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Nearly a year into the pandemic, here’s the latest on coronavirus safety

Experts explain masking, social distancing and why public health recommendations have changed
Patient Lagretta Lenker receives her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Mary Ellen Chacon on Dec. 30, 2020. Nationwide, 24.7 million people have been infected with the coronavirus and more than 410,000 people have died — exceeding the number of Americans who died while fighting in World War II.
Patient Lagretta Lenker receives her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Mary Ellen Chacon on Dec. 30, 2020. Nationwide, 24.7 million people have been infected with the coronavirus and more than 410,000 people have died — exceeding the number of Americans who died while fighting in World War II. [ DANIEL WALLACE I TAMPA GENERAL HOSPITAL | Daniel Wallace I Tampa General Hospital ]
Published Jan. 25
Updated Jan. 27

It has been nearly a year since the first coronavirus case was discovered in the United States, and infections continue to rise both nationwide and across Florida, as governments at the local, state and national levels struggle to vaccinate the population.

Nationwide, 24.7 million people have been infected with the virus and more than 410,000 people have died — exceeding the number of Americans who died while fighting in World War II.

In Florida, more than 1.6 million people have been infected with the virus and more than 25,000 have died. If 2020 coronavirus deaths were compared to the leading causes of death in 2019, it would have been the third-leading cause of death in the state. That year, Florida saw 47,044 deaths to heart disease and 45,562 deaths to cancer. The coronavirus would have ranked ahead of strokes, which was blamed for 13,868 deaths.

COVID-19 is becoming one of the leading causes of death in the United States, said University of Florida associate professor of epidemiology Cindy Prins. And those who survive the virus, she said, can still suffer long-term consequences.

“It’s not like getting a cold,” she said. Some who have recovered from the virus have experienced chronic fatigue or the loss of their sense of smell for an extended amount of time. The virus can also cause long-term heart damage.

At this time last year, scientists were just learning about the coronavirus. But now the medical community knows far more about how it spreads, how to treat it and how to keep from getting it in the first place.

Here’s a refresher on what we know and how our knowledge has evolved.

Why did safety guidelines change over time?

Much of the public health guidance regarding COVID-19 has stayed consistent throughout the pandemic.

However, in the very early stages of the pandemic, in the United States, health officials asked the general public not to buy masks — mostly to ensure health care workers would be able to buy them.

Then in early April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started recommending mask wearing. Since then, public health officials have continued to promote mask wearing, though some elected leaders have resisted mandating them.

Scientists also emphasized sanitization early on, believing the virus could spread through surface contact. Though still important, sanitizing everything has been de-emphasized in safety guidelines as experts discovered the virus mainly spreads through person-to-person contact.

In the early days of the pandemic, safety guidance was based on the information then available, said Perry Brown, a professor of public health at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.

“The more information we get, it can bring us to a different conclusion than we had before,″ he said.

To get accurate information about the virus, rely on multiple experts, said Michael Teng, an associate professor at the University of South Florida with expertise in immunology.

“Trust the scientists,” he said, “but try to get your information from multiple sources.”

How do masks work?

Masks work primarily by preventing infected people from spreading respiratory droplets that contain COVID-19, protecting those around them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also, to an extent, protect the wearer.

“Masks are really what we call source control,” Teng said.

That means they prevent the infected from spreading the virus, particularly asymptomatic people.

The Centers for Disease Control’s website lists what types of masks are effective and which are not.

What about double masking?

After National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman and Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg wore two masks on Inauguration Day, the idea of double masking has caught steam. But does it work?

“It just makes common sense that it likely would be more effective,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert, told NBC News Today on Monday.

Prins said wearing two masks at a time provides extra protection in higher risk situations, such as when you’re around people who aren’t wearing masks or aren’t able to social distance in a given place. They might also be helpful for essential workers in high risk jobs, such as waiters and cashiers.

For things like a quick store run, however, double masking isn’t necessary, Prins said.

“I wouldn’t worry as much about adding that level of protection,” she said. Prins also doesn’t recommend double masking in situations where you’re exerting yourself, as it can be harder to breathe with two masks.

At the start of the pandemic, some health care workers wore cloth masks over their N-95 masks, Teng said. Now, he said, most people who double mask use a disposable mask combined with a cloth one. He also recommended double masking for high-risk situations.

Even so, he said it’s important to take different safety protocols into account.

“All of our public health measures are additive,” Teng said.

How does social distancing work?

Public health experts still recommend that, when outside the home, everyone should maintain at least six feet of distance from others.

Since the virus primarily spreads through person-to-person contact, experts say social distancing decreases the likelihood that droplets containing the coronavirus will pass from one person to another.

Hand washing is still important, right?

Washing your hands is one of the best ways to prevent illness, not just the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control says hand washing after being in public spaces, coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose, and before and after caring for a sick person, can help stop the spread of the disease.

In general, to maintain good health, it’s also important to wash your hands before, during and after handling food or eating, as well as after coming into contact with garbage or waste.

To sum up, masks, hand washing and social distancing are still recommended by health experts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and to keep you and those around you safe.

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