Each year, Daily Briefing's editorial team publishes a list of the 10 most-read stories; that list typically consists of a mixture of stories that cover everything from U.S. mortality rates to physician pay to medical mysteries—but 2020 has been anything but ordinary.
This year, our 10 most-read stories overwhelmingly cover the new coronavirus epidemic (with one breakout story on the presidential election results). Our editorial team spent the bulk of the year bringing you updates on the new coronavirus—and as we revisit this year's top 10 list, we've noted instances in which the science, and the recommendations backing them, has evolved.
From our team to yours, we wish you a Happy New Year.
Top 10 most-read stories
In July, researchers published a study of more than 17 million people in England that examined how much individuals' age, race/ethnicity, body mass index, and more affect their risk of dying from Covid-19. The researchers found that older people, men, racial and ethnic minorities, and people with underlying health conditions are most at risk.
The findings hold true today. CDC continues to warn older adults and those with underlying conditions are most at risk of hospitalization or death from Covid-19, and CDC also notes that racial and ethnic minorities continue to be disproportionately affected by Covid-19 in part due to long-standing systemic health and social inequities. In addition, subsequent research has continued to show men who are hospitalized with Covid-19 are more likely to die than women.
This is a question many Americans have asked during the eight-plus months of recommended social distancing. A CDC report published in October found fewer people were social distancing—maintaining six feet distance—in June than they were back in April.
The outlook for when social distancing may end is now rosier with the introduction of two FDA authorized coronavirus vaccines—Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC's "This Week" that the vaccines offer a "light at the end of the tunnel." But public health experts warn that now is not the time to ease up on social distancing, as hospitals across the United States are at or nearing ICU capacity.
In early September, public health experts warned of a fall surge as students across the country returned to school. But while certain parts of the country did see flare ups that in some cases resulted in school closings, research suggested that K-12 schools did not appear to cause spikes in Covid-19 cases. However, that does not mean we were in the clear; cases have climbed rapidly over the last month and in recent weeks have continued to set new daily records for cases and hospitalizations. The end result being on a national scale we ended the fall season with the highest rate of positive Covid-19 tests and inpatient bed utilization yet.
Amid the new coronavirus epidemic, Americans across the country grappled with the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many black Americans. These deaths prompted mass demonstrations in many cities, as Americans spoke out against social and racial injustice. The outcry put racism front and center for many Americans—and renewed discussions around addressing racism as a public health issue.
At the time, some epidemiologists warned that the large gatherings could prompt a surge of transmission of the new coronavirus, but so far, there's little evidence tying the protests to upticks in Covid-19 cases. In fact, one paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that, based on cellphone data, social distancing actually increased in cities where protests occurred, and they determined that there was "no evidence that net Covid-19 case growth differentially rose following the onset of Black Lives Matter protests."
Researchers have learned a lot about how Covid-19 presents and affects the body since the new coronavirus epidemic began, and the first substantial data emerged this past summer when researchers from about six institutions published the first large batch of reports on autopsies of Covid-19 patients. They discovered that patients who died from Covid-19 had damage to their lungs, kidneys, and livers, with blood clots present in large vessels. Some patients also experienced brain damage as a result of oxygen deprivation.
While researchers have continued to learn more about Covid-19's symptoms and how to treat the disease, one of the biggest unanswered questions is why it affects people so differently. The risk of severe case of Covid-19 increases with age, and is more likely to occur in people with compromised immune systems. However, even among young relatively health people cases can range from asymptomatic to critical care—and researchers do not yet know why. Harvard Medical School cites new research that indicates a person's interferons, which are an important component in the body's immune defense, could play a role—but for now it remains an open question.
Today, we know people with the new coronavirus can experience a range of symptoms (including none at all), but back in March little was known about patients' experience with the virus and Covid-19. The public got its first real look at patients with Covid-19 when people on the Diamond Princess cruise ship—which experienced an outbreak that left more than 3,000 people quarantined on the vessel—began sharing their experiences.
In an effort to stem the spread of the new coronavirus, governors in more than 40 states this spring issued so-called "stay-at-home orders," closed non-essential businesses, and put other social distancing measures in place to help contain the new coronavirus' spread. But nearly eight months later, Americans are still being asked to limit their contact with people outside of their households—and many Americans are unsurprisingly experiencing so-called quarantine fatigue.
Today, there is both good news and bad news on the social front. We now have two coronavirus vaccines that are more than 90% effective against Covid-19 being distributed throughout the United States. But experts say it may be several more months until we can gather indoors with friends and family again—and for those who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons it remains imperative for people to continue practicing public health measures, such as mask wearing.
One unexpected outcome of the new coronavirus was how quickly certain products flew off the shelves—from toilet paper to hand sanitizer—Americans began stocking up for their quarantine periods. But early on in the epidemic we learned not all hand sanitizer is created equal—and that holds true today.
When shopping for hand sanitizer, make sure it contains at least 60% alcohol. When applying, use enough to cover both hands, including between your fingers and under your nails, and rub your hands together until they are dry. But the best way to protect yourself is to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
9) What Biden's victory means for health care (November 7)
The coronavirus epidemic was not the only big news of the year—we also had a presidential election that ultimately resulted in former Vice President Joe Biden unseating President Trump. This change in administration will have big implications for coronavirus response efforts going forward, as well as a slew of other health policy priorities. Advisory Board's Christopher Kerns broke down five ways the Biden administration could approach key health care issues.
10) Why so many Americans think they've had Covid-19 (May 13)
From the start, CDC has faced criticism over its Covid-19 case count and mortality count. For months, CDC data suggested the first case of Covid-19 in the United States occurred on Jan. 19, with the first death occurring on Feb. 29. But in May new data emerged that suggested the first patient to die from the new coronavirus may have occurred on Feb. 6. This led some people to believe their illnesses that occurred before February, were actually undiagnosed Covid-19.
The latest CDC data gives some credence to those concerns. In a study published Nov. 30, CDC said data from recent serologic testing suggests the novel coronavirus had been circulating in the United States in mid-December—weeks earlier than scientists and public health officials previously thought. While the new data are compelling, experts still caution that it's possible people who experienced cold- or flu-like symptoms before February may have simply experienced a cold or the flu—or became infected by another disease unrelated to the new coronavirus.