2021’s Word of the Year–Consensus Choice of a Controversial Topic

What’s in a word? Well, one word, Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2021, provides a spot-on identification of the issue of the year. While controversy about many things swirled in 2021, selection of this particular word cannot be counted among them. The honored word? Vaccine.

Whether you are vaccinated or unvaccinated, were mandated to be vaccinated or voluntarily choose to be vaccinated, distrust scientists and/or the government or adhere to what scientists and/or the government advise, everyone can agree that “vaccine” (not “grease” as the lyrics in a song in the movie “Grease” state) is THE word that has gotten everyone’s attention this year. The split in opinion comes when the impact of the word is evaluated. “Vaccine” can be viewed as a promising medical solution to the pandemic or the source of societal division and political bickering.

How impactful has the word “vaccine” been in our society during 2021? Prolific use of the term led people to look up exactly what it means using a dictionary. According to Merriam-Webster’s website, lookups for “vaccine” increased 601% over 2020 and 1,048% over 2019. That’s mind-blowing to me not just because such interest in the meaning of “vaccine” existed but because people were actually using dictionaries.

Not only did current events cause people to look up the meaning of “vaccine,” but it prompted Merriam-Webster to update the definition of that term. Why? Because the COVID vaccine triggers an immune response in an entirely new way than the previous dictionary definition explained. The former entry, stating stated that a vaccine used an inactivated form of the virus, was revised and expanded in May 2021 to include instances where vaccines are made with genetic material, messenger RNA or mRNA, instead. Medical advances impact dictionaries as well as people.

Use of the word “vaccine” may have been prolific during 2021, but the word itself has been around for some time. It dates back to the 1880’s, still a relatively recent entry into the English language. The derivation of the term is quite interesting. “Vaccine” comes from the Latin word “vacca” which means cow. Holy cow! What does a cow have to do with a vaccine? Interestingly the word was initially used to refer to an inoculation using doses of cowpox found to protect humans against smallpox. Think that method was as controversial back then as the COVID vaccine is now?

To emphasize how current events affect our use of language, Merriam-Webster dubbed “pandemic” the 2020 word of the year. But with the administration of the first doses of the COVID vaccine in December 2020, the stage was set for pandemic’s successor to be “vaccine.”

And even though they didn’t attain the lofty status of 2021 word of the year, new words related to the coronavirus were among the 455 new words Merriam-Webster added to its dictionary in 2021. These included “breakthrough” (an infection occurring in someone who is fully vaccinated against an infectious agent) and “super-spreader” (an event or location where a significant number of people contract the same communicable disease). Let’s use those “new” words in a sentence. How many celebrants will become ill with a breakthrough after spending the evening at a likely super-spreader such as New Year’s Eve in Times Square?

As evidenced by the addition of coronavirus-related words to the dictionary, the English language is alive and ever-changing. New words and phrases are invented all the time with current events frequently behind new dictionary entries. Yup! Thanks to consumer habits, “air fryer” was added by Merriam-Webster in 2021 as was “doorbell camera.” And let’s not forget the impact of pop culture. “Dad bod” (a physique typical of an average father–slightly overweight and not particularly muscular) is officially now a recognized dictionary entry.

But new words, surprisingly, are not the dictionary entries which are the most looked up. Merriam-Webster.com identifies “apathetic,” “cynical,” and “integrity” as three of the top ten words whose meanings are searched. I can understand the need to know what “integrity” really means since a dearth of public figures modeling it can be found. Think I’m being a tad cynical here? Also, in my experience, most folks are strongly for or strongly against a COVID vaccine/vaccine mandate; they are simply not “apathetic.” No one says, “Meh!” when asked to voice their opinion on these subjects.

Whether or not you agree that “vaccine” is the best word to sum up the year 2021, I think we can all agree we are glad 2021 is drawing to a close. The year 2022 is almost here, bringing the hope and promise of a blank slate and a new beginning to all. Let’s hope the need to frequently use the word “vaccine” will fade, and the pandemic will wane and become nothing but a bad memory. Perhaps one day we’ll only think of “vaccine” as a dictionary entry and not a political hot potato.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Do you agree with the selection of “vaccine” as the word of the year for 2021? If not, what word would would you suggest? Were you aware such a large number of new words are added to the dictionary annually? How do you view words knowing that their definitions can and may be revised from time to time?

No, No, Nipah–Virus Scarier Than Coronavirus Lurking

Think once the coronavirus dies down we’ll be out the woods? If that’s what you believe, think again. A virus scarier than the coronavirus is lurking out there possibly aiming to start the next pandemic. Nipping at the heels of the coronavirus for being a deadly threat is the Nipah virus.

Haven’t heard of the Nipah virus? Well, there’s good reason. Since first being identified in 1999 in Malayasia, all outbreaks have occurred in South or Southeast Asia. But, hey, the coronavirus didn’t start in the U.S. either, and we see how that has affected us.

Nipah is a zoonotic illness transmitted from animals to people. (The “zoo” in “zoonotic” is there for a reason….) The first recognized outbreak in Malaysia occurred among pig farmers. Most of the human infections resulted from direct contact with sick pigs or their contaminated tissue. (There’s yet another reason to lay off the bacon consumption.) The virus was also detected in animals other than pigs in Malaysia; sheep, goats, cats, dogs, and horses also were infected by Nipah.

Blame the bats, fruit bats specifically, for subsequent outbreaks of Nipah in India and Bangladesh. Fruit bats in the family Pteropodidae, commonly known as “flying foxes,” are natural carriers of Nipah. Scientists have determined that the most likely source of infection for those outbreaks was from fruit or fruit products contaminated by these fruit bats. In particular, the bats adore the raw sap of the date palm tree and feast on it. When humans harvested the sap for processing into fruit juice or picked fruit nibbled on by the bats, the consumer of the fruit or fruit product was at risk of contracting Nipah.

Just this month, Nipah has reared its ugly and deadly head again in Asia. The third outbreak of the virus since 2018 in the south Indian state of Kerala, known for its palm-lined beaches on the Arabian Sea, is ongoing. Hmm! Think those palms lining the beaches there are DATE palms? Yup.

On September 5th, a 12 year old boy died from the Nipah virus after experiencing a high fever and swelling of the brain. As a result, the authorities identified all those who had come in contact with the boy and sealed off a TWO MILE radius from his home. Why such a broad sweep of quarantine? Because there is no treatment or vaccine currently available for people or animals. The primary treatment for a Nipah virus patient is merely supportive care.

While the Nipah virus is not related to the coronavirus, the two may have the same originating source. Finger the bats! Bats have been identified as a possible source of the coronavirus in China. An investigation into a 2018 Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala traced infections to dead fruit bats found in a water well. In these case, they would probably rather have had bats in their belfry than in their water supply

Nipah and the coronavirus are unlike in several ways. One difference is that Nipah is not as transmissible and is less contagious than the coronavirus. The current average transmission rate for Nipah is less than one person per infection. As opposed to COVID patients, those with Nipah start spreading the virus only after symptoms set in. Accordingly, quarantine efforts can be more effective in halting the spread of the virus.

Those differences sound good for Nipah, right? But wait, there’s a big and scary downside. While only around 2% of those who contract COVID die, up to 75% of Nipah infections prove fatal. For example, in a 2018 outbreak of Nipah, only 2 of 19 infected people survived. That’s a little over a 10% survival rate. Yikes!

In addition to having a higher mortality rate, Nipah also has a longer incubation period of up to 45 days and the ability to infect a much wider variety of animals. These factors make the virus the source of significant concern for epidemiologists. In fact, the WHO (the World Health Organization and not the rock band) classifies Nipah as a “virus of concern for future epidemics.” The organization has placed Nipah on a priority list of diseases for which research and development is needed. The diseases on this list are those which pose the greatest public risk because of epidemic potential and are identified as in “urgent need” for accelerated R&D.

Of particular concern to health officials is that genetic changes to Nipah are likely. Each time a human is infected with the virus, the virus is in an environment allowing for human adaptation. New strains which appear could more effectively be transmitted person to person resulting in a devastating outbreak. Dr. Stephen Luby, a professor of infectious diseases at Stanford, believes that a mutated strain of Nipa could lead to an outbreak which is “the worst humanity has ever faced.”

Although the virus has, so far, been contained to South Asia, the potential for worldwide transmission exists. A global problem could result due to spread through international trade, foreign travel, and climate change forcing fruit bats to seek new habitats.

What exactly happens to those unfortunate people who are infected by the Nipah virus? A fever and headache develop from three days to two weeks after infection. Thereafter a cough, sore throat, and respiratory issues appear. Finally, swelling begins in brain cells which causes drowsiness, confusion, coma, and often death. While some have survived a Nipa infection, they do not always recover unscathed. Twenty percent of survivors experience persistent neurological symptoms, seizures, and personality changes.

Efforts are underway to develop a Nipah vaccine, but as we have all learned from the current COVID pandemic, vaccine development takes time. Right now such development is a headache for researchers who feel pressured to come up with a lifesaving vaccine and prevent another worldwide virus outbreak. Given the existence of COVID and Nipah, we should all feel thankful if the worst thing we are experiencing at present is a headache. And, until a Nipah vaccine is developed, let’s avoid fruit bats and date palm trees.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Had you ever heard of the Nipah virus? As technologically advanced as society is today, does the appearance of such daunting viruses make you feel humans are not as in control as they might think? Is enough focus and funding being given to R&D efforts regarding deadly diseases?

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?

Thanksgiving 2020–Picking Through The Bones Of A Turkey Of A Holiday To Find Positives

As Thanksgivings go, Thanksgiving 2020 will undoubtedly go down in the books as a real turkey. How enjoyable is it to celebrate a holiday when we are told to stay home and stay away from everyone except immediate household members? The pandemic has cast a pall on the entire year, and now it is robbing us of traditional celebrations. But if we pick through the bones of this turkey of a holiday this year, positives can be identified. Yes, really!

Let’s Talk Turkey

Thanksgiving and turkey go together like peanut butter and jelly. It is hard to imagine one without the other. While we may not have Grandma, Uncle Horace, cousin Betty, and the rest of the clan around the Thanksgiving table, mercifully, we can still have a turkey gracing it.

About 40 million turkeys are eaten each Thanksgiving according to the National Turkey Federation. While TP has at times been scarce during 2020, there are no turkey shortages across the board. So, if you want to gobble down some turkey for Thanksgiving, you will not be disappointed.

That having been said, however, there is a challenge facing Americans. Consumers are facing a harder time finding smaller turkeys to serve for their big holiday meal. Kroger found that 43% of its shoppers planned to celebrate Thanksgiving with only those in their immediate household. Thus, there’s no need for a ginormous turkey to fill the special turkey platter. The pandemic has driven up the demand for smaller turkeys.

This shift in demand is good news for male turkeys who are also known as Toms. Most large turkeys (defined as more than 16 pounds) are male. Most small turkeys are female and are called hens. Preparing smaller turkeys is thus going to result in a hen party this Thanksgiving.

We Gather Together

The Centers for Disease Control, familiarly known as CDC, has recommended people not travel for Thanksgiving due to the pandemic. So gathering together with kith and kin who do not live in the local area is pumpkin pie in the sky for those who adhere to this advice. CDC is such a party pooper! Right now that acronym seems to stand for Cancelling Desired Celebration.

Despite the ban on in person gatherings, people can still gather together–just not in the traditional Thanksgiving way. Using technology, relatives and friends may share a meal albeit virtually. In the past? TV dinners. Now? Zoom dinners.

Gathering together is such an integral part of celebrating Thanksgiving that the hymn most associated with Thanksgiving is “We Gather Together.” But the back story of this hymn provides a better understanding of something else which Americans can be thankful for despite an ongoing pandemic.

The hymn, of Dutch origin, was written in 1597 and its words were set to the music of a well known folk tune. The song had nothing to do with a holiday. It celebrated the Dutch victory over the Spanish at the Battle of Turnhout. The Protestant Dutch were fighting a war of liberation against Spain’s Catholic king who forbade them to assemble for worship. The king basically told them, “Don’t Gather Together!” To stick it to the king, then, the victorious Dutch thus gleefully sang “We Gather Together.” Well at least they sang that idea in their native language.

Although the pandemic may have altered the look of church services with congregants wearing masks and socially distancing, Americans of faith can still be thankful this Thanksgiving. There is no government prohibition against assembling to worship as one sees fit. We can gather with those of like faith whenever we choose–Thanksgiving or any other day of the year.

Pilgrim’s Pride

After a turkey, the Pilgrims are the probably the most familiar thing about an American Thanksgiving. In fact, the holiday is based on what the Pilgrims did hundreds of years ago. Even though the pandemic has radically changed how the holiday will be celebrated this year, everyone can be thankful that a modern celebration looks nothing like the one the Pilgrims observed.

Sure the pandemic has caused an ever mounting and ghastly death toll in 2020. But the Pilgrims had it way worse. The 53 Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving had survived the long journey on the Mayflower and the first winter in the new world. Disease and starvation struck down HALF (that’s 50% for those of you who are mathematically challenged) of the original 102 colonists. Thankfully COVID-19 is nowhere near decimating half of this country’s population.

If Americans have to scale back their celebrations, they will surely have an easier time than the Pilgrims did. Their celebration lasted for three days, and there were no paper plates, refrigerators, and microwaves back then. Sounds like lots of work for the Pilgrim womenfolk–who are believed to have only been four in number by then.

The Pilgrims’ guest list was rather lengthy as well. Ninety Wampanoag Indians from a nearby village gathered with them. That puts having 20 family members over for Thanksgiving dinner in perspective, huh? But the Indians were well-mannered guests and brought a hostess gift–5 freshly killed deer. I guess it is the thought that counts because such a gift would make me lose my appetite for a big holiday meal.

We, of course, could use the Pilgrims as inspiration for adhering to CDC guidelines this year. An outdoor meal is suggested. Turkey, but not deer, al fresco it is! See? There really are some positives to be found in this turkey of a Thanksgiving 2020.

Just WONDER-ing:

Will you be abiding by CDC guidelines for observing Thanksgiving? If so, how? What positives can you find in this surreal Thanksgiving 2020? Have you ever stopped to think about the details of the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims?

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? 

Where’s The Beef, Pork, and Chicken? Pandemic Meat Shortages

Just when toilet paper is slowly beginning to reappear on grocery store shelves, now we have to face a different shortage. Meatless Mondays may by joined by Tacoless Tuesdays, Wienerless Wednesdays, T-boneless Thursdays, Fried Chickenless Fridays, Sausageless Saturdays, and Steakless Sundays. Holy Scarce Cow! There’s a meat shortage! What’s up with that?

Americans aren’t merely asking “Where’s the beef? They also want to know where the pork and chicken are too. All of these meats are in short supply as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. And, in a double whammy, what meat is available is much pricier. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects meat prices to rise in 2020 by as much as 2%.That’s too much!

While the coronavirus has not, at least as yet, infected poultry and livestock, it has taken its toll on the humans who process meat. With workers in this industry testing positive for COVID-19, processing plant closures have disrupted the supply chain in our country. Exacerbating the problem is the reduced productivity in those plants which have managed to remain open; they are only operating at 40-50% capacity. Less work equals less meat.

Plant closures have occurred for a couple of reasons. First, the number of absent workers has made it impossible for plans to operate. Tyson Food’s  largest pork producing plant, located in Waterloo, Iowa, was forced to close for this reason. Was anyone really anticipating a positive result from basing an important meat plant in a town named Waterloo? 

Similarly Smithfield Foods, the country’s larges pork supplier and a meat source for fast food chains like McDonalds, shut down its Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant when 293 or so of its workers were diagnosed with COVID-19. Yeah, they wouldn’t want to shut down with a mere 100 workers infected with a virus locking down the country.

Even plants with enough workers to function have closed or considered closing due to health hazards. What’s hazardous is that these employees work in close quarters. Forget six feet apart; many work shoulder to shoulder. Apparently these employees are packed in like sardines, although there have been no reports of a sardine shortage.

So one meat processing plant closes. Big deal, right? WRONG. The JBS plant in Wisconsin produces enough meet to feed 3.2 million Americans daily.

Restaurant Business reports beef production is down about 25%. As a result, lots of restaurants are finding beef items out of stock. In particular, Wendy’s, which touts its use of fresh beef only, has around 20% of its U.S. restaurants out of beef. 

What’s one to do? Much depends on who you are. Consumers are, to NO ONE’s surprise, attempting to hoard meat. Hoarding a perishable product, though, is  more difficult than hoarding toilet paper because refrigeration is necessary. So consumers have sought to increase their storage capacity. Chest freezers are selling out at Home Depot and are on back order until August 2020. Stores, such as Kroger, have reacted to the attempts to hard meat by placing limits on how much beef and pork customers may purchase.

President Trump has responded to the meat processing plant closures by invoking the 1950 Defense Production Act to avoid further supply chain disruptions. The plants have been declared “critical infrastructure” and have been ordered to remain open during the pandemic. The problem is that for these plants to be safe for workers, lower production will occur. Required social distancing will decrease the number of workers able to be on the plant floor. No longer will workers be able to stand shoulder to shoulder as they shoulder the task of producing pork shoulders.

Meat processing businesses are seeking a liability shield from Congress for their continued operation. Smithfield Foods has been sued by workers in a Missouri plant who allege that the company failed to protect them due to their close quarters and lack of sufficient PPE’s. How much must the employer do to adequately protect the workers? Are plexiglass barriers sufficient? Must Hazmat suits be issued? 

Meat processing plant shutdowns are also affecting the animals from which the meat is taken. With reduced processing capacity, there are more pigs now than can be processed. Thus, pigs are backing up on farms. Ironically, there’s a plethora of pork on the farms but not on the supermarket meat shelves. Sadly, farmers do not have room for this overflow of pigs, and are having to resort to euthanasia for lack of space. Poor pigs!

The current state of affairs is described as an hourglass effect by a professor at Virginia Polytech. Ms. Isengildina-Massa explains that there’s plenty of demand for meat at the top, and a plentiful supply of animals at the bottom. The reduced processing capacity is the bottleneck in the middle constraining the supply from meeting the meat demand.

Also wreaking havoc in the meat processing world is the closure of commercial buyers such as restaurants, cruise lines, and theme parks. Per the National Chicken Council (which is presumably not composed of chickens), about 50% of chicken sales are to food services. A lay person might think the lack of commercial demand for meat would make it easier to have a retail supply, but that’s not necessarily so. It is difficult to shift production set up for food service sales to retail; for example, there is different packaging. I’m assuming the meat packages for theme parks are bigger than the ones consumers buy at Kroger.

Don’t think that you’ll be smart and make a run for the border to find some meat. Even if the borders are opened, shutdowns of meat processing plants have also occurred in Canada.

So, what’s the answer to the question of the hour, “Where’s the beef, pork and chicken?” Not on the shelves or on our plates. But they are definitely on our minds. Until meat production normalizes, Americans have to meet this difficult situation with bravery. We may be forced to try the Impossible Whopper if we want to sink our teeth into a burger.

Just WONDER-ing:

Have you observed shortages of meat where you buy groceries? Has your grocer imposed limits on how much meat a customer may purchase? If real beef isn’t available, would you be tempted to sample an Impossible Whopper? Is becoming a vegetarian an option?

 

 

Who CARES? Uncle Sam Does!

An alarming sign during this pandemic is people feeling drained–in their bank accounts that is. Millions are out of work, and economic activity has been dramatically reduced. Individuals wonder how their families will be fed, and business owners wonder how they will pay their employees. Does anyone care about their financial plight? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Uncle Sam cares and has acted to come to their aid by passing the CARES Act of 2020.

Ever heard, “There ought to be a law!” Some federal legislators felt just that way in light of the economic havoc wreaked by the ongoing pandemic. And come up with a law they did–the CARES Act of 2020. The public law’s name, CARES, is an acronym for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security. There’s simply no end to the creativity of politicians, is there?

A striking feature of the CARES Act is that it evidences how much everyone cares. Yes, it took a global pandemic, thousands of deaths, and economic calamity to get federal legislators to put aside political divisiveness and act together for the common good. The legislation was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. In the Senate it received unanimous approval on March 25th with a 96-0 vote. Four senators had to get notes from their doctors for missing the vote–1 had tested positive for the virus, 1 was feeling ill, and 2 were in isolation following contact with a confirmed case. 

The CARES Act was passed by the House on Friday, March 27th. President Trump signed the Act into law that very same day. Voila’! Two TRILLION dollars worth of economic relief had been swiftly authorized.

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time grasping what a trillion dollars is. Oh, I get that it is way more than I’ll make annually or even in my lifetime, but what exactly does a trillion dollars look like? In order to write the number, you’ll need a bunch of zeros–12 to be exact. That’s 1,000,000,000,000. A trillion is a thousand billions or a million millions. According to an article on methodshop.com, a stack of one trillion dollar bills would be 67,886 miles high and reach one-fourth of the way to the moon. But the CARES Act will distribute TWO TRILLION dollars. That’s a stack of $1 bills reaching halfway to the moon. Yes, to the moon, Alice!

The CARES Act is, unsurprisingly, the largest economic stimulus package in U.S. history. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Economic activity spiraled down both domestically and globally in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In ONE WEEK’s time, the week ending March 21st, approximately 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment. This figure represents a five fold increase over the previous record of 695,000 unemployment claims sent in 1982. This is not a record about which to be excited.

Although the Act itself covers a number of areas, the two most publicized ones are the Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) aimed at helping small businesses and economic impact payments to eligible individuals. CARES expressly defines a small business as one with less than 500 employees. “Small” is apparently in the eyes of the beholder. The office where I work would be considered microscopic, I guess, since 500 is about 100 times bigger than we are.

The PPP offered up to $10 million in loans to “small” businesses. These loans are to be forgiven (translate don’t have to be paid back) if three conditions are met: the business’ workforce isn’t reduced after receiving the loan, workers laid off between February 15th and April 26th are quickly rehired, and at least 75% of the funds received are spent on payroll. 

Yea! Small business have been saved by CARES! Or have they? Some 1.7 million loans were approved, but not every small business could be helped. Why? There wasn’t enough money to assist all of them in need. The PPP program (that’s a lot of P’s!) ran out of money on April 16, 2020, a mere 20 days after the legislation was enacted.

What about financially struggling individuals? CARES allotted $290 billion in direct payments to eligible taxpayers, an estimated 90% of Americans. Each  adult making less than $75,000 a year can receive up to $1,200; in addition, they can receive $500 per child under 17. These payments can be made either by direct deposit (if the IRS has bank information) or by good old-fashioned checks.

Yea! Money in our pockets! Or not–at least in a timely fashion. Stimulus checks began going out the week of April 13th. Nevertheless, the IRS can only process 5 million checks a week, meaning it could take months (estimated up to 20 weeks) for all of the checks to be mailed. So much for the statement on the U.S. Department of Treasury website that CARES will provide “fast” assistance. Justice delayed is, as they say, justice denied. The same can be said for stimulus payments; economic help delayed is economic help denied. People who don’t have money for groceries need help now, not 16 weeks from now.

A controversy arose when it was announced the President’s name would appear in the memo line of stimulus checks possibly causing a slight delay. This is news? I mean when isn’t there a controversy about anything related to President Trump? And there’s an uproar about his name being on a check but not that it might take 5 months for needy taxpayers to receive economic assistance? I personally could care less whose name is on my check as long as I receive it in a timely fashion. 

If you haven’t received your stimulus payment yet, the IRS provides a “helpful” tool on its website called “Get My Payment” allowing you to track the progress (or lack thereof) of your payment. Well, that’s the idea anyway. Numerous people utilizing the tool (including yours truly) have received a response that their eligibility cannot be determined from IRS records. This response, per the IRS, may mean the system is overwhelmed (ya think?) or that the person really isn’t eligible. Well thanks for nothing! Now people have something else to be worried about–they are struggling financially and don’t know if/when they might get a stimulus check to boot.

Let’s assume everyone, businesses and individuals alike, obtain the financial assistance offered by the CARES Act. Everything’s great, right? Um, no. Where do you think that money is coming from? The CARES Act will add to the already ginormous federal deficit. The stimulus checks alone will decrease federal revenue by around $301 BILLION in 2020 according to the Tax Foundation. The Congressional Budget Office indicates the CARES Act will raise the the federal deficit by around $1.8 TRILLION over the 2020-2030 period. 

CARES seemingly indicates Uncle Sam cares about U.S. citizens, but the follow through hasn’t been that impressive. While this legislation has assisted some (but not all) in need, it has also created a problem to be addressed at some future pandemic-free point. What brilliant legislation do you think will be proposed to deal with the mind-boggling federal deficit which CARES has made even bigger? Who cares? Let’s play Scarlett O’Hara and worry about taking on the deficit tomorrow.

Just WONDER-ing:

Have you received an economic stimulus check yet? If you haven’t, is receiving one weeks from now acceptable? If you own a small business or are employed by one, did the business apply for a Paycheck Protection Loan? Better yet, was it approved? When you heard about the financial assistance offered by the CARES Act, did you stop to think how it might impact the federal budget? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html.)  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?

 

 

 

 

“I Want A New Drug” — One To Treat Coronavirus

Not that any of them have time to be singing right now, but health care professionals are certain to embrace “I Want A New Drug” as their current anthem. This 1984 hit by Huey Lewis and the News was a love song, but medical workers today are taking the title literally. Everyone is clamoring for a drug–“one that does what it should,” i.e., take on the dread coronavirus. Why is that? Well, duh, none exists at this point. 

Doctors are worried about the coronavirus pandemic because there is no specific medicine available to prevent or even treat coronavirus. What this lack means is that if a patient contracts coronavirus, all a doctor can do is to monitor him and provide supportive treatments. It’s not like having strep throat where the doctor prescribes an antibiotic, and you take a pill that very quickly makes you feel better.  

So, there’s no medicine to prevent someone from getting coronavirus. Why don’t we just have our crack scientists and medical personnel come up with one lickety-split? After all, necessity is the mother of invention. By golly we need that medicine yesterday as thousands around the world are dropping like flies during this pandemic. Nope. Doesn’t work like that.

Development of a vaccine usually takes 10 to 15 years. After that amount of time, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic will hopefully be nothing but a bad memory. Timing is everything as they (whoever “they” are) say.  Developing a coronavirus vaccine that won’t be available for a decade or so is of absolutely no help now. A fast food mentality is incompatible with the vaccine development process. 

OK, then, why don’t we just whip up a new drug to use in treating patients with coronavirus since we don’t have a vaccine to prevent them from getting it?  Nope. That won’t work either. Why? Because developing a new drug treatment also takes time–time that patients in the ICU don’t have. How much time is needed? Typically it is a decade from the discovery of a new drug treatment until it is on the market. 

Because it is impractical to timely develop a new drug, pharmaceutical companies throughout the world are working 24/7 to develop an effective drug treatment with existing medications. Unfortunately, there have been no clear breakthroughs yet. But there are some good possibilities. 

This past weekend the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) gave emergency use authorization to treat coronavirus patients with two anti-malarial drugs–chloroquine and hdroxycholorquine. These medications have produced positive results in small, early tests, but no controlled clinical trials have been completed yet. And, of course, controlled clinical trials take–you guessed it–time.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m on my deathbed with coronavirus, I think I’d take the gamble to try something that has given promise in test tube form even if hasn’t been vetted through painstaking and lengthy clinical trials. The worst that will happen is that it doesn’t work I’d die, which I’m likely to do anyway if I take no medicine.

But how does an anti-malarial medicine used to treat a disease caused by a mosquito bite help a patient with coronavirus? According to the experts (of which I am clearly not one), chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are effective in two ways. First, they block the virus; second, they reduce the inflammation which occurs when the body reacts to the presence of the coronavirus.

Understanding what the virus does is key to combating it medically. You need to know your enemy as they (whoever “they” are) would say during the Cold War. A coronavirus typically attacks one’s respiratory system. So if you are wondering why there’s such a clamor for ventilators for coronavirus patients, now you know. Yesterday, it was toilet paper; today, it is ventilators in huge demand.

Infected patients may develop pneumonia, but the virus isn’t what’s causing the pneumonia–it’s the patient’s strong immune response to the coronavirus. An overprotective immune response can be fatal. You’ve heard of too much of a good thing? Well, that’s what’s happening to some coronavirus patients whose immune systems are compromised by age and/or underlying health conditions. The normal immune response doesn’t cut off when it should. Immune cells flood the infection site causing surrounding tissue to become inflamed. The inflammation causes severe respiratory distress and the subsequent shutdown of multiple organs. 

If inflammation can be reduced, the patient might be kept from being put on a ventilator or could be taken off of one–assuming there was one available to put him on. Therefore, medications with anti-inflammatory benefits are being considered. Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are oral prescriptions drugs which have been used since the 1940’s for the treatment of malaria and some inflammatory conditions. President Trump’s plan to deliver large amounts of these anti-malaria drugs to hospitals was given emergency approval by the FDA while clinical trials are ongoing. Hopefully, the supply of such drugs is larger than the apparently woefully short stockpile of ventilators.

An experimental drug named leronlimab is also being considered for use against the coronavirus. Although typically used to treat breast cancer and HIV, it is deemed a promising treatment for coronavirus. This IND (Investigational New Drug) calms the immune system’s overly aggressive response to the virus which can lead to pneumonia or death. If trials prove  leronlimab is not effective against coronavirus, it is still most certainly effective in twisting your tongue when you try to pronounce the drug’s name–especially if you say the name quickly three times.

It’s going to take time to develop a vaccine to prevent and new medications to treat coronavirus. Nevertheless,it takes no time at all for everyone to simply engage their brains and act with common sense. Stay home if at all possible. If you must go out, practice social distancing. Wash your hands frequently. It doesn’t take a decade long controlled clinical trial to establish that these are prudent ways the average citizen can protect himself against contracting the coronavirus. After all, as they say (whoever “they” are), an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 

Just WONDER-ing:

Were you aware that it took so long to develop vaccines and new drugs? What’s less expensive to do–practice social distancing or formulate a new drug? What’s easier for you to do–stay home or develop a coronavirus vaccine? If you were in ICU, would you consider using an experimental drug which showed promise even if it hadn’t passed controlled clinical trials yet?