by Kevin Schofield
As we start to see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, there has been a shift in the kinds of articles showing up in medical journals about the virus and its impacts. They’re talking about the vaccines out in the real world now and not just their future impact. But some of the research now examines the impact that the virus, and our societal response to it, have had upon us. This week’s Long Reads features three such papers that make for interesting reading.
The first is a study of the effectiveness of the vaccines in one of the earliest large-scale deployments: the 23,000 healthcare workers in the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center beginning last September. By March 5, 78% of the staff had been vaccinated. And the results are striking: of the 350 positive tests between December 15 and January 28, 234 of them were among the 8,969 unvaccinated workers; 112 were among the 6,144 partially-vaccinated, and only 4 were from the 8,121 fully vaccinated. Since mid-February, the daily new case rate among hospital staff has remained at nearly zero. Clearly the vaccine is working.
The second dives into the nitty-gritty of what the emerging variants of the coronavirus mean for the likely effectiveness of the existing vaccines. It begins by quoting Dr. Anthony Fauci about the inevitability of variants popping up that at least partially evade existing vaccines: “you still have a fixed [vaccine] and a virus that’s changing. Sooner or later, you’re going to get a mutant that evades that.”
But as the article explains, evasion isn’t all-or-nothing. While the testing done to-date has shown that at least some of the existing vaccines are less effective against the newest variants, they aren’t completely ineffective — and while they may not prevent a vaccinated person from a mild case of COVID from one of the variants, they still seem to prevent the more serious cases that lead to hospitalization and possibly death. That alone is a significant achievement and a worthy goal in a global pandemic.
In the meantime, the vaccine manufacturers are working on new versions of their vaccines (a pretty simple change for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines) that could potentially be used standalone or as a booster shot for those who have already received the original version.
A big question that remains: will COVID fall into the same pattern as influenza, with annual shots? Unlike the flu, COVID isn’t seasonal, which would make it more difficult to manage in the same way. Currently the medical community looks to whichever hemisphere is currently in winter (and dealing with flu season) to decide which strains are likely to be prevalent in the other hemisphere six months later, and designs a vaccine around that. But COVID is everywhere at the same time, so we’ll never have the same six-month lead-time.
Remember the “freshman ten” from college? It turns out there is a COVID equivalent. Our third article looks at what happened to our body weight while we all sheltered in place for the last year.
The researchers studied 269 people across the United States, and found that on average they gained 1.8 pounds per month or 22 pounds over a year. They found that the weight gain was steady over time (as opposed to either at the beginning or at the end).
Fitness centers have been a terrible business to be in for the past year since most have been shut down, but perhaps the industry is primed for a big rebound as the economy reopens!
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle City Council Insight, a website providing independent news and analysis of the Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast with Brian Callanan, and appears from time to time on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.
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