Getting Answers: three years after start of COVID-19 pandemic

Three years later, the Bay State’s public health emergency is coming to an end and a sense of normalcy has returned as we learn to live with the coronavirus.
Published: Mar. 20, 2023 at 10:38 AM EDT
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AMHERST, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - In March 2020, the World Health Organization announced the COVID-19 crisis a global pandemic. A state of emergency was also declared in Massachusetts. However, three years later, the Bay State’s public health emergency is coming to an end and a sense of normalcy has returned as we learn to live with the coronavirus.

“We are done with the pandemic, but COVID is not done with us,” said UMass Amherst microbiologist Dr. Erika Hamilton.

March 11, 2020 was a day that changed everything. Businesses were forced to close their doors, students and teachers spent hours online learning from their homes, people raced to the stores to stock up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and masks, and working from home became the norm. It marked the beginning of the global COVID-19 pandemic and, at the time, little was known about the virus.

“Is it on my mail? If I get food delivery, is it on the delivery bag? Is it on the food that the person prepare? So, one of the biggest questions we had very early on was how long does COVID last on a particular surface and do different surfaces matter?...It turned out that none of that was true. COVID, it is actually a very fragile virus. As soon as it lands on a surface, once it is there for a few minutes, it generally dies,” Hamilton noted.

At the start of the pandemic, Western Mass News took many of those unanswered questions to Hamilton. Now, we’re getting answers from Hamilton again on what has changed and what is the same when it comes to the coronavirus.

“We knew it was spread by respiratory. We knew it was harming certain groups of people, in particularly, the elderly and immunocompromised or people with chronic illnesses more than it was hurting children,” Hamilton explained.

Hamilton said it was the unknown answers surrounding the spread and how the virus was transmitted, which forced a complete shutdown while health officials conducted tests and studies to determine what we were dealing with.

“We can’t experiment on people for that. That is not a thing that’s okay to do, so we had to do tests and laboratories to determine do masks help with the COVID virus and, in some circumstances, we had to allow if you wear this type of mask and you stay this far distance from each other, will it stop COVID spread?” Hamilton said.

We now know that social distancing and mask wearing can help cut the spread of COVID, but not entirely stop it. Another tool that popped up later in the pandemic to help flatten the curve was COVID-19 vaccines.

“Getting a vaccine for COVID will not 100 percent prevent you from getting the virus, which is somewhat similar to that with some of our vaccines when you get a vaccine and that will prevent you completely from getting the disease, but not all vaccines work like that on the COVID vaccine is one that is not going to function that way,” Hamilton said.

However, once the shots were approved by the Food and Drug Administration, new questions started popping up.

“How does the vaccine work? How well is it going to work? How do we know? How did they do the trials and how did they get the vaccines move through the approval process so quickly?” Hamilton added.

Hamilton said vaccines have continued to evolve with as the virus has mutated creating new variants, but she said that although you can never be 100 percent protected against COVID, you should still get your vaccines and boosters.

“Not only does it reduce how long you will have coverage for, it reduces the severity of your symptoms and, in some cases, that can prevent you from getting it depending on what your exposure is and what variant you’ve been exposed to,” Hamilton noted.

However, even with our increased knowledge of COVID-19, some unknowns still remain.

“The one piece of this that we still do not know much about is the concept of long COVID. The symptoms that people are having after they have been sick with COVID…You are watching evolution happen in front of your eyes. A virus, as quickly evolving and quickly changing to allow itself to become more transmissible,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said there are two things that she does not anticipate changing anytime soon and that’s the five day quarantine period once you test positive and wearing a mask inside a hospital or at the doctor’s or dentist’s offices.