Compiled by veteran medical journalist Brian Owens, this roundup of some of the newest science on the COVID-19 pandemic, straight from the scientific journals, is presented by Hakai Magazine in partnership with The Tyee.
Online gambling soared during lockdown
Regular gamblers were more than six times more likely to gamble online during the pandemic than they were before, according to a study from the U.K. Although gambling went down overall during the pandemic due to casinos and betting shops being closed, online gambling increased, particularly among men and those who were struggling financially. Occasional gamblers were also twice as likely to gamble online during the pandemic compared with before.
More side effects seen when mixing vaccines, but no major safety concerns
Among people who receive different vaccines for their two shots, more of them tend to experience systemic side effects like headache, fever and chills after their booster than those who got two doses of the same vaccine, according to preliminary data from an ongoing study in the U.K.
Most of the symptoms went away within two days, and no one required hospitalization. There were also no major concerns highlighted by blood work in the mixed group. This data involves people who received the Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines, and were similar no matter which order they got the vaccines in. So far there is no information on how our immune system reacts to a mixed vaccine schedule, or whether it offers the same level of protection as two doses of the same vaccine. Initial data on that question is expected to come out in June.
Lockdowns must be implemented without delay to be effective
Lockdowns to control the pandemic should be a last resort when other public health measures are not sufficient, but to be most effective, they must be implemented with minimal delay, according to a study that modelled COVID-19 transmission in Canada. Equally important is that they are initiated when community transmission is low, sustained for an adequate period, strict and target the sectors driving transmission. Applying lockdowns this way would both help control the spread of the virus and reduce the total number of lockdown days compared to other approaches.
Parks are safe and essential
Urban parks have provided an essential respite for people during the pandemic and did not increase transmission of the virus, according to a study that looked at parks in New York City and Philadelphia. While high-touch areas like playgrounds were closed, most parks in those cities remained open and tended to see more use. But this increased usage did not lead to higher rates of COVID-19 in the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Access to overdose-reducing drugs declined during pandemic
Patients with opioid misuse disorders may be experiencing a dangerous decrease in access to the overdose-reducing drug naloxone in the United States. A study of prescription data in the U.S. found that the number of people filling prescriptions for any medication fell by 14 per cent in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, while the number of people filling opioid prescriptions fell by just nine per cent. However, the number of people filling naloxone prescriptions fell by more than 25 per cent.
UK contact tracing app prevented lots of infections
The COVID-19 contract tracing app used in England and Wales helped to prevent hundreds of thousands of infections in its first three months of use. The app, which launched in September 2020, sent approximately 1.7 million exposure notifications between October and December 2020 as a result of 560,000 users testing positive. A mathematical model based on six per cent of those notified going on to test positive — similar to the rate seen in manual tracing, and that predicts the likelihood that people will quarantine as requested — estimated that 284,000 cases were avoided.
Another statistical analysis that compared areas with different levels of app uptake predicted an even greater effect: 594,000 infections avoided. Around 28 per cent of the population uses the app, and the researchers predict that for each one-per-cent increase in users, the number of cases could be reduced by 0.8 to 2.3 per cent.
Hospital care at home worked well
The majority of patients who received hospital-level care for COVID-19 at home did not require escalation to a traditional hospital setting, even among older and obese patients, according to a study by a U.S.-based health-care system. Early in the pandemic Atrium Health implemented a hospital-at-home program to reduce the burden on hospitals and increase bed capacity. A study of the program found that just 20 per cent of home-based patients needed to be admitted to hospital within 14 days, usually for severe respiratory symptoms. The researchers were surprised to find that older and obese patients were no more likely to be transferred to hospital than other groups.
A new way of predicting vaccine efficacy
The early stages of a person’s immune response after they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 can predict the level of protection they will have over time. Researchers found that the amount of neutralizing antibodies produced shortly after immunization was a good proxy for a person’s eventual level of protection against infection. The work could help dramatically reduce the development time for new vaccines, as well as give an idea of how well vaccines work against new variants of the virus. The work also found that immunity from vaccination will wane significantly within a year, meaning that annual booster shots may be required to keep the virus in check.
Neurological problems common among hospitalized patients, and increase risk of death
More than 80 per cent of adult patients hospitalized for COVID-19 reported or were diagnosed with neurological problems. The most common symptoms were headaches, loss of smell or taste and altered mental states like confusion or delirium. The study found that having a pre-existing neurological condition of any kind — from brain, spinal cord and nerve diseases to chronic migraines, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease — doubled the risk of developing COVID-19-related neurological complications. And hospitalized patients who experienced any neurological symptoms related to COVID-19 were six times more likely to die.
Lockdown brought some positive lifestyle changes for older people
Pandemic lockdowns were a catalyst for many older people to embrace technology, reconnect with friends and build relationships with neighbours, according to a study in Scotland. Participants also said social distancing had brought an additional meaning to life, by highlighting what was important to them. The study of how older people coped with the stresses of the pandemic could help with developing interventions to help tackle loneliness, isolation and well-being in the future.