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Coronavirus News Roundup, May 30-June 5

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The items below are highlights from the newsletter, “Smart, useful, science stuff about COVID-19.” To receive newsletter issues daily in your inbox, sign-up here.

Here’s an illustrated primer on how to hug in ways that reduce the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission, featuring the insights of Virginia Tech aerosol scientist Linsey Marr. Marr reportedly thinks that the “risk of exposure during a brief hug can be surprisingly low — even if you hugged a person who didn’t know they were infected and they happened to cough.” To get infected, you would have to inhale or ingest somewhere between 200 to 1,000 copies of the new coronavirus, the story states. It sounds like we take in only 2 percent of the liquid from a nearby person’s cough and only a very small portion of that is infectious. The safest approach, writes Parker-Pope, is no hugging. The second safest approach is a quick hug while a) outdoors, b) wearing a facial mask, and c) not touching the other person’s body or clothes with your face or mask, the story states. By Tara Parker-Pope at The New York Times (6/4/20). 

Here’s an interview with biologist Erin Bromage, who wrote a blog post “The Risks — Know Them — Avoid Them” that went viral last month. The Q&A, by Laura A. Stokowski for Medscape (6/2/20), includes some of Bromage’s thoughts on the infection risks in reopened businesses and on airplanes.

“Reliance on surgical masks has no doubt led to many workers being infected,” says a former head of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in a 6/1/20 story by Apoorva Mandavilli at The New York Times. The story focuses on a new research analysis, published the same day in The Lancet, that shows that N95 and other respirator-type masks better protect health-care workers from the new coronavirus than do surgical masks (96 percent compared with 77 percent protection, respectively). The Lancet findings also suggest that health-care workers should wear eye-coverings such as face shields, goggles, or glasses. The findings could also pertain to other workplaces such as meatpacking plants and farms, the story states. The story notes the current failure of the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to respond with policy to many findings showing the SARS-CoV-2 transmission risk of small airborne droplets of the virus. 

This feature story by Alan Burdick for The New York Times (6/2/20) provides a “profile” of the new coronavirus. It includes some basic science about SARS-CoV-2 that I haven’t read elsewhere. For instance, SARS-CoV-2 is one of 250 virus species with the “mechanics to infect us,” Burdick writes. Of the trillions of virus species thought to exist on Earth, fewer than 7,000 have been named by scientists, and hundreds are coronaviruses, the story states. The genome of SARS-CoV-2 is “more than twice the size of that of the average flu virus”; “If a person were the size of Earth, the virus would be the size of a person.” The story also describes research on how our immune system fights the virus, and on how the virus takes over and assembles itself inside our cells — its components “set up shop in a subregion, or organelle, called the Golgi complex, which resembles a stack of pancakes and serves as the cell’s mail-sorting center,” Burdick writes.

Here are some highlights from Helen Branswell’s 6/1/20 Q&A at STAT with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: a) regional reopenings should be sensitive to local levels of the outbreak, he says; b) Fauci estimates that a “significant number of [vaccine] doses [will be] available by the end of the year, the beginning of 2021”— this is “aspirational, but it’s certainly doable”;  and c) Fauci “feels good” about the cooperation among four or five vaccine development projects.

It stands to reason that SARS-CoV-2 transmissions will increase following large gatherings such as the important ones of the past several days seeking justice for George Floyd and an end to police killings of black people in the U.S. However, most coverage on this topic so far is speculative. That said, some public health officials are concerned that the large gatherings could undermine efforts to contain the spread of the virus, reports Mike Stobbe for the Associated Press (6/1/20). Some testing clinics have closed in response to the protests, the story states. And it will be “daunting” for demonstration attendees to detail every interpersonal interaction if they test positive for the virus and officials seek to trace those contacts for potential infections, Stobbe writes. Positive signs: many demonstrators, police, and leaders at protests are wearing masks; and the demonstrations are outdoors, where air flow disperses exhaled viral particles, dramatically reducing transmission threat.

FiveThirtyEight updates a sobering page daily that shows COVID-19 fatality projections for the U.S. and for each U.S. state, based on mathematical models that predict the pandemic’s spread. If you’re able to set aside emotion, it’s interesting to compare the various forecasts on this page, which notes some of the assumptions and math behind each model. By Ryan Best and Jay Boice. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued recommendations (last updated 5/27/20) for measures that “office building employers, building owners and managers, and building operations specialists” might take to reduce the risk of employees’ and visitors’ exposure to SARS-CoV-2. The measures include ensuring proper operation of heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems before re-opening (by the way, previous coverage in Nature features an environmental engineer also recommending flushing stagnant water taps and testing water before reopening buildings); “increased circulation of outdoor air” via windows and ventilation systems; shields or physical barriers between nearby employees; markings and other visual cues to keep people distanced in meeting rooms, parking lots, break rooms, and entrances and exits; mask-wearing at all times; temperature and symptom checks on employees; and sending home employees who appear to be sick at work. That’s just a sample. I suggest skimming through the document as the guidelines are helpful for people in all settings. 

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