Study: Why You Should Avoid COVID Even if You’re “Healthy”

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I feel like it’s been awhile since I made a video about COVID – like, not the debunked “lab leak” stuff or RFK, Jr. suggesting it’s a Jewish-Chinese conspiracy, but COVID as an actual disease that is still a pandemic killing like 500 people a week in the US, though who knows for sure because the US government as a whole has determined the pandemic is over. But there’s an interesting new study out that I’d like to talk about, and I also want to be on record encouraging you to see what’s happening in your area and take appropriate precautions to protect yourself and those around you.

First of all, here in most parts of the United States we ARE experiencing a surge in COVID cases. Again, due to systemic failures in our government we don’t have an accurate case count, but we can clearly see rising numbers in wastewater, in the positive tests that ARE still being tracked, and in hospitalizations, which in mid-July shot up by 12 percent over the week before while ER visits shot up by 17%. 

Personally, I know of several friends who, like me, have never tested positive for COVID who have suddenly had that winning streak come to a close. Which means that I am VERY close to winning my friend group’s NOVID pool. I just need to convince a few more people, including my own husband, to join an indoor choir or start volunteering at an anti-vaxx pre-school.

The good news for most people is that unlike earlier in this pandemic, healthy adults don’t seem to be dying. Thanks to vaccines, previous infections, and a mutated virus, COVID deaths are still relatively low. The bad news for elderly and other immunocompromised people is that when relatively healthy adults don’t have to worry about dying from something, they tend to not bother taking simple precautions that will stop them from giving YOU the disease. I’m pretty sure that if you gave the average healthy adult a button they could push once per day that would miraculously save the life of a random terminal patient they don’t know, like 60% of people wouldn’t even bother to push it on their way out the door to work each morning. Let alone would I (these days, having learned much over the past three years) expect them to put on a mask while grocery shopping when COVID case counts are high.

In fact, despite REAMS of data proving that N-95 masks are very effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19, you will still be able to scroll down and read people in the comments insisting it’s not even true. Whether they’re too far down the Fox News rabbit hole or just trying to justify their own selfish decisions is anyone’s guess. But there’s a very real problem with targeted misinformation combined with confusing and constantly changing communications from the organizations that are supposed to guide and protect us, so here’s a quick overview of the current state of affairs. As a reminder I am not a doctor, I am not YOUR doctor, and I am simply relating the medical consensus as I understand it.

If you live in a place where COVID is surging, and you probably do, please adjust your behaviors accordingly. I think a lot of us have been doing more 2019-era activities after getting our spring boosters, but now it’s probably time to tighten back up. Wear a mask in indoor public spaces, avoid unnecessary crowded activities, and do an at-home test if you suspect you’ve been exposed or if you are feeling symptoms.

The most current variant is known as Eris but it’s still a version of omicron, and the most common symptoms are the same as usual: runny nose, sore throat, and other cold-like symptoms. Some research suggests that the best way to get an accurate home test result is to swab your throat, cheek, and nose instead of just your nose. I recommend if you do, you do it in that order. Because otherwise…well. Gross.

If you do get a positive result, it seems that most experts suggest you quarantine until you get a negative test result. If you absolutely have to go out into the world before that, definitely wear a mask and avoid people.

If you test positive, check with your doctor to see if you can get Paxlovid. Unfortunately because the US government declared COVID to be over, it is now more difficult for many people to get at a fair cost, but if you can get it, you probably should. Paxlovid is an antiviral medication that’s been shown to be HIGHLY effective at treating COVID-19 – research like this study from March shows that it reduces hospitalizations and death if taken within 5 days of contracting the illness. As I said earlier, hospitalization and death is mostly a problem for older and immunocompromised people these days but even if you aren’t a “high-risk” individual you might just benefit. That same study found “that Paxlovid reduced the risk of long COVID-19 by 26% over a six-month period.”

And that actually brings me to the latest study I wanted to mention: Postacute sequelae of COVID-19 at 2 years was published last week in Nature, and I don’t want to scare you but, uh, it’s pretty fucking scary!

Epidemiologists examined the medical records of nearly 140,000 veterans who contracted COVID-19 in 2020, whether they were hospitalized or not, but who survived for at least a month after diagnosis. They compared this group to a control of nearly 6 million veterans who were also in the Veterans Affairs healthcare system but who did not have any record of COVID infection. They followed them all for two years, and they found that the group who was infected, even if they hadn’t been hospitalized, was at a significantly higher risk of “heart problems, blood clots, diabetes, neurologic complications, fatigue and difficulties with mental health”. People who weren’t hospitalized also had a higher risk of death in the following six months.

To better illustrate how big of a problem this is, they translated these complications into a figure known as a disability adjusted life year, or DALY, each of which represents one healthy year of a person’s life that they lose to illness. A COVID infection led to “80 disability-adjusted life years for every 1,000 people” who were infected by COVID but who weren’t even hospitalized, which is “a higher burden of disability than either heart disease or cancer, which cause about 52 and 50 DALYs for every 1,000 Americans.” While most of those DALYs occurred in the first year following infection, about 25% happened in the second year, indicating that long COVID can, in fact, be really fucking long, and really debilitating.

While people who were hospitalized had it even worse, including an increased risk in death even beyond the first six months following infection, the researchers were shocked by these severe impacts on those who had “mild” cases that they were able to treat fully at home, like the average healthy adult will be able to do during this surge. You may think it’s just a sucky cold, that you probably won’t have to go to the hospital, but for the next TWO YEARS at LEAST you will suffer an increased risk of all of these problems, and not just the ones I already listed! Also “a slower than normal heartbeat, gastrointestinal problems, sleep problems, muscle and joint pain, headache, hearing and smell loss, and autonomic nervous system dysfunction.”

So please, even if you can’t adjust your behavior slightly for immunocompromised people; even if you can’t put an N95 mask on for the old lady in front of you at Kroger’s; do these things for your own future self. And when the next vaccine booster comes out this fall, probably by mid to late September, please go get it, and get a flu shot while you’re at it.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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