The more interesting question is whether I might have missed out on contact with other, more useful microbes along the way. I can’t remember the last time I shook someone’s hand. Whenever it was, it might have been the last time ever.
A recent piece in The New York Times described researchers’ “mounting sense of dread” about these behavioral changes and their potentially “irreversible consequences.” But some are feeling optimistic. Certain effects could be positive, says Martin Blaser, the director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine at Rutgers University. For one thing, because people didn’t get colds, they also didn’t get (inappropriately) prescribed antibiotics. Many of these are crucial, even lifesaving, therapies. Used too often, though, they can disrupt microbial diversity in the body. If the pandemic helped mitigate their overuse and misuse, that’s “unquestionably good” from Blaser’s point of view.
As for those of us whose microbiome might be lacking because of isolation, Blaser has more hope. “The microbiome in older kids and adults is very resilient,” he says. The microbes that we acquire from other people later in life don’t seem to stick around so long, or to fundamentally alter the microbial foundation that each person develops very early in life. Married couples, for instance, share far less of their biomes than do a mother and child.
Whether the loss of social contact over the past year matters for our microbes in the long term depends on how we transition out of this period. For older kids and most adults, Finlay reassured me, “the damage is not irreversible.” That is, your microbial diversity may fall, but your foundation stays with you. High-fiber diets can help bring the diversity up again. “Instead of a sugar and white-flour diet, try to eat more nuts and seeds and legumes,” Finlay recommended. Spend time outside when you can, and hang out with animals. “Dogs are a great way to get microbial exposure.”
For me, this was all very reassuring. I got a dog during the pandemic, and I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors because there’s been nothing else to do. I’ve also eaten better because I’m cooking more and not grabbing a pizza slice every few hours (this is what New Yorkers do). You know, this pandemic may have been okay for my microbes. Maybe even good?
It’s not just me. In many families, young children were able to spend more time with their parents and pets than they otherwise would have. “I actually got my family outdoors more,” Melby, the medical anthropologist, told me. But these benefits have not been uniform across the population. Although “some people have improved their lives in terms of microbial exposure,” she said, “I know a lot of people who went the other direction.” Among the latter are those who have lacked access to safe parks and neighborhoods, high-quality food, and clean air. “I think the way this is going to play out is going to be very dependent on what resources people had during the pandemic.”