Coronavirus News Roundup, October 31-November 6
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Pregnant women with COVID-19 are at higher risk for outcomes such as intensive care admission, invasive ventilation, being put on a heart-lung bypass machine, and death than are non-pregnant women with COVID-19, according to a large-sample study. The study, conducted by more than a dozen U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) researchers and others at a medical research company called Eagle Global Scientific, prompted the CDC to add pregnancy to the list of conditions that put people with COVID-19 at increased risk for severe illness and death, reports Roni Caryn Rabin at The New York Times (11/2/20). According to the CDC study, pregnant women should seek prompt medical care if they have symptoms of COVID-19. One of the CDC study authors is quoted as saying in Rabin’s story, “The absolute risk of these severe outcomes is low among women 15 to 44, regardless of pregnancy status, but what we do see is an increased risk associated with pregnancy.”

Scientific American editor Gary Stix tells the story of his experience as a plasma donor after learning in June that he had acquired antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 (11/3/20). It is unknown whether such “convalescent plasma” can help with the recovery of people with COVID-19, but the treatment has received emergency approval for this purpose in the U.S. Knowing all this, Stix decided nonetheless to donate his plasma, in case it turns out to be helpful to others or even himself down the line.

AARP publishes a guide to the face-mask requirements in U.S. states. The 11/3/20 update states that 33 states and the District of Columbia require people to wear face-coverings in public.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has asked U.S. states and territories to prepare to distribute an anticipated vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, probably Pfizer’s, but many state officials say their states don’t have the money for the mammoth task and that they need a lot more federal funding, reports Lena H. Sun at The Washington Post (10/30/20). The CDC expects each jurisdiction to identify five sites for storing and administering an unidentified number of doses of a vaccine at ultra-cold temperatures, Sun reports. “Pfizer will not apply for any authorization of its vaccine sooner than the third week of November,” the story states. “Local officials still need to recruit thousands of people to staff vaccine clinics and enroll and train providers. They also have to ramp up information technology and data systems to track vaccine inventory and ordering to ensure people get the correct doses at the right times — most vaccines will require two shots — and to monitor for adverse events,” Sun writes.

While many high- and middle-income nations have made deals to purchase vaccines once they are ready, lower-income nations and billions of people might be left behind, reports Emily Rauhala at The Washington Post (11/2/20). “People in low-income countries could be waiting until 2024” to obtain vaccine doses for their residents, Rauhala writes. More than 150 nations have banded together to pool their purchasing power so they can make big collective deals with vaccine-makers and then equitably distribute doses worldwide. But the effort, called Covax, is being undermined by wealthy participating nations that are also making their own independent deals with vaccine makers. Japan, Canada, and the European Union are part of Covax, but the U.S. is not.

An interactive published 10/30/20 by Science clearly illustrates the impact and irregular patterns of SARS-CoV-2 superspreading events, such as those that have occurred on cruise ships and at bars, parties, restaurants, barbecues, churches, gyms, and factories. Even if each person infected with a virus infects two people on average (this transmission average is called R, or the reproduction rate), actual transmission patterns can be hard to predict: “one person may infect four people, two of those may not transmit the disease to anyone else. One might pass it on to three others, and the fourth one may infect 21 people. Of those 21, many may not pass the virus on to anyone else. But perhaps one will pass it on to 18 others,” the piece states. This is the case for the new coronavirus and many other infectious diseases, and this “superspreading appears to be particularly important” with the coronavirus, the piece states. For this reason, many public health researchers advise that we avoid the “three C’s” — closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowds, and close-contact settings. The insight also holds implications for contact tracing strategies, explain Martin Enserink, Kai Kupferschmidt, and Nirja Desai:

An additive or multi-layer approach to reducing the risk of spreading SARS-CoV-2 is reflected in a graphic illustration created by virologist Ian M. Mackay at the University of Queensland. He tweeted an updated version of the graphic on 10/24/20, with some explanation and commentary in the thread. Don’t miss the “misinformation mouse.” Different versions and translations can be downloaded here.

With cooler weather in the U.S. this autumn, some restaurants are setting up outdoor “dining bubbles” for patrons. SARS-CoV-2 transmission among diners and servers inside these “clear, igloo-like structures” is “relatively low-risk, as long as certain precautions are taken,” experts say, according to an 11/2/20 story by Allyson Chiu in The Washington Post. Droplets carrying particles of the virus could hang in the air inside these bubbles, says airborne transmission researcher Linsey Marr of Virginia Tech, especially if the air in the bubble grows stale. For ventilation, fans could be “placed facing outward near a tent’s openings,” Marr is described as suggesting. But adjacent parties of diners in separate bubbles are not likely to infect one another, a Brigham and Women’s Hospital doctor who specializes in infectious diseases is quoted as saying. “Restaurants have attempted to make indoor dining safer by requiring masks, reducing capacity and spacing out tables, but a growing body of evidence suggests it is still a high-risk activity,” Chiu writes. Dining bubbles might be safer for members of the same family or pod, compared with larger groups outside of one’s household, if pod or family members are all committed to strict behavioral controls, the story suggests.

You might enjoy, “In retrospect, maybe surveying fifteen people outside of a Publix in Sarasota was a bad way to conduct a statewide poll,” by Carlos Greaves, for The New Yorker (11/4/20).


Robin Lloyd

Robin Lloyd is a science writer based in New York City and a contributing editor at Scientific American.

Credit: Nick Higgins

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