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Tag: public health

Keep Hope Up As Pandemic Ebbs — But Don’t Let Guard Down

Are we at the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning? Let's call it the middle.

The COVID-19 numbers are going decisively lower, both infections and deaths. Millions, meanwhile, are getting the vaccine and becoming mostly immune to the disease.

Still, the seven-day average of American deaths from this virus continues in the thousands. And it would be much higher if more of us let our guard down by ignoring calls to wear masks, socially distance, and sanitize hands.

We each make our own policy for how far to go. There are the absolutists, who take no chances. They see no friends and never enter a restaurant, much less step on a plane.

Then there are moderates, like yours truly, who always wear a mask in public but do gather with their "pod" of careful friends. We eat in establishments that take precautions.

Finally, there are those who don't care at all and do nothing protective. They risk their own life and the lives of others.

As we move into a somewhat less scary phase of this disease, we moderates probably have the most to think about. That's because we were always open to weighing more options.

Consideration No. 1: mask-wearing. Of course we'll continue wearing masks. But two masks with one of tight-fitting cloth, as Dr. Anthony Fauci advises? On public transportation, OK. But as the risk of infection heads down, perhaps we can lighten up and wear just a lightweight mask while on a walk.

Infectious-disease experts now believe that outdoor activities rarely cause the disease to spread unless people are in close conversation. They say that with a few exceptions, we can safely jog or bike without a mask.

That said, hospitals are still rationing medical-grade N95 masks even as their stockpiles grow, according to the Associated Press. Why? They remain traumatized by the terrifying mask shortage of a year ago and don't want to be caught short-handed again. They also fear a future surge in cases. (More on that later.)

We moderates continue to frown on the mask-less multitudes who crowd at super-spreader events. A recent example would be the bar parties following the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Super Bowl win. Health officials in Florida warn of a possible coronavirus spike as a result. For people like me, the difference now is we take all that reckless behavior less personally.

Consideration No. 2: traveling. Early in the pandemic, I flew across the country on a JetBlue flight with few passengers and distanced seating. I would not go on a crowded jet. Now that I've had my first shot, I worry less about flying. When I get the second one, I'll hop right on.

Consideration No. 3: guilt. As frontline workers, the elderly and other vulnerable people get their protective vaccinations, less stigma is attached to easing up a bit on the restrictions.

However, unsettling thoughts remain. New coronavirus variants are reportedly more infectious and not as easily tamed by some of the vaccines. Variants are reportedly reinfecting people who survived the early version of the disease. And, undoubtedly, more variants are coming at us.

To reach herd immunity, 60 to 90 percent of the population must be vaccinated or protected by prior infection, according to medical experts. If the 15 percent of Americans who say they'll never get the vaccine follow through on that vow, that goal could be hard to reach.

The hope in this country is that the pandemic will end around summer. As the scourge shows more definite signs of weakening, we who tried to do the right things may be able to relax — if just a little. This will be a strange time.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

Fox News Undermined Public Health Measures — And Now Its Most Powerful Viewer Has Virus

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

Fox News' pro-Trump hosts have spent months trying to bolster President Donald Trump's reelection chances by downplaying the threat posed by the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. They mocked former Vice President Joe Biden for the precautions his presidential campaign has taken to protect him and others and valorized Trump for defying the public health community by refusing to do so. Now, the president himself has the virus. He revealed overnight that he and the first lady, Melania Trump, had tested positive for COVID-19, and the White House on Friday morning said he is experiencing "mild symptoms."

Trump engaged in a series of risky behaviors before and after contracting the virus.

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New Study Finds Republican Policies Mean Shorter Lives

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

The United States trails many other developed countries when it comes to life expectancy, but how long one lives can have a lot to do with where that person lives in the U.S. and how conservative its policies are. And Michael Hobbes, in an article for HuffPost, discusses the connection between GOP policies and shorter life expectancy and a new study showing how destructive those policies can be.

"In 2014," Hobbes notes, "American life expectancy fell backward for the first time in 21 years. U.S. lifespans slid lower for another three years straight before barely ticking upward in 2018."

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Trump: Tuesday Night Debate Caused Monday Market Crash

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

In a rambling, vague, and, at times, gratuitously boastful press conference, President Donald Trump demonstrated his sprawling ignorance about public health Wednesday night as he gave his first speech in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Though he boasted about working with some of the greatest experts in public health in the world, he demonstrated no personal knowledge of the science or the nature of the outbreak. He seemed entirely ambivalent about getting funding from Congress to fight the pandemic, noting that his administration asked for $2.5 billion, but some Republicans have said $4 billion would be more appropriate, and some Democrats have asked for twice that.

Trump said he wouldn’t mind getting more money from Congress, if they want to give it, but also that the original $2.5 billion would be sufficient. He seemed to have no idea — and less interest — in what the money could actually be used for and what scale of the problem could require.

Most strikingly, Trump revealed that he previously had no idea about the how deadly the season flu can be.

“The flu in our country kills from 29,000 people to 69,000 people a year,” Trump said. “That was shocking to me.”

It’s disturbing that a president would have previously had no idea how serious a public health threat the flu is, especially after having been in office for three years. But it was also notable that Trump felt the need to bring up the mortality of the flu in a clear effort to diminish the seriousness of the current outbreak.

Trump added that the United States will “soon” have a vaccine for the coronavirus — even though his own Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said it wouldn’t be possible to develop one in less than a year.

Trump also made a prediction that none of the public health officials working in the administration has been willing to make, saying that he thinks the number of infection cases in the United States will shortly be “going to be down to zero.” That could easily be proven false in the coming days if the outbreak spreads, furth undermining confidence in his leadership.

The president also criticized Democrats who have found fault in his administration’s handling of the outbreak, saying that they should all be working together to respond to the pandemic. But when asked about the week’s plunging stock market, he absurdly downplayed the role the coronavirus has had in spiking investor panic, instead saying that the Democratic presidential primary debates caused the decline.

“I think they look at the people you watch debating last night, and they say, ‘If there’s even a possibility that that could happen,’ I think it takes a hit because of that,” he said, before acknowledging that the virus also contributed to the drop.

Apparently responding to calls from outside the government to appoint a coronavirus “czar,” Trump said that Vice President Mike Pence would organize the administration’s response. But many observers noted that this choice was far from reassuring. Pence has no expertise in public health, and he was sluggish to respond to a sudden HIV outbreak in Indiana while he was governor, initially opposing harm-reduction policies on moral grounds that eventually proved to be extremely effective. He also, like the president, denies the science behind climate change. And as late as 2000, Pence was still casting doubt on the finding that smoking causes cancer.

And despite the clear danger posed by the threat, Trump expressed not regret for repeatedly pushing for cuts in the administration’s public health agencies.

“I’m a business person, I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them,” Trump said. “We can get ‘em back really quickly.”

Of course, this isn’t true. Many people cut from government will never return to the work. And administrations need strong institutional structures and forward-looking preparation before a crisis hits — exactly the kind of work that Trump’s proposed cuts could make so much harder.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

Thanks To The NRA And Their Lackeys In Congress, It Is Illegal to Study Gun Violence

Published with permission from Alternet.

As Black Lives Matter protests continue across the nation, a new study is complicating the debate around police violence.

The study, which comes out of Harvard, took data from a number of police departments across the country and looked at how different groups of people are treated by law enforcement.

As expected, the study found that police officers are more likely to use force when dealing with black people than they are when dealing with white people.

For example, police are 18 percent more likely to push black people against a wall, 16 percent more likely to put them in handcuffs, 19 percent more likely to draw their weapons, and so on.

These statistics are depressing for sure, but not really all that surprising given the reality of systemic racism in this country.

But what is surprising is what this study found about police officers use of lethal force, i.e. when they kill people. Contrary to what you’d expect, it found that police are just as likely to kill white people as they are black people.

Predictably, the right-wing media has jumped on this as proof—proof—that the Black Lives Matter movement is lying. For example, the Drudge Report linked to a New York Times story about the Harvard study with a headline that read, “STUDY: NO RACIAL BIAS in police shootings…”

But is this study really all that definitive?

No, it’s not.

The problem with the Harvard study is that it relies on data from just a handful of different police departments, most of which are located in big cities like Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles. This isn’t a bad idea on its own. After all, the bigger a city is, the more representative it is of the population as a whole. But in the context of studying police violence, relying on data from just a few big cities isn’t the best idea.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that some of the worst police violence occurs in smaller cities like Ferguson, Missouri or Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A truly accurate analysis of police use of force should therefore include data from these smaller cities, not just the big cities that are almost always better trained and better equipped than their local counterparts.

And that raises the question—why didn’t the author of the Harvard study use better data? Well, it’s probably not because he was trying to make it seem like there’s no racial bias in police violence. It’s because there’s not really any good police violence data out there.

Even after the reforms the FBI announced back in December, reporting of police violence to the federal government is still completely voluntary. Until reporting by police departments of their officers’ use of force is compulsory and countrywide, we’re never going to get an accurate picture of what’s going on.

But even if reporting police violence data were compulsory, there’d still be big obstacles to using that data in any sensible way. That’s because thanks to Republicans and the National Rifle Association, it’s been illegal for more than 20 years for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct any research on gun violence.

That’s right—illegal!

This ban began back in the 1990s after the CDC published some good, solid research into gun violence. One of the first studies they did found a clear relationship between increases in gun ownership and increased homicide rates.

The NRA didn’t like where this was going for obvious reasons, so it started pushing its bought-and-paid-for shills in Congress to do something about those pesky scientists at the CDC. The NRA got its wish in 1996 when Republican Congressman Jay Dickey introduced what’s now known as the Dickey Amendment.

It was a policy rider attached to a spending bill and it stated that, “None of the funds available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

Because it’s so broadly worded, the Dickey Amendment has had a chilling effect on gun research at the federal level.

No one wants to go to jail for doing their job, and CDC researchers live in fear that they’ll become the next Lois Lerner, dragged in front of a congressional kangaroo court and forced to testify for hours on end.

Tragically, we really need the information from good studies about police violence—but the Dickey Amendment has prevented them from being done.

Therefore, we don’t know what kind of connections there are between gun ownership and police violence, connections we should have known about years ago but haven’t because of the gun industry’s stranglehold over public policy.

The NRA, of course, couldn’t be happier with this situation. But this is just absurd. Even Jay Dickey thinks so. He’s now come out against his own amendment and thinks it should be repealed.

He’s right.

Thom Hartmann is an author and nationally syndicated daily talk show host. His newest book is “The Crash of 2016: The Plot to Destroy America — and What We Can Do to Stop It.

Photo: Flickr user DonkeyHotey

EXCLUSIVE: When Republicans Sabotage Zika Funding, Local Health Departments Suffer

As Congress continues to stall on funding Zika research, local health departments are bearing the brunt of their inaction.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control shifted $44 million of its federal funding towards research on the mosquito-borne disease after Congress failed to allocate any funds itself.

But since this money is normally funneled down to local health departments for emergency preparedness, city and statewide offices have lost critical funds they need in order to prevent the spread of Zika at the local level.

New York City, home to a confirmed 310 cases of the infectious disease, lost $1 million in emergency funds from the CDC — a number that deputy commissioner of emergency preparedness Marisa Raphael predicts could impact the city’s capacity to conduct lab testing as well as surveillance activities like tracking and interviewing Zika patients.

“It’s very painstaking, time-intensive work, but so critical for the ultimate goal of spreading disease,” she said in an interview. “You need people with that technical expertise to investigate outbreaks on any given day.”

Raphael added that the “highly problematic” cut could affect the department’s ability to sustain its existing Zika monitoring networks while also addressing the competing demands of other potential outbreaks.

House Republicans have repeatedly stalled a bipartisan Senate bill that sought to allocate $1.1 billion towards research on the virus. When the House passed another $1.1 billion plan in June, Senate Democrats objected to “poison pill” provisions that would have prohibited allocating funds to Planned Parenthood for fighting the virus, weakened pesticide restrictions, and, curiously, ended the ban on displaying Confederate flags in national cemeteries.

Louisiana, meanwhile, experienced a $700,000 slash in its CDC allocation — known officially as Public Health Emergency Preparedness, or PHEP. In past months, about a quarter of the state’s PHEP money has been used towards fighting the virus, through measures like a “Tip and Toss” campaign meant to keep mosquitoes out of residential areas.

Dr. Frank Welch, Louisiana’s medical director for community preparedness, said the reduction in funding means that the state’s already cash-strapped health department is struggling to fill empty positions.

“Before Zika, we were already really strapped with our ability to respond ourselves with boots on the ground,” Welch said. “When you’re already down to just a few and you can’t fill those positions you had before — when you’re down to nine instead of 11 — that’s really just a critical amount.”

While the private sector has taken up some work in treating cases, Welch explained that these medical providers tend to focus only on treating patients. Louisiana’s plan, on the other hand, looks to educate travelers returning from Zika-stricken countries and keep mosquitoes at bay in the state’s swampy terrain.

And when it comes to testing pregnant women twice for the virus—a federal recommendation—Welch said it would impossible for the Louisiana health department to carry out this measure on its own.

Dr. Oscar Alleyne, a senior adviser at the National Association of City & County Health Officials, conducted a survey in May that found the CDC reallocation would cause a majority of departments to lose between 5 and 10 percent of their funding. Survey respondents said that preparation measures, supplies, and staffing would be most adversely affected by the cuts.

“We’re still dealing with the fact that there hasn’t been any movement from the congressional side on providing necessary resources,” Alleyne said. “So that still maintains a degree of concerns.”

True to the survey, the Florida Health Department — which serves over half of the nine U.S. cities estimated to be at highest risk of an outbreak — lost over $2.3 million as a result of congressional inaction. It’s now unable to implement enhancements to its preparedness measures, a spokesperson said.

South Carolina, meanwhile, lost about seven percent of the budget for its Office of Public Health Preparedness, which is tasked with preparing for and responding to emerging infectious diseases like Zika, according to a spokesperson.

“You have infrastructure cuts and then you have to modify infrastructure to deal with the pending threat — which we are sure is not a matter of ‘when,’” Alleyne said. Mosquito season is now in full peak.

Some local health departments have received money to fight Zika from alternative sources: New York’s mayor, for instance, announced a three-year, multi-million dollar plan to address the virus. But Alleyne said that these amounts are “a drop in the bucket” compared to the $44 million that they have lost — not to mention the $1.1 billion in federal research funding.

For his part, Louisiana’s Welch said that the congressional stall shows that public health emergencies like Zika cannot wait for politicians to observe a threat and then fund it.

“Things like this will continue to happen,” he said. “We might be better served if we had a more global view, realized the importance beforehand, and funded it in a way where we were prepared.”

 

Photo: Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are seen inside Oxitec laboratory in Campinas, Brazil, February 2, 2016. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker/File Photo

Republicans Use Zika To Fight For Pesticide Deregulation

Efforts to fight the Zika virus are the latest expression of American partisanship and Congress’ inability to act in times of crisis. Congress always seems to find a way to politicize any issue that requires the immediate passage of legislation, and the dangerous viral outbreak is no exception.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and congressional Democrats, and President Obama — has requested funds to study and fight the Zika virus, but Republicans want to combat it by stripping away environmental regulations on an array of pesticides.

The White House asked Congress back in February for $1.9 billion to protect the country from Zika, but Republicans aren’t having it. Instead, last week the House approved legislation to reallocate $622 million from other federal health programs, including money being used to combat Ebola, and put it towards the fight against Zika. The Senate, for its part, passed a measure that would provide $1.1 billion in emergency funds.

Rather than committing to funding the full amount necessary to combat a serious outbreak, House Republicans passed a bill easing restrictions on pesticides — it’s a playbook move, to use a public health emergency to try to weaken unrelated environmental restrictions. In an op-ed published Tuesday on CNBC.com, Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) laid out the too-simple-to-be-true argument:

There is currently no known cure or vaccine for Zika. While the House and Senate are at work providing funding to research and stop the spread of the virus, there is an easy way to help prevent the virus from becoming widespread in the United States.

Hint: It’s using more pesticides without EPA approval. And, as a spokesperson for Gibbs admitted to The Hill, “other than the title and a new expiration date, the bill has not changed since it was known as the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act.”

While Republicans accuse Democrats of politicizing the virus as a pretext for government-funded abortions — though that would be against the law — Democrats have refused to concede on the real possibility of harmful deregulation. The Obama administration has threatened to veto the measure, accusing Republicans of using the Zika virus crisis to push politicized legislation that they say is basically the same as legislation they first proposed in 2005.

“Rebranding legislation that removes important Clean Water Act protections for public health and water quality is not an appropriate avenue for addressing the serious threat to the nation that the Zika virus poses,” said a White House statement.

House Speaker Paul Ryan responded by defending Republican strategy.

“In the midst of a Zika threat, the federal government should not be making it harder for people to kill the mosquitoes that could carry it,” Ryan’s office said in a statement. “This is serious stuff. We’re not talking about annoyances at your summer barbecue. Mosquitoes are the carriers of life-threatening exotic diseases, among which are the Zika and West Nile viruses.”

He also asked his Twitter followers to retweet a message that said “Mosquitoes carrying Zika must be killed,” along with a link to his official statement.

The medical community is denouncing the gridlock, and emphasizing the urgent need to address the mosquito-borne disease.

“Three months is an eternity for control of an outbreak,” director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr Thomas Frieden told the New York Times. There is a narrow window of opportunity here and it’s closing. Every day that passes makes it harder to stop Zika.”

Photo: Josemary da Silva, 34, combs the hair of 5-month-old Gilberto after giving him a bath at her house in Algodao de Jandaira, Brazil February 17, 2016. Gilberto is da Silva’s fifth child and was born with microcephaly. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Vaccine Success Holds Hope For End To Deadly Scourge Of Ebola

By Kate Kelland and Tom Miles

LONDON/GENEVA (Reuters) — The world is on the verge of being able to protect humans against Ebola, the World Health Organization said on Friday, as a trial in Guinea found a vaccine to have been 100 percent effective.

Initial results from the trial, which tested Merck (MRK.N) and NewLink Genetics’ (NLNK.O) VSV-ZEBOV vaccine on some 4,000 people who had been in close contact with a confirmed Ebola case, showed complete protection after 10 days.

The results were described as “remarkable” and “game changing” by global health specialists.

“We believe that the world is on the verge of an efficacious Ebola vaccine,” WHO vaccine expert Marie Paule Kieny told reporters in a briefing from Geneva.

The vaccine could now be used to help end the worst recorded outbreak of Ebola, which has killed more than 11,200 people in West Africa since it began in December 2013.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said the results, published online in the medical journal The Lancet, would “change the management of the current Ebola outbreak and future outbreaks.”

The Gavi Alliance, which buys vaccines in bulk for poor countries who struggle to afford them, immediately said it would back an Ebola shot once it is approved.

“These communities need an effective vaccine sooner rather than later,” Gavi’s chief executive Seth Berkley said. “We need to be ready to act wherever the virus is a threat.”

This and other vaccine trials were fast-tracked with huge international effort as researchers raced to test potential therapies and vaccines while the virus was still circulating.

“It was a race against time and the trial had to be implemented under the most challenging circumstances,” said John-Arne Røttingen of Norway’s Institute of Public Health, chair of the trial’s steering group.

“Ring Vaccination”

The Guinea trial began on March 23 to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of a single dose of VSV-ZEBOV using a so-called “ring vaccination” strategy, where close contacts of a person diagnosed with Ebola are immunized — either immediately, or at a later date.

As data began to emerge showing the very high protection rates in those vaccinated immediately, however, researchers decided on July 26 that they would no longer use the “delayed” strategy, since it was becoming clear that making people wait involved unethical and unnecessary risk.

The trial is now being continued, with all participants receiving the vaccine immediately, and will be extended to include 13- to 17-year-olds and possibly also 6- to 12-year-old children, the WHO said.

Jeremy Farrar, a leading infectious disease specialist and director of the Wellcome Trust, said the trial “dared to use a highly innovative and pragmatic design, which allowed the team in Guinea to assess this vaccine in the middle of an epidemic.”

“Our hope is that this vaccine will now help bring this epidemic to an end and be available for the inevitable future Ebola epidemics,” his statement said.

The medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has led the fight against Ebola in West Africa, called for VSV-ZEBOV to be rolled out to the other centers of the outbreak, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where it says it could break chains of transmission and protect front-line health workers.

VSV-ZEBOV was originally developed by Canada’s public health agency before being licensed to NewLink Genetics, which then signed a deal handing Merck the responsibility to research, develop, manufacture, and distribute it.

The success of the Guinea trial is a big relief for researchers, many of whom feared a sharp decline in cases this year would scupper their hopes of proving a vaccine could work.

Another major trial in Liberia, which had aimed to recruit some 28,000 subjects, had to stop enrolling after only reaching its mid-stage target of 1,500 participants. Plans for testing in Sierra Leone were also scaled back. That left the study in Guinea, where Ebola is still infecting new victims, as the only real hope for demonstrating the efficacy of a vaccine.

(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva and Ben Hirschler in London; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Photo: A member of the French Red Cross disinfects the area around a motionless person suspected of carrying the Ebola virus as a crowd gathers in Forecariah, Guinea, January 30, 2015. REUTERS/Misha Hussain