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Physical fitness is a general state of health and well-being and, more specifically, the ability to perform aspects of sports or occupations. Physical fitness is generally achieved through correct nutrition, moderate-vigorous physical activity, exercise and rest. It is a set of attributes or characteristics seen in people and which relate to the ability to perform a given set of physical activities.

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14 April 2021

  • Can You Uva Ursi the UTI Away? Probs Not

    Uva ursi is an herbal supplement made from a shrub called Arctostaphylos (aka bearberry 🐻).

    Some believe the herb comes with some dope health perks and use uva ursi to treat:

    But despite its legendary status as a holistic health herb, there’s not a lot of research to back up its benefits. Here’s what the science says.

    Emer1940/Getty Images

    Common uva ursi uses

    Uva ursi is a popular pick for peeps with pee problems. Two of its compounds — arbutin and hydroquinone — have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.

    Arbutin is a medicinal compound that transforms into hydroquinone when it’s metabolized. Hydroquinone may ease bladder or urinary tract pain and reduce inflammation. It could also encourage a healthy balance of bacteria.

    So the idea that uva ursi can treat kidney stones and urination probs is really only backed by theoretical science.

    What’s the sitch on supplements?

    This little plant is decked out with tiny berries that bears can’t resist (it actually translates to “grape of the bears” in Latin, which is adorbz). But for humans, uva ursi supplements are made from the plant’s leaves, not the berries.

    Supplements can come in teabag, capsule, or liquid drop form. Some folks also use loose leaf uva ursi to steep tea or DIY skin products.

    Uva ursi for a UTI: Does it work?

    UTIs are a common infection that can affect any part of your urinary system. They can be hella painful and totally annoying. If left unchecked a UTI can lead to serious health concerns like kidney infections or sepsis.

    While some folks use uva ursi as their go-to UTI treatment, we still need more research to prove it actually works.

    Some test tube studies suggest that uva ursi can stave off Staphylococcus saprophyticus and E. coli — two of the most common types of bacteria that cause UTIs. But this doesn’t mean it can cure a UTI 10/10.

    A 2019 study tested a group of women with minor UTI symptoms. Ultimately, uva ursi didn’t lessen their symptoms or eliminate the need for antibiotics.

    Does it matter when I take it?

    Some research suggests uva ursi is more effective if taken at the first signs of a UTI. This might be because hydroquinone can make your pee more acidic. Alkaline pee can kill bad bacteria and might prevent the infection from getting worse (key word: maybe).

    Other uva ursi benefits 

    Uva ursi isn’t only good for your pee-parts. It might also help with:

    • Weight loss. Arbutin, the plant’s active compound, has been promoted as a weight loss supplement. But there’s not a lot of research to back this up.
    • Menstrual cramp relief. Uva ursi might help ease cramps. Keep in mind, most studies have only been on animals.
    • Skin care. Hydroquinone can reduce the appearance of dark spots or freckles on your skin. It’s also used in a lot of skin-lightening products.

    Uva ursi side effects

    Uva ursi is generally considered safe if taken correctly. But in some cases it can cause:

    Possible drug interactions

    Uva ursi doesn’t play well with certain medications.

    • Lithium. Uva ursi may increase lithium in your blood to unsafe levels.
    • NSAIDs and corticosteroids. Uva ursi may boost the anti-inflammatory effects of these drugs, according to animal studies. But we still don’t know the effect this combo has on humans.
    • Iron. Wait 2 hours to take an iron supplement after you take uva ursi.
    • Other supplements, juice, and drugs. This might sound wild but cranberry juice, citrus juices, and vitamin C supplements can pump up the volume on your pee’s acidity. When paired with uva ursi, Tinkle Town might experience an acid overload.

    Who should avoid uva ursi?

    Don’t use uva ursi if you:

    • are nursing
    • your eggo is preggo
    • have an intestinal, liver, or kidney disease

    The herb is also not recommended for children.

    Uva ursi dosage deets

    A standard uva ursi dose is 2 to 4 grams a day (which is about 400 to 800 milligrams of arbutin).

    It’s VERY important you keep your dosages in check. Just half an ounce of the dried herb can be toxic. There are also concerns swirling around hydroquinone. Some research shows long-term exposure can cause cancer.

    You should also limit the length of usage. It shouldn’t be taken for more than 2 weeks at a time. Overuse can lead to liver or kidney damage.

    Supplement PSA

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t monitor supplement as closely as other medications. Make sure you stick to the good stuff when buying an uva ursi supplement.

    The takeaway

    Uva ursi is an herbal extract pulled from bearberry shrub leaves. It boasts a long history of traditional medical uses. Lots of folks use it to treat UTIs and other urinary-related conditions.

    Keep in mind, research proving uva ursi’s efficacy is limited. You should always ask your doc about the best treatment for your unique urinary sitch.

    It’s also very important you keep your uva ursi dosages in check. Taking too much can be toxic and lead to serious health concerns.

    P.S. Always talk with your doc before adding a new supplement to your regimen.

  • Top 10 COVID Questions of the Week — Answered
    Design by Mekhi Baldwin

    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.

    1. Are we experiencing a fourth wave?

    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.

    2. What is “COVID arm”?

    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. 

    3. Should I join a throuple?

    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!

    4. What is a double mutant strain?

    Well, we went from throuple back to double. 

    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.

    5. Is vaccine hesitancy still a concern with the pandemic?

    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.

    6. Wait, do COVID-19 vaccines stop transmission? Do we have updated info?

    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. 

    7. How do I unclog my sink?

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

    8. I feel undervaccinated. If I didn’t have side effects after getting the J&J vax, does that mean I’m not protected?

    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.

    9. What’s the update on booster shots?

    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. 

    10. What’s a gose?

    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

    COVID FAQS: March 30, 2021

    Design by Mekhi Baldwin

    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.

    1. Do we still have declining cases?

    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.

    2. What’s it like to get the vaccine when you have a history of anaphylaxis?

    *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.

    3. Can I drink alcohol after getting the vaccine?

    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.”

    4. How do I get rid of the hiccups?

    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.

    5. Can I take pain relievers for vaccine side effects?

    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.

    6. Does the flu shot offer some protection against COVID-19?

    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

    7. Enough with Anti-Asian Racism. What can I do?

    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.

    8. What’s up with the AstraZeneca vax?

    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). 

    9. Is there fetal tissue in COVID-19 vaccines? 

    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. 

    10. I’m ready to get rid of some sh** after a year of hunkering down. Where does it go? 

    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.

    COVID FAQS: March 18, 2021

    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! 

    1. Should I go to the gym?

    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.

    2. Should I go to the dentist? 

    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. 

    3. Will crystals cure COVID-19?

    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

    4. What’s the difference between the two mRNA vaccines and the J&J vaccine?

    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!

    5. Should I choose one vaccine over the other?

    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. 

    6. Should I have sex standing up?

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

    7. Should I lie to get a vaccine earlier than my designated phase? 

    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.

    8. Should I drive somewhere else to get a COVID-19 vaccine?

    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.

    9. Should I get tested for antibodies after getting the vaccine?

    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. 

    10. Is it safe for vaccinated people to hang out with vaccinated people? 

    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.

    COVID FAQS: March 2, 2021

    Design by Mekhi Baldwin

    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. 

    1. Are COVID-19 numbers really improving?

    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!

    2. That’s great — but why? 

    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. 

    3. Have we reached herd immunity?

    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!

    4. What about variants?

    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. 

    5. Will vaccine boosters be a thing because of variants?

    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.

    6. So, when will we be on the other side?

    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.

    7. Are there any updates regarding virus transmission and surfaces?

    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!

    8. Does that mean I don’t have to clean my bathroom?

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

    9. What’s up with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

    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.

    10. Ugh. Allergy season. How do I know it’s pollen and not COVID?

    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.

    COVID FAQS: February 16, 2021

    Design by Mekhi Baldwin

    1. Do we know now how this whole pandemic thing got started yet? 

    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.

    2. Could it happen again?

    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.

    3. Can I see my vaccinated peeps now?

    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.

    4. Is it true that people who’ve been vaccinated don’t need to quarantine if they’re exposed to the virus? 

    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.

    5. Wait just a gosh darn minute! Why is this the CDC’s recommendation if we don’t yet know about transmission? 

    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.”

    6. Can I go to a pharmacy and get the vaccine? 

    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.

    7. When will the general population be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine?

    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.

    8. What’s the deal with vaccine passports? 

    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.

    9. Are we in a calm before a COVID storm? 

    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. 

    10. Talk of the “quarantine body” is driving me mad. How do I deal? 

    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.

    COVID FAQS: February 9, 2021

    Design by Mekhi Baldwin

    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! 

    1. I’m so over the pandemic. How do I deal?

    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!

    2. I’m young and healthy, but I received the vaccine under unusual circumstances. Should I feel guilty about getting the vaccine before others?

    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.

    3. What happens if I get only the first dose of a vaccine?

    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.

    4. What’s the deal with the Johnson & Johnson vax?

    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.

    5. Should I hold out for one vaccine over another? 

    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.

    6. Do vaccines stop virus transmission? 

    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. 

    7. OMG, stop talking about the vaccine. I can’t even get it yet. Anyone else experiencing FOMO?

    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.

    8. Speaking of money… am I getting another stimulus check?

    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. 

    9. All the COVID-19 data hurts my noggin. What to do?

    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.

    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.

    10. I’m covering my eyes, but what’s the latest on mutations?

    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.

    COVID FAQS: February 1, 2021

    Design by Mekhi Baldwin

    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.

    1. What’s the latest regarding COVID-19 variants?

    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.

    2. So should I double mask now? Or what should I be doing with masks? HALP!

    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.

    3. What else should I be doing to protect myself against variants?

    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.

    4. OMG, will COVID-19 ever go away?

    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!

    5. Not gonna lie. This winter has been ugh. Whatchya got?

    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.

    6. I’ve heard mixed info about smoking and COVID-19 risk. What’s the verdict?

    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.

    7. What’s the deal with other vaccine candidates? Are they ready already?

    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.

    8. How many people have been vaccinated for COVID-19 so far?

    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.

    9. What are the current COVID hotspots?

    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.

    10. Are COVID cases still going down overall? What about deaths?

    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.

    COVID FAQS: January 25, 2021

    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.

    1. How many people have died from COVID-19, and how many more will likely die?

    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.

    2. We’ve heard a lot of bad AF news about COVID-19 lately. Is there any good news?

    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.

    3. I keep hearing about virus variants. What do I need to know about them?

    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.

    4. Will the available COVID-19 vaccines work against virus variants? 

    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.

    5. I had COVID-19 last year and kicked it. Can I get it again? 

    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!

    6. Where is COVID-19 spreading the most right now in the new year? 

    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.

    7. What are the new administration’s plans for curbing the pandemic?

    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.

    8. Speaking of COVID-19 vaccines, how do I know when I can get one?

    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.

    9. How do I weed through conspiracy theories about vaccines?

    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.

    10. I’m still not feeling like myself after having COVID-19. Is this normal?

    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.

    Got COVID questions? DM me on Twitter or Insta: @jenchesak.

  • Small Movements, Big Impact: 10 Benefits of Pilates

    Have you ever passed by a Pilates class and thought “They’re not moving too much. How hard could that be?”

    It turns out that Pilates can be *very* challenging. Pilates can make a big difference in your bod with small, targeted movements. And it’s not just about physical health — Pilates has benefits for your mental well-being too.

    Here’s what you need to know about the benefits of Pilates. We also rounded up the best Pilates workouts online to help you get those perks.

    10 Pilates benefits

    Wanna know how Pilates will work out for you? Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of Pilates.

    1. Develops body awareness and control
    2. Reduces lower back pain
    3. Promotes good posture
    4. Helps maintain weight
    5. Relieves stress
    6. Strengthens core
    7. Boosts energy
    8. Enhances focus
    9. Improves sleep
    10. Increases flexibility
    Qi Yang/Stocksy United

    What is Pilates?

    Pilates is the brainchild of Joseph Pilates, who developed the technique in the mid-20th century. It uses a series of stretching, strengthening, and breathing exercises that activate your core muscles and help those fibers become long and lean. 

    Over the years, Pilates has become a popular workout option. You can do Pilates using only a mat, or you can add tools and equipment such as a Pilates reformer. Either option can give you an awesome workout with all the Pilates bennies.

    Pilates vs. yoga: What’s the diff? 

    Sure, Pilates and yoga seem similar at first glance. They’re both popular forms of exercise that use stretching and breathing techniques to improve your overall health. But they also have some notable differences.

    Pilates is a low impact exercise that focuses on performing small movements that rely on your back and core muscles for stabilization. The main physical benefits of Pilates are improved core strength and better posture.

    Yoga focuses on mindfulness and deep breathing as you flow through a series of held poses. It’s often used to deepen meditation practices, boost flexibility, and improve balance

    10 mind and body benefits of Pilates

    There are lots of benefits (for both your body and your mind) to making Pilates part of your health and wellness routine.

    1. Develops body awareness and control

    Pilates focuses on controlled movements. You’ll be challenged to stay aware of your breath, posture, and movement while you’re performing these routines.

    All this attention can seem overwhelming when you’re starting out, but don’t worry. Over time, you’ll get more in tune with your body, both on and off the mat.

    2. Reduces lower back pain

    Physical therapists agree that Pilates helps relieve pain in certain populations. If your body awareness has decreased (this can happen with age or injury), Pilates can be an effective way to manage and relieve related lower back pain.

    However, if you’re dealing with a back fracture or preeclampsia, Pilates prob won’t make a big difference in your pain. 

    3. Improves posture

    When your spine’s not stabilized, your posture suffers. Regular Pilates workouts can strengthen any underdeveloped muscles that may be causing you to slouch.

    4. Helps maintain weight

    Pilates can help you on your journey to maintain a healthy weight thanks to its focus on strengthening, sculpting, and building lean muscle.

    In an 8-week study of 37 women who were overweight or had obesity, Pilates helped participants lose weight and reduce BMI

    Just remember that it’s important to combine exercise with healthy diet and lifestyle choices. 

    5. Relieves stress

    As the wise Elle Woods once said, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.”

    Pilates is a great restorative workout, so it’s an effective way to help you relax. All this relaxation can help release muscle tension, kick stress to the curb, and elevate your mood. 

    6. Strengthens core

    Pilates activates your core muscles (the ones in your back, abdomen, and pelvic floor). These muscles are essential for supporting your entire body.

    A regular Pilates routine can keep your core strong and firm (hello, abs!). When the rest of your body isn’t overcompensating for a weak core, those muscles can catch a break. 

    7. Boosts energy

    Once you get into the Pilates groove, you may notice an uptick in energy. Why? Because Pilates helps improve blood circulation. That gets your body flowin’ and goin’.

    It also makes your body feel good all around (thanks to that aligned spine, strong core, and added flexibility!), which can add an extra pep in your step. 

    8. Improves focus

    When you do a Pilates workout, you’re exercising your body, but you’re also giving your ability to focus a workout.

    Reaping the most rewards from Pilates requires concentration. You need to ensure that your body and breath are in sync with every movement. This boosts your focus in the moment and can carry over into other parts of your life. 

    9. Helps you get better sleep

    Pilates may be just what the doctor ordered for a good night’s sleep. Research suggests that Pilates can significantly improve sleep quality.

    Bonus: Better sleep leads to better moods. It’s a win-win situation! 

    10. Improves flexibility 

    Like yoga, Pilates incorporates careful stretching and bending. This helps increase your range of motion while keeping your muscles strong. This one-two punch of stretching and strengthening can allow you (and your joints!) to become more flexible as you progress in your Pilates practice. 

    Best Pilates workouts online

    Ready to reap those awesome Pilates benefits? You can head to a class or have class come to you with these online workout videos.

    You can also check out Greatist’s very own ultimate 30-day Pilates boot camp routine. 

    Best free workouts

    Best for beginners: The Balanced Life with Robin Long – Pilates for Beginners 

    This simple flow with Robin Long, a certified Pilates instructor and the founder and CEO of The Balanced Life, will help lay the groundwork for a proper Pilates practice. Check out her entire beginner series for more foundational instruction. 

    Best 20-minute class: Total Body Pilates Flow Workout with Deanna Dorman

    Short on time? Deanna Dorman has got you covered with this quick yet impactful 20-minute Pilates sesh. She’s not only a Pilates instructor but also a celebrity master trainer and fitness nutrition specialist.

    Best head-to-toe-toning sesh: Ultimate Pilates Toning Workout with Lottie Murphy

    This half-hour flow with experienced Pilates teacher Lottie Murphy will help you lengthen, strengthen, and tone your entire body. 

    Best free workout app: FitOn

    FitOn is packed with tons of different workouts, including stellar Pilates sessions for all levels and needs. Best part? It’s all available in a handy app that comes at everyone’s favorite price: FREE.

    Best paid programs

    Best for beginners: Glo 

    Featuring more than 4,000 on-demand workouts, Glo helps you build your Pilates foundation by helping you find workouts tailored to your needs and level. 

    Best for all levels: Pilatesology 

    Pilatesology is 100 percent Pilates, 0 percent fluff. With workouts for all levels (even for practicing Pilates teachers!), Pilatesology truly has a workout for everyone.

    Bonus: You can download the workouts to your device, so you can even enjoy the flow while you’re offline. 

    Best variety: Obé 

    Obé offers a variety of exercise options, including a stacked selection of Pilates sessions. Whether you’re looking for a simple restorative sesh or something more intense, Obé’s got you covered. Classes are available both on demand and live. 

    tl;dr

    • Pilates is an exercise technique that relies on stretching and strengthening to promote long, lean muscles. 
    • Doing Pilates regularly can have many benefits, both physical and mental. 
    • Physical benefits include better sleep, a stronger core, and increased awareness of your body. 
    • Mental benefits including improved mood, better focus, and less stress.
    • A variety of free and paid Pilates programs for every ability level is available online.
  • 7 Home Remedies for a Pulled Upper Back Muscle

    Upper back pain can be a total downer. The pain often stems from a pesky pulled muscle. Depending on the strain, it can take few weeks to several months or longer to recover. But don’t worry, we’ve got your back 😉.

    DIY treatments for a pulled upper back muscle

    Here are seven solid home remedies for upper back pain to have you feeling better.

    1. Apply over-the-counter pain cream.
    2. Use heat and cold.
    3. Stretch your muscles.
    4. Get a little exercise.
    5. Swap for comfier shoes.
    6. Make sure you’re sleeping.
    7. Lower your stress level.
    Kilito Chan/Getty Images

    Did you pull an upper back muscle?

    Your upper back is the region that runs from the bottom of your rib cage to the base of your neck. Pain in that area is pretty common. About 1 in 5 females and 1 in 10 males experience thoracic spine pain (TSP), according to a 2014 study.

    A lot of folks say the pain feels like a pulling or burning sensation. Sometimes the discomfort only affects a specific spot. But the pain can also radiate to other parts of your back or neck.

    In addition to pain, other pulled muscle symptoms can include:

    What can cause a pulled upper back muscle?

    Lots of factors can contribute to an achy-breaky upper back. Common culprits include:

    Keep in mind, upper back pain can be unpredictable. Sometimes an awkward bend and snap or a rough night’s sleep can trigger a bad back episode. That’s why it’s uber important you keep your form on fleek for every exercise and sleep on a top-notch mattress.

    7 best home remedies for upper back pain

    There are some DIY ways to help ease your pain. Here are seven ideas that could help soothe a pulled upper back muscle.

    How long will it take to get better?

    Recovery time depends on how severe the strain or pain is. Harvard Health says that most mild muscle strains will improve within a few weeks. But severe muscle tears can take 3 months or longer to heal.

    1. Use a pain cream

    There are TONS of pain-relieving creams that can help reduce discomfort. Try to find one with capsaicin or menthol for the best results. Why? One 2014 study suggested that capsaicin can help reduce joint pain. Menthol can desensitize pain receptors when it’s applied to your skin, according to a research review.

    Pro tip: Ask your doc about Rx creams and other types of pain relieving medications if over-the-counter (OTC) options don’t do the trick.

    2. Apply some heat and cold

    A small 2014 study showed that the use of heat and cold can help relieve muscle aches. Cold packs can reduce inflammation while heating pads can soothe stiff, achy muscles.

    Pro tip: A bag of frozen peas or a hot water bottle will work just fine, too.

    3. Stretch

    A light stretch sesh can help alleviate tension in your upper back. Some great yoga poses for upper back pain are:

    FYI: Don’t push your sore back too far. That can make things worse.

    4. Exercise

    Low impact activities might reduce your upper back pain. It can help loosen tight muscles and release endorphins (happy chemicals.) A solid strength training routine can also prevent future injuries.

    Just make sure to stay away from intense strength training while you’re healing a pulled muscle. Your workout should be pain-free and low impact.

    Pro tip: A short walk or light yoga sesh are great choices.

    5. Switch shoes

    A simple shoe switcheroo might make a big difference. Wearing shoes that don’t provide proper support can cause back, knee, foot, and leg pain. (We’re looking at you, heels 👠).

    Pro tip: A gel-insert can provide added arch support and stability.

    6. Sleep it off

    A good night’s sleep isn’t just good for your brain. Mr. Sandman can help repair damaged muscles. A lack of sleep can even lower your pain tolerance. So, slay that sleep, fam!

    P.S. Adults should get around 7 to 9 hours of shut-eye a night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

    7. Reduce stress

    Stress can be a one-way ticket to Tension Town. A 2010 study found that mindfulness stress reduction can improve back pain. Other stress reduction techniques include deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or journaling.

    Pro tip: Try a meditation or therapy app.

    What if it still doesn’t feel better?

    You should def talk with your doc if your upper back pain is severe. It’s also important to reach out if the pain is chronic (it won’t go away or it seems to come and go a lot.)

    Let them know if home remedies just aren’t easing the pain. Your doc might suggest medications to soothe the pain or reduce back spasms. They also might recommend physical therapy or chiropractic care.

    Some folks also get relief from alternative treatments like massage therapy, dry needle therapy, or acupuncture. Just be sure your doc says it’s OK first.

    Can I prevent upper back pain?

    There’s plenty you can do to prevent future back attacks. Here are some tips:

    • Practice proper posture.
    • Avoid lifting heavy objects.
    • Stretch and exercise on the reg.
    • Give your body time to recover after each workout.
    • Do a warmup and cooldown every time you exercise.
    • Use protective gear for sports or physically demanding jobs.
    • Don’t push it past your limits when you exercise. If it hurts, STOP!
    • Maintain a moderate weight. (A research review showed that obesity is linked to certain spinal conditions.)
    • Be a cool kid and make sure you double-strap your backpack, so the weight is distributed evenly.

    The bottom line

    A pulled upper back muscle can be hella painful. Thankfully, there are lots of ways you can try to heal it at home. Pain creams, cold packs, heating pads, stretching, light exercise, switching shoes, and stress reduction are all good options.

    Keep in mind, home remedies don’t always work as well as professional medical care. Call your doctor if your back pain is severe or becomes chronic. They can help you find the right treatments for your unique back probs.

  • Hitting the Sand: Your Guide to Beach Running

    Is your running motivation running short? It might be time to step out onto the sand. Whether you’re new to running or a lifelong pro, you can shake up your stale running routine with a trip to the beach.

    Need advice to get started? Our guide is here to help. Keep scrolling to learn all about the benefits, and best tips for running on the beach.  

    Ivan Gener/Stocksy United

    Benefits of running on the beach

    It’s about more than a shoe with a view. Beach running comes with lots of health benefits and performance perks.

    An extra challenge

    Wanna add an extra dose of resistance to your miles? Beach running might be for you!

    Sand’s an uneven surface, so it takes more energy from your foot muscles for you to keep moving your body forward, according to several studies. That makes your workout more challenging.

    A softer landing space

    Running on sand also means you’ll have a softer landing. It puts less stress on your ankles, knees, and hips, according to one small study. Another small study found fewer markers of post-workout muscle damage in people who ran on sand compared to folks who ran on grass.

    A speed boost

    Running on the beach may also improve your performance because it targets your muscles in different ways. One small study found that training on the sand led to additional fitness gains. That included better dynamic stability and a faster sprint time.

    A bonus core workout

    Beach running is also core-tastic! You need to keep your core muscles engaged when running to keep your balance. As you run on an unstable surface (like sand), your feet will slip and move. That means you’ll get even more of a challenge.

    What’s so great about this dynamic stability boost? One small study suggested that core endurance training may make you a more efficient runner.

    Should you run barefoot on the beach?

    This is a bit of a hot topic. Some folks claim that running barefoot is the best thing ever, while others prefer to keep their shoes on.

    Curious about running shoeless? Here’s how to figure out if it’s right for you.

    The perks

    The drawbacks

    7 tips for running on the beach

    Ready to switch the pavement for the sand? Check our top tips for making the best out of beach running.

    1. Warm up

    Every great workout starts with a strong warmup. Don’t skip this important step! It helps to prevent injuries. Before jumping into your exercise, make sure you spend a few minutes on a full-body warmup to get yourself ready to run.

    2. Wear sunscreen

    Skip the sunburn. Show your skin some love by wearing that broad-spectrum sunscreen. Complete your look with a pair of running sunglasses, and get those UV rays out of the way. Adios, radiation!

    3. Stay hydrated

    Drinking water is key to getting the most out of any type of workout. But it can be tough to get enough when you’re running outdoors in a hot temp. Make sure you stay hydrated, before, during, and after running with a handy reusable water bottle.

    4. Start by running on wet sand

    New to beach running? Start on wet sand. Wet sand is usually firmer, so it’s easier to find support than softer dry sand. This is also a great tip if you’re going barefoot. Don’t run without shoes on when the sand’s too hot. It can burn the bottoms of your feet.

    5. Stick to flat ground

    If you’re just getting started with beach running, try to avoid the dunes. Why? Running along a banked surface a could be a shortcut for future injuries.

    6. Slowly ease into barefoot running

    Wanna start barefoot running? Great! Just keep in mind that your body is used to being on shoes most of the time.

    Running barefoot can come as a shock to your bod, and you might injure yourself. Ease into barefoot running by starting with short laps and then increase over time as your feet get used to it.

    7. Be beach shoe ready

    Not into the shoeless sprint? Find some comfy running shoes! If you have the budget, consider reserving a pair just for your beach runs. That way, you don’t have to try to get the sand out of your shoes, or wait for them to dry out before you can use them at the gym.  

    The bottom line

    Beach running can be a scenic, fun way to explore new places. It can also save your workout routine from boredom and boost your athletic performance. Wanna start running on the beach? Just make sure to get a solid warmup, slather on the sunscreen, and stick to the flat ground. Ready, set, go!