Monday Medical: Revisiting important COVID-19 questions
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its 18th month, some of the same, initial questions remain about the virus and mitigation measures.
Dr. Brian Harrington, a family medicine physician in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, provides reminders and insight on masks, testing, vaccinations and the future of the pandemic.
Are masks still effective?
“Absolutely,” said Harrington. “Masks are helpful. Myths remain that masks don’t work, but that goes against the scientific evidence that they do. While the degree to which masking reduces transmission can be debated, we know other measures, like vaccinations, have greater impact on protecting individuals and communities. Masks are just one arrow in the quiver, so to speak, that we have to fight COVID-19.”
Nationally, in Colorado and in Routt County, masking requirements have helped reduce the spread of COVID-19 infection and kept other viruses, including the common cold and influenza, at bay.
I’m sure it’s just a cold. Do I really need to get tested?
“Yes, testing is still very important,” confirmed Harrington. “It’s a respiratory pathogen that infects the cells that line our respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. Similar to other respiratory pathogens and other members of the coronavirus family, COVID-19 can cause a cough, congestion, problems breathing, sore throats, fevers, etc. Without testing, we don’t know if it’s COVID-19 or something else.”
Last year, masking, social distancing and other measures taken to combat COVID 19 also helped to reduce other respiratory illnesses. With the loosening of those measures, a resurgence of other viral illnesses is likely.
Identifying persons with COVID-19 through testing and then isolating them helps prevent spread to others. Several studies have shown that schools and other organizations that employ routine testing reduce spread of the disease, keeping more students at school and more employees at work.
Do people still lose their sense of taste and/or smell with COVID-19? I’m hearing people with COVID-19 now only feel like they have a cold.
“Yes, COVID-19 can still display unique characteristics in patients, such as the dramatic loss of taste and smell, and severe hypoxemia, or below-normal levels of oxygen in your blood,” said Harrington.
I’m only one person. If I do or don’t get vaccinated, does it really matter?
Yes, it matters.
“The more people who are vaccinated, the better off we all are. We’ve known for decades that ‘healthy’ people can spread pathogens to other people, especially those most vulnerable, such as the elderly, young children and those with compromised immune systems,” said Harrington. “Polio was the classic example of this. Many healthy people contracted polio but had mild or no symptoms. However, they were still able to pass the virus to others who could contract it. COVID-19 and its vaccine works the same way.”
Harrington also said that as long as the virus is infecting people and replicating itself, it can develop new and potentially more lethal variants.
“There are pressures on the virus to change and mutate,” he said. “Every viral replication is an opportunity for a new variant to occur. But, when more people are vaccinated, there is less virus circulation, which leads to less opportunity for mutations to occur.”
Harrington encourages everyone to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible.
How do I separate misinformation from facts?
Harrington recommends people rely on established medical sources for medical information, including facts and updates on COVID-19.
“Listen to the CDC, public health departments, medical schools and research facilities, and major hospital systems,” he said. “And, you can always consult your medical provider, as that person knows your medical history.”
Will COVID-19 ever go away?
“This is a very contagious virus that we likely will deal with for the foreseeable future,” Harrington said. “However, we have a highly effective vaccine that can make it more difficult for the virus to survive and circulate in our communities. Vaccines, combined with mitigation measures like masking and responsible personal hygiene actions, can keep us all healthy and forge the path out of this pandemic.
I anticipate we will arrive at a steady state where the degree of community immunity prevents large surges that overwhelm our health care system, and we maintain a lower level of hospitalizations and deaths.”
Lindsey Reznicek is a communications specialist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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