I know what you did last summer… You dealt with a pandemic. Let’s hope that this summer is less cruel. Of course, we’re not out of the woods yet. And keep in mind that COVID-19 is still raging in many places globally. That got a little Debbie Downer (sorry to the Debbies out there). What I’m trying to say is we’re getting there. But we’re not there yet.

And so here’s the latest installment of our COVID-19 questions column. Got questions? DMs are open on Twitter and Insta: @jenchesak.

As a medical journalist and fact-checker, I’ve been covering the pandemic since it started, and I promise to give things to you straight. No BS.

OK, just to recap: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently stated that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks in most indoor settings. All the peeps who have not been vaccinated still need to mask up in public places. Everyone regardless of their vaccination status, should wear a mask on planes, on public transit, in prisons, and in shelters for people who are unhoused.

It’s some delicious carb-on-carb goodness of — wait for it — fries between buttered bread. And it’s best eaten with a mask off. So, go get your vaccine if you haven’t already so you can eat this sammy in full, unbridled open-mouthed glory! Yes, yes, yes… Oh… sorry — I got carried away there.

The South, y’all. Looking at you, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina, North Carolina, and West Virginia. But two Western states aren’t doing so hot either: Idaho and Wyoming. And two Midwestern states aren’t exactly earning good grades: Indiana and Missouri. The Kaiser Family Foundation says that less than half of the adults in each of these 13 states have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. So, basically, a quarter of states lag behind on how the nation is doing as a whole.

You should always, always, always follow any local mask mandates and wear a mask whenever a business requires one. If a mask isn’t required, then the choice is yours as long as you’re fully vaccinated. To put your mind at ease, the science is there to show that vaccines are highly effective at preventing COVID-19 and preventing transmission.

As a fully vaccinated person living in the sparsely vaccinated state of Tennessee, I plan to continue to wear a mask in many settings. For one thing, if I’m in a public place where there are children, many of whom aren’t yet eligible for a vaccine, I don’t want parents to have to worry whether I’m an unvaccinated person just skipping out on a mask.

Additionally, I have an underlying condition and take immunomodulators. Since we don’t have all the data on vaccine efficacy for people with certain underlying conditions, I’m continuing to be on the careful side of things as I venture out.

We just don’t have all the data on this yet. But research is emerging. According to the “Washington Post,” immunocompromised people weren’t included in the COVID-19 vaccine trials, and so we don’t know the vaccine efficacy for various conditions or for people taking immunosuppressing medications.

Vaccinated people who have HIV or other autoimmune conditions are likely protected to a degree, but it may not be the same degree of protection as someone with no underlying condition may have. Researchers are worried about vaccine efficacy in people with blood cancers and in people who are transplant recipients. Ultimately, if you have an underlying condition, you should talk with your doctor about any precautions you should continue to take even after being vaccinated.

Well, if you promise to throw a veggie burg on the barbie for me, I will share this very educational grilling for beginners piece from Hunter Lu with you. Don’t worry, he gets into the real meat of it, if plant-based isn’t your jam. So, friends, even if you’re not ready to venture far from home this summer, there’s the backyard, and the BBQ is calling your name (and mine).

Well, they’re not a new manicure trend. “Beau’s lines,” as they’re also called, are grooves or lines on fingernails that can develop after a viral infection, including after COVID-19. If you have them, don’t worry. They will grow out in a few months.

Here’s an informative article from Bob Curley on that. Apparently, one option is to like Nickelback.

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I hope you treated your mother like a star for Mother’s Day. And just a reminder: If you procrastinated on your taxes because of the extension, the due date is now just around the corner on May 17. So don’t forget to file. Yes, that was more of a reminder for me…

OK, more COVID talk, anyone? Here’s the latest installment of our COVID-19 questions column. Got questions? DMs are open on Twitter and Insta: @jenchesak.

As a medical journalist and fact-checker, I’ve been covering the pandemic since it started, and I promise to give things to you straight. No BS.

Indeed that question gets the heavy sarcasm font. Nope, podcaster Joe Rogan is, in fact, not a doctor. He says so himself on his podcast: “I’m not a doctor, I’m a f*cking moron. I’m not a respected source of information…” Well, at least you said one true thing, Rogan.

I’m not going to link to his podcast here, because it contains disinformation about COVID-19 vaccinations. But if you’re wondering why I’m even talking about Rogan, it’s because he made false claims in a recent episode. He said young, healthy people don’t need to get vaccinated for COVID-19. He’s wrong — like, superbad wrong. And actual medical experts with actual medical degrees have called him out on it.

Oh, touché! Good point. I am indeed also not a doctor. Not even like “Dr.” Drake Ramoray. I am a journalist. However, an actual medical doctor reviews and vets every single word I write in this column. Thank you, Dr. Meredith Goodwin! I apologize for forcing you to read about Joe Rogan. I hope it won’t happen again.

The FDA has expanded the emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to children ages 12 to 15.

This is good news, especially considering a new trend in which kids are accounting for a large fraction of new infections. The American Academy of Pediatrics says children made up 22.4 percent of new COVID-19 cases for the 7 days leading up to April 29. Last year around this time, children made up just less than 3 percent of new cases.

The higher percentage of kids getting sick is likely also related to our success in getting adults vaccinated. Fewer adults sick means total number is less — thus kids make up a higher percentage.

Getting your kids vaccinated when a COVID-19 vaccine is made available to them is the best way to protect them from illness. If you have any questions about COVID-19 vaccines when it comes to your kiddos, I encourage you to reach out to your pediatrician. If your children are not yet of age to receive a vaccine, the best way to protect them is to make sure those in your household who are eligible for a vaccine get fully vaccinated.

India is in serious crisis mode as the second country in the world (the United States is the first) to top 20 million cases of COVID-19. Sadly, deaths are skyrocketing in India because the country needs more oxygen canisters to keep up with cases of severe illness.

We’ve got you! Here’s an emergency checklist. Of course, living in fear is no fun. But doing a little prep can make you feel less overwhelmed by the things you don’t have control over.

Experts say we’ll see an increase in natural disasters as climate change takes its toll. And the World Health Organization predicts future health crises, such as another pandemic. You don’t have to full-on doomsday prep, but having a few emergency supplies on hand is probably a good thing.

No. They do not. This myth perpetuated on social media has zero scientific basis. Unfortunately, it has caused some vaccine hesitancy. But let’s examine the myth. I think doing so can help to mitigate fear.

The myth claims that the spike protein on the SARS-CoV-2 virus is the same as the spike protein known as syncitin-1. It’s not. These two proteins are different. Syncitin-1 is involved in placental growth. So the myth claims that COVID-19 vaccines tell your body to target this protein and therefore cause infertility. They do not. COVID-19 vaccines teach your immune system to fight off the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein only. You can read about how scientists and other medical experts are refuting the myth at MIT Medical and Johns Hopkins Medicine.

In other words, don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

Oh, snap! See question #2.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. But we should be aware of the importance of mental health all year round. If you know someone who is struggling with depression, Nicky Cade has a guide to help.

The share of adults who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine is 55 percent nationwide. And the nation is vaccinating at a rate of about 450 per 100,000 people per day.

Unfortunately, vaccination rates appear to be dropping below the national vaccination rate in the 13 states where less than 50 percent of the adult population has received at least one jab. All this is to say, it appears some states have reached a point where those planning to get the vaccine have already rolled up their sleeves. Not good for any herd immunity goals.

I’m tossing the ball(s) to Bob Curley for this one.

Public service announcement: Please remember to keep a 6-foot distance from others while you’re dancing around the maypole this year — unless you and all your maypole friends are fully vaccinated.

OK, without further ado, let’s get to another installment of our COVID-19 questions column. Got questions? DMs are open on Twitter and Insta: @jenchesak.

As a medical journalist and fact-checker, I’ve been covering the pandemic since it started, and I promise to give things to you straight. No BS.

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As you’ve likely heard by now, on April 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) paused the Johnson & Johnson vaccine rollout after six women, ages 18 to 48, developed a rare type of blood clot.

Initially, only six people out of 7.5 million who received the J&J shot were found to have rare blood clots. But additional cases have been reported since the pause. The CDC now reports that 15 cases of these rare clots, all in women, are linked to the shot.

A panel of advisers to the CDC who reviewed information about the cases met on April 23 to vote on whether the pause should be lifted. They voted in favor of resuming the J&J rollout and adding a label about the clotting disorder. The advisers say the vaccine’s benefits outweigh that serious but rare risk of clotting. Next, federal officials will make a formal recommendation to states.

The rare but dangerous type of clot is called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST). Basically, that means it’s a clot that prevents blood from draining out of the brain. The women also reportedly had low levels of blood platelets, a condition called thrombocytopenia.

They’re rare. But let’s look at the numbers. Based on studies, experts say that overall the incidence rate of developing one of these blood clots after a COVID-19 vaccine is about 5 for every 1 million people vaccinated. The incidence is 7 cases per 1 million for women ages 18 to 49. But that incidence goes up to 11.8 per 1 million when we’re considering women ages 30 to 39 who are possibly most at risk.

FYI: The American Heart Association says spontaneous CVST affects 5 of every 1 million people in the world each year. Double FYI: The risk of developing CVT from a COVID-19 infection is 8 to 10 times higher than the risk of such a clot from a COVID-19 vaccine and 100 times higher than that of the general population.

Well, aren’t you nosy! Just kidding. It’s public info. And indeed I did have a clot. The morning the J&J news broke, I was peppered with text messages and even an interview request. About 5 years ago, I experienced a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in my right arm as a result of taking birth control pills for endometriosis and for the obvious reason of avoiding babies.

A DVT is different from the type of clotting linked to the J&J vax. But I do want to share some more clot stats. I’m sharing all this information not to scare anyone, but to do the opposite.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for every 10,000 women, 1 to 5 will develop a clot. The rate goes up to 3 to 9 for those who take birth control pills. It goes up to 5 to 10 for pregnant peeps. And then for postpartum peeps (up to 12 weeks), the rate is 40 to 65.

The point is that the type of clotting linked to the J&J vaccine is really rare. We’re more at risk for CVT if we get COVID-19, and we’re more at risk for other types of clots (like DVT) when taking hormonal birth control pills, while pregnant, and after giving birth.

Now hold on! I’m not saying you shouldn’t take birth control or shouldn’t get pregnant. But I am saying that I hope you don’t get COVID-19. And one of the best ways to prevent an infection is to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Nope. First, I want to make it clear that clots have not occurred in relation to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Clots have, however, been reported with the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is not available in the United States. Although they’re different, both the AstraZeneca and the J&J vaccine are viral vector vaccines, whereas the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are both mRNA vaccines.

The symptoms of a blood clot can vary but include severe headache, shortness of breath, abdominal pain, and leg pain. Also watch for a backache, limb swelling, tiny red spots on your skin, new or easy bruising, and new neurological symptoms such as vision changes or weakness.

CVST is a type of stroke, so the main symptoms will be neurological (severe headache, pain, weakness, numbness, vision changes) and those related to the low platelet count (red spots on skin, easy bruising). If you do have the above symptoms after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, seek medical attention and be sure to let the medical pros who treat you know about your vaccine.

Fine. If you’re bored, read up on these sex toys.

Yes. We’ve seen a 25 percent case increase in this month’s 7-day average of case counts as compared with last month’s.

The mitten-hand state is having some trouble. Michigan is continually raking in the highest case counts week over week. It also has the highest case rate per capita of all the states and the highest cases of the B.1.1.7 variant. It currently has a record number of children hospitalized with COVID-19. Plus, experts report that a number of younger adults are really sick.

Researchers aren’t sure if the spread of the U.K. variant is to blame or if it’s a combination of other things, such as pandemic fatigue, gatherings, etc.

Wherever you live, be it Michigan or somewhere else, it’s important to remain vigilant against the virus and schedule your vaccine appointment if you haven’t already.

Well, you can call Mama Earth and tell her you’re sorry. Just kidding. Take baby steps and do what you can. Swap your suds and sprays for green cleaning products, give up your laundry detergent for soap nuts, switch your hair care to a conditioner bar. Or find something else that works for you.

When you’re being compassionate to the planet, don’t forget to be kind to yourself — and others! It’s not an all-or-nothing deal.

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Welcome to what would normally be the dreaded tax week. But if you’ve been procrastinating on filing — yeah, same here — you can continue to procrastinate for about another month! The IRS extended the tax deadline for individuals until May 17.

Now, let’s get to another installment of our COVID-19 questions column. Got questions? DMs are open on Twitter and Insta: @jenchesak.

As a medical journalist and fact-checker, I’ve been covering the pandemic since it started, and I promise to give things to you straight. No BS.

Um, yes. On the roller coaster ride that is the pandemic, we are on a case count climb after an exhilarating plummet from mid-January to mid-March.

Cases are going up in 27 states right now. And we’re experiencing what looks like the start of our fourth wave. The first wave was, of course, at the start of the pandemic. The second began in June, before we finally saw a decline in July through September. Then, our third wave occurred when everything went to sh*t in October through about mid-January.

We experienced about 9 weeks of falling case counts. But no more. So, yep, probably a fourth wave.

That’s the wonky term being used to describe a slight rash that may develop on your arm in the days after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. Although it’s not super common, it is happening often enough to garner a term.

According to Yale Medicine, the rash is nothing to worry about and is just a “delayed injection site reaction.” You can still get your second dose of the vaccine as scheduled. If the rash is itchy, apply an antihistamine cream. The reaction should go away in about a week.

If the other two people are cool with your COVID arm and you’re interested, then I say go for it. Get that triad on!

Well, we went from throuple back to double.

A double mutant strain is a strain of SARS-CoV-2 that has two key mutations. These key mutations (E484Q and L452R) have been seen separately in other variants, but they somehow paired up in one strain that was first identified in India.

Stanford University researchers recently identified a handful of cases of the double mutant strain in the San Francisco Bay Area. Researchers have learned how the variants behave on their own — one increases transmissibility, and one is more resistant to antibodies. But virologists are still trying to figure out how the variants behave together and what the combo means for transmissibility, disease severity, and vaccine efficacy. Stay tuned for more info.

Yep. It sure as heck is. In 2019, the World Health Organization labeled vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health. And here we are, in the middle of a friggin’ pandemic… Experts say getting the most people vaccinated as quickly as possible is our best tool for getting life closer to normal.

Yet only 62 percent of people in the U.S. say they’ve already received or want to get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible. And 13 percent say they will definitely not receive the vaccine. Another 7 percent say they’ll get it only if they’re required to, and 17 percent say they are going to “wait and see.”

Why is it so important to vaccinate every eligible person? Vaccines offer you protection as well as help protect those around you. By getting the vaccine, you’re doing your part to halt the pandemic.

We still need more confirmation on COVID-19 vaccines and transmission. But in general with vaccines, community transmission goes down when vaccine rates go up.

A recent study found that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are 90 percent effective at blocking infections in people who were fully vaccinated when compared with groups of unvaccinated people. But more research is still needed, especially when it comes to variants. So we should all keep wearing our masks and social distancing in public, regardless of our vaccination status.

Here’s what the CDC has to say about transmission right now:

  • “A growing body of evidence suggests that fully vaccinated people are less likely to have asymptomatic infection and potentially less likely to transmit SARS-CoV-2 to others. However, further investigation is ongoing.”
  • “The risks of SARS-CoV-2 infection in fully vaccinated people cannot be completely eliminated as long as there is continued community transmission of the virus. Vaccinated people could potentially still get COVID-19 and spread it to others.”

In other words, we need to ramp up vaccines so we can get community transmission down, and then BOOM, we might be able to get a handle on, or even end, the pandemic.

Ah, yes. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we all need some basic home plumbing skills.

Are you jelly about your friend’s body aches? Don’t be! Your lack of side effects means nothing, except that you’re a lucky ducky.

The important thing to know is that all three COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States are safe and effective. And if you read the clinical trial data — don’t worry, I did it for you — you will see that about 20 to 25 percent of people, depending on the vaccine, don’t experience any side effects.

For the J&J jab, almost half of people don’t experience systemic side effects. So maybe you had a sore arm, or maybe you had nothing at all. No biggie!

FYI, side effects for COVID-19 vaccines tend to be stronger in younger peeps and in those who are premenopausal, possibly thanks to estrogen.

A survey of epidemiologists, virologists, and infectious disease experts found that the majority think we have about 9 months of protection with the current vaccines and that we will all need boosters.

Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson have booster jabs in the works. We don’t yet know how rollout of boosters will play out, because those shots are still undergoing testing.

It’s something delicious. And I’m going to go drink one right now. But not to leave you empty-handed, here’s Haley Hamilton’s crash course on beer.

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You know the old saying: April showers bring May COVID-19 vaccines. OK fine, I invented a new saying to celebrate spring. So sue me. But for reals, the Biden administration has set a target date of May 1 for all adults to be eligible to receive a vaccine.

With that bit of good news, let’s get to the latest installment of our COVID-19 questions column. Got questions? DMs are open on Twitter and Insta: @jenchesak.

As a medical journalist and fact-checker, I’ve been covering the pandemic since it started, and I promise to give things to you straight. No BS.

Nooooooo, we do not. After nine straight weeks of declining cases, we’ve seen a 5 percent increase in the average number of new cases per day. Thirty states are now showing a jump.

Experts are worried about a fourth wave of COVID-19. A case of spring fever has set in, and spring breakers are likely doing some superspreading. So we may see an uptick of cases in the coming weeks as result. Variants also remain a huge concern.

So what can we do? Keep fighting the good fight with our fashionable masks and social distancing super powers. Let’s do this together.

*Raises hand. Yep, that’s me. I carry an EpiPen, and have a history of all sorts of wonky allergic reactions. So people have been asking me what it was like to get jabbed. First, it felt amazing to get the vaccine. Like happy tears amazing. I’m so relieved to have my first Pfizer poke, and I’m counting down the days until the second one.

Because of my history, a nurse had me lie on a cot to administer my dose. She instructed me to wait 30 minutes. Most people without a history of anaphylaxis can leave after 15 minutes. Two EMTs kept close watch *insert googly eyes* while I waited on my cozy cot. Eventually, the time was up. The experience was a lot like getting an allergy shot or certain medication injections where I’ve also had to wait and be observed. Honestly, the biggest challenge about the whole thing was figuring out how to get out of the parking garage afterward.

All vaccine sites have precautions in place, as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for dealing with a potential allergic reaction. Anaphylactic reactions are rare, btw. If you have a history of allergic reactions, read this CDC page on the topic and talk through any concerns with your doctor.

Ah! So you want to celebrate, eh? That’s totes fine. Just maybe don’t do shots after your shot, K.

“After your COVID-19 vaccine, it is okay to drink alcohol, within reason,” says Shaili Gandhi, PharmD and VP of formulary operations at SingleCare. “There is no evidence that suggests alcohol consumption reduces the effects of the vaccine. However, some people experience flu-like side effects after they receive their vaccine, so being hungover may make those unpleasant side effects even worse.”

First, hiccups are not a side effect of any COVID-19 vaccine. But they can be a side effect of drinking. Glug, glug, glug, hic! And they can come on for no reason at all just to annoy you. If your usual tricks aren’t working, here are a few ways to nix the hics.

Yes. “If you’re experiencing side effects after the COVID-19 vaccine, such as headache or sore arm,” Gandhi says, “it is okay to take over-the-counter pain medications to help alleviate some of the vaccine’s side effects.” However, you shouldn’t take pain relievers before your shot to ward off aches.

That’s not clear, but researchers have found an interesting association that requires more research to confirm and understand. Researchers at the University of Michigan reviewed medical info for more than 27,000 patients who were tested for COVID-19 from March through mid-July of last year.

They found that people who got a flu shot the previous flu season were less likely to test positive for COVID-19, and if they did, they were less likely to have complications or require hospitalization.

So while there’s no definitive evidence the flu shot offers protection against COVID-19, it’s always a good idea to get it each year to protect you against the flu. It’s not too late to get it now if you haven’t yet. But you should not schedule a flu vaccine within 14 days of any COVID-19 vaccine, according to the CDC.

By now we’ve all heard the racist language used to describe SARS-CoV-2. So I won’t repeat the words here. Since March 2020, Stop AAIP Hate, a reporting center that tracks hate incidents targeting Asian American Pacific Islander (AAIP) communities, has tracked nearly 3,800 incidents. And while the pandemic and the recent killings of eight people in Atlanta (including six Asian women) have shined a light on the issue, anti-Asian racism is not a new problem.

What can you do? Support these organizations addressing hate. Learn about AAIP racism and violence, and how you can be an ally. Journalist Amber Gibson talks mental health resources for AAIP individuals here.

Ah yes, there’s been some buzz about the Oxford University-AstraZeneca jab. AstraZeneca faced a bit of a kerfuffle when reporting the efficacy in a press release. You can read the specifics in this Nature article. But ultimately, the situation has been resolved, and the efficacy is 76 percent. Next, AstraZeneca will apply for emergency use authorization with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The short answer is no. But there’s a longer answer. So let’s break it down because disinformation is running rampant out there.

Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines used a fetal cell line (read not tissue) to ensure their vaccines work. They did not produce the vaccines with the cell line known as HEK-293. HEK stands for human embryonic kidney cell. The original isolated cell came from either a miscarriage or an elective abortion (unknown which) from the 1970s. HEK-293 cell lines are used in a number of medical research and therapies.

The Johnson and Johnson vaccine also uses a cell line, and it required it for its development and manufacturing. It uses PER.C6. PER stands for primary human embryonic retinal cells. And the original cell was isolated from an elective abortion in 1985. Again, these cell lines are used for a number of medical applications and therapies, including making viral vector vaccines and monoclonal antibodies.

Cell lines are so far removed from a fetus. They have been cultured from a cell and then have continue to grow and multiply in a lab over decades.

I’m glad you asked. If you’re spring cleaning, writer Lisa Bubert has the deets on what to do with anything you’d like to ditch. That way your old stanky mattress won’t end up in the landfill.

OMG, guess what? I now have one Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine dose in my arm! What a great way to mark the 1-year anniversary of the last time I spent time in public indoors. Whew!

My cells are now busy making spike proteins, and my immune system is like, “Wut, who dis?” More on the science behind the mRNA vaccines below, along with how the Johnson & Johnson vax uses a different technology.

OK, let’s get to the latest installment of our COVID-19 questions column. Got questions? DMs are open on Twitter and Insta: @jenchesak.

As a medical journalist and fact checker, I’ve been covering the pandemic since it started, and I promise to give things to you straight. No BS.

Here we go!

So, you miss doing pull-ups in close quarters with other pull-up-loving folx, eh?

The science says gyms are baaaad places to be right now. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report that includes findings from a Chicago Department of Public Health investigation.

At a Chicago fitness facility, 55 out of 81 peeps who attended high intensity classes during a week in August developed confirmed or probable COVID-19. And 20 percent said they attended on or after the day their symptoms began. About 76 percent said they wore masks infrequently.

The CDC concludes that increased respiration — such as all that huffing and puffing while you’re doing deadlift reps — facilitates SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Other investigations have also found outbreaks linked to fitness facilities.

For now, it’s best to exercise outdoors or at your home. Try out these 2021 fitness trends. If you do go to a gym, the CDC says the facility should require masks to be worn at all times — not just when entering. The facility should also have improved ventilation, limit class sizes, and encourage physical distancing.

Wait… Are you just trying to get out of that teeth cleaning? (Kidding.)

I wrote a whole article about this very thing. In pandemic times (as opposed to normal times), it can be hard to know what appointments to make. So I took a look at what the experts recommend.

I realize this was a snarky, meant-to-be-funny question I received in my Instagram comments. But I think it’s worth answering. There are no cures for COVID-19. Like, none. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero. There are only treatments to help.

But that hasn’t stopped the internet from spreading info about faux cures and magical protections. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is sending warning letters to companies that have made false claims about their products. For example, recent warning letters have gone out to essential oils companies that have claimed their blends can protect against COVID-19. (Hint: They can’t.)

Now, back to those crystals. Obviously, crystals can’t cure COVID-19 or protect you from infection. But… they are shiny and pretty.

Oh, really? You want to get all science-y after that crystals question? Bring it!

Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. This technology, while new for existing vaccines, has been studied for more than a decade — not just over the course of the pandemic. These vaccines tell your cells to make a harmless piece of the spike protein.

The spike protein is found on the surface of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Your cells then show off this spike protein that your immune system quickly recognizes doesn’t belong. Your immune system gets right to work making antibodies. Then, if you come into contact with SARS-CoV-2 later, your body knows what’s up, and it has a memory of how to quickly say, “Nope! Byeeee!”

Johnson & Johnson has created a viral vector vaccine. (Ooh, that’s fun to say!) Instead of using mRNA to instruct your cells to make the spike protein, this jab uses genetically modified inactivated adenoviruses, a group of viruses that includes our ol’ pal the common cold. The vector virus isn’t live and cannot cause infection.

From there, everything works pretty much the same. Your immune system acts like a bouncer and tells that spike guy it’s not welcome. It mounts an immune response in the form of antibodies, which provide future protection. Good job, immune system!

I’ll have the double shot of… If only it were as easy as putting in a coffee order. But the truth is that vaccine rollout has been complicated.

I’ve included this question before, but I’m adding it again because it’s been asked again now that we have three COVID-19 vaccines in the rollout.

Experts say you should get the first vaccine that’s available to you, whether that’s the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, or J&J vaccine. All three have been proven safe and effective. But if you have any questions about the vaccines, especially regarding something unique to you, consult a healthcare professional.

I was just checking to see if you were paying attention. Here’s how to do it and not throw out your back.

Vaccine equity is a complicated topic. We’ve never before, in the history of vaccines, needed to vaccinate the entire global adult population in one fell swoop. Even on just a national scale, vaccine equity is incredibly complicated. I’ve interviewed several bioethicists about vaccine equity throughout the pandemic, and even they have different takes on the order of vaccine rollout.

I can offer you a few articles that I think cover some moral questions. This NPR piece dives into several scenarios and has bioethicists weigh in. This New York Times piece explores how some people have held off on getting their shot when eligible because they feel like others should be given priority first.

But holding off helps no one, ethicists say. And we’ve all heard about the women who disguised themselves as seniors in Florida… not a good look in so many ways!

I am not the morality police, but here are a few takeaways from my research and interviews with bioethicists:

  • Get a vaccine as soon as it’s your turn.
  • Don’t misrepresent yourself to get a vaccine earlier.
  • If a vaccine is made available to you because it would otherwise go to waste, get it.
  • If you’re in the right place at the right time and one is offered, get that vax!
  • If you know someone who has been vaccinated earlier than you and you don’t know why, don’t ask them what condition they have. That’s NOYB.

People are wondering if they should drive to different counties, or even different states, to get a vaccine. Again, I will refer you to the NPR piece that addresses that specific topic with bioethicists. The short answer: Try not to make that an overt vaccine-hunting strategy. But there are several commonsense exceptions to this rule, so read on.

States are allocated vaccine from the federal government based on adult population. From there, states are responsible for allocation to public health departments, large vaccination sites, pharmacies, etc. So logically, if you’re getting a vaccine from somewhere other than where you live before your phase is eligible, you could be delaying vaccination for someone else in that location who is eligible now.

But there are several commonsense instances when you might cross county or state lines. These are just a few: Maybe you’re being vaccinated at your usual healthcare facility, which is in a different jurisdiction. Not every county has a large vaccination site at a ballpark or stadium, so obviously if you live near one of these sites but in a different county, you might still get your jab(s) at that big site. Again, these are commonsense exceptions.

If a vaccine location is offering doses to residents from neighboring counties, they’ve accounted for that with vaccine allocation. So get the shot.

Keep in mind that some large retail pharmacies and community health centers also get an allocation directly from the federal government. Initially, doses to these sites will be allocated based on population. But eventually they will be allocated by different metrics as more supply becomes available. When that happens, if it’s easy for you to get to one of those in a neighboring county or state, and they have vaccine available for your phase, then ask about an appointment. Sign up for their email and standby lists, too, so you’re alerted to all options.

And finally, hang in there. The United States may actually have an abundance of COVID-19 vaccine within 2 months. And everyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one.

The tl;dr answer is no. You don’t need an antibody test after the vax, because that’s what all those clinical trials were for and why we had to wait for vaccines to be available in the first place. The vaccines have been tested for effectiveness and proven safe and effective. Plus, antibody testing actually wouldn’t be a useful metric in determining your immunity via vaccination.

Yes! You can read up on the full CDC guidelines here. But if you’re fully vaccinated and 2 weeks out from your final dose, you can hang out indoors, mask-free, with other fully vaccinated people. Have fun, y’all! See you at my house in about 6 weeks.

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Well, it’s March. Last year at this time, the United States had just seen its first loss of life from COVID-19. And now we’ve recently passed a grim milestone with more than half a million lives lost to the coronavirus.

I wanted to take a minute to acknowledge that sad fact before we dive into the latest installment of our COVID-19 questions column. The pandemic has been undeniably brutal — and we’re still in it.

We seem to have turned a corner for now at least, with cases, hospitalizations, and deaths dropping. And I hope we can keep it that way. More on what’s going on with that in the questions.

Speaking of questions, send them my way. DMs are open on Twitter and Insta: @jenchesak.

As a medical journalist and fact-checker, I’ve been covering the pandemic since it started, and I promise to give things to you straight. No BS.

So let’s get to it.

Yes! We’ve seen six — count ’em, six — straight weeks where the number of new cases has steadily decreased. If you take a peek at this Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) graph, you can see that we’re back to a daily total we haven’t seen since mid-October. The graph also shows you just how bad November, December, and January actually were.

The number of hospitalizations has been nearly cut in half from what it was about 2 weeks ago. And fatalities are going down too. So cheers all around!

For one thing, all those holiday gatherings are behind us, so we’re probably seeing less transmission as a result. But maybe we’re actually just doing this whole pandemic thing a bit better, eh?

Infectious disease experts like Dr. William Schaffner at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, suggest more people might be wearing masks.

And probably the biggest factor is that people are showing off their shoulders and getting vaccinated. Vulnerable populations at risk for virus exposure, or for severe illness if exposed, are now getting their COVID-19 jabs, and more people will become eligible soon. With more people getting vaccinated, more people are protected.

Regarding case numbers dropping, Schaffner also says it’s possible that areas that had high levels of transmission are now starting to experience a bit of community protection, aka herd immunity. But that doesn’t mean we’ve reached full-on herd immunity.

Herd immunity happens when enough people are immune to a virus — through either vaccination or infection — to interrupt the chain of transmission. We don’t quite know the herd immunity threshold for SARS-CoV-2, but epidemiologists estimate it to be somewhere between 70 and 90 percent.

The total number of people who have been infected in the United States is likely much higher than the confirmed case count, which accounts for about 10 percent of the population. Researchers estimate that 25 to 36 percent of people in the United States have probably had COVID-19.

And according to CDC vaccine data, about 15 percent of the population has received at least one inoculation against SARS-CoV-2. So if we do the math — *beep-beep-boop-boop* — possibly 25 to 50 percent of people have some sort of immunity to the virus. We’re not quite at that estimated herd immunity threshold yet, but we’re not exactly at the starting line either.

Please note: People who have had COVID-19 should still get the vaccine, since we don’t know for sure how long immunity as a result of the natural infection lasts.

So let’s just keep doing the pandemic better with all our funky and fashionable masks and expert physical distancing techniques. We’re total pros now!

Variants could definitely eff up all our recent progress. The U.K. variant, B.1.1.7, is about 50 percent more transmissible than the versions of SARS-CoV-2 that dominated for most of the pandemic. Experts predict it could cause another surge in cases in the United States this spring.

Most of us haven’t even gotten a COVID-19 vaccine yet, and news is circulating about boosters. We’ve got a few things going on here.

Let’s tackle the topic of boosters against variants first. Pfizer is testing what would be a third dose for its current vaccine jab to help boost protection against variants if necessary. Pfizer is also looking at whether another version of its vaccine is needed to protect against the South African variant, B.1.135. And Moderna is testing what would be a new version of its vaccine to help target that variant.

The other thing you might have heard about is that COVID-19 vaccine boosters may become a regular thing. Think of it like the trusty ol’ flu shot your doctor encourages you to get each fall. That’s because experts say COVID-19 will likely become endemic, meaning it will stick around, even once we’re on the other side of the pandemic.

We dunno exactly. But the ol’ Magic Eight Ball says we do have a better outlook now that vaccine rollout is picking up steam. When the pandemic eventually does peter out, things might feel a little strange, especially since our way of life has changed so much. Here are some expert takes on how 2021 will unfold and how our transition to a different sort of normal might look.

Last year will go down in history as many things, but certainly as the year we all learned the word “fomite,” an object that could be contaminated, like a doorknob or a kitchen counter.

At the start of the pandemic, alarming studies showed us just how long SARS-CoV-2 could live on surfaces. Times ranged from 8 hours to 8 days, depending on the surface material. And that’s why I found myself disinfecting a box of Cheerios and wondering if we had in fact reached the end of the world. Thankfully, I no longer scrub down groceries. (Well, except I wash fruit for non-COVID reasons.)

Over the course of the pandemic, researchers have learned, based on studies of outbreaks and superspreader events, that SARS-CoV-2 spreads through inhaled aerosols and droplets when other people spew them via talking, yelling, singing, or just breathing.

According to a recent article in the journal Nature, “Surface transmission, although possible, is not thought to be a significant risk.” Experts still recommend good hand hygiene, however. And that’s smart in all times, not just pandemic times, yo!

You do you with your own fomites. But if you need some hacks, we’ve got you.

It’s likely that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will give J&J’s single-dose vax the green light ASAP in the form of emergency use authorization (EUA). Here’s where we are.

FDA scientists recently reviewed J&J’s clinical research data for its COVID-19 vaccine. The data shows an effectiveness rate of 66 percent against moderate to severe illness at least 14 days post-vax and about 85 percent effectiveness against severe illness 28 days after getting the shot.

The effectiveness is lower in people ages 60 and over and in those with some underlying health conditions. Like the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been shown to be safe.

If J&J receives EUA, the addition of another available vaccine will certainly beef up rollout, especially once more supply of this particular jab becomes available near the end of March.

I hear you! I am the poster child for allergies right now. So I put down the tissues for a moment and made this handy chart based on CDC info about COVID-19, flu, cold, and allergy symptoms. This chart should not be used as a substitute for a COVID-19 test if you suspect you’ve had exposure, of course. But it can help you make an educated guess as to the cause of your cough or sniffles and figure out next steps.

Remember, DMs are open on Twitter and Insta: @jenchesak.

Well, hopefully that little Cupid mofo didn’t annoy you too much this past week leading up to V-day. That way I can swoop in and annoy you with more COVID talk. Here’s another installment of our quickie COVID-19 Q&A column.

As a medical journalist and fact-checker, I’ve been covering the pandemic since it started, and I promise to give things to you straight. No BS.

Holler at me with your questions. DMs are open on Twitter and Insta: @jenchesak.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has completed its initial investigation in Wuhan, China, seeking info on how SARS-CoV-2 came about. WHO has discussed four scenarios, putting one of those concepts out to pasture. Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO’s leading animal disease expert says it’s “very unlikely” that the virus was leaked from a Wuhan lab. The WHO is ending further research on the topic.

It should be noted that Asian Americans have faced a flood of hate crimes, including violent attacks on older individuals, during the pandemic. Totally not OK ever! The lab theory, for which there isn’t supporting evidence, has undoubtedly contributed to this surge. Let’s be good humans, please.

What about the other three possibilities? One is that a human was exposed to the virus through direct contact with a horseshoe bat. Another scenario, one the WHO deems most likely, is that transmission to humans came through an undetermined intermediary species, with possibilities including pangolins, minks, or even cats. And the remaining possibility is that the virus originated in an animal but was then transmitted through frozen food.

So really, we don’t know for sure how where SARS-CoV-2 came from. WHO says we need to do more research.

Hmmm? Let me just grab my crystal ball, brb…

WHO says that COVID-19 is “not necessarily the big one.” So yes, future pandemics are entirely possible. But we’ve learned a lot from this one. And WHO is urging research and preparedness so that we can better face major global health crises down the road.

We all likely know a unicorn or two — unicorns being vaccinated people. Maybe it’s your grandma or your friend who is nurse or whomever. So when it comes to unicorns mingling with nonunicorns, we have to keep a few things in mind.

First, a vaccinated person doesn’t reap the benefits of the vaccine’s full efficacy until about 2 weeks after their second shot. Second, although the COVID-19 vaccines that are available are highly effective, the risk isn’t zero. If you want to visit your vaccinated nana, there’s still the risk you could unwittingly bring the virus to her.

We also don’t have clinical data on whether COVID-19 vaccines curb transmission. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, “the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission from vaccinated persons to others is still uncertain…” So if you’re not vaccinated, and you’re hanging with a vaccinated person, there’s still a chance they could transmit the virus to you if they’ve had exposure.

So until more people are vaccinated and community transmission goes down, experts recommend pandemic business as usual. That means social distancing, wearing a mask, good hand hygiene, and outdoor visits.

Yes, true! The CDC has released new guidelines. If you’ve received a COVID-19 vaccine and have then had exposure to someone with the virus, you do not need to quarantine as long as you do not have symptoms. This guideline only applies if you’re 14 days out from your final dose. And it only applies for 3 months post vax.

Good catch!

Here is what the CDC says: “Vaccination has been demonstrated to prevent symptomatic COVID-19; symptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission is thought to have a greater role in transmission than purely asymptomatic transmission. Additionally, individual and societal benefits of avoiding unnecessary quarantine may outweigh the potential but unknown risk of transmission, and facilitate the direction of public health resources to persons at highest risk for transmitting SARS-CoV-2 to others.”

You may have heard that select Walgreens, CVS, and other pharmacies are now administering COVID-19 vaccines. The rollout is part of the Biden administration’s plan to amp up shot rollout. These pharmacy locations are expected to dole out 83 shots per day. (Here’s a list by state.)

Pharmacies will be following phase guidelines for their jurisdictions, but the hope is that your phase might come up sooner rather than later. So if you’re waiting for a specific phase, keep an eyeball on your state’s COVID-19 website, often found through your state’s health department.

If your age, occupation, or health status doesn’t make you eligible for an early phase of the vaccine rollout, you may be wondering when your turn will come. I don’t have a specific answer.

But… Wait for it… Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said in an interview on “The Today Show” that the general public could start getting a vaccine by April. He said he hopes the majority of folks in the U.S. could be vaccinated by mid- to late summer.

Ah yes. This is a hot topic right now. We may see the COVID-19 vaccine — and proof of it — become a requirement for certain types of travel or for attending specific events. We’re not exactly talking about a new concept. For example, you’re required to have documentation of a yellow fever vaccine to visit some destinations.

So far, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is forging ahead with the launch of its IATA Travel Pass. The pass is a standardized solution to authenticate all country regulations regarding COVID-19 travel.

COVID-19 cases have continued to drop, which is good news. But experts say they’re worried about the impact variants will have in the coming weeks and months. The UK variant may boost the risk for severe disease, and vaccines may be less effective against the South African variant.

Only continued research and time will tell. In the meantime, preventive measures are crucial. Following a recent study, the CDC released new guidelines on wearing a well-fitting mask or doubling up on face coverings.

I’m so with you on this! I remember reading many posts early on in the pandemic — and they’re still circulating — about bodies during quarantine and what we should or shouldn’t be doing with them. (And I’m not referring to important content about masking and social distancing.) I do not want to add triggering language to this column by sharing what those posts said. But I do think this article about loving your body as it is in the face of a global health crisis helps change the conversation.

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Howdy! I was hoping Punxsutawney Phil would wake up last week and tell us no more COVID-19. But I guess that’s above his pay grade or something. So here I am again, with another installment of our quickie COVID-19 Q&A column.

As a medical journalist and fact-checker, I’ve been covering the pandemic since it started, and I promise to give things to you straight. No BS.

If you’ve got questions, I will get you answers. DMs are open on Twitter and Insta: @jenchesak.

Ready, and go!

Ugh, I know. It’s been a long slog. And we’re almost a year in. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Lockdowns went into place soon after, and we’ve been in a state of uncertainty ever since.

We crave emotional intimacy, and the pandemic has altered the ways we get that. The feeling of social pain, or disconnection, is real, even with the help of Zoom and other tools. Here’s how to cope.

And when you get frustrated with the state of things, don’t feel bad about dropping the F-bomb. Apparently, a little swearing can be good for your health. So have at it: F*ck!

The short answer is nope! Yay, you! Let’s have a round of clap emojis.

Now for the longer bit. Some people have received the vaccine before they were eligible under state rollout plans.

In some cases these folks have volunteered at vaccine administering sites and then received an extra dose at the end of the day that would otherwise have gone to waste. Others have received an extra dose by being on a vaccine standby list — again to get one of those leftover doses. And others have lucked out by being stuck on the road in the middle of a snowstorm or what have you.

Yes, it would be wonderful if we could roll out vaccines faster and if we could do so in the most fair and equitable way possible. But so many factors are at play. And it all boils down to this: Epidemiologists and other experts estimate we need more than two-thirds of Americans to get a vaccine in order to get on the other side of the pandemic.

So if you’ve received a vaccine unexpectedly by being in the right place at the right time or by volunteering, you’ve got nothing to feel guilty about. By rolling up your sleeve (nice pipes, BTW!), you’ve done something to help curb COVID-19.

That being said, people should absolutely not misrepresent themselves — as, say, frontline healthcare workers or as people in high risk categories when they’re not — in order to jump the vaccine line.

The two vaccines available in the United States right now are the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna versions. These are two-dose puppies. Both have been proven safe and have an effectiveness rate of about 95 percent. But that effectiveness applies only after you’ve had both shots.

Experts say that getting only one shot would likely mean the vaccine would be less effective for you. But they also say any single dose of a dual-dose vaccine is better than no dose at all. There is also some evidence that a single dose may be effective for people who previously had COVID-19.

Oooh! Exciting news. We’ll possibly have a third vaccine available in the United States soon. Johnson & Johnson has applied for emergency use authorization from the FDA. J&J’s vax is a single-dose dude.

Johnson & Johnson reports that at 28 days post-jab, the vaccine has an effectiveness rate of 85 percent against severe disease in all regions studied and an overall effectiveness of 66 percent against moderate to severe disease.

The clinical trials showed that the vaccine offers full protection against hospitalization and death from COVID-19. The United States has contracted with J&J for 100 million doses by the end of June.

Nooooo! Get whichever vaccine becomes available to you ASAP. That’s what the experts say. The vaccines are safe. Almost 28 million people have received at least their first poke. And a surveillance data report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the vaccines are safe.

We don’t have direct data on COVID-19 vaccines and their ability to stop transmission. Right now we mostly know about vaccine effectiveness in preventing COVID-19 illness, but not necessarily preventing infection. A vaccine that could curb transmission would be the dreamy-dream, though, and it’s something we may find with more research.

You may have heard some buzz about the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine’s potential to halt transmission. (FYI, this vaccine is not yet available in the States.) Oxford recently released some preliminary data that has not yet been peer-reviewed. This info showed that after one dose of this two-dose vax, infections dropped by 67 percent in the studied population.

What this means is that the vaccine potentially reduces viral shed. If the vaccine’s induced immunity helps people clear the virus quickly, then those people likely can’t transmit the virus to other people.

Again, experts say there’s hope that COVID-19 vaccines will reduce transmission, but more research is needed.

I’m sorry. I did go on and on there. And I agree, the FOMO is real. I hereby gift you a nap, and I will not mention the vaccine for the rest of the column, or I have to put money in the jar.

Not quite yet. But we’re getting closer to those $1,400 checks for eligible folx. Stay tuned! The Senate just passed a budget resolution that puts the COVID-19 relief package a step closer to passing.

Indeed, all those numbers can cause some brain pain. One key thing to remember is that data isn’t in real time. There’s generally a lag on reporting from health departments.

Plus, case counts reflect virus exposure from 7 to 14 days prior. So rather than look at daily COVID-19 stats for your area, check out weekly moving averages.

I fact-check a summary of data that provides a snapshot of areas with rising or falling cases, along with expert commentary. Perhaps it can help ease your hurt-y head. As for me, I’ll just be wearing my ice helmet.

Virus variants are definitely circulating in the United States.

Initial research suggests that COVID-19 vaccines (Oops, I put money in the jar!) should protect against these mutations — at least when it comes to severe illness requiring hospitalization.

But researchers are concerned about findings that suggest vaccines (more money added) may lose some effectiveness against the South African variant, B.1.351. There’s still a lot to uncover.

The key thing to know right now is that it’s important not to let your guard down against the pandemic. Instead, step up your protections where possible.

But if you were actually just asking about a certain set of teenage mutants, the last I checked, the Ninja Turtles were battling middle age.

Remember to send me your questions on Twitter or Insta: @jenchesak.

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Well, we’ve made it through the year of January. Only 11 more years of 2021 to go… In all seriousness, each month we count down hopefully brings us a little bit closer to being on the other side of pandemic.

Speaking of… I’ve got a fresh installment of our quickie COVID-19 Q&A column to keep you informed about all things coronavirus.

As a medical journalist and fact-checker, I’ve been covering the pandemic since it started and I promise to give things to you straight. No BS.

If you’ve got questions, I will get you answers. DMs are open on Twitter and Insta: @jenchesak

Let’s get to it.

Let’s get the doozie out of the way. In the last column, we covered that virus variants are going to happen. We’ve got three from outside the U.S. that are now here.

The variant first discovered in the United Kingdom, known as B.1.1.7, has gained the most purchase in the U.S. so far, circulating in more than half the states. Now the B.1.351 variant, first identified in South Africa, has shown up in South Carolina, infecting two people who have not traveled. The P.1 strain, which has been spreading in Brazil, has now been detected in Minnesota in one person who traveled to Brazil.

But that’s not all, folks. We’ve also got two variants that started in the U.S. One discovered in Ohio known as the Columbus variant, or COH.20G/501Y, and the other detected in California known as CAL.20C.

Researchers are still learning about these new strains. But the gist so far is that some new variants are believed to be much more transmissible. Read: easier to get.

Eventually we will get back to talking only about our favorite sheet masks. But for now we must also keep talking about COVID-19 and masking. Experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, recommend we now wear two. One easy way to do this is to wear a surgical mask underneath your usual cloth number.

You might also opt for a mask upgrade. The KF94 (from Korea) filters out 94 percent of nasty particles and is comparable to the N95, but it’s more readily available. Just be wary of counterfeit versions when buying.

Experts believe these new strains are sneaky little highly infectious jerkfaces. So that means we have to be even more on our game against COVID-19 than before.

If you’ve been doing your grocery getting or other errands in person, try to make fewer trips or use a delivery service if possible. And if you’re social bubble has ballooned, give it a pop and re-evaluate. Set strong, healthy COVID-19 boundaries with the trusted peeps you do see.

It feels like this whole pandemic thing has gone on for eons, I know. But scientists believe that we can end the pandemic if we can vaccinate enough of the population, about 70 to 80 percent.

But that won’t mean an end to COVID-19. Researchers believe the SARS-CoV-2 virus will eventually become endemic. They predict it will hang around but be more like our old pal the common cold, causing mild or asymptomatic infections. In other words, eventually COVID-19 won’t be this big, scary monster lording over us. Rawr!

Okay, let’s put pandemic talk on hold for a moment… If this season has you feeling bleh, try out some of these feel good formulas. And if you’re feeling meh, here are 31 fixes. What’s the difference between bleh and meh? I don’t actually know. Gotta research some studies. But don’t forget to laugh at yourself. It’s a form of self-care. And we all need that right now.

Originally there was a theory out there that the nicotine from smoking may offer some protective quality against severe infection. However a new study found that smoking is associated with an increased risk of developing COVID-19 symptoms and that smokers with the coronavirus were more likely to be hospitalized.

If you’re looking to quit, check out these apps.

We’re the closest with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is a single-dose fella. The company said it would release interim data on its clinical trials at the end of January. So we’re all just hitting the refresh button for that.

From there the vaccine needs to be cleared for emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The U.S. has an agreement with the company to buy 100 million doses, enough to vaccinate 100 million people.

More than 25 million first jabs have been administered. And just over 4 million of those recipients have rolled up their sleeves for their second dose.

The test positivity rates are highest in Iowa (43.5 percent), Alabama (32.5 percent), and Pennsylvania (29.2 percent). A test positivity rate that’s over 5 percent is when the World Health Organization (WHO) says things get iffy.

The places under that mark are considered spiffy: Vermont, Connecticut, Hawaii, Alaska, Washington DC, Oregon, Rhode Island, Maine, Nebraska, Minnesota, North Dakota, Colorado, and Massachusetts.

Let’s start with the bad news: January has been the deadliest month from COVID-19 so far since the pandemic began. But, the 7-day moving average of new cases is down more than 30 percent from the average 2 weeks earlier. So that’s the good news, and we’ll end it there. Stay safe!

Remember to send me your questions on Twitter or Insta: @jenchesak.

Well, hello there! Welcome to Greatist’s new quickie COVID-19 column, where we answer your burning questions for the week. Hopefully nothing is actually burning except for your desire to stay on top of pandemic — and vaccine — news! So let’s run through the topics on everyone’s mind.

For reference, I am a medical journalist and fact-checker. I’ve been covering the pandemic since it started. So I live and breathe COVID-19. (Wait, that didn’t sound right!) What I mean is I’m obsessed with coronavirus info, and I promise to give things to you straight. No BS.

We’ve been heavily reminded of COVID-19 deaths in recent days. On January 19, in a national memorial in Washington, D.C., and in smaller ceremonies around the nation, the country remembered and honored those taken by the virus. So how many people have we lost? We’ve topped 400,000 deaths in the U.S. so far. And projections show that we could reach 566,000 deaths by May 1.

So it bears repeating: keep wearing your mask in public, maintaining a 6-foot distance from those you don’t live with whenever possible, practicing good hand hygiene, and setting your COVID-19 boundaries with people you do see. In addition to vaccines, these are the best tools we have for curbing the pandemic.

Ugh, I know. This winter has been a doozie to say the least. In the last quarter of 2020, the 7-day average of daily reported cases of the coronavirus generally grew week over week. Insert poo emoji here.

But here’s a glimmer of hope. We have now seen a drop in case numbers. The daily average of reported cases has dropped 11 percent from the average 2 weeks ago. And we’ve seen the first drop (although just by 2 percent) in hospitalizations since October. We’ll take the good news when it comes.

Researchers have known all along that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, would mutate. That sounds super science-fiction-like, but viruses do mutate often.

Mutations are called variants. The variant known as B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the United Kingdom is now in the United States, with 144 confirmed cases so far. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a map that shows which states have reported cases of this variant.

So what’s all the hullabaloo? Well B.1.1.7 is thought to be up to 70 percent more transmissible than the original variant in the UK. It also caused a surge in infections in people under 20 there. #Grrrr! But researchers don’t know for sure if the variant is actually more infectious or if other factors are at play. They’re working on figuring that stuff out.

Ultimately, right now, you should be aware that a potentially more transmissible variant of the virus is circulating in the U.S. and take measures to protect yourself and others. That means if you’ve gotten a little lax in your COVID-19 vigilance, tighten things up where you can.

Whew! Say that question out loud 10 times fast. Word on the scientific street is yes-ish! Researchers have conducted a study on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and found that it’s likely effective against the current variants. We’re still waiting on word regarding the Moderna vaccine, but the same result is expected.

If part of your saying good-bye to 2020 was toasting your recovery from COVID-19, congrats to that! But you may be wondering if the virus can infect you again. Researchers are still trying to figure this one out.

A recent study found that immunity could last as long 8 months or more. But — there’s always a but! — since research in this area is still ongoing, health experts advise not taking any chances. In other words, keep wearing a mask — yada, yada, yada!

According to their test positive rates, Iowa (46 percent), Idaho (40 percent), and Pennsylvania (35 percent) are the current COVID-19 hotbeds. The World Health Organization considers anything over 5 percent to be sketch. Okay, WHO doesn’t use that actual terminology, but you get the idea.

And kudos to Vermont, Hawaii, Alaska, Washington D.C., and North Dakota, where the test positive rate is actually under that 5 percent mark.

Another big newsy bit right now is that President Joe Biden and first-ever Madame Vice President Kamala Harris were just sworn in to office. Harris is also the first Black and first Asian-American VP. Anyhoo… What you may be wondering is what the new administration has in store for the ol’ virus. We’ve got the deets.

In a nutshell, the new administration has a proposal called the American Rescue Plan, a combo effort to mitigate virus spread and provide economic relief.

Economic goals of the plan include a third round of stimulus checks (capped at $1,400). They also include increasing the per-week unemployment benefit to $400 through September, putting a halt to evictions for renters and to foreclosures for homeowners through September, and bumping the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Another goal is to ramp up vaccination efforts, meaning get shots in more arms faster.

I’m glad you asked! Although I don’t have a perfect answer to this question. Unfortunately, vaccine rollout is not going as swiftly or as dreamily as a unicorn galloping through a forest of rainbows. Lots of factors have made rollout complicated for individual states, including supply-chain issues. And each state has its own rollout plan.

Check your state’s plan and make sure you’re signed up for any alerts — either through your state or local health department or your health care provider. Some municipalities have standby lists and other options to avoid wasted doses. So it’s definitely worth checking into, even if you’re in a much later phase.

While you wait for your time to crop up to get poked in the arm, you might come across some vaccine info that wigs you out a bit. That’s because lots of false info continues to circle out there. Disinformation can also spread like a virus, and vaccine hesitancy is one of the greatest public health threats to our world, especially now during a pandemic.

The two currently available vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective through large clinical trials. Yes, rare cases of allergic reactions have occurred. As I am a card-carrying member of the Epi-Pen club myself, I can understand why that news can be frightening. The CDC has a dedicated page about allergic reactions, including safeguards that are in place.

If you have concerns about the vaccine for any reason, I encourage you talk to your health care provider rather than taking advice from some rando (or pal) on social media touting absurd conspiracy theories or false anti-vaxxer info.

For some people, fully recovering from COVID-19 can take longer, sometimes even a month or more. Additionally, the virus can have lasting effects on the body, and researchers are still trying to figure out for how long and to what extent. You can learn about COVID long-hauler symptoms and find resources here.