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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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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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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Governor to Take Ventilators for NYC as Hospitals Buckle

With coronavirus deaths climbing rapidly in New York, the governor announced Friday he will use his authority to take ventilators and protective gear from private hospitals and companies that aren’t using them, complaining that states are competing against each other for vital equipment in eBay-like bidding wars.”If they want to sue me for borrowing their excess ventilators to save lives, let them sue me,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.The executive order he said he would sign represents one of the most aggressive efforts yet in the U.S. to deal with the kind of critical shortages around the world that authorities say have caused health care workers to fall sick and forced doctors in Europe to make life-or-death decisions about which patients get a breathing machine.The number of the people infected in the U.S. reached a quarter-million and the death toll climbed past 6,000, with New York state alone accounting for more than 2,900, a surge of over 560 dead in just one day. Most of the dead are in New York City, where hospitals are being pushed to the breaking point.The move by Cuomo came as the outbreak snapped the United States’ record-breaking hiring streak of nearly 10 years. The U.S. government said employers slashed over 700.000 jobs in March, bringing a swift end to the nation’s 50-year-low unemployment rate.The true picture, though, is far worse, because the government figures do not include the last two weeks, when nearly 10 million thrown-out-of-work Americans applied for unemployment benefits.Worldwide, confirmed infections surged past 1 million and deaths topped 54,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Experts say both numbers are seriously undercounted because of the lack of testing, mild cases that were missed and governments that are underplaying the extent of the crisis.Europe’s three worst-hit countries — Italy, Spain and France — surpassed 30,000 dead, or over half of the global toll. From those countries, the view remained almost unrelentingly grim, a frightening portent for places like New York, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, where bodies are being loaded by forklift into refrigerated trucks outside hospitals.Shortages of critical equipment have led to fierce competition among buyers from Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere. A regional leader in Paris described the scramble to find masks a “worldwide treasure hunt.” Cuomo warned this week that New York could run out of ventilators in six days.  In Florida, hundreds of passengers on a cruise ship where four people died were finally being allowed to disembark after a days-long standoff. More than a dozen critically ill patients were taken to hospitals, while people healthy enough to travel were taken to the airport for chartered flights home.  One Spanish hospital turned its library  into an intensive care unit. In France, space was set aside for bodies in a vast food market. The French prime minister said he is “fighting hour by hour” to ward off shortages of essential drugs used to keep COVID-19 patients alive.Philippe Montravers, an anesthesiologist in Paris, said medics are preparing to fall back on older drugs such as the opiates fetanyl and morphine that had fallen out of favor, because newer painkillers are in short supply.  “The work is extremely tough and heavy,” he said. “We’ve had doctors, nurses, caregivers who got sick, infected … but who have come back after recovering. It’s a bit like those World War I soldiers who were injured and came back to fight.”  France canceled its high-school exit exam known as the Baccalaureat, a first in the 212-year history of the test.Some glimmers of hope emerged that Italy, with nearly 14,000 dead, as well as Spain and France might be flattening their infection curves and nearing or even passing their peaks in daily deaths.  Spain on Friday reported 932 new deaths, down slightly from the record it hit a day earlier. The carnage most certainly included large numbers of elderly who authorities admit are not getting access to the country’s limited breathing machines, which are being used first on healthier, younger patients. More than half of Spain’s nearly 11,000 deaths have come in the last seven days alone.In a vast exhibition center in Madrid that was hastily converted into a 1,300-bed field hospital, bed No. 01.30 held patient Esteban Pinaredo, age 87.”I’m good, I love you,” Pinaredo told his family via Skype. “I will run away as soon as I can.”  
The facility’s organizer, Antonio Zapatero, said Spain’s nationwide lockdown must be maintained.”Otherwise, this is what you are facing,” he said, pointing at the rows of beds.Elsewhere in Europe, officials began talking tentatively about how to lift lockdowns that have staved off the total collapse of strained health systems but also battered economies.  Austria said it will set out a timetable next week for what could be “a slow startup” of closed parts of the economy. The head of Germany’s national disease control center said he expects that any easing of the country’s lockdown, which this week was extended to April 19, will be staggered.With forecast glorious spring weather likely to tempt stir-crazy families out of lockdown this weekend, the firm message across the continent remained: “Stay home.”Paris police set up roadblocks out of the city to stop those trying to escape for Easter vacation.
In Britain, which locked down later than its European neighbors, the infection peak is still ahead, threatening the National Health Service with the biggest test in its 72-year history after austerity cuts that have strained the institution and its promise of quality care for all. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who tested positive last week, said in a video message on Twitter that he is feeling better but still has a fever and will remain in isolation.  For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with health problems, it can cause pneumonia. The World Health Organization said this week that 95% of the deaths in Europe were of people over 60.

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How Social Distancing Can Impact Your Mental Health

Social distancing and isolation can be hard, as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently pointed out during a daily briefing on the status of COVID-19 in his state. “Don’t underestimate the personal trauma, and don’t underestimate the pain of isolation. It is real,” Cuomo said. “This is not the human condition — not to be comforted, not to be close, to be afraid and you can’t hug someone. … This is all unnatural and disorienting.”  Experts already know that years of loneliness or feelings of isolation can lead to anxiety, depression and dementia in adults. A weakened immune system response, higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and a shorter life span can also result. A Pittsburgh Public Works employee removes a basketball rim from a city court in an effort to encourage social distancing, March 30, 2020.Children who have fewer friends or are bullied or isolated at school tend to have higher rates of anxiety, depression and some developmental delays. But when it comes to a global pandemic like COVID-19, there is no documentation to which medical experts can refer.  “The studies that we have are more about forced isolation and no support,” said Elena Mikalsen, chief of the Psychology Section at Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. “The situation we’re in now, there’s a lot of social support … and social support is one of the big predictors of good health and mental health outcomes.” She adds that it is helpful that the entire world is basically in the same situation, a commonality that is leading to the rapid development of coping strategies from multiple sources, including friends, schools and businesses.  Playground equipment is wrapped in crime scene tape to prevent its use as part of the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus March 31, 2020, in St. Louis, MIssouri.During this period, Mikalsen is advising her patients to stay connected with people,  exercise regularly, and keep to a schedule so that everybody in the household has some sort of purpose in their day. Waiting around and worrying about getting sick can lead to increased anxiety. A key factor driving people’s decisions on whether to isolate could come down to personality.  “Extroverts have this strong need to always be around other people. … The idea of being in a quiet place with no entertainment is extremely anxiety provoking,” Mikalsen said. “Versus, you know, an introvert is perfectly happy in a tiny little room with nothing. You can lock up an introvert in a New York City apartment and have them not come out for two months and they’ll be perfectly happy.” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo with daughter, Cara Cuomo, in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., Nov. 6, 2018.Meanwhile, Cuomo told reporters that he is focusing on the positives in the current situation, like having his grown daughter, Cara, 25, working with him during the crisis.  “They’ll come for the holidays. They’ll come when I give them heavy guilt,” he said of his three grown daughters. “But I’m now going to be with Cara, literally, for a few months. What a beautiful gift that is, right? I would have never had that chance, and that is precious. … This crazy situation, as crazy as it is, gave me this beautiful gift.” 

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