Real Threat Gives Rise To Fake IDs

Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic is all too true. But plenty of fake news, or at least alleged fake news (depending on whom you believe), is out there. Fake news, however, isn’t the only fake thing out there right now. Fake ID’s are a hot commodity these days. These aren’t the bogus ID’s that underage teens obtain so they can purchase alcohol. Oh, no. These are fake vaccination records which have arisen due to the real pandemic.

Folks of all ages are clamoring for such ID’s. Why would anyone want a counterfeit vaccination card? For the unvaccinated, such a card may be just the ticket to attend a large event such as a music concert, to gain access to a restricted venue such as a gym or restaurant, or to be admitted to a foreign country.

According to reports, at least 675 colleges and universities are requiring their students to show proof of vaccination to be allowed on campus. Are their students complying with this requirement? Well, let’s just say that vaccination cards are being produced, but they may not be real. Faculty and students interviewed by the Associated Press expressed concern about how easy it is to obtain fake cards.

The vaccination cards which some fraudulently seek to produce or to present are pretty low-tech here in the U.S. In December 2020, federal agencies released paper cards to be used as proof of COVID-19 vaccination. These cards are 4″ by 3″ on double-sided cardstock paper bearing the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) logo in black and white; no space is provided for a photo of the person vaccinated. Thus, they are fairly easy to replicate.

Lending credence to a literal interpretation of everything being “Made in China,” is the fact that many of the fake vaccine cards originate in China. The AP reported about a Twitter user (who in this case could truly be called a “twit”) posting that his daughter bought two fake ID’s online for $50 to use at college. And where did these cards come from? China, of course. While it is concerning but not surprising that China is doing something illegal, what is surprising is that a parent would publicly post that their child committed a felony.

A felony, you say? Yes, sir. Using a fake vaccination card is a serious mistake with serious consequences. Don’t believe me? OK. Well, go read 18 U.S.C. Section 1017; that’s the provision of the U.S. Code making unauthorized use of the seal of an official government agency a federal CRIME. Conviction of that CRIME carries a possible fine and a maximum of FIVE YEARS IN PRISON. The fake vaccination cards bear the CDC logo, so people using them are clearly breaking the law.

Folks have indeed been arrested for dealing in fake vaccination cards. A California bar owner was busted in May for allegedly selling the bogus cards for $20 each. Guess his special of the day was a shot of whiskey with a fake shot record card. July saw the first federal criminal fraud prosecution involving such cards. A physician in Napa, California was alleged to have sold fake vaccination cards indicating the Moderna vaccine had been received. Guess she had the book learning to know about viruses and vaccinations but no common sense, i.e., don’t commit a crime by selling bogus medical records. Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer on August 15th called for a harder crackdown on these fake cards. So, beware if you inclined to create, buy, or use one.

Using fake vaccination cards will get you in trouble not only in the U.S. but in other countries as well. Two Americans learned this lesson the hard (and expensive) way just this month. While traveling in Canada, these “bright” (sarcasm font in use) individuals presented fake vaccination cards and got arrested for doing so. The result? They were fined $19,720 each. Not sure what they paid for those fake records, but they could’ve saved a whole bunch by simply getting a FREE vaccine and a FREE authentic card before leaving home.

Pandemic-related fraud has been rising in recent months. Requirements for proof of vaccination have created a thriving market for counterfeit cards for the unvaccinated. In March, such concern existed about the trafficking of fake vaccine cards that the FBI issued a joint statement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services saying basically “Don’t do it!” It, of course, was buying, creating, or selling bogus shot records.

In April a bipartisan group of 47 state attorneys general (the National Association of Attorneys General or NAAG) sent a letter to the CEO’s of Twitter, Shopify, and eBay to take down ads or links to sources selling fake vaccination cards. Hello? These sites have to be told that? You don’t have to have a law degree to conclude that offering fake medical records might be a bad idea generally and a crime specifically. After being nagged about this activity by NAAG, these online sites did cooperate and blacklisted certain words related to counterfeit vaccination cards. Unfortunately, such cards apparently can still be obtained on the messaging app Telegram and on the dark web. (PSA: Do NOT go to these places and attempt to make such a purchase!!!)

Customs agents are becoming busier thanks to the boom in the demand for fake vaccination cards. As of mid-August, they had seized over 121 shipments containing more than 3,000 counterfeit COVID-19 vaccine cards. These shipments were intercepted in Memphis and were bound for different cities in the U.S. Three guesses what the country of origin was for these shipments innocuously marked as being paper products or greeting cards. Ding! Ding! Ding! You’re right. It was China. Ticked off by these goings on, the Memphis Port Director remarked, “If you do not wish to receive a vaccine, that is your decision. But don’t order a counterfeit, waste my officer’s time, break the law and misrepresent yourself.”

Let’s get real. The pandemic is real; bogus vaccination records are not. Sure, it is your call whether or not to be vaccinated. But all decisions have consequences. The reality is that failure to be vaccinated may impede one’s access to events, venues, and foreign destinations. Trying to get around the vaccination requirement by procuring a fake ID is not a smart move. In fact, using such fake ID’s is a federal crime and a pain felt when receiving a quick shot. And that’s not fake news.

WONDER-ing Woman: Were you aware fake vaccination records were in such demand? Is using or producing such a card an offense justifying imprisonment for up to five years? How do you feel about legitimate online sites allowing ads for or links to illegal products? Are you surprised China is the source of the shipments of fake cards seized in Memphis?

COVID-19: The Grinch Trying To Steal Christmas 2020

A plot is afoot to steal Christmas, but the usual suspect isn’t the culprit. There’s a new grinch in town here in 2020, one that wasn’t created by the beloved Dr. Seuss. But just like the Grinch who targeted Whoville, this grinch also wants to stop Christmas from coming. The strategy is similar, however, with the trappings of Christmas being eliminated. Who is the mastermind of this evil plot? It’s not a who, it’s a what. It’s COVID-19.

The coronavirus has altered life as we know it during this calendar year. Schools went virtual, sports teams played in bubbles, and people worked remotely. Holidays were affected as well with gatherings at Thanksgiving discouraged. Up next in the crosshairs is Christmas. All we should want for Christmas is to actually have one because what we will get won’t be what we are accustomed to or even want.

Deaths from COVID-19 have now exceeded 300,000. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of St. Louis or Pittsburgh being wiped out. This context is hardly the backdrop for celebrating “the most wonderful time of the year.” But, regardless of what is going on in the world, December 25 remains on the calendar.

Getting together with family will make it feel like Christmas, right? Well, it might if you could do that. Good luck with achieving that Christmas tradition. The Centers For Disease Control (“CDC”) believes that the safest way to celebrate is to stay home with the people with whom you live. Oh, joy to the world–not. Our immediate family members are likely already on our last nerve from quarantine, lockdowns, and social distancing, right?

In particular, things aren’t looking very golden in the Golden State for the holiday gatherings. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued regional stay at home orders on December 3rd, and most of the state is under those restrictive orders. Stores are limiting the number of people allowed inside at one time; retail stores can have a maximum of 20% capacity. Wineries are among the numerous businesses required to close, nonessential travel is banned, and private gatherings of ANY size are off limits. No dine in eating is allowed; thus, you have to get your Who hash to go. Oh what fun it won’t be for Californians….

How about a lively Christmas party to inspire some cheer? That plan is doomed to crash and burn. Michael Osterholm, newly appointed by President-elect Biden to his coronavirus advisory board, has flat out stated: “There is not a safe Christmas party in this country right now.” Realizing how popular his comment would be, Osterholm went on to remark,”I don’t care if I am accused of being the Grinch that stole Christmas.” Sorry, Mr. Osterholm, COVID-19 has already laid claim to that title.

Well, never mind about the gatherings and parties, there are still gifts to be received to make Christmas merry and bright. But exactly what gifts might you be receiving? You thought that getting socks or underwear for Christmas was bad, huh? How about getting a shot? In response to the pandemic, the U.S. has begun its most ambitious vaccination campaign ever.

This attempt to combat COVID-19 has also succeeded in compounding the stress of Christmas shipping of gifts. With millions of doses of vaccine clogging the supply pipes, distribution of Christmas gifts has been bogged down and delayed; many will likely not timely receive their Christmas gifts. But it’s a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is that there’s a delay in gift receipt; the good news is that the gift will probably be received in 2021–which is only good because it will no longer be 2020.

How can tiny doses of a vaccine be such a strain on the shipping infrastructure? It’s because those Pfizer doses need VERY special handling. They must be kept in ultracold temperatures. Yup, I’d say -94 degrees Fahrenheit is ULTRAcold.

Adding to the typical stress of the holiday season is more bad news on the COVID-19 front. A mutant strain has reared its ugly head in the U.K. This new variant of the virus may be up to 70% more transmissible and is “getting out of control” per their Health Secretary Matt Hancock. As a result, a tier 4 lockdown, the most restrictive lockdown, was imposed there on Sunday. Meetings with ANYONE outside one’s household are off limits. In addition, flights from the U.K. have been banned by over 40 countries, including Spain, Russia, and Canada. Will Santa be forced to avoid jolly old England when he takes flight on Christmas Eve?

All these COVID consequences point to the modern coronavirus being a grinch like the well-known Dr. Seuss character. The fictional character was a grumpy old creature who attempted to put an end to Christmas by stealing the trappings of the holiday from the Whos in Whoville. The Grinch stole presents, decorations, Christmas trees, and even (GASP!) the roast beast.

Because of the immense popularity of the Seuss story, “grinch” is now included in dictionaries as an informal noun meaning a killjoy or spoilsport. COVID-19 has certainly put a damper on Christmas by stealing people’s ability to gather with others, travel to be with family, get presents shipped in a timely manner, and have asense of peace and well-being. Yes, we’d have to call the coronavirus a grinch.

But in the classic story, Christmas came without the items stolen by the Grinch anyway, and the Whos rejoiced on Christmas even in their absence. Dr. Seuss, who drove a car with a license plate that read “GRINCH,” used this story to criticize the commercialization of Christmas. In the end, his Grinch came to the realization Christmas “perhaps, means a little bit more” than just presents and feasting.

Are we as insightful as Seuss’ Grinch and realize that Christmas is about more than the trappings surrounding it? Think we’re are smart as the Whos? Will we be able to experience the joy of the real meaning of Christmas–the love of God expressed through the birth of his son in a humble stable? Let’s not allow the grinchy COVID-19 to rob us of Christmas–the real one.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Are decorations, ornaments, gifts, and trees essential in order to experience Christmas? Do you need material things to bring you joy during Christmas? Can you be grateful about what the Grinch and COVID-19 teach us about the real meaning of Christmas?

Latest COVID Casualties? Minks–Fur Real

Deaths from coronavirus continue to mount with some countries heading into a second lockdown. Over 1.3 million people have died from COVID-19 during 2020 with the end apparently nowhere in sight. While that’s scary for humans, the situation is much more dire for minks. Minks? Yup. Fur real. They are toast because if COVID-19 hasn’t killed them, man will.

We all know what a mink is right? It’s a furry animal whose skin is used for stoles, etc. for human adornment. (Insert “GASP!” from readers who are PETA supporters.) More specifically, minks are dark-colored, semi-aquatic, carnivorous mammals who are members of the weasel family. Other members of this family include otters, weasels, and ferrets.

Minks are valued for their luxurious fur. Denmark is the world’s largest producer of mink fur with about 17 million furs produced annually. Unsurprisingly, that country is also one of the world’s largest mink exporters with most of the furs being exported to China and Hong Kong. Aha! We’ve identified something not made in China.

The furry critters are grown on farms. Guess that shows what I know; city girl that I am, I thought it was grains and vegetables which farmers raised. But, no, 1,139 mink farms are located in Denmark mostly in the northern part of the country. Between 15 and 17 million minks call Denmark home. With that country’s population slightly under 6 million, minks outnumber humans there. However, the Danish mink population is about to be wiped out one way or the other.

Outbreaks of COVID-19 have ravaged the Danish mink farms since the summer. Part of the problem is that the minks are kept in crowded conditions which are ideal for spreading a virus. Although minks which catch the virus suffer similar symptoms to humans, the course of the virus’ progression is much more rapid. Most of the infected minks are dead by the day after their symptoms appear. Well, at least they didn’t suffer long.

Even more disturbing than the death of the minks is the fact that, according to the Danish Health Minister in a press conference held November 4th, half of the 783 human cases of COVID-19 in northern Denmark “are related” to the mink outbreak. While some humans (non-PETA supporters) don’t mind minks giving us the fur off their backs (literally), they do mind minks passing along coronavirus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is concerned the coronavirus is going from humans to animals and back to humans. Each time there is such a transmission, the virus can mutate. Health experts say mutations show a decreased sensitivity against antibodies meaning a COVID-19 vaccine could be less effective. Therefore it is crucial to stop the back and forth transmission between humans and minks. How will the transmission be stopped? The solution is bad news for the minks. They are going to be killed not for their fur but as a preventative health measure.

Unfortunately, outbreaks at mink farms have continued in Denmark despite repeated efforts to exterminate (fancy schmancy word for kill) the infected animals. Thus, more serious measures have to be taken. How serious? The minks are going to be totally wiped out.

Denmark plans to kill its entire herd of minks. That’s up to 17 million minks headed to that great mink farm in the sky. The Danish police, army, and home guard are to be deployed to speed up the killing process. Not only will the furry creatures be killed, but their pelts will be destroyed as well. This culling of the minks is estimated to cost around $800 million and may lead to the end of the mink industry in Denmark. (Insert “Hurray!” from PETA supporters.)

American minks should be nervous. Could the same fate await them? Quite possibly. In 2011 there were 268 mink farms in the United States. Per USDA, American mink farms produce over 2.5 million pelts each year. Wisconsin is the leading mink-producing state followed by Utah. In October, officials reported approximately 12,000 mink had died of COVID-19 on farms in Wisconsin and Utah. If not killed, those minks definitely need to be wearing face masks.

One positive which may come out of the 2020 pandemic is that it could hasten the end of the controversial fur industry. Fur farms are already banned in many countries such as Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Although fur farming is not (yet) banned in the United States, California has set housing requirements for minks that make fur farming cost-prohibitive. In addition, a ban on the sale and manufacture of fur has been imposed by the City of Los Angeles. Hollywood lights are okay; Hollywood minks are not.

Public health concerns related to COVID-19 may just be the nail in the coffin for the fur farming industry. Who needs fur in 2020 anyway? With lockdowns and stay at home orders, there’s nowhere to wear a mink stole anyway. Possibly a mink face mask, but not a fur coat. While a ban on fur farming would provide a brighter future for later generations of mink, it’s curtains for Danish minks, and possibly American minks, now.

Just WONDER-ing:

Were you aware the coronavirus could be transmitted back and forth between humans and animals? Is it acceptable for minks to be bred in crowded conditions merely to be killed so humans can look marvelous? Is killing the entire herd of Danish minks the best option to prevent further spread of the virus? If not, what should be done?

Re-MOO-ving Our Masks For Herd Immunity?

For months we’ve been wearing masks to protect ourselves from COVID-19. Now we are hearing from some experts that taking off our masks may be the best bet to keep us protected. Say what? The concept is called herd immunity. If you haven’t heard about herd immunity, get MOO-ving to learn about it.

While we non-scientific types may not grasp the finer points of disease transmission, we do know what a herd is. Animals, likely cows, are involved, right? Indeed, a herd is a large group of one kind of animal which is kept together under human control. Typically, these animals are livestock.

But the herd immunity being discussed in scientific circles in 2020 has nothing to do with cows, pigs, or sheep. It relates to people. That’s a good one. Our group could hardly be deemed to be “under control” with all the dissension, destruction, and denigration attributable to us this year. We aren’t livestock, but some of us are behaving like animals.

The term “herd immunity,” derived from livestock management, was coined a century or so ago. The backdrop for the new phrase was a disease spreading around cattle farms. Famers combated the disease by retaining the immune cows, raising the calves, and avoiding the introduction of foreign cattle. Herd immunity’s application was extended to humans when it was observed that a significant number of children were immune to measles. (Or should that be im-MOO-ne if herd is modifying the word?)

The basic concept of herd immunity is that such a large portion of the community has become immune to a disease that its spread from person to person becomes unlikely. If enough people are resistant to the cause of a disease such as a virus, it has nowhere to go. But the more contagious a disease is the greater the proportion of the population that’s got to be immune to stop the spread. Yikes! Now with proportions we’re getting into math as well as science.

Varying estimates have been proposed as to what percentage of the U.S. population would have to have recovered from COVID-19 to halt the epidemic. These percentages range from 70% (or over 200 million people) to 90% (almost 300 million people). That’s a mighty big herd of people!

There are two paths to achieving herd immunity–infection and vaccines. Natural resistance come from exposure to the virus causing the production of antibodies which move to fight the infection. Vaccines also build resistance in the immune system by making protective antibodies. With no vaccine currently available and the timeframe for it to be available uncertain, infection is, according to herd immunity proponents, the path to take. How can you get infected? Take off your mask and let’s see.

Achieving herd immunity is more challenging when it comes to COVID-19. Why? Because it is a novel (as in “new” and not as is “book”) virus. Everyone is at risk of infection because humans have not been infected by it before. Large numbers of people thus need to catch the virus, get sick and then recover before there’s herd immunity.

WHO, the World Health Organization and not the rock band, officials have warned against trying to achieve herd immunity. Dr. Anthony Fauci is likewise concerned about such an approach to COVID-19 management. He’s stated that if the U.S. allowed the virus to spread unchecked to achieve herd immunity, “the death toll would be enormous.” And, if too many people get sick at one time, the health care system could become overwhelmed. (Think NYC earlier this year.)

Experts disagree on whether attempting to achieve herd immunity is advisable. Advocating for such focused protection are the three co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration issued on October 4th. This brief declaration, which has now been translated into over 20 languages, argues against lockdowns and calls for the reopening of businesses and schools.

The Declaration’s co-authors aren’t just any Tom, Dick, and Harry–actually make that Harriet since one is a woman. Instead, they are well-credentialed scientists who want COVID-19 policy shifted towards attaining herd immunity. Martin Kulldorff is a Harvard Medical School professor and biostatistician; Jay Bhattacharya, is a professor at Stanford University Medical School; and Sunetra Gupta is an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford. These three individuals convened at the American Institute for Economic Research located in Great Barrington, Massachusetts where the declaration, which now has over 9,000 signers, was issued.

How do the co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration think herd immunity should be reached? FREEDOM! They would allow those at minimal risk of death from COVID-19 to live their lives normally, i.e., no masks, no stay-at-home orders, and no mandatory restrictions on activities. Those who are the most vulnerable, on the other hand, would be isolated. The co-author’s envision individuals, based upon their perception of their own personal risk of dying from COVID-19, to themselves choose the risks, activities and restrictions for themselves.

This strategy recognizes that restrictions, such as lockdowns, which are imposed to limit deaths actually cause great harm. Such measures place stress on the economy, increase drug use and domestic violence, result in isolation, and rob youth of unique memories (prom, graduation, etc.) So, the declaration’s co-authors conclude, allowing those who are at little risk of COVID-19 being fatal to them to live without restrictions causes less harm overall.

To no one’s surprise here in 2020, there is sharp disagreement as to how the spread of COVID-19 should be handled when there is no vaccine. Some want restrictions imposed on all to halt its transmission. Others urge aiming for herd immunity for the community. We aren’t cows, so let’s use our brains to determine how best to MOO-ve forward. To mask or not to mask, that is the question.

Just WONDER-ing:

How does it strike you to have the term “herd immunity” applied to humans? What should we do when the experts disagree about how best to handle the situation? Would you feel comfortable re-MOO-ving your mask to help attain herd immunity? Why or why not?

Coronavirus Crisis in the Capital–Washington Isn’t Well

With less than a month to go until the presidential election, one would think the upcoming vote would be the biggest headline. Nah! Nothing is normal in 2020; a health topic has been all the buzz. Sure COVID-19’s old news, but there’s a twist now. The high and mighty in our nation’s capital, the Commander in Chief, his staff members/aides, FLOTUS, members of Congress, and the top military brass, have fallen victim to coronavirus. Washington isn’t well.

The D.C. coronavirus crisis started off with a bang when President Trump announced his positive diagnosis via Twitter at 12:54 a.m. last Friday. Call me old school, but I’d have thought such a momentous piece of news would rate a press conference in broad daylight. But, nevertheless, the word got out and spread like–take your pick here in 2020–California wildfires or, fittingly, the coronavirus itself.

By Friday night, President Trump had developed a fever and his blood oxygen level had “dropped rapidly,” requiring him to be given supplemental oxygen at the White House. No ambulance was called for Trump’s transportation to the hospital though. This COVID sufferer is the Commander in Chief, so a helicopter, Marine One, was summoned to fly him to his medical care destination. Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s Trump’s Covid Copter.

The medical destination for the mask-clad president was Walter Reed, a tri-service (Air Force, Army, and Navy) military medical center in Bethesda, Maryland. While the facility’s official name is Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (“WRNMMC”), it is more commonly known simply as “Walter Reed” after the yellow fever researcher. This facility routinely treats presidents and vice presidents in a secured and autonomous ward. A presidential office is available offering a sitting room, kitchen, conference room, hospital bedroom, and an office for the White House Chief of Staff (assuming that individual isn’t down for the count with COVID and unable to work).

Speculation was rampant as to the president’s condition after his admission to Walter Reed. He is, after all, at higher risk due to his age (74) and weight (just over the threshold for obesity for his height). If the Physician to the President (Navy Commander Sean Conley, D.O.) and the White House’s world-class medical resources weren’t enough to handle the situation, there was cause for concern. Would the president be able to carry out his executive duties or would the 25th Amendment be utilized to designate VP Mike Pence to take over for his boss?

Dr. Conley gave press briefings, but they didn’t provide as much detail as enquiring minds wanted. The press pressed for for further information but were rebuffed. The president must be hiding something, right? Not according to Conley who explained that doctor-patient confidentiality had not been waived. Donald Trump may be the president and live in a fishbowl, but he is a patient like anyone else and entitled to some privacy. Sorry, Charlie! No one’s getting ahold of the president’s lung scans.

Medical updates did reveal Dr. Conley’s patient had been drinking while at Walter Reed–an experimental Regeron’s polyclonal antibody cocktail that is. President Trump downed one 8 gram dose of this so-called cocktail which supplies antibodies to help the immune system fight the virus and rid the body of it. The Commander in Chief also started a five day course of the expensive (think about $520 or so per vial) antiviral remdesivir used with moderately to severely ill patients and shown to speed recovery. This drug curbs the virus’ ability to multiply.

Additionally, the president underwent steroid therapy. Unlike athletes, he wasn’t trying to bulk up; Dexamethasone was given to tamp down on possible dangerous inflammation. This cheap and widely available steroid drug has been around for decades, but it is usually reserved for patients deemed severe or critical cases. In this case it was used because it was critical to get the president better and back to the White House to run the country.

The COVID hospital drama ended Monday evening when the president was released and flew home aboard Marine One. But of course the drama continued thereafter because opinions were offered by many that President Trump had been sent home too early. Home for him, of course, is the White House, which offers “world-class” medical resources and a personal physician unlike the home of your average COVID patient.

Why should the president have all the COVID fun though? The high and mighty in Washington began following suit and testing positive. Forget the D.C. “A” list. There’s now a lengthy “C” list in the nation’s capital, and that “C” stands for COVID. Joining President Trump as COVID patients, among others, are his press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, the Republican National Committee Chief Ronna McDaniel, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, and Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett politely declined since she’s already participated over the summer.

It’s not just politicians who are on the “C” list either. The military brass didn’t want to be left out. Taken captive by this unseen enemy were the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Millay, the Army Chief of Staff James McConville, the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown, the chief of the National Guard Gen. Daniel Hokanson, and the naval operations chief Adm. Michael Gilday. Sounds like a lot of “stars” are under the gun from this rampant virus.

Notice how the country has come to a screeching halt with all the “C” listers out of action? No? Me either. That’s a good thing since the Russians are surely watching the evening news on our major networks and keenly aware the top honchos are out of the office. But the C-listers are still minding the store even while sick–just remotely. Washington’s not well, but are country is still up and running.

Just WONDER-ing:

How much medical information about a sitting president are Americans entitled to have? Where do you draw the line between patient confidentiality and the public’s right to know? Was it inevitable influential individuals running our country would at some point come down with COVID?

In A Daze Over School Days–COVID-19 And School Re-Openings

To re-open or not to re-open schools; that is the current question. Sure school will start back this fall; however, no one is certain the form that start will take. Even if students return to traditional brick and mortar schoolhouses, their experience will not be anything which could be characterized as a return to pre-pandemic normal. There will be a new school normal in the schoolhouse, and pupils of all ages aren’t going to like it.

An education encompasses many facets. The experience includes not only classroom time, but time in the lunchroom, at P.E., in the hallways, and on the school bus. In fact, for many students, their school activities outside the classroom are their favorite parts of the day. Classroom or not, no school area will escape transformation in the new normal. What will the new normal look like?

To assist administrators and school boards in planning for school re-openings, the Centers For Disease Control (“CDC”)  issued guidelines in May. The “lowest risk” option was identified as virtual-only classes activities, and events. Maybe I’m not as creative as CDC scientists, but how are you going to have a virtual-only high school football game with no fans, no players, no coaches, no bands, etc.? The only answer my non-scientific brain can produce is “You can’t.”

Let’s assume a school board decides to take a risk and rejects the virtual-only school option. What’s the best way to have school in a school building? CDC provides “considerations” to protect students, teachers, administrators, and staff by slowing the spread of COVID-19. Note that CDC apparently concedes the spread cannot be prevented, just slowed. If parents think it will be totally safe to send little Johnny back to school if the guidelines are followed, they are living in la la land–and I don’t mean Los Angeles or Lower Alabama.

So what’s a school to do to protect those within the little red schoolhouse? Let’s consider the steps which must be taken and how this will affect the students’ school experience.

The Classroom

Modified layouts of classrooms will be necessary. Per the CDC guidelines, desks must be spaced “at least”  six feet apart. Forget buying your child a ruler as a school supply. A yardstick will be more practical. Desks should also face all the same direction, so there will be no circling of desks as the wagons are circled to protect against the spread of COVID-19. If table seating is utilized, students would sit on only one side of the table. That’ll have to be one long table to get more than one student at a table, just sayin’. 

For younger students receiving marks for conduct, this new normal will be their new “friend.” With desks spaced a minimum of six feet apart, it will be difficult to carry on whispered conversations during lessons. At that distance, a student would have to shout to be heard. Forget the old-fashioned “Psst!” or a tap on the shoulder of the student sitting in front of you. The time-honored tradition of passing notes will also become a thing of the past. Who can reach six feet to surreptitiously hand one over?

For older students, changing classes will be a thing of the past. CDC advises “cohorting,” organizing students and staff into small groups that remain together during the school day. At most changing classes might mean merely changing teachers. Rather than have umpteen kids mingle with different students the next period, the students could stay in place and their teachers will play musical classrooms. So much for students looking forward to seeing the cute guy or gal in biology class; they are stuck with playing the field with the same class of students all day long. Romance is doomed.

The Lunchroom

Lunchroom? What lunchroom? CDC recommends closing communal spaces such as cafeterias or dining halls. Individual meals would be served and eaten in the classroom.

Say what? Students live for lunch period. No, it isn’t the mystery meat they can’t wait for—it is a break from classroom lessons and prohibitions on their talking. Lunch is the time for socializing! But how much socializing will occur with students eating a minimum of six feet apart?                                                                                                                                                                 

Trading lunch fare will be a fond memory. Good luck seeing what your friend Timmy’s mother packed for him. Even if you can pick out a delicious homemade brownie from more than six feet away, how will you be able to trade your carrot sticks for it? Throwing the food item to be traded is the only option—and one frowned upon by school staff.

The Playground

A fate similar to the cafeteria awaits the playground. It is a communal area which CDC would have closed.

Approved activities for P.E. will be a short list. Tag? No, you must stay six feet apart and cannot touch anyone. That’s boring. Red Rover? It’ll be a breeze for someone to come right over because there will be no hand-holding line of defense to break through. Dodge ball? You could stay six feet apart while playing, but it isn’t sanitary for the thrown ball to touch anyone else and possibly spread COVID-19. Guess everyone will end up running laps around the field—six feet apart of course. What fun!

The Hallways

Time spent in the hallways will be more limited because having a mass of humanity walking in a crowded narrow space is a social distancing nightmare. Hallway lockers are way too close together, so using them is out. Who’s up for carrying their sweaty P.E. clothes with them all day? Good thing everyone will have to  wear a face mask; it can filter out some of the stink.

PDA will be DOA. Couples will not be able to hold hands, hug, or kiss in the hallways—well, unless they can do it from six feet plus apart. Blowing kisses it is. Or not. The virus is supposedly spread via respiratory droplets.

The Bus

Transporting students to and from school via school bus will be a logistical challenge since the requisite 6 foot + social distancing must be kept. Two to a seat won’t fly, and there’ll be no standing in the aisles when a student could “accidentally” bump into someone on whom he had his eye.

The same number of students cannot be packed in as they were pre-pandemic. A bus which previously accommodated 65-77 students now could seat only 9-11, requiring multiple trips to transport all the students to and from school. Sanitizing buses after each trip means increased transportation time. The school day would be almost over by the time all the students arrived. The school board for Duval County, Florida has astutely recognized that implementing these guidelines is “impossible.”

Schools re-opening will be a welcome return to routine activity. The new normal in which this activity would be conducted, however, will be less welcome. Pre-pandemic school is out forever.

Just WONDER-ing:

If you have school-age children, will you send them to school if you have the option of virtual classes? How safe do you think it is to send kids back to school even if the CDC guidelines are followed? Is implementing any or all of the CDC recommendations feasible? 

Coronavirus Consequences — School’s Out But Testing’s In

School is, or shortly will be, out for the summer. Who cares? It’s really been out for some time with pupils stuck at home trying to adapt to distance learning. Even if school is out, testing is very much in. Coronavirus testing that is. Let’s study for this testing, shall we?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”), there are two kinds of tests for COVID-19. These aren’t true/false or essay tests. These tests involve needles and long swabs, not pencils. Ouch! A viral test tells if you have a current coronavirus infection. An antibody test indicates if you have had a previous infection.

Failing the viral test is cause for celebration. A negative result establishes that you weren’t infected at the time your sample was collected. But don’t party too hard. This result doesn’t mean you won’t get sick later. 

Since the coronavirus is a respiratory illness, viral tests check samples from your respiratory system to tell if you are infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. A swab of the inside of your nose may be done. This swab is not a small Q-tip like you may have in your bathroom. Oh, no. The nasopharyngeal swab used is a special SIX-INCH (that’s half a foot!) cotton swab. This torture device–er, swab–is placed up both sides of your nose and moved around for about 15 seconds. WebMD advises that this procedure won’t hurt, but it “might be uncomfortable.” Ya think?

Even when test results are obtained, your status could still be unclear, Test results can be wrong; while a positive is a positive, per CDC, there can be false negatives. If you test positive, the good news is that there is certainty as to your medical status. The bad news is that we are positive you have the dread COVID-19. If you test negative, you may or may not have COVID-19. Early on in the disease there may not be a lot of virus present. The good news is you don’t have much virus in your body–yet anyway. 

The antibody test is used to detect the presence of antibodies and is a serological test. Blood must be drawn meaning a needle is involved. Ouch!

Why look for antibodies? They are the proteins your body uses to help fight off infections. Their presence indicates a past infection. Unfortunately, it is not clear if antibodies provide immunity against getting infected again. Based on a recent news story, I’m guessing the answer is no. A handful of sailors on the coronavirus-ravaged USS Theodore Roosevelt have tested positive for the virus for the second time. Uh oh!

Concerns with the reliability of antibody test results exist as well. Reportedly 40% of rapid antigen tests miss positive patients. That’s 4 out of 10 people getting an inaccurate test result. Oops! While .600 is a great batting average, a 60% medical test accuracy rate is a poor score.

The viral and antibody tests aim for different information. Viral tests indicate what is currently going on in your body. Do you have the infection? Antigen tests indicate what has happened in the past in your body. Have you previously had the infection? It can take 1-3 weeks after an infection for your body to make antibodies, so the antibody test may not be able to show if you have a current infection. 

Tests can be further broken down as to how results are obtained. Point of care tests allow results to be obtained at the testing site in less than an hour. Other tests must be sent to a lab to be analyzed, a process that could take 1-2 days once received by the lab. Regardless of how long it takes to get results, the waiting will be stressful.

Testing does not have to be done at a medical facility. You can be tested from the convenience of your car with drive through testing. I don’t know about you, but if I’m getting “take out” from a drive through, I want to be receiving a burger and fries, not supplying my mucus or saliva.

If being in your car is not convenient enough, another testing site option exists. DIY testing is available from the “comfort” of your home. Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) has been given to home collection kits produced by LabCorp. FDA has approved two types of viral test kits which allow you to collect a nasal swab or a saliva sample at home. Saliva is a common medium for virus transmission–no spit!

If you feel compelled to test yourself at home, make sure you do your homework before taking the test. Find out if the test you are using is an authorized one. All tests which have been given Emergency Use Authorization are listed on the FDA’s website. 

Whether in school or out, all of us face tests. The pandemic has provided ample opportunities for testing. Patience has been tested with drawn out lock downs and shortages of TP and cleaning products, financial situations have been tested by economic adversity, and bodies have been tested for the coronavirus or antibodies produced in reaction to it. While you can’t study for a viral or antigen test, you can learn about them. Being informed is a TESTament to one’s desire to be prepared for whatever life throws at you. Let’s just hope that it isn’t the coronavirus.

Just WONDER-ing:

Have you taken either a viral test or antigen test during the pandemic? Which would bother you more–have a needle stuck in your arm or having a 6-inch swab stuck up your nose? Is a 60% test accuracy rate acceptable? Would you be more likely to rely on a home test or one conducted by a medical professional?



Bats To Blame For COVID-19 Driving Us Batty?

Forced self-isolation and social distancing due to the ongoing pandemic driving you batty? The finger of blame for our current circumstances can likely be pointed at bats. Bats? Yup, the only flying mammal in the world may be the source for COVID-19.

A coronavirus, such as COVID-19, is a zoonotic disease. “Zoonotic” is a fancy schmanzy term meaning it is caused by an animal virus picked up by humans. Scientists must determine what animal started this crazy pandemic, and bats are the prime suspect.

Previously we feared bats because they might (according to books, movies and TV) turn into vampires. No worries. Just keep a cross or some garlic handy. Unfortunately, vampires are the least of our concerns when it comes to bats. Scientists tell us bats have been linked with seven major epidemics over the past three decades. Holy health crisis, Batman! 

Bats are thought to be the natural host of the Ebola virus, rabies, SARS, and MERS. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 is a distant relative of SARS; it shares about 80% of the same genetic sequence. Yes, criminals and bats alike can be busted by DNA. According to the scientific journal Viruses, at least 200 coronaviruses have been identified in bats. That’s a lot of viruses for such a small creature.

Researchers in China have traced COVID-19 to horseshoe bats, a common bat species in China. These bats are found in Yunnan, over 1,000 miles away from Wuhan, the initial epicenter of the pandemic. Yunnan is a region in southern China with an extensive system of caves. And even if we don’t have Ph.D.’s, we all know bats like to hang out (literally hang) in caves. 

Virologist Shi Zhengli, known as China’s “Bat Woman,” has years of experience with virus-hunting expeditions in dark and dank caves. Her data, published in the journal Nature, identified a disease in the Yunnan horseshoe bats with a genetic sequence which is 96% identical to COVID-19. Why not 100%? Apparently a virus mutates as it jumps from species to species, so scientists would not find an exact copy of the coronavirus in animals as is found in humans. A 96% match is about as close to a smoking gun, or in this case a smoking bat, as one is going to find. 

But why should we worry about what bats in China carry? The fact that the bats are in China isn’t the point; it’s the fact that bats are the carrier. Over 1,300 species of bats exist, and bats are found on every continent except Antarctica. According to the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”), three of four emerging infectious diseases in humans come from animals, and bats contain the highest proportion of mammalian viruses likely to affect people. 

So why don’t we just eradicate bats then if they are natural reservoirs for viruses that can negatively affect humans’ public health? Alas, such action would cause unwanted repercussions because bats are essential parts of ecosystems. They control insect populations by eating them, fertilize through their guano, and assist with pollination. Who knew bats were so helpful?

Even if bats are the source of the virus which has mutated and wreaked havoc on the human world in the form of COVID-19, are the bats ultimately to blame for this outcome? A well-reasoned case can be made that humans, not bats, are the real villian.

Bats are increasingly coming into contact with humans due to deforestation and urbanization–activities carried out by, you guessed it, humans.. This contact allows the opportunity for the transmission of viruses the bats carry. Moreover, when bats are stressed, say from the loss of their natural habitat, their immune system is challenged; it is then harder for them to cope with the virus. Infections increase and viruses are excreted.

A second strike against humans is how they deal with bats. Bats are eaten as food in China, so they are captured and brought to wet markets such as the one in Wuhan. Talk about stress. Think a caged bat observing fellow bats being slaughtered for customers right in front of them won’t stress them out? They will excrete the virus which may hop to a caged animal of another species who contracts the virus. In the SARS epidemic, for example, it was determined that the virus went from horseshoe bats to civets (a catlike creature eaten in China) to humans. Yuk to eating both bats and civets!

This point is where the story takes a sinister turn. There were no bats found at the wet market in Wuhan which was the suspected source of contamination for humans. Where were the bats? Why they were hibernating in their dark, comfy caves in late December when the first outbreak was reported. But what WAS present in Wuhan was the Wuhan Institute of Virology located mere minutes away from the wildlife market. Could the virus have come from there?

The virology institute is a high security lab in Wuhan which was built right after the SARS outbreak. It contains the largest virus bank in Asia. (Not sure who’d be depositing viruses there, but they call it a bank.) The institute holds more than 1,500 strains of deadly viruses and specializes particularly in viruses carried by bats.

Scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology experimented on bats as a part of a project funded by the U.S.’s National Institutes of Health. A $3.7 million NIH grant funded the institute’s coronavirus experiment on mammals captured in Yunnan, site of the horseshoe bat caves. Part of the research included growing coronavirus in a lab and injecting it into three day old piglets. I don’t think those piglets were squealing in delight at their treatment.

As a result of the institute’s location at the initial pandemic epicenter, conspiracy theories have been put forth. According to one theory, the virus escaped from the lab. (That’s one smart and determined virus!) Virologist Shi, the lab’s deputy director, refuted that claim stating none of the genome sequences in infected patients matched the institute’s virus samples. A second theory is that China was experimenting with the virus as a biological warfare weapon. If so, they were either heartlessly testing it on their own citizens or careless in not controlling its spread. 

Regardless of whether you hold bats, humans, or both responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak, the fact is a pandemic is ongoing. Pointing a finger of blame doesn’t change the current reality. However, we don’t want the current reality to occur again in the future. Therefore, we need to get a handle on where the virus originated and how it was transmitted. Scientists are working on that as the rest of us are going batty in self-isolation and practicing social distancing. I, for one, am happy to socially distance myself from any and all bats–virus carrying or not.

Just WONDER-ing: Have you ever visited a bat cave? If so, would you do so again after reading this post? Should wet markets selling wildlife be banned either for public health or humanitarian reasons? How would you feel living next to an institute holding a bank of deadly viruses? Is it a good idea to have one located near a large population center?









COVID-19–Wanna Get Away? But Where?

A cloud of fear and anxiety envelops our pandemic panicked world. The news is an endless stream of death counts, PPE shortages, and job losses. A person can only take so much. At some point we’re all going to end up like the lady in the commercial who’s in the bathtub saying, “Calgon, take me away!” Wouldn’t it be nice to go some place untouched by coronavirus? Sorry to burst your bath bubble, but that’s simply a pipe dream. There’s nowhere good to go.

The smart folks at Johns Hopkins University (“JHU”) have helpfully compiled a map detailing the virus’ presence and provided a breakdown of the confirmed cases, deaths, and recoveries by country. (Check it out at  Confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide are approaching 1.5 million with 87,000+ deaths. Yet, believe it or not, there are countries in the world which have yet (and I stress “yet”) to record a coronavirus case.

Per JHU, 16 countries are coronavirus free as of April 8th. In alphabetical order, they are Comoros; Kirabati; Lesotho; the Marshall Islands; Micronesia; Nauru; Palau; Samoa; the Solomon Islands; Tajikistan; Tonga; Turkmenistan; Tuvalu; Vanuatu; and Yemen. Detect a pattern in these places untouched, as yet, by the pandemic? Mainly they are small, remote islands which are not tourist hot spots. 

So, assuming international travel was currently a possibility, what virus free country would be your destination of choice to ride out the pandemic? Think any of the possibilities would be THE place to be right now? Let’s check out some of the options and see how viable they are as a place to get away from it all–with “all” mainly meaning the coronavirus.

Honestly, I’ not even heard of some of the countries JHU listed. Take Nauru for example. Confess. You hadn’t heard of it either, right? Well there’s a good reason we haven’t. It is a SMALL island country northeast of Australia with just over 10,000 people. Sure, Nauru may be an exotic location, but the place only has one hospital and a shortage of nurses. Is that really where you want to hide out from the feared coronavirus? If the pandemic did rear its ugly head in Nauru, you would be sunk.

Asia has three countries without confirmed COVID-19 cases–North Korea, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. For political reasons, I’d have to pass hunkering down in any of these countries even to get away from a pandemic. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were both part of the former Soviet Union. Turkmenistan is still described as repressive. If I’m going to be forced to stay home, I’d prefer to do so here in the U.S. where the order was issued by a democratically elected government that recognize I have rights.

Then there’s North Korea. The fact that (so they say) it has no coronavirus cases is the only good thing you can say about that country. North Korea is widely accused of having the worst human rights in the world. A United Nations human rights inquiry in 2014 found concerns about the scale and nature of such violations. North Korea is run by Kim Jung-un, a (possibly crazy) dictator with access to the button to launch nuclear weapons. The military is everywhere with 37% of the country’s population active, reserve, or paramilitary personnel. And the availability of food can be an issue. A famine between 1994-1998 resulted in between 240,000 and 420,000 deaths in North Korea. Not a top getaway choice, huh?

A beach paradise might be a good get away spot. Would Comoros fit that bill? For those of you who are geographically ignorant (like I was), Comoros is an island country in the Indian Ocean with a population approaching one million. While the location sounds intriguing, it becomes less ideal the more you learn. The country has a high level of poverty with a mostly rural agricultural economy. Moreover, the islands comprising it–3 major islands and numerous smaller islands–are volcanic. You might avoid being in a pandemic hot spot in Comoros but be in the path of some hot, hot, hot lava instead. Nope!

Would Kirabati be a more suitable island location.? The island country,  located in the central Pacific Ocean, is made up of 32 atolls and one raised coral island; only 21 of these islands are even inhabited. That sounds pretty exotic! But….it is one of the least developed countries in the world. Fifty-four percent of the population are heavy smokers. In addition, Kiribati suffers from a lack of fresh water. Hmm…die of thirst or from inhaling second hand smoke in an attempt to avoid catching the coronavirus? What appealing choices–NOT! Water being essential to my continued existence, I’d pass on hanging out on Kiribati till the pandemic blows over.

Perhaps a more high profile island location, like Vanuatu, is needed for the great coronavirus escape. If the name sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. Vanuatu was the location for season 9 of the reality TV series “Survivor.” It is also well known to scuba enthusiasts. The country, which is a Y-shaped archipelago of 82 small islands, is considered a premier destination for scuba exploration of coral reefs. Vanuatu additionally boasts access to one of the largest shipwrecks recreational divers may explore–the wreck of the SS President Coolidge which was sunk during World War II.

Sounds good so far. But wait. There are some significant drawbacks to Vanuatu. First, it was just hit by Tropical Cyclone Harold which was packing winds of 250 km/hour and approaching Category 5 status. Yikes!  Second, your social life will be even worse on Vanuatu than if you stayed in the good old USA. The country has banned social gatherings of more than FIVE people for now. As with Comoros, Vanuatu is of volcanic origin. It also has frequent earthquakes. Bottom line? Beautiful scenery doesn’t trump the threat of cyclones, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes.

You know, maybe things aren’t as bad as we think they are being on lock down here in the U.S. after all. Considering alternative locations, we have it pretty good even if we do have to frequently wash our hands, stay six feet away from others, and forgo engaging in non-essential activities. We are a developed country with lots of resources and, even better, it’s home. There’s no place like it–even during a pandemic.

Just WONDER-ing:

If it was possible, would you run away to a different country to escape COVID-19? Will any country be able to avoid having a confirmed coronavirus case? In post-pandemic times, where would you like to go to get away?