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With new cases of COVID-19 soaring and hospitalizations and deaths from the disease ticking up, this winter is starting to feel a lot like last. But it’s important to keep in mind that “we are not in the same place we were last winter,” says Rachael Piltch-Loeb, a preparedness fellow and research associate at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
More than 205 million people in the United States are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and those who do fall ill have greater access to treatments that can help blunt the impact of the virus. “We're in a better place in terms of what we know about the virus, overall … and we are getting better at understanding what we can do to prevent spread and to protect individuals,” Piltch-Loeb says.
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Even with the omicron variant threatening to upend some of these advances, experts expect progress to continue into 2022. Here are five ways the pandemic will likely be different in the new year.
1. Treating COVID could get easier
Americans are heading into the new year with two new treatments for COVID-19. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Dec. 22 authorized a first-of-its-kind pill from Pfizer that can prevent a coronavirus infection from causing serious illness in people who are most at risk for COVID complications. Another oral antiviral treatment, from drugmaker Merck, got the OK from regulators soon after.
There have been a handful of lifesaving treatments throughout most of the pandemic for people who come down with a bad case of COVID-19. Access to them, however, has been limited since they are only given by injection or IV in a hospital or health facility. The new pills from Pfizer and Merck will be available at pharmacies with a prescription, moving COVID treatment to the outpatient setting, says Ashley Drews, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Houston Methodist. “It's really very exciting,” she says, adding that early studies show that the pills are expected to be effective against the fast-spreading omicron variant.
Experts caution that rapid, reliable and accessible testing will be key to the drugs’ success. “The longer [people] wait [to take the pill], the more steam the virus is able to acquire and the less likely it is that these medicines will help,” Mark Rupp, M.D., a professor in the department of internal medicine and chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told AARP.
Another point to keep in mind: The pills do not prevent COVID-19, so they won't be a substitute for getting vaccinated.
2. At-home testing will play a bigger role in slowing the spread
Demand for rapid at-home tests (also called rapid antigen tests) skyrocketed at the start of delta’s dominance. And now with the emergence of the omicron variant, a growing number of people are turning to self-swabbing before socializing.
Results from a standard PCR test (short for polymerase chain reaction), commonly taken at doctors' offices and testing sites, can take days to come back. Experts say that by then, your status could have changed, because it’s possible to get infected while waiting for your test results.