I thought the pandemic would be over by now. And I’m not alone; there were sophisticated models predicting a dramatic drop in the number of infections by the summer. And while there was understandable worry about the second wave, re-infection, and the coming flu season, there was good reason to believe we’d have the worst of the first wave well behind us.
Now, that all seems like wishful thinking. Here we are, over nine months into the pandemic, with more than 224,000 deaths, and more than 70,000 new cases and 800 deaths every day in this country as of late October. There are new hot spots popping up in the US and all over the world. Herd immunity, whether due to infection or vaccination, is still many months or even years away — if it happens at all. Despite these challenges, we do have some good news.
Good news about COVID-19: my top 5 list
It’s easy to miss some positive developments about how the fight against this pandemic is going, given all the gloomy news. Here’s my perspective on five important ones.
- Soon after its appearance, researchers identified the viral cause of COVID-19, mapped its genome, and tracked its spread.
For a virus that was unknown less than a year ago, all of these things happened quickly because of the dedication and cooperation of scientists and public health officials around the world. Imagine how things would be right now if we still did not know the cause of this terrible disease, and had no idea where it was spreading.
- We now have good evidence that face coverings and physical distancing work.
Although recommendations to wear masks or other face coverings and to maintain physical distance were first made many months ago, a compelling scientific case to support these recommendations has been published only recently. Studies of the effectiveness of these measures (such as this, this, and this) make it difficult to justify not following these recommendations.
- There is increasing evidence that testing and contact tracing work.
Recognizing that there are formidable challenges and barriers to widespread implementation of these measures, we’ve seen better containment in places where testing and contact tracing are routine (such as New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore). And it seems likely that at some point we’ll have new and better tests with improved accuracy, more widespread availability (including home testing), and faster turnaround times.
- The care of patients with COVID-19 has improved from the early days of the pandemic.
This may account for reports of lower rates of death among the sickest people with COVID-19. Increased testing, detection of more asymptomatic cases, and more patients in younger age groups may also be contributing to improving numbers. Still, supportive care (such as “proning” patients), certain medications (such as dexamethasone and the recently approved remdesivir), and more experience with this infection have likely improved outcomes overall. Importantly, we have also identified ineffective treatments (such as hydroxychloroquine — see here, here, and here for studies), so that we can avoid those that are unnecessary and potentially harmful.
- A number of vaccines have been developed, and large-scale trials are on track to determine which are safe and effective.
Again, this has happened at unprecedented speed. Multiple companies are working on different vaccine candidates. Manufacturing of some leading candidates is already happening, and officials are making plans to distribute millions of vaccine doses in the coming months. While there is no guarantee that any of the vaccines in the pipeline will be successful, these developments increase the chances that we’ll have an effective vaccine sooner than later.
It’s worth emphasizing that there are major concerns about the safety of moving so fast, a lack of transparency about trial data, and the possibility of politics influencing the process, all of which could promote a reluctance to be vaccinated. Still, it seems better that this effort is under way, rather than having to wait years for a potential vaccine to be approved.
The bottom line
Plenty about how our country has responded to the pandemic could — and should — have gone better. But things would be even worse if not for the items on this list.
If we all do our part in the fight against COVID-19, good news should become easier to find. Maybe that’s already happening: some places have been able to contain or nearly eliminate COVID-19, at least temporarily. And toilet paper is back on the store shelves.
Follow me on Twitter @RobShmerling
For more information on COVID-19, see the Harvard Health Coronavirus Resource Center.