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A Neuroscientist Idea Hopes to Make a Difference in the Battle Against COVID-19

In the middle of the deadly, worldwide coronavirus pandemic, Michael Wells, a 34-year old neuroscientist, wanted to be useful

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COVID-19 Renews Quest for Coronavirus Vaccine

The world crossed the one-million mark of confirmed COVID-19 cases this past week. With untold millions more possible in the months to come, scientists are committed to making a vaccine.There’s a lot about COVID-19 that scientists still don’t know. They don’t know entirely how it is spread. And without proven treatments or vaccines, good hygiene and staying away from other people are the only known methods of prevention.Dr. Peter Hotez at Baylor College of Medicine started working on a coronavirus vaccine in 2003, during the outbreak of SARS, but after that, research funds dried up.Hotez expects more coronaviruses to develop and spread. Some may be more benign that COVID-19, some far deadlier.”Pandemics for coronaviruses have become a new normal. That we saw with SARS in 2003. We saw it in MERS s in 2012, and now this one. So we can expect a new major coronavirus every decade.”A pharmacist gives Jennifer Haller, left, the first shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19 at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle, Washington, March 16, 2020.Which is all the more reason to develop a vaccine, even after the COVID-19 infections taper off and life gets back to normal.  “We’re developing a vaccine for global health purposes. We’re very concerned what happens when this virus moves into the crowded urban areas slums of Mumbai and Kolkata, and then Delhi, how do you practice social distancing, you basically can’t so that’s why a vaccine is going to be very important for places like India, and that’s become our big priority right now.”Hotez is one of a number of scientists working on a vaccine for COVID-19, on treatments for the sick and methods to protect health care workers. He knows clean water is not available everywhere around the world, that it’s possible that COVID-19 will be a recurring virus, and that there will likely be new coronaviruses emerging in the coming years. 

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‘Calling All Scientists’: Experts Volunteer for Virus Fight 

Michael Wells was looking for a chance to use his scientific training to help fight the coronavirus when — on the same day the pandemic forced his lab to temporarily close — he decided to create his own opportunity. “CALLING ALL SCIENTISTS,” he tweeted on March 18. “Help me in creating a national database of researchers willing and able to aid in local COVID-19 efforts. This info will be a resource for institutions/(government) agencies upon their request.” That’s how the 34-year-old neuroscientist at the Broad Institute and Harvard University launched a national effort to marshal scientists to volunteer in the fight against the virus. Less than 10 days later, more than 7,000 scientists had joined Wells’ database. Organizations and governmental departments in a dozen states, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, have tapped into the information. Wells is also working with EndCoronavirus.org, a project of the research-focused New England Complex Systems Institute, to help maximize the usefulness of the volunteer scientist cavalry he has assembled. As health care workers risk their own lives to treat patients and some scientists work toward a vaccine, Wells’ database offers a way forward for other science professionals who want to be of use. Scientists are asked to match their specific training with potential needs in the battle against the disease, including experience with RNA viruses such as the coronavirus. Wells, an Ohio native, has lived for nearly a decade in the research hotbed of Cambridge, Massachusetts. He created the database, he explained, in part to help ensure that in places without access to nearby major academic centers, governmental entities and institutions — and by association, citizens — can tap into scientific knowledge. “Scientists are a tremendous resource for this country. And it’s not something that should just be confined to the coasts,” Wells said. “It’s something that everyone should be able to benefit from.” His project isn’t the only one looking to match scientists eager to help battle the virus with opportunities to use their skills — regional efforts were already underway when Wells first created his Google spreadsheet. One focus of the project is to identify volunteer scientists qualified to be deployed like “cavalry” to hotspots to conduct tests. The database also asks if scientists are able to donate testing materials, such as RNA extraction kits and nasal swabs, an acknowledgement that a lack of testing capacity at labs and supplies is also a concern. Wells has experience in virus research, but the database includes experts from multiple backgrounds, including bioinformatics experts who can help localities and other researchers more effectively map and visualize data on the effects of the pandemic. Organizations or governmental entities have to request access to the full version of the database. Requests unrelated to the pandemic, such as companies scouting potential employees, have been denied. Wells and his collaborators acknowledge to scientists who sign onto the database that while they “hope that every single one of you get the opportunity to use your advanced skills in the fight against this outbreak,” it’s likely that many who enlist won’t be called upon. No matter how the database is used, Wells said, scientists “want to be part of the solution to this global problem.” The database, he said, ensures “that when we’re called upon, we’re ready to go right away.” While nonstop global news about the effects of the coronavirus have become commonplace, so, too, are the stories about the kindness of strangers and individuals who have sacrificed for others. “One Good Thing” is an AP continuing series reflecting these acts of kindness.  

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Physically Distant, But Socially Close: Staying Sober While Staying Home

“Meetings are huge for me,” says Mike S., a 52-year-old web content specialist who has been sober since 2012.When his community began practicing social distancing, some of his usual meetings began offering the option of attending online. Mike went in person as long as he could, but things already felt different.With some regulars attending online through a video conferencing service called Zoom, the number of people physically attending “dropped on average by about half,” he said, “which was disconcerting and felt ominous.”Connection with one another is a key part of the way many people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction stay clean and sober, which makes the stay-at-home orders affecting many urban centers particularly challenging.Larry C., a real estate agent, relapsed last year after more than a dozen years sober. He is participating in an outpatient treatment program that, due to social distancing restrictions, occurs entirely online through Zoom.“I initially did worry about 12-step meetings and [treatment] meetings via Zoom, but the video platform has turned out to be great,” he says. Like many of his peers in recovery, he supplements his online meetings with phone calls to other people in recovery, study of recovery literature, and by trying to maintain healthy eating, sleeping and exercise habits.Pedestrians pass Brooklyn Hospital Center on April 4, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York.Zoom, a cloud-based video conferencing service whose popularity has shot up 67 percent since the beginning of the year, has kept many meetings in the Washington, D.C., area afloat as churches and other venues are forced to close their doors. For some skeptics, it has been an easier-than-expected transition.“Zoom meetings were a pleasant discovery,” says Cheryl, who has been sober nearly 15 years and works in the federal immigration system. “I took part in one [recently] and realized that I knew a third of the women in it. Nice surprise.”Others say the online meetings have meant that friends who now live elsewhere can easily revisit meetings they used to frequent. And familiar faces mean familiar interactions.“We still tell the same bad jokes,” says Alan S., a real estate agent sober more than seven years. “Just online.”Meanwhile, new resources are emerging. Paul Brethren, a certified addiction treatment specialist with more than 20 years’ experience, has established a free service called Sober Buddy that currently sends a daily email to more than 10,000 subscribers and is set to launch a mobile app in mid-May. The messages from Sober Buddy are meant to educate, challenge and strengthen skills at maintaining a sober life. It’s an approach based on cognitive behavioral therapy, which replaces unhealthy thought and behavior patterns with better ones.With the onset of the pandemic, Brethren says, the service has begun to tailor its message to the specific challenges of the day – such as preventing relapse at a time of fear and uncertainty.“One of the major skills for people in recovery is adapting,” Brethren says. “Life is difficult. If you fail to adapt, then you get stuck. When people get stuck, they’re at greater risk of going back to what’s familiar.”For a person in recovery, that can mean reverting to addictive behavior. “So the better you are at adapting in a healthy way, the more successful you’ll be,” he says.Sober Buddy also incorporates links to other recovery programs, such as Smart Recovery and 12-step programs for alcohol and drug users, including maps showing the locations of local in-person meetings.An empty Hollywood Boulevard is seen under the neon lights of El Capitan Theatre, top left, on April 2, 2020, in Los Angeles.Other forms of online communication, such as websites, Facebook groups and old-fashioned email lists are also helping people in recovery find one another and their online meetings while physically separated. But for those with long-term sobriety, there is still one big worry.“What a lot of us are worried about is the newcomer,” says a 52-year-old sober woman who prefers not to give her name. “How does someone newly sober find an online meeting?”Mike S. notes that helping newcomers is a big part of the why and the how of staying sober. “I do worry about newcomers … or people who are curious about recovery, or people who are desperate, not being able to make a connection that could save their lives.”To that end, a few face-to-face meetings can still be found, advertised through local addiction hotlines, social media and word-of-mouth.Mike S. notes that he attended an outdoor meeting about a week ago, “with everyone bringing their own chairs and sitting 6 feet apart. … It was quite refreshing and calming.”Jason A., who facilitates recovery meetings and attends as a participant, says he has built a routine of online meetings, one-on-one phone calls, prayer and meditation, and self-care, all of which help him stay sober.“I really like the idea of staying physically distant but socially close,” he says. “It speaks to maintaining my overall wellness.”  Resources:  U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline: https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline  Alcoholics Anonymous: https://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/need-help-with-a-drinking-problem  Narcotics Anonymous: https://na.org/  Smart Recovery: https://www.smartrecovery.org/  Sober Buddy: https://yoursoberbuddy.com/  

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Technology Helps Doctors, Health Industry Track Patients, Treatments

As the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to overwhelm doctors and hospitals throughout the country, medical technology firms and health centers are trying to gain “situational awareness” — giving doctors what they need to know about the sick patients filling emergency rooms.For doctors and staff, “it’s really hard to know what sorts of patients are coming,” said Warren Ratliff, the chief executive of MDmetrix, a software firm that provides analysis of health care inside hospitals.The staff “can see they’re backing up,” he said. But they have few tools to compare patients showing up today with those admitted yesterday, or to show what treatments might be working on certain groups of patients, he added.A frustrated doctorMDmetrix was created by a doctor frustrated that he couldn’t analyze data across patients. With electronic medical records, which have been in use in the U.S. for years, mostly for tracking and billing, physicians typically view one patient’s record at a time.   Enter medical technology firms like MDmetrix, which offer information dashboards and apps so that doctors and hospitals can look for trends and insights across patient outcomes. The technology pulls data from patients’ electronic medical records.As they deal with the patients in front of them, hospitals and doctors are struggling to answer what may seem like simple questions, Ratliff said. How many ventilators are being used? Is low oxygen an indicator of COVID-19? Has anyone followed up on patients who were tested and sent home?The demand for information extends to whether there are different treatments for different groups, he said.Different patients, different treatments“Is there a difference in the treatment between smokers or nonsmokers?” Ratliff said. “In a couple of years, an after-action report will come out. But that’s way too late if you’re fighting a battle right now.”With the push of a button, clinicians and hospital administrators get MDmetrix’s COVID-19 dashboard of charts and graphs that they can view to improve patient care. The information is a real-time snapshot of “whether treatment protocol A is working better than protocol B for any subset of patients,” Ratliff said.As for privacy concerns, data pulled from patient records is stripped of its identity and aggregated, complying with health care privacy laws, Ratliff said.MDmetrix is being used at the University of Washington Medical Center and Harborview Medical Center, both in Seattle. The company is providing its “COVID-19 Mission Control” software for free to hospitals and medical centers.Leveraging the electronic health recordA recent paper in the Journal of American Medical Informatics Association outlined efforts at the University of California San Diego Health to quickly build new dashboards based on electronic health records to manage the growing crisis.  The authors conclusion: Electronic health records “should be leveraged to their full potential.”Over the past several years, there’s been an explosion of technology tools to analyze and aggregate data drawn from electronic health records, said Julia Adler-Milstein, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco. But the COVID-19 pandemic is pushing hospitals and companies to find ways – sometimes in just days – to analyze data and get critical information to decision-makers.“This has been a pressure test,” she said. “How can we get cuts of our data for the new disease?”Figuring out trends inside a hospital is also the work of TransformativeMed, an electronic record-keeping application that tracks a patient as he or she moves through the hospital. It is being used at the University of Washington Medical Center and Harborview Medical Center; MedStar Health in the Washington, D.C., area; and VCU Health Center in Richmond, Virginia.Tracking a patient — from symptoms, lab results and treatments — can help a hospital understand how a disease is progressing through a community, how effective treatments are and what isn’t working, said Dr. Rodrigo Martinez, chief clinical officer at TransformativeMed and an ear, nose and throat doctor.A generational opportunityThe battle against COVID-19 could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to greatly improve the health care system, he said. The social distancing requirements will boost telehealth, with patients and their health care providers likely to appreciate how much can be accomplished through video chat, he said. 3-D printing, which is being used to repair and create ventilators, will help the medical supply chain. And home lab tests will also likely grow.Add to the list companies such as TransformativeMed and MDmetrix, which are finding trends in patients’ electronic health records.“It’s not that we are creating new technologies,” Martinez said. “We’ve had technologies waiting in the wings, waiting for the opportunity to be applied.”

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Telemedicine Offers Safe Care Options During Pandemic

With the coronavirus pandemic nowhere near its end, for many patients the risk of infection has made seeking treatment in hospitals potentially dangerous. This has led to telemedicine becoming more and more routine. Andrei Dziarkach has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.

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Delivery Apps Trending as Americans Seek to Avoid Infection

With social distancing now the mantra to keep the coronavirus from spreading further, more American consumers are turning to online delivery apps to get their food and household products. Yet as VOA’s Mariama Diallo reports, not everyone can avoid going to stores and if you must go, experts advise people to take some basic precautions.

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Telemedicine Offers Safe Way to Care for Patients During Pandemic

With the coronavirus pandemic nowhere near its end, for many patients the risk of infection has made seeking treatment in hospitals potentially dangerous. This has led to telemedicine becoming more and more routine. Andrei Dziarkach has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.

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