Advice is evolving along with the coronavirus. Here's the latest from staff and wire reports.
What's the latest?
- A 30% decline in coronavirus material in Twin Cities wastewater over the past week offers further hope of a mild spring with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more here.
- Americans infected with the omicron variant are less likely to develop symptoms typical of long COVID than those who had COVID-19 earlier in the pandemic, a study found. Read more here.
- Minnesota is launching telephone surveys of people who tested positive for COVID-19 over the past two years to learn about any lingering effects of the disease. Minnesota has reported almost 1.8 million lab-confirmed coronavirus infections and 14,497 COVID-19 deaths, according to Thursday's weekly pandemic update.
- The National Center for Health Statistics reported that 1,205 pregnant women died in 2021, the second year of the pandemic, representing a 40% increase in maternal deaths compared with 2020. Read more here.
- Pfizer's COVID-19 pill Paxlovid won another vote of confidence from U.S. health advisers Thursday, clearing the way for its full regulatory approval by the FDA.
- The House voted unanimously to declassify U.S. intelligence information about the origins of COVID-19. The 419-0 vote was final congressional approval of the bill, sending it to President Joe Biden's desk. The White House said the matter was under review.
- The Biden administration relaxed COVID-19 testing restrictions for travelers from China.
- A large new study reports that COVID patients were significantly more likely to experience gastrointestinal problems a year after infection than people who were not infected. Read more here.
- New intelligence has prompted the Energy Department to conclude that an accidental laboratory leak in China most likely caused the coronavirus pandemic, although U.S. spy agencies remain divided over the origins of the virus, U.S. officials said. Read more here.
- A past COVID-19 infection offers "durable," temporary protection against getting severely sick with the coronavirus — no matter the variant, a new study has found. The findings don't discourage vaccination, which is still the top method of preventing serious illness, experts involved in the research say. The research didn't examine data on the newer omicron XBB variant or its sublineages. Read more here.
- Minnesotans claiming COVID-19 injuries are left in limbo amid a backlog at the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program. Read more here.
- The FDA's panel of experts voted to support the FDA's proposal for all vaccine-makers to adopt the same strain of the virus when making changes in their vaccines, and suggested they might meet in May or June to select a strain for the vaccines that would be rolled out this fall. However, the panel members disagreed with the FDA's proposal that everyone get at least one shot a year, saying more information was needed. Read more here.
- Minnesota is offering one last chance to order free at-home rapid COVID-19 tests. Four tests per household are available online or by calling 1-833-431-2053.
- Minnesota has a free telehealth option for people with COVID-19 to hasten access to antiviral treatments. Patients download the Cue app on mobile devices to schedule virtual visits with Minnesota-licensed providers, and they can use any COVID-19 test.
Where can I get a vaccine?
The vaccination clinic at the Mall of America has closed. Check the state of Minnesota's vaccine page or vaccines.gov. The city of Minneapolis is offering free Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines Feb. 28.
What about boosters?
The CDC recommends one booster shot for everyone 5 and up. A second booster is reserved for those age 50 and up or those 12 and older who are "moderately or severely immunocompromised." For more information on boosters such as how long to wait after the primary series, go to tinyurl.com/CDCboosterinfo.
The new omicron-targeting booster added 30% to 56% protection against symptomatic infection, depending on how many prior vaccinations someone had, how long ago and their age, the CDC concluded in an analysis of 360,000 COVID-19 tests given to people with coronavirus-like symptoms at drugstores around the country between September, when the new boosters rolled out, and early November.
How can I make a COVID-19 vaccine appointment for kids in Minnesota?
Minnesota has a webpage (mn.gov/vaxforkids) to help parents and guardians find a vaccine and answer questions. U.S. regulators cleared doses of the updated COVID-19 vaccines for children younger than age 5. Read CDC vaccine advice here.
Where can I get tested for COVID-19?
The last four state-run COVID-19 testing sites in Minnesota have closed. Health care providers and some pharmacies offer testing.
Minnesota offers free rapid at-home tests. Order your tests here. The Biden administration is making four rapid virus tests available per household free through covidtests.gov. You may find home rapid tests at pharmacies including Walgreens and CVS, grocery stores, health care providers and online. Read more about testing here.
Minnesota health insurers cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 tests, but state officials advise that consumers should contact health plans first to understand how to access the new benefits.
What if my free tests are expired or about to expire?
Federal regulators on June 7 extended the usefulness of the iHealth rapid antigen tests for three months beyond their listed expiration dates, giving Minnesotans more time to use them.
The three-month extension applies only to the iHealth tests with listed expiration dates no later than Sept. 29. Other tests beyond their permitted expiration dates shouldn't be used, because the chemical and molecular components won't be as effective at detecting the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Read more here.
What should I do if I've been exposed?
The CDC said anyone exposed — regardless of vaccination status — should get tested five days later, if possible. It said quarantining at home is not necessary, but urged people to wear a high-quality mask for 10 days. Read more here.
If you were exposed to COVID-19 and don't have symptoms, take three home tests instead of two to make sure you're not infected if you test negative, according to new U.S. recommendations.
If you have COVID-19 symptoms, test again 48 hours after the first negative test. If you get a negative result on the second test and you are concerned that you could have COVID-19, you may choose to test again 48 hours after the second test, consider getting a laboratory molecular-based test or call your health care provider. Read more here.
What should I do if I test positive for COVID-19?
The CDC said people who test positive should isolate from others for at least five days, regardless of whether they were vaccinated. If you live with other people, that means staying in a separate room and using a separate bathroom, if possible. You should also wear a mask if you come into contact with others.
You should get care if you have trouble breathing or develop other serious symptoms. But there are many people with certain conditions — including heart diseases, diabetes and weakened immune systems — who should seek care even if they have mild illness, because of their elevated risk for developing serious complications. You should tell your doctor, who may prescribe medications. Tell the people you've been in close contact with.
People with symptoms during isolation, or who develop symptoms during quarantine, are encouraged to stay home.
CDC officials advise that people can end isolation if they are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of medication and they are without symptoms or the symptoms are improving. The CDC said people should wear masks everywhere for the five days after isolation ends.
The CDC cited evidence showing that people with the coronavirus are most infectious in the two days before and three days after symptoms develop.
Can kids who've been exposed to COVID go to school?
The CDC on Aug. 11 ended the recommendation that schools do routine daily testing, although that practice can be reinstated in certain situations during a surge in infections, officials said.
The CDC also dropped a "test-to-stay" recommendation, which said students exposed to COVID-19 could regularly test — instead of quarantining at home — to keep attending school. With no quarantine recommendation anymore, the testing option disappeared too.
Masking mandates were linked with significantly reduced numbers of COVID-19 cases in schools, a new study shows. The so-called natural experiment occurred when all but two school districts in the greater Boston area lifted mask requirements in the spring.
How does getting vaccinated affect the menstrual cycle?
A study of nearly 20,000 people around the world shows that getting vaccinated against COVID can change the timing of the menstrual cycle. Vaccinated people experienced, on average, about a one-day delay in getting their periods, compared with those who hadn't been vaccinated.
What is the Novavax vaccine?
Novavax shots — used in Australia, Canada, parts of Europe and dozens of other countries — are a protein vaccine that's made with a more conventional technology than the other U.S. options. Protein vaccines have been used for years to prevent other diseases including hepatitis B and shingles.
The CDC on July 19 endorsed the initial two-dose series for people 18 and older. U.S. regulators on Oct. 19 authorized a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Novavax.
How do variants work?
At first, SARS-CoV-2 followed the slow and steady course that scientists had expected based on other coronaviruses. Its evolutionary tree gradually split into branches, each gaining a few mutations. Evolutionary biologists kept track of them with codes.
But then one lineage, initially known as B.1.1.7, defied expectations. When British scientists discovered it, in December 2020, they were surprised to find it bore a unique sequence of 23 mutations. Those mutations allowed it to spread much faster.
Within a few months, several other worrying variants came to light around the world — each with its own combination of mutations, each with the potential to spread quickly and cause a surge of deaths. To make it easier to communicate about them, the WHO came up with its Greek system. B.1.1.7 became alpha.
Alpha came to dominate the world, whereas beta took over only in South Africa and a few other countries before petering out. Beta did not descend from alpha. Instead, it arose with its own set of new mutations from a different branch of the SARS-CoV-2 tree. The same held true for all the Greek-named variants, up to omicron.
It's likely that most of these variants got their mutations by going into hiding. Instead of jumping from one host to another, they created chronic infections in people with weakened immune systems. These victims harbored the virus for months, allowing it to accumulate mutations. When it eventually emerged from its host, the virus had a startling range of new abilities — finding new ways to invade cells, weaken the immune system and evade antibodies.
What is the omicron variant?
First identified in Botswana and South Africa in November 2021, the omicron variant surged around the world. Scientists first recognized omicron thanks to its distinctive combination of more than 50 mutations. Some of them were carried by earlier variants such as alpha and beta. Read more here.
All the most significant COVID-19 variations today are descending from omicron. After the original omicron virus evolved in the fall of 2021, its descendants split into at least five branches, known as BA.1 through BA.5. As it spread and caused an unprecedented spike in cases, it drove most other variants to extinction. Over the next few months, the subvariants took turns rising to dominance.
What is the "kraken variant"?
XBB.1.5 is a descendant of the omicron XBB subvariant — which is itself a cross between two earlier strains: BA.2.75 and BA.2.10.1. It's "the most transmissible subvariant which has been detected yet," said WHO's COVID-19 technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove, during a news conference on Jan. 4. Read more here.
What is "long COVID" and how many people get it?
Long COVID is the term used to describe an array of symptoms that can last for months or longer after the initial coronavirus infection. Researchers in a large CDC study identified post-COVID health problems in many different organ systems, including the heart, lungs and kidneys. Other issues involved blood circulation, the musculoskeletal system and the endocrine system; gastrointestinal conditions, neurological problems and psychiatric symptoms were also identified in the study.
Fewer long COVID patients are reporting the prolonged loss of taste and smell that had been common earlier in the pandemic, said Dr. Tanya Melnik, director of M Health Fairview's adult post-COVID clinic. Most new patients have extreme fatigue, often in combination with cognitive problems and clouded thinking — often referred to as "brain fog," she said.
A large new study reports that COVID patients were significantly more likely to experience gastrointestinal problems a year after infection than people who were not infected. Read more here.
Long COVID is having a significant effect on America's workforce, according to a new analysis. Read more here
Long COVID has caused or contributed to at least 3,500 deaths in the United States, an analysis of death certificates by the CDC found. MuckRock, a collaborative news organization, drilled into the data and found 63 such deaths involving Minnesotans.
In a 2021 study, more than half of American adults reported symptoms of major depressive disorder after a coronavirus infection. Read more here.
One in five adult COVID survivors under age 65 in the U.S. has experienced at least one health condition that could be considered long COVID, according to the study. Among patients 65 and older, the number is even higher: one in four. Read more here.
A British study found a 10% rate of long COVID in people infected with the delta viral variant, but only a 5% rate in people infected with the dominant omicron variant.
Brain and nerve conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and stroke are significantly more common among COVID-19 survivors than those who've never had the disease, according to a study of millions of patient records.
People with mild or moderate initial coronavirus infections can still experience debilitating post-COVID symptoms. Read more here.
Scientists are racing to pinpoint long COVID's cause. Momentum is building around a few key theories. One is that the infection or remnants of the virus persist past the initial illness, triggering inflammation. Another is that latent viruses in the body, such as the Epstein-Barr virus that causes mononucleosis, are reactivated. A third theory is that autoimmune responses develop after acute COVID-19. Another possibility is that tiny clots play a role.
There is evidence that vaccination may reduce the chances of developing long COVID.
How can I get a quality face mask (and avoid counterfeits)?
There are so many different masks for sale, it's tough to know which ones have been tested and certified by government agencies, and which are counterfeit. Read a guide to choosing the best mask for you here.
Can I get a free N95 mask?
The Biden administration is making 400 million N95 masks available for free to U.S. residents. Read more on finding them here.
What's going on with the federal vaccine mandate?
One year after it began being enforced nationwide on Feb. 20, 2022, the vaccination requirement affecting an estimated 10 million health care workers is the last remaining major mandate from President Joe Biden's sweeping attempt to boost national vaccination rates. Similar requirements for large employers, military members and federal contractors all have been struck down, repealed or partially blocked.
Should you mix or match your COVID-19 vaccine booster shot?
Most Americans should be given the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines instead of the Johnson & Johnson shot that can cause rare but serious blood clots, U.S. health officials said Dec. 16.
How often do COVID vaccines cause heart problems in kids?
While the COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna do seem to be associated with an increased risk of myocarditis, the latest data indicate that the absolute risk remains very small and that most cases are mild and resolve quickly. Read more here.
Do masks work?
Ordinary surgical and paper masks work when worn properly, said Chris Hogan, a University of Minnesota researcher who has studied mask effectiveness and is editor of the Journal of Aerosol Science.
Generally, the CDC says masks should "fit snugly over your mouth, nose and chin."
If you decide to keep wearing your multi-layer homemade or cloth mask, experts advise washing them every day. But proceed with caution. Read more here.
What about N95s?
Masks are best at keeping your exhaled particles away from others. Respirators, like the N95, also keep others' particles away from you. Any bona fide N95 has been certified to filter at least 95% of particles.
Many doctors and public health experts are now advocating for their use among the general public. Early in the pandemic, people were discouraged the masks over fear there wouldn't be enough for health care workers. That's no longer the case. Read more about N95 and KN95 respirators here.
How does pregnancy affect immunity?
Pregnant women who are vaccinated are nearly twice as likely to get COVID-19 as those who are not pregnant, according to a study, and have the greatest risk among a dozen medical states, including being an organ transplant recipient and having cancer.
Dr. David R. Little, a researcher at Wisconsin-based Epic, said the findings buttress CDC recommendations that additional precautions against the virus should be taken during pregnancy, such as wearing masks and maintaining safe distances. Read more here.
Should pregnant women get the vaccine?
The CDC urged all pregnant women to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Expectant women run a higher risk of severe illness and pregnancy complications from the coronavirus.
A research study based on data from Bloomington-based HealthPartners and medical centers across the country finds that pregnant women who received COVID-19 vaccines did not experience an increased risk of miscarriage.
If you're thinking of getting pregnant, there's no evidence that any vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, influence your chances of getting pregnant despite a myth suggesting otherwise.
Do pregnant women who get vaccinated pass the protection to their babies?
COVID-19 vaccines during pregnancy can protect babies after they're born and lead to fewer hospitalized infants, a U.S. government study suggested.
What if I'm going to Canada?
Canada is dropping the vaccine requirement for people entering the country, and will no longer require people to wear masks on planes, starting Oct. 1. See CDC travel guidelines here. The Public Health Agency of Canada still strongly recommends that people wear masks, particularly in crowded environments such as planes and trains.
What about other countries?
After two years of warning travelers to avoid visiting a very long list of countries deemed to be "high risk" for coronavirus infection, the CDC has dropped them all from its list. Read more here.
Are the vaccines safe?
A review of 6.2 million vaccine recipients in Minnesota and seven other U.S. regions found no significantly elevated rates of conditions such as stroke or heart attack immediately following COVID-19 vaccination. Bloomington-based HealthPartners participated in the study, which looked for elevated rates of 23 potential side effects in the first three weeks after people received Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.
What's going on with Johnson & Johnson shots?
U.S. regulators on May 5 strictly limited who can receive Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine due to the ongoing risk of rare but serious blood clots. The FDA said the shot should be given only to adults who cannot receive a different vaccine or specifically request J&J's vaccine.
Can I get a vaccine incentive?
Those programs have ended.
Who qualifies for an extra shot?
Federal officials approved an extra dose for those undergoing cancer treatment, who've received organ transplants or had other conditions that depress the body's immune system. These doses are not considered to be boosters.
Can kids get long COVID?
Yes, but studies indicate they're less likely than adults to be affected by symptoms.
Kids can develop other rare problems after a coronavirus infection, including heart inflammation or a condition known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome. Because of the potential for long-term consequences, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends follow-up doctor visits after children recover from an initial coronavirus infection.
What is the Docket app?
Minnesota introduced the Docket app for viewing personal immunization records in response to rising demand — largely because of COVID-19 vaccination requirements by employers and organizations.