Although the world has been confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic for almost two years, there is still some confusion, misinformation and often-times fear in the community about what we are facing.
With over 35,000 confirmed cases of the virus in Australia in total, over 900 deaths, and a new 'Delta' variant rapidly spreading across the country, this is a natural reaction - our lives have altered drastically to help stop the spread of the virus, and we are living through what will likely be the biggest global event of our lifetimes.
Three medical experts from across the Riverina have come together to answer some of the most common COVID-19 questions, dispel common myths, and provide some clarity during this time.
What impact does COVID-19 have on those infected?
Dr Tim Gilbey, an infectious disease specialist in the Murrumbidgee, said that COVID-19 is primarily a lung infection.
"The vast majority of people who get unwell have progressive lung failure, which means they suffocate and need breathing support machinery to help them survive that, and even sometimes that's not enough," he said.
COVID-19 can also lead to a myriad of other problems, Dr Gilbey said, such as clotting, heart inflammation, neurologic problems and nerve inflammation. He said that one of the reasons there are so many different opinions on the severity of COVID-19 is because the infection can differ largely from person to person, much like any viral infection.
"One of the biggest problems from a global and public health point of view with COVID is it has the capacity to establish an asymptomatic infection ... where you don't have a lot of symptoms," he said, which can lead to infected people unknowingly spreading the virus in the community.
Does COVID only impact those over 50?
Early on in the pandemic a large concern was the significant number of deaths in people over 50 years of age, however Dr Gilbey said COVID is not a so-called "old person's disease".
"This is an infection that can infect anybody, and we've seen young people become very ill and even die," he said, mentioning a 27-year-old man from Sydney who tragically passed away from the virus earlier this month.
Dr Len Bruce, the director of medical services for Murrumbidgee, said that "long COVID" - prolonged symptoms associated with the virus - is an area of significant concern, "especially for the younger age group who may not end up in ICU, but it can still impact them quite significantly".
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"You get the infection, you have some degree of illness and then you recover from the infection, but even though you don't have infection anymore, you still have a wide variety of symptoms," Dr Gilbey added, with long COVID potentially causing chronic fatigue, breathing difficulties, scarring of the airways and chronic lung-disease.
The duration of these symptoms is yet to be determined, but could be "several months, if not years", Dr Gilbey said.
Why do we need to wear face masks?
Dr Gilbey said that wearing face masks - which is currently required in many settings across the country under public health orders - is primarily about protecting yourself and others, acting as a filter to reduce the amount of particles you spread and breathe in.
Dr Damien Limberger, a GP obstetrician and deputy head of the Charles Sturt University school of medicine's rural program, said that the prevention of transmission is "critical" now more than ever.
"We're dealing with the different variants to the other outbreaks, the Delta variant, [and] the transmission rate is so much higher than what we had in other outbreaks," he said.
Why have guidelines changed for the AstraZeneca vaccine?
The health advice - and messaging from the government - around vaccination has changed over the past few weeks as case numbers in NSW continue to rise.
Currently, the Pfizer vaccine is available for people in specific eligibility categories, and anyone over 40. All Australian adults can now receive AstraZeneca, however this is a recent change, as Pfizer is the recommended vaccine for people under 60.
Dr Gilbey explained that the apparent "mixed messaging" around vaccine advice stems from weighing up the risks and benefits.
"The potential benefit will change based on how much COVID is around," he said. "If you're in a situation where there's not a lot of COVID, which was the case in the early parts of the vaccine rollout, then you really do focus a lot on the risks."
Dr Bruce said that because COVID is so new, medical experts are constantly evaluating the virus - and any changes - and that's why the messaging is changing.
"The messages are not mixed, unfortunately COVID has not stayed the same and once again we have a very significant outbreak in Sydney, so clearly the benefit of vaccination far outweighs the risk of the very very rare side effects," he added.
Dr Gilbey said that the global benefit of vaccination was always far greater than any risks, "but we unfortunately had a narrow view; we were looking at Australia only with closed borders, with no international travel."
Dr Bruce said that a single dose of either vaccine will reduce the risk of hospitalisation from COVID by 75 per cent.
Where should I get my information from?
The doctors said that social media is the last place people should be going for COVID information, and instead, people should speak with their doctor or pharmacist about their concerns.
"You won't look on Facebook to try and answer your assignment question because you know that's not full of information, and yet people tend to go to social media to answer their questions about vaccination for some reason," Dr Limberger said.
"It doesn't make any sense at all; we know that it's full of opinion, people can say anything."
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