COVID-19: What we've learned 6 months into the pandemic

Superimposed images of a woman putting on a face mask.

Sept. 11, 2020—It's been six months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11. From lockdowns to face masks, testing to treatment, our lives have changed as a result.

Something else that keeps changing is our understanding of COVID-19 and the virus that causes it. We still have much to learn about COVID-19. But a much clearer picture has emerged today about many aspects of the disease.

How it spreads

There's no evidence that you can get the coronavirus from your food or drinking water, as some feared at first. And you most likely won't bring the virus into your home on your shoes, mail or packages. The main way it spreads is through droplets released when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. Those droplets can get in the mouths or noses of people nearby and make them sick.

That said, it's also possible you may be able to get COVID-19 if you touch a surface that has respiratory droplets on it and then touch your eyes, mouth or nose. That's why it's important to wash your hands often and avoid touching your face.

How to slow the spread

When the pandemic started, we all learned a new term: social distancing. That means keeping a safe distance (at least 6 feet) from people you don't live with—in both indoor and outdoor spaces.

Since then, public health officials have also urged (and often mandated) wearing cloth face masks in public places like stores. Since up to 45% of people may have no symptoms to warn them they have the virus, these measures are crucial ways to avoid inadvertently spreading the virus in our communities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers even more tips on how to prevent the spread. And it's good advice. But it can only work if most of us agree to follow it.

Symptoms to watch for

Our understanding of COVID-19 symptoms has also grown over time. While experts initially spotted fever, cough and shortness of breath as signs of the disease, we've learned that COVID-19 can show up in many (sometimes surprising) ways—even loss of taste or smell—and that in some cases, symptoms can linger for months. There's a possibility the disease could have long-term or even permanent effects as well. But that is something we will only know more about with time.

Who's at risk

It's now clear that some people are at higher risk for severe COVID-19. Older people are more vulnerable. So are those with underlying health problems such as diabetes, obesity, COPD, heart disease and others.

But the pandemic also has highlighted other disparities. Some racial and ethnic groups have a higher risk of getting COVID-19, being hospitalized with it and dying from it. There are many possible reasons for this. One may be that people from these groups are likelier to be employed in essential work outside the home. They may also be more likely to have certain underlying health conditions. And they may face discrimination in healthcare, housing, employment and other areas that increases their risk.

How to diagnose it

A variety of tests have emerged as researchers have learned more about the virus. If you need to be tested for COVID-19, there may now more than one option. These include:

  • Diagnostic tests (to see if you currently have the virus).
  • Antibody tests (to see if you've had the virus in the past).
  • Diagnostic tests you can take at home (with or without a nasal swab) and then send off to a lab for your results.

Your doctor may even be able to give you a test with results that can be ready in minutes. And researchers continue to work on developing tests that could make widespread testing easier and cheaper.

How to treat it

While we don't have a cure for COVID-19, a few promising treatments have emerged. One is the antiviral drug remdesivir. It seems to help some people hospitalized with COVID-19 recover sooner. While the jury is still out on convalescent plasma, researchers are interested in whether the blood from people who have recovered from COVID-19 may help other people fight the virus. And corticosteroids (inflammation-fighting drugs often prescribed to people with arthritis) are also now being used to treat some people with severe COVID-19.

Hundreds of other potential therapies, including cell and gene therapies, are being investigated, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

How we might prevent it one day

Around the world, scientists are working to develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccines help the body build immunity to a disease. In the U.S., some late-stage clinical trials are already under way. While the testing and approval process is being fast-tracked, vaccine makers have pledged to follow rigorous safety standards in developing any potential vaccine.

While there's still a long way to go until COVID-19 is behind us, it's good to know that we are making progress. Learn more about COVID-19 by visiting our Coronavirus health topic center.

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