisionmaking, states in the Midwest, Northeast, and West Coast formed unprecedented regional alliances. Some experts said states should also be uniting to figure out testing, while some states are worked on developing their own contact tracing apps.
What the federal government is doing
On his first day in office, President Biden affirmed that the single priority of his administration is to tackle the pandemic, marking what many hope will be a new phase in national pandemic policy. Under President Trump, the federal government failed to speak with a unified voice, denying the very real toll of this pandemic rather than take decisive action to mitigate its effects. Despite expert advice to the contrary, the president expressed his eagerness to get people back to work. This came after the White House ignored warnings dating back years about the threat of a pandemic, and fell short where preparedness is concerned, and the president himself contracted coronavirus. Agencies like the FDA and CDC also woefully mismanaged the situation and politicized what should have been a public health issue.