Dr. Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University, adapted her popular college course into a podcast series titled "The Happiness Lab" that has since been downloaded over 64 million times to teach a scientific way to live a happier life, according to New York Times.
"Why are there so many happiness books and other happiness stuff and people are still not happy?" asks the 46-six-year-old Santos.
"Because it takes work! Because it’s hard!"
The paper noted a recent Gallup poll that found only 38% of Americans were "satisfied" with their life, but Santos blames the "'capitalism culture' … that’s telling us to buy things and a hustle-achievement culture that destroys my students in terms of anxiety."
STUDENTS AND RECENT GRADS DESCRIBE CHALLENGES OF BEING A YOUNG CONSERVATIVE
She explains that our minds trick us about the things that make us happy, but many of these intuitions are "… not exactly right – or are deeply misguided. That’s why we get it wrong. I know this stuff, but my instincts are totally wrong."
Pedestrians walk down a path on the Yale University campus in New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.
Pedestrians walk down a path on the Yale University campus in New Haven, Connecticut, U.S. (Craig Warga/Bloomberg)
Commonplace religious practices, like meditating, reflecting and connecting with other people can have a positive effect on happiness, but Santos notes, "Turns out, to the extent that you can disentangle those two, it seems to not be our beliefs but our actions that are driving the fact that religious people are happier.
She added, "It’s just much easier if you have a cultural apparatus around you," noting even your local CrossFit team can help turn your frown upside down.
Santos teaches her students the acronym W.W.W., using the example of when we pick up our phone, what was the specific purpose? Why did we do it at that specific time? And at what cost does it sacrifice other more meaningful activities like studying or talking to your roommate?
"Based on seeing students in the trenches, the biggest hit of social media on their well-being is that they spend a lot of time on it thinking that they’re being social rather than talking to other people. I do that too," Santos added.
She notes her students are surprised that money doesn’t make most people happier, noting that recent research shows it only helps those who live below the poverty line and can’t put food on the table.
A recent paper by Matt Killingsworth, a senior fellow at the Warton School at the University of Pennsylvania who studies happiness in humans, showed if you increase from income from $100,000 to $600,000, your happiness goes up from a score from 64 to 65, according to the news outlet.
"For the amount of work you have to put in to sextuple your income, you could instead just write in a gratitude journal, you could sleep an extra hour," Santos said.
She added although her class may change behavior in the short term, achieving long-term happiness is more elusive and may require more radical changes to our life.
Dan Buettner, a bestselling author, discovered "blue zones" where people live the longest, healthiest lives, like the Netherlands, so "if you plop people down in a new culture, they change. You move to the Netherlands, you’ll be happier," Santos said.
He argues Santos’ teaching is not going to work unless people have strong structural support societally, but she hopes people don’t have to move to blue zones to attain these, but instead create "robust structures societally" themselves to achieve happiness.
Let's face it—we've been talking a lot about viruses for the past two pandemic years. That means, by now, you probably know that a virus is invisible to the naked eye and can cause all types of health problems.
But bacteria check those boxes too. So what's the difference between viruses and bacteria—and why is it important to understand the difference? Here's what to know about the two germs and the illnesses they can cause.
What are viruses and bacteria?
Viruses are tiny organisms made of genetic material called nucleic acid—either DNA or RNA—that is enclosed within a protein capsule, Charles Bailey, MD, medical director for infection prevention at Providence St. Joseph Hospital and Providence Mission Hospital in Orange County, California, tells Health.
These little germs take over regular living cells in your body and use them to multiply, overtaking other cells, and continuing to reproduce. This process can damage or kill the regular cells, leading to illness.
While a virus is incapable of reproduction unless it's within a cell of another organism, bacteria—larger, single-celled organisms—are capable of living in various types of environments and reproducing themselves, says Dr. Bailey.
The human body is actually full of bacteria—some are harmless, and some are even helpful (like by helping to keep your gut healthy), according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. But some bacteria are bad and, like viruses, can cause illness by replicating quickly in our bodies, damaging or killing cells and even tissue itself. Many disease-causing bacteria produce toxins, which are powerful chemicals that damage cells and make you sick, according to the Mayo Clinic.
"When people wonder what the difference is between a virus and a [bacterium], it's like comparing the difference between a roach and a shark," Theresa Fioritio, MD, an infectious disease specialist and director of the Family Travel Clinic at NYU Langone Hospital—Long Island, tells Health. "There are many differences: where they live (inside vs. outside our cells), what they eat, and—probably what's most relevant to us—how to kill them." (More on that last point in a bit.)
One thing viruses and bacteria have in common is that they both have the potential to cause infections and lead to mild, moderate, or severe illness, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"In recent years, as well as throughout history, we have seen pandemics and epidemics caused by viruses (eg, COVID-19, influenza, smallpox, HIV, and Ebola) and bacteria (eg, plague as the cause for the Black Death of the Middle Ages)," Dr. Bailey says.
How viruses and bacteria spread
First, let's break down how the germs are spread. Depending on the type, viruses can spread through:
- Skin-to-skin contact
- Respiratory secretions like a cough or sneeze
- Droplets when someone speaks or breathes
- Vomit, diarrhea, urine, or feces (either through the particles in the air or if someone contaminates food with it)
- Semen or vaginal discharge
That means measures like practicing safe sex, cleaning human-handled food like fruit and vegetables, and getting vaccinated against vaccine-preventable viruses can decrease your risk of getting infected by a virus.
Most people come in contact with infection-causing bacteria through:
- Direct contact with an infected person or animal
- Contact with bacteria in the air or droplets
- An insect such as a tick that has hosted on an infected person and then bites an uninfected person
- A contaminated inanimate object such as food, water, or utensil
Protecting yourself against infection-causing bacteria means taking steps similar to those for viruses, like treating water so it's safe for consumption, practicing safe sex, and vaccinating yourself and animals.
And of course, personal hygiene is key for protection against both bacteria and viruses. That's because general protective measures help to prevent many types of infections caused by bacteria (aka, bacterial infections) and viruses (aka, viral infections).
The hygiene basics are super effective: Wash your hands often, for 20 seconds, with soap and water. If soap and water isn't available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Regular hand washing helps prevent illness because viruses and bacteria can live on your hands. It's good practice to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth unless it's completely necessary, and especially so if you've not washed your hands in a while.
You can also get rid of viruses and bacteria by sanitizing and disinfecting objects. Here's how the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) makes the distinction: "Sanitizing kills bacteria on surfaces using chemicals. It is not intended to kill viruses. Disinfecting kills viruses and bacteria on surfaces using chemicals." The EPA regulates sanitizers and disinfectants so that you can be sure that what you're using is effective.
When it comes to an infection that can be transferred through direct contact, air, or droplets, the CDC recommends keeping your distance from people who are sick to reduce your chances of catching their infection.
And again, vaccination is another way to protect yourself against bacteria and viruses. Many viral infections—including the flu, mumps, and polio—as well as many bacterial infections—like pertussis, diphtheria, tetanus, pneumococcal pneumonia, and meningococcal disease—can be prevented by vaccination, says Dr. Bailey. As such, the CDC recommends sticking to an immunization schedule to protect yourself against infection. After all, as Dr. Fioritio points out, both viruses and bacteria can be deadly.
Viral vs. bacterial infections
While bacteria and viruses are different in terms of molecular structure, they can cause infections that have similar symptoms, such as coughing, sneezing, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, and cramping. But symptoms vary depending on the specific infection and how severe it is.
Common bacterial infections include strep throat, tuberculosis, and urinary tract infections. Common viral infections include the common cold, chickenpox, and genital herpes. Obviously, all affect different parts of the body and can have a wide range of symptoms and severity.
Although bacterial and viral infections are different, they can be connected. In some cases, viral respiratory infections lead to the complication of a bacterial infection. The occurrence is known as a secondary infection, and it may be caused by changes in the immune system, according to MedlinePlus.
For instance, a 2021 study found that of 642 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 (a disease caused by a virus), 12.6% went on to develop a bacterial infection. And of 742 patients hospitalized for flu (an illness caused by a virus), 8.7% developed a bacterial infection. Having that secondary bacterial infection—which was commonly caused by staph bacteria and led to acute respiratory distress—was linked to a higher chance of death. As MedlinePlus points out, you can develop bacteria-caused pneumonia even after having a virus-caused upper respiratory infection like a cold or flu.
Treating viral and bacterial infections
If you're infected with a virus or bacterium and become sick, you might need some treatment. But how viruses and bacteria respond to medication is another difference between them.
"Viruses are treated by antiviral agents while bacteria are treated by antibacterial agents (antibiotics)," says Dr. Bailey. Antivirals can't treat bacteria, and antibiotics can't treat viruses due to the different structure of the organisms.
"Bacteria have cell walls and internal structures that can be targeted by antibiotics to either kill the organism or interrupt its life cycle," Dr. Bailey explains. "Viruses are simpler with fewer structural targets, but since they must enter into other cells to reproduce themselves, this offers antiviral agents an opportunity to work by interfering with these elements of the viral life cycle."
There are fewer therapeutic agents available to treat viruses compared to bacterial infections. But the CDC points out that antibiotics are not actually always needed in the treatment of all bacterial infections. For instance, many bacteria-caused sinus infections and some ear infections typically get better on their own; taking antibiotics when it's not necessary provides no benefit and might even result in harmful side effects.
If you are feeling ill and think you might have an infection, you can go to the doctors to find out for sure. The Mayo Clinic says medical care is especially important if you think you have an infection and have also experienced:
- An animal or a human bite
- Difficulty breathing
- A cough lasting longer than a week
- Periods of rapid heartbeat
- A rash, especially if it's accompanied by a fever
- Blurred vision or other difficulty seeing
- Persistent vomiting
- An unusual or severe headache
If you have an infection, your doctor will be able to figure out how serious it is and whether it's a virus or bacterium causing it. To do that, they can ask for your symptom history and might run diagnostic tests like taking samples of your urine, stool or blood, or a swab from your nose or throat. The results can then help them determine how to best treat your infection.
Your cloth face mask isn't protecting you against the coronavirus variant omicron, health officials say.
As common as cloth face masks have become, health experts say, they do little to prevent tiny virus particles from getting into your nose or mouth and aren't effective against the new variant.
"Cloth masks are not going to cut it with omicron," says Linsey Marr, a researcher at Virginia Tech told NPR.
Health experts are urging the public to opt for three-ply surgical masks, KN95 masks or N95 masks, which offer more protection against the highly contagious variant.
Omicron spreads more quickly and efficiently than other known coronavirus variants and is extremely transmissible – even through thick fabric face masks. Several countries, such as Germany and Austria, have surgical masks requirements in public.
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Reviewed: Where to buy N95 masks online
Should you be wearing an N95 mask? What to know and where to buy them online
The latest guidance: What to do if you test positive for COVID-19 or are exposed
So what do we need to know about which mask is most effective against omicron?
What face mask is the most effective against COVID-19?
N95, KN95 and KF94 respirators are made out of material with an electrostatic charge, which "actually pulls these particles in as they're floating around and prevents you from inhaling those particles," Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician at Stanford University, told NPR.
Researchers at Duke University conducted a study last year to see which mask was the most effective. The N95 masks were the most effective in blocking respiratory droplets – 99% to be exact. Second-best? Surgical masks.
While being the best option for mask protection, N95s happen to be the most expensive.
Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, said surgical masks are a great, more affordable option.
"We need to be wearing at least a three-ply surgical mask. You can wear a cloth mask on top of that, but do not just wear a cloth mask alone," Wen told CNN.
Omicron surges in the US: US focuses on testing and booster shots as omicron variant sweeps across nation
Why aren't cloth face masks effective as omicron spikes?
While cloth masks can filter large droplets, N95s can filter both large droplets and the smaller aerosols that may contain the airborne virus. N95s are also especially efficient, filtering out about 95% of airborne particles.
Infectious disease expert Steven Gordon told Cleveland Clinic that all studies show omicron is the most easily transmissible coronavirus variant, and that's why health experts urge a change in masks. Gordon added that while cloth masks help prevent the exhale of particles, it doesn't do much to prevent inhaling particles, which is a problem with omicron.
Should N95 masks still be reserved for health care staff?
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges the public to save N95 masks for health care workers. However, it was only in the first several months of the pandemic when hospitals saw a shortage in N95 masks. Now it has "been many months since the supply of N95s (has been) an issue," Wen said.
Should you be wearing an N95 mask? What to know and where to buy them online
Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center, is among experts who recommend upgraded masks: "If you're in an indoor public setting, that's where we recommend that you wear a well-fitted, high-quality mask. With omicron and how transmissible it is, I feel that we should all be moving to wearing a higher-quality, better mask."
Some experts recommend that children wear duck-bill N95 masks for the best combination of protection and breathability.
What are the best face masks for children? Are there N95 masks for kids?
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital recommends children wear the white, duck-bill N95 masks because cloth masks "do not provide the same level of protection and should not be used."
The white duck-bill N-95 mask comes in two sizes, small and regular, and is shaped outwardly like a duck's mouth. The design was created to offer more breathability.
How to spot fake N95 or KN95 masks
The first step is to turn to the CDC and analyze its charts of N95 and KN95 masks that the agency has tested, including the make, model number and filtration efficiency. Websites such as Fakespot help consumers weed out authentic products from counterfeits, including real and fake N95 masks.
If you're purchasing a mask from Amazon, be wary of reviews in which people say they received the mask free, because that could persuade them to leave a positive review, The New York Times cautions. The Times also recommends purchasing masks through verified manufacturers such as DemeTech in Miami and Prestige Ameritech in Texas.
Certain manufactures will include a barcode consumers can scan to ensure they're buying the real product. Powecom KN95 masks have a barcode that's scannable using a phone, so whether you purchase through the website or a third party, you can verify the product.
Follow Gabriela Miranda on Twitter: @itsgabbymiranda
As winter approaches and people move indoors, natural methods to boost the immune system and reduce the risk of contracting flu, colds and other viruses are invaluable. Xylitol, a popular, natural sweetener extracted from birch trees and found in plums, strawberries, and raspberries, may offer some help in those regards.
Xylitol has significant immune modulation properties that haven’t been widely publicized. Xylitol is mainly only known for its use in the treatment of middle ear infections (otitis media) and for its help in preventing dental bacteria (which can be a marker for stroke and heart attack-related arterial plaque and inflammation).
In fact, research suggests that xylitol may have both anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties, an unusual and welcome combination found in a natural ingredient that might help cut down on harsh prescription drugs.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol, a group that includes the artificial sweeteners glycerol, mannitol, and sorbitol, and is found in many over-the-counter consumer products such as sugar-free gums like Orbit and Spry, lozenges, syrups, nasal sprays, toothpastes, and mouthwashes. (Despite the name, sugar alcohols do not contain alcohol, or ethanol, found in alcoholic beverages.)
Artificial sweeteners are popular as diet foods because they contain lower calories than foods made with traditional sweeteners and don’t cause a rapid increase in blood sugar and insulin release, which can be harmful. Yet xylitol may well have benefits that its sweetener brethren lack.
How Does Xylitol Fight Bacteria?
According to researchers writing in the journal Nutrients in 2019, ingesting xylitol produces butyric acid, which “promotes the generation of regulatory T-cells”—important fighters in the immune system. But most of xylitol’s ability to fight bacterial infections seems to come from its thwarting of bacterial attachment to the body’s mucosal surfaces, places such as your mouth, throat, and digestive tract. Attachment to mucosal surfaces or “mucosal association” is a key way that many microorganisms achieve infection, researchers noted in a 1996 issue of the journal FEMS Immunology and Medical Microbiology. Xylitol appears to disrupt this process.
In the FEMS study, the researchers note that adhesion of the dreaded bacterium Clostridium difficile, [C. difficile] to intestinal mucosa “decreased 3.4 times when treated with 1 percent xylitol, 12 times when 5 percent xylitol was applied, and 18.7 times when treated with 10 percent xylitol.”
The C. difficile bacterium causes severe diarrhea and colitis and can result from antibiotic use, a weakened immune system, or a recent hospital or nursing home stay. Those 65 or older are more vulnerable to C. difficile infection.
Studies suggest that the sweetener also appears to discourage bacteria from attaching to mucosal surfaces in the lungs. According to research published in the Journal of Laryngology & Otology in 2014, “Xylitol has anti-adhesive effects on micro-organisms like Streptococcus pneumoniae and Streptococcus mutans, inhibiting their growth.”
Both the alpha-hemolytic and beta-hemolytic strains of Streptococcus are discouraged from attaching and setting up house by the presence of xylitol, the Nutrients researchers wrote.
Xylitol may also fight Staphylococcus infections, a type of bacteria as common and potentially dangerous as Streptococcus.
When 250 microliters of 5 percent xylitol were sprayed into the nostrils of 21 healthy volunteers for 4 days, the presence of staph bacteria was reduced when compared with a control group that only received saline treatment, the Nutrients researchers reported.
The Nutrients researchers also cite research that suggests there are anti-bacterial benefits when xylitol is applied topically. Xylitol reduced the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Staphylococcus aureus, and Enterococcus faecalis when applied to wounds in human subjects compared with the application of only water. Xylitol also reduced biofilms, which are slimy areas of bacterial buildup like dental plaque.
Xylitol Also Fights Viruses
Xylitol may also represent good news in the fight against viruses such as influenza and colds which, of course, antibiotics can’t treat. (In fact, the prescription of antibiotics for viral conditions drives antibiotic-resistant bacteria and is widely discouraged by health agencies such as the FDA.)
One promising example is influenza. Writing in the journal PLoS One in 2015, researchers found that xylitol, combined with red ginseng, was effective in “ameliorating influenza-induced symptoms” related to influenza A. One version of influenza A is H1N1, also called swine flu, which caused a worldwide pandemic in 2009.
When the amount of xylitol found in the mixture was increased, but not the ginseng, the researchers wrote, its anti-influenza effects also increased and the treatment reduced virus titers—or concentrations—after the infection.
“This protective effect of xylitol should be considered in relation to other diseases,” the researchers wrote.
Anti-viral effects are also suggested by the Nutrients researchers, particularly with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common virus that is currently on the rise. While RSV can be mild when contracted by adults and older children, it can be serious in infants. Mice given dietary xylitol along with phosphate-buffered saline for 14 days before exposure to RSV and three days afterward had lower RSV titers than control groups that were only given phosphate-buffered saline, the researchers reported.
Of course, the main virus on the public’s mind is COVID-19, and two nasal products containing xylitol have been investigated as possibly useful treatments. A study of one nasal spray containing Iota-carrageenan (a type of red algae) and xylitol was published in the journal PLoS One in November 2021; the researchers wrote that the combination “may increase the benefit of a formulated nasal spray” in the fight against COVID-19. The research was funded by Amcyte Pharma Inc., the maker of the preparation.
Research pertaining to another COVID-19-targeting nasal spray was published in 2020 in the journal Cureus. This spray contained xylitol and grapefruit seed extract. Three patients with mild to moderate symptoms from the virus showed “rapid clinical improvement” and a shortened time to a negative COVID-19 intranasal swab test when the nasal spray was an adjuvant to their ongoing treatment, the authors wrote. The research was funded by Xlear Nasal Spray, a commercially available product that combines the two ingredients.
Adding xylitol to a nasal spray has also been studied in the restoration of smell in COVID-19 patients and in their amount of viral shedding.
More Xylitol Benefits
Xylitol is considered a prebiotic and can improve bowel motility and function, according to many medical sources. Increased xylitol in the digesta increases water retention in the digesta and has possible laxative effects, providing constipation treatment, the Nutrients researchers write. However, excessive intake of xylitol may produce diarrhea.
The butyric acid produced by ingesting xylitol is also associated with a reduced risk for colorectal cancer; xylitol may even have the ability to increase bone density and/or prevent bone resorption according to research conducted on animals published in other journals.
A Word of Warning
Can a natural substance as “sweet” as xylitol have any drawbacks? Yes! While xylitol is thought to be remarkably safe in humans, it isn’t safe for dogs. In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that xylitol can be deadly for dogs.
While xylitol doesn’t stimulate the release of insulin in humans, it quickly floods the bloodstream of dogs with insulin, which can produce hypoglycemia—a decrease in blood sugar levels—and can be toxic. Symptoms can include dogs vomiting, staggering, collapsing, and experiencing seizures. In addition to storing xylitol where a dog can’t reach it, the FDA recommends reading all ingredients on dog food labels, especially foods called sugar-free or low sugar.
So, risk to man’s best friend aside, xylitol is a sweet way to gain several health benefits, including a stronger immune system that’s better able to fight off viruses and bacteria this winter.
Less than a week after the first case of the coronavirus omicron variant was confirmed in the U.S., about a third of states have now reported cases and health officials say it continues to spread rapidly across the country.
Although early indications suggest the omicron variant may be less dangerous than the highly infectious delta variant, scientists say there is still much to learn.
“We have really got to be careful before we make any determinations that (omicron) is less severe or it really doesn’t cause any severe illness, comparable to delta," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, told CNN's “State of the Union Sunday."
The variant was first identified in South Africa, where it's quickly becoming the dominant strain, and was designated as a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization.
Here’s everything to know about omicron and why Americans should take notice.
What is omicron?
The World Health Organization designated the B.1.1.529 variant a “variant of concern” Nov. 26 and named it omicron after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet.
WHO uses the Greek alphabet as a variant classification system to simplify understanding and avoid stigmatizing countries where they’re first identified.
Omicron, which can be pronounced both ä-mə-ˌkrän or ō-ˈmī-(ˌ)krän, according to Merriam-Webster, was first identified in South Africa on Nov. 24. The U.S. began restricting travel from South Africa and several other countries last week but Fauci said the Biden administration is considering lifting those bans.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to lift that ban in a quite reasonable period of time,” he said. “We all feel very badly about the hardship that has been put on not only on South Africa but the other African countries.”
Omicron:How it got its Greek name and what it means
What are the symptoms?
WHO says there’s no evidence to suggest that symptoms linked to omicron are different from those caused by other variants.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of South African Medical Association, was one of the first doctors in South Africa to detect the new variant.
She told Reuters symptoms of the omicron variant were "very mild" and could be treated at home. These infections were first reported in university students who were younger and tended to have milder disease.
But like all coronavirus variants, WHO said, omicron may be capable of causing severe disease or death, particularly among vulnerable populations.
Symptoms of COVID-19 caused by any known coronavirus variant can include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, sore throat, a loss of taste or smell, sore and congestion or runny nose.
How serious is omicron?It will take weeks to understand new COVID-19 variant, experts say.
Where is first case of omicron in the United States?
A person in California became the first in the U.S. to have an identified case of the omicron variant, the White House announced Wednesday.
“This is the first case of COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant detected in the United States,” Fauci said at the White House last week. He said the person was a traveler who returned from South Africa on Nov. 22 and tested positive on Nov. 29.
On a visit to the National Institutes of Health Thursday, President Joe Biden urged Americans to get behind his plan to combat COVID-19 during the winter months, which included tighter travel rules, free at-home tests and boosters shots.
"It's a plan that I think should unite us," Biden said. It "pulls no punches in the fight against COVID-19."
Where else has it been detected?
At least 16 states have reported omicron cases: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin, according to a Reuters tally.
The World Health Organization said Friday the latest strain has been detected in at least 38 countries, including South Africa, Portugal, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel, Germany, and Saudi Arabia.
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Should I be concerned about it?
In a media briefing last week, President Joe Biden said omicron is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
It’s not clear whether infection with omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, WHO said.
It’s also unclear how well the virus evades immunity from previous infection or COVID-19 vaccines to cause a breakthrough infection.
But even with so little information, health experts say people should be watchful.
“Americans should take this variant seriously," Swann said. "Even if this one turns out to be not as bad as we fear, there will be another one that will.”
President Biden:Omicron 'a cause for concern, not a cause for panic'
Are there any deaths linked to omicron?
As of Monday, no deaths were reported associated with the new variant.
What makes omicron different from other variants?
Omicron appears to have about 30 mutations in on the coronavirus’ spike protein.
Out of the approximately 30 mutations, 26 are unique to omicron and don’t appear in other variants of concern, according to Dr. Venky Soundararajan, co-founder and chief medical officer at nference, a data analytics firm in Massachusetts.
In comparison, the alpha variant has only four unique mutations, beta has six, gamma has eight and delta has seven.
“I’m less concerned about the fact that these mutations exist and I’m more concerned about the fact that we know very little about many of them,” Soundararajan said.
A handful of omicron’s mutations that exist in other variants have been associated with previous surges of positive COVID-19 cases, he said. Some of these mutations are believed to increase transmissibility while others may help the virus evade immunity.
Most of these mutations are clustered at the ACE2 receptor and antibody binding sites, Soundararajan said, which are also sites targeted by the COVID-19 vaccines and antibodies.
The most intriguing mutation is the ins214EPE insertion, he said. This addition introduces three new amino acids, corresponding to nine nucleotides, to the virus’s genetic profile.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the insertion is more dangerous. A preprint study, not yet peer-reviewed, authored by Soundararajan shows this same insertion is present in seasonal coronaviruses.
This could mean the virus transmits more easily, he said, but it could also mean it causes only mild or asymptomatic disease to evade detection.
“In evolution, when you see a virus pick up a trait, it loses something else. You may see higher transmission but lower odds of hospitalization,” Soundararajan said. “That might be the silver lining.”
How quickly could it spread?
Scientists say more data is needed to determine severity of illness, but real-world evidence suggests omicron may be highly transmissible.
Dutch health authorities said they detected more than 60 COVID-19 cases among 624 passengers who flew on two flights from South Africa to Amsterdam’s airport, Reuters reported, despite requiring a negative test or proof of vaccination.
“The filtration on planes are better, there tend to be mask requirements and most airline companies are requiring a negative test, so I would not have expected this level of positivity so quickly on that flight,” Swann said. “I found it a bit worrisome.”
Do the COVID-19 vaccines protect against omicron?
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, told Biden he believes “existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID,” reiterating that booster shots on top of full vaccination will provide stronger protection.
However, other scientists say it will likely take weeks to sort out if the new variant is more infectious and if vaccines are still effective against it.
COVID-19 vaccine developers with authorized shots in the U.S. – Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson – have all pledged to reformulate their shots to protect against omicron “if needed,” which may include an omicron-specific booster.
“It is imperative that we are proactive as the virus evolves,” Stéphane Bancel, Chief Executive Officer of Moderna, said in a statement. “The mutations in the omicron variant are concerning and for several days, we have been moving as fast as possible to execute our strategy to address this variant.”
What precautions should I take?
Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with omicron compared to other variants of concern, according to WHO, but more information is needed.
Biden urged the public to get fully vaccinated, and if eligible, to get a COVID-19 booster as soon as possible. Waning immunity in people who received their first shots more than six months ago may put them at risk of breakthrough infection.
The CDC updated its guidance, recommending that all adults 18 and older should get a booster shot either six months after their initial Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine series or two months after their initial J&J vaccine.
“If you are 18 years and over and got fully vaccinated before June 1, go get the booster shot today,” Biden said. “They’re free and available in 80,000 locations coast to coast. Do not wait.”
Anyone who gathered with non-household members over the holiday should consider getting tested for COVID-19, Swann said. She also urged anyone who has traveled away from their community to get tested.
“That would allow us to get a handle on things,” she said. “It will continue to spread but slow it down to give us time to know what this is and what does it mean, and be prepared for it.”
Americans should also consider wearing masks, regardless of vaccination status, especially around people with compromised immune systems who are more at risk of severe disease, hospitalization and death from COVID-19.
Biden also pushed parents to get their children vaccinated now that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been authorized for kids 5 to 11.
“Most of our children across America are not fully vaccinated, yet,” Swann said. “People who are not fully protected with the full recommended dosage of vaccines should take extra care in gathering with anyone outside their household.”
Contributing: Associated Press. Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.
A recently published study from researchers at the Cleveland Clinic has found that sildenafil, an approved drug for erectile dysfunction, popularly known as Viagra, can help in treating Alzheimer's disease.
The neurodegenerative disease that currently does not have a cure is estimated to impact 13.8 million Americans by 2050, the press release said. With new drug development being a time and cost-intensive process, researchers in the pharma industry have turned to repurpose already approved drugs. The team led by Feixiong Cheng, at Genomic Medicine Institute at Cleveland, was studying subtypes of neurodegenerative diseases to find common mechanisms that could be targeted with FDA-approved drugs.
In the case of Alzheimer's disease, two proteins, namely beta-amyloid and tau, begin accumulating inside the brain, leading to clots and tangles. Clinical trials targeting these proteins have failed in the past decade, the press release said. Recent research has also shown that the two proteins that work together cause the disease. The researchers began investigating which of the approved drugs could act on both the proteins at the same time instead of targeting just one.
To their surprise, sildenafil turned up to have the best scores. The database that the researchers used consisted of data of more than seven million people in the U.S. and even included drugs such as losartan or metformin, that are currently under active clinical trials to treat Alzheimer's. After six years of follow-up, sildenafil users were 69 percent less likely to develop the neurodegenerative disease, the press release said.
"We found that sildenafil use reduced the likelihood of Alzheimer’s in individuals with coronary artery disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes, all of which are comorbidities significantly associated with risk of the disease," added Dr. Cheng.
To further verify their findings, the team created model cells of Alzheimer's disease in the lab using stem cells and treated them with sildenafil. The drug not only increased brain cell growth but also decreased hyperphosphorylation of tau proteins, a process that usually leads to tangles.
The research team will now carry out a phase II randomized clinical trial to confirm their findings, following which the approach will be applied to other neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
"This is an example of a growing area of research in precision medicine where big data is key to connecting the dots between existing drugs and complex diseases," said Jean Yuan, M.D., Ph.D., at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), which funded the work. The study was published in Nature Aging.
A trial for a nasal vaccine for Alzheimer's is also scheduled to begin soon.
Men and people who speak at louder volumes more easily spread COVID-19, according to researchers at Colorado State University (CSU).
In a November study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, a multidisciplinary team at the school examined respiratory aerosol emissions from a panel of healthy individuals of varying age and gender while talking and singing in a controlled laboratory setting.
The group measured particle number concentrations between 0.25 and 33 micrometers from 63 participants ages 12-61 years old, and voice volume and exhaled CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels were monitored.
Measurements were taken while subjects were both masked and unmasked inside the lab of professor and study co-author John Volckens.
Researchers concluded that singing produced 77% more aerosol than talking, adults produced 62% more aerosol than minors and males produced 34% more aerosol than females.
However, after accounting for participant voice volume and exhaled CO2 measurements in linear models, the age and sex differences were "attenuated and no longer statistically significant."
Results from wind instrument-playing experiments are pending further data analysis and peer review. The study was originally developed early on during the COVID-19 pandemic in an effort to determine what people in performing arts can do to safely return to the stage.
"Is singing worse than talking when it comes to how many particles are being emitted? Yes, according to the study. And, the louder one talks or sings, the worse the emissions," the university said in a news post on its website, detailing the study.
"If there were significant differences after accounting for CO2 between males and females and kids, then you’d have to know how many males, females, and minors were in a room to estimate transmission risks," Volckens said in a statement. "Our data suggest that you don’t need to know that if you just measure CO2 and noise levels, because those measures are an equalizer for these demographic differences."
Limitations include that controlled study designs – including the laboratory environment – may "lack generalizability" to real-world situations, other types of vocal activities were not considered, the group did not quantify respiratory disease transmission risk and that additional observation and research is necessary to characterize respiratory aerosol emissions during early childhood development.
Dan Goble, director of the CSU School of Music, Theatre and Dance, and colleagues raised nearly $100,000 in support of the study.
Goble said that working with the CSU engineers helped his team to better understand how visual and performing arts could reimplement their programming.
After going virtual in spring 2020, current performing arts protocols at CSU include the use of masks, restrictions on occupancy venue times, physical distancing of at least six feet for voice lessons and extra time between classes for performance rooms to undergo sufficient air exchanges between rehearsals.
The availability of COVID-19 vaccines – CSU has a 90% vaccination rate – has "changed the game," according to Goble.
"We are so fortunate to have experts like (Volckens) who gave us some really wonderful information to help us make decisions about what we can and can’t do in the (University Center for the Arts)," he said.
These results, study authors noted, support further investigation of voice volume and CO2 as indicators of infection risk indoors.
It’s well established more people are having babies later in life than at any other time in U.S. history.
This increase in the number of people giving birth after the age of 35 – designated as “advanced maternal age” in clinical obstetrics – started in the mid-1970s and hascontinued to climb, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A federal report shows 18% of pregnancies were in people 35 and older in 2018, up from 15% in 2013 and 11% in 2002 and 8% in 1990.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says pregnant people in this age group are at higher risk of gestational diabetes and high blood pressure. They’re also more likely to have a low birth weight baby and premature birth, and need a C-section.
Despite these risks, a study published Friday in JAMA Health Forum shows patients just over the age of 35 had better prenatal care and pregnancy outcomes compared to those who were a few months shy of the cutoff age.
“There’s so many of these arbitrary guidelines and cutoffs in medicine," said study senior author Jessica Cohen, an associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan. School of Public Health. "The label of ‘advanced maternal age’ makes you feel really old when you’re just 35.”
Cohen's personal experience inspired the study. She had her first child at 34, and while she said she received amazing care, there was a difference during her second pregnancy at 36.
“When I had the second and I noticed how carefully I was being watched, I was like, ‘Wow, I wish I had this the first time,’” Cohen said.
The authors studied more than 50,000 deliveries from 2008 to 2019. About half of the people giving birth were between 34.7 and 34.9 years old, and the other half were between 35 and 35.3.
Prenatal care including ultrasounds, visits with maternal-fetal medicine specialists and special monitoring of the fetus all increased in those over 35 years old. Authors also found stillbirths and early newborn deaths dropped.
“Definitely, for sure, risks increase with the mom’s age,” Cohen said. “But there’s no risk that jumps right as you become age 35."
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After controlling for underlying conditions like pre-gestational diabetes, chronic hypertension and obesity, researchers found a stronger association between older age, more prenatal care services, and lower perinatal mortality.
Prenatal services may partially affect stillbirth and infant mortality rates after birth, but the study left out key information that impacts pregnancy outcome, said Dr. Priya Rajan, associate professor of maternal fetal medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and chief of diagnostic ultrasound at Northwestern Medicine.
“Timing of delivery and the number of pregnancies you had play a big part of it, too,” she said. “They tried to control a little bit for the ethnic variation and race data, but not to have any of that is really limiting.”
Additionally, the study’s data came from a large, nationwide commercial insurer so didn't include people on Medicaid or Medicare or those with no insurance at all, Rajan said.
The study also showed increased prenatal care didn't appear to reduce maternal deaths among pregnant patients over 35.
“That’s something that we really want to make sure we’re paying attention to,” Rajan said.
Despite its limitations, she said the study raises awareness for people of advanced maternal age and the care they receive during pregnancy. More data is needed to understand what aspects of prenatal care are making the biggest difference among pregnant people with traditional risk factors.
“We really need to rethink how we’re taking care of pregnant women,” Rajan said. “All pregnant people – regardless of age, regardless of race, regardless of socioeconomic status – we need to universally improve care.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.
At a veterinary clinic in the United Kingdom, the staff noticed a sudden and atypical increase in cats and dogs who were experiencing myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle.
Was it a coincidence that these animals were showing up severely ill from a condition that has been linked to COVID-19 just as the highly contagious Alpha variant was circulating?
The study was small, but it found that dogs and cats can be infected with the Alpha variant of COVID-19. Many of the owners of these pets had respiratory symptoms several weeks before their pets became ill and had tested positive for COVID-19.
The researchers detailed the investigation into the cases of four cats and two dogs who had severe myocarditis. Two of the cats plus one dog tested positive for the coronavirus on a PCR test, while two other cats and a second dog tested positive for antibodies two to six weeks after they developed signs of cardiac disease.
"They were all critical patients, so the presentation was very dramatic. They needed intensive care, so they were in hospital for a few days," said study author Dr. Luca Ferasin, head cardiologist at The Ralph Veterinary Referral Centre in England.
Luckily, most of the pets rebounded.
"All of them improved and made a remarkable improvement back home, with the only exception of one cat that had a relapse of the arrhythmia and was eventually put asleep," Ferasin said.
While myocarditis isn't a new disease for dogs or cats, the number of cases had increased at the vet clinic between December 2020 and February 2021, Ferasin said. When the veterinarians learned about the owners having been infected with COVID-19, they started to wonder if there was a relationship between the human COVID-19 infections and the pets' myocarditis.
"It is quite compelling that there was an infection in the household and then a few weeks later, clinical signs appear in our pets," Ferasin said. "The big difference was that while the owners were experiencing respiratory signs with fever and typical signs of COVID, our pets were presented primarily with a heart disease."
It is possible that pets with other symptoms may not have been seen by these doctors, whose focus was cardiology, Ferasin said.
The study was published Nov. 4 in the journal Veterinary Record. Subsequent reports in several European countries have also found domestic pets testing positive for the virus, Ferasin said.
From the research, it appears that the virus passed from the humans to the pets. There is no evidence that the virus passed from pets to humans, he noted.
"It looks like the virus can only be passed from humans to pets and that's probably a very important message, to avoid the sort of a panic reaction in response to this publication," Ferasin said. "We don't want people to think that they may catch COVID from animals. It's probably more likely the other way around."
Dr. Jose Arce, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, reiterated the message that the cases seem to be spreading from humans to animals.
"While COVID is primarily a human disease, there are documented cases of COVID infections in animals," Arce said, noting that this includes wildlife in zoos, domestic pets, and the animals at mink farms.
In most cases, the animals have very mild disease, Arce said. Like with humans, those who are immunocompromised might develop more severe symptoms.
Pet owners can protect their furry friends with the same kinds of precautions that protect other humans around them including washing hands thoroughly, especially before touching the pet, and wearing a mask.
Masks should not be put on pets because they're not made to be safe for them, Arce said.
If possible, someone who has COVID-19 should try to avoid contact with their pet if there is another person who can care for the animal, Arce said.
But, "if you're positive and you want to board your dog in the hospital, don't just show up in the door. Call ahead of time, so we can take the necessary precautions," Arce added.
A pet that travels back and forth between a part of the house where someone quarantining with COVID-19 is living and another part where there are people who are not ill could bring the virus between the two groups on its coat, so Arce also cautioned against having pets travel between ill and healthy family members.
If you or someone in your house is COVID-positive and your dog starts showing signs of illness, "call your veterinarian. Have the conversation," Arce said.
Signs of myocarditis in the pets included difficulty breathing, but unlike humans where the difficulty breathing may be from a lung infection it was from the accumulation of fluid in the lungs, known as pulmonary edema or congestive heart failure. Some of the pets in the study had fainted because of the underlying abnormal heart rhythm. They all had lethargy and appetite loss.
Arce also noted that symptoms could include fever or gastrointestinal issues.
"The percentage of myocarditis cases has dropped again, starting from April this year," Ferasin said. "So, we believe that it was that wave of the Alpha variant that caused that surge of myocarditis cases. Probably it is no longer a big issue, but it's important for vets in particular to be aware of this possibility."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on COVID-19 and pets.
SOURCES: Luca Ferasin, DVM, PhD, head cardiologist, Ralph Veterinary Referral Centre, Marlow, England; Jose Arce, DVM, president, American Veterinary Medical Association, Schaumburg, Ill.; Veterinary Record, Nov. 4, 2021
“He’s got a pass!” said the dad sitting across from me at the airport in Bismarck, North Dakota, where we were both stranded due to flight delays. He gestured to his 5-year-old son.
“Had a slight fever and tested positive for COVID. We had to keep him home from school for a couple weeks. Then, he tested negative and was good to go. I got the vaccine. My wife did, too. But he can travel anywhere without any testing, and there’s no vaccine for his age anyway.”
In Germany Natural Immunity Counts
Since the beginning of July in Germany, where that family lives, if you can demonstrate proof of being COVID-recovered and then have a subsequent negative COVID test, you are considered immune. For six months anyway, according to the German government.
But in the United States, where my family lives, even those who are COVID-recovered (and show high protection via either antibody or T-cell testing) are being told they also must get vaccinated. Indeed, the CDC has been actively urging Americans who have already had COVID to get the vaccine.
America’s federal and state health officials, via the mainstream media and social media, as well as on their official channels, insist that COVID vaccines offer better protection than natural immunity alone.
CDC Urges Vaccination for COVID-Recovered
A CDC statement from August sums up the official position nicely: “New CDC Study: Vaccination Offers Higher Protection Than Previous COVID-19 Infection.”
“If you have had COVID-19 before please still get vaccinated,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky urged the public in that release. “Getting the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and others around you, especially as the more contagious Delta variant spreads around the country.”
But is it really?
Natural Immunity Versus Vaccine Immunity
Despite sensationalist headlines, reinfection with COVID-19 appears to be exceedingly rare. If you are unvaccinated and have had COVID, the chances of you getting it again are slim. A preliminary report from Israeli scientists shows that out of 149,735 people in Israel with confirmed COVID-19 cases (documented via positive PCR tests) only 154 people had evidence of reinfection, which is about 1 in 1,000.
Another study, however, suggests that the chances of reinfection are even lower than 1 in 1,000. Cleveland Clinic scientists who examined a cohort of 52,238 employees found no cases of reinfection among unvaccinated people with evidence of prior SARS-Co-V-2 infections.
The same study showed that vaccinated people who hadn’t had COVID-19 had a lower risk of infection than unvaccinated people. Still, the researchers concluded that “individuals who have had SARS-CoV-2 are unlikely to benefit from COVID-19 vaccination, and vaccines can be safely prioritized to those who have not been infected before.”
Sarbecovirus Infections Protect Against Future Disease
The benefits of naturally acquired immunity may go beyond protection against COVID. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is part of a family of viruses known as sarbecoviruses. Symptoms vary widely in different people, but these viruses can create severe acute respiratory syndromes that usually begin with a fever and body aches, according to the CDC.
There have been two previous SARS outbreaks. A 2003 outbreak thought to have originated in China in 2002 infected about 8,098 people and led to about 774 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Another smaller SARS outbreak occurred in 2004.
Both of these outbreaks were self-limiting: humans managed to overcome the illnesses naturally without mass vaccination campaigns. Research on these other sarbecovirus infections is limited, but it seems that when we acquire natural immunity to these viruses, it helps protect us against future disease.
To study this, scientists in San Francisco took blood from people who had had previous COVID infections (SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-Co-V) and assessed 12 antibodies in the blood. As reported in Nature, the California researchers found that one antibody in particular (S2H97) was able to bind to a range of sarbecovirus infections and keep the viruses from spreading in lab experiments. When they tested the antibody in hamsters, it kept the rodents from getting sick.
This “super antibody,” which was acquired naturally, essentially blocked SARS viruses from spreading to other cells. While the research is being used to promote the idea of developing a broad-ranging vaccine, it also shows that there may be long-lasting benefits to natural infection.
Viral Illness: Natural Immunity Provides Long-Lasting Protection
With other infectious diseases caused by viruses, we have seen that natural infection provides longer-lasting protection than vaccine immunity. For example, a 2017 study of adults in the Czech Republic published in the scientific journal PLOS One showed that the highest protection against the measles, as measured by antibody levels in people’s blood, was in people over 50 years of age who were naturally infected before the implementation of a measles vaccine.
Other research on swine flu (H1N1) published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine in 2011, found “extraordinarily” powerful antibodies in the blood of nine people who caught the swine flu naturally and recovered from it.
Though, again, this research was showcased by news reports as evidence that it may be possible to develop a one-size-fits-all vaccine against different strains of flu viruses, what it actually demonstrates is that recovering from naturally acquired viral infections not only gives people short-term immunity against other viruses but may also be of lasting benefit in fighting off other viral infections as well.
Because SARS-CoV-2 is a novel virus and the vaccines to protect against it only became available in January, it isn’t scientifically possible to know the long-term protection offered by either the infection or the vaccines.
As more data comes in, however, it appears that even mild infection can provide robust protection from COVID-19 infection. A study from July evaluated 254 COVID-19 patients for up to eight months and found “durable broad-based immune responses,” even among COVID-recovered patients who had only mild symptoms.
Other recent data also suggests that natural immunity is long-lasting. A study from Finland published in September in the European Journal of Immunology found that in COVID-recovered patients protection against reinfection persisted for over a year.
Immunologist: Natural Immunity Better Than Vaccination
Yet another large study from August looked at a database of 2.5 million Israelis and found that “natural immunity confers longer-lasting and stronger protection against infection, symptomatic disease and hospitalization caused by the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, compared to the BNT162b2 two-dose vaccine-induced immunity.”
This Israeli study found that people who were vaccinated who hadn’t been previously infected were 6 to 13 times more likely to get infected with COVID-19 than unvaccinated people who had already had the illness.
“It’s a textbook example of how natural immunity is really better than vaccination,” Charlotte Thalin, an immunology researcher and specialist in internal medicine who is based in Stockholm, Sweden, told Science.org.
Where Is The Science Behind The CDC’s Vaccine Push?
Given the natural protection provided to people who recover from COVID, why is the CDC so eager to get every eligible American vaccinated, even those who have recovered and have naturally acquired immunity?
The CDC press release references only two reports. The first report showed that unvaccinated people in Kentucky were nearly 2 1/2 times more likely to get re-infected with COVID compared to fully vaccinated individuals.
The second CDC report, co-authored by more than 40 medical doctors and public health officials (several of whom disclose direct ties to the pharmaceutical companies manufacturing and profiting from these vaccines), looked at hospitalization rates of adults aged 65 and older. It concluded that “among adults aged 65-74 years, effectiveness of full vaccination for preventing hospitalization was 96 percent for Pfizer-BioNTech, 96 percent for Moderna, and 84 percent for Janssen COVID-19.”
The second report cited by the CDC excluded hospitalized patients who had only one dose of any COVID vaccine less than 14 days prior. It also didn’t specify if those who were vaccinated or those who were unvaccinated had a history of prior infection.
So that report sheds no light on whether vaccine immunity is more long-lasting than immunity from infection and offers no evidence to justify the idea that COVID-recovered patients should get vaccinated.
The CDC didn’t mention other studies that showed findings contrary to the Kentucky study. It’s unclear whether the agency reviewed those studies and found the Kentucky study to be stronger or only considered the Kentucky study in making their policy to recommend and require that the previously infected get the vaccine.
Meanwhile, much of the established science supports the superiority of acquired immunity. That fact has put some people, such as Laurie Lentz-Marino, in a difficult position as they try to balance the consequences of not complying with vaccine mandates against their understanding of what’s in the best interest of their health.
“Vaccine-induced immunity can never be as long-lasting and robust as naturally acquired immunity,” said Lentz-Marino, who taught chemistry and biology classes at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, for more than 20 years. “The human immune system knows what it’s doing. We are an incredibly successful species. There would not be close to 8 billion people on the planet otherwise.”
Lentz-Marino, 61, recently resigned from her teaching position over vaccine and mask mandates at the college.
“It’s a sad joke to think that we know better than Mother Nature. We’re going in the wrong direction. It’s really arrogant to think that we can re-design our immune systems.”
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning science writer and book author. A Fulbright grantee, she is also a frequent contributor to The Epoch Times. Learn more and subscribe to her free weekly newsletter at her website JenniferMargulis.net.
Researchers announced earlier this month that they had found a link between a western diet and cognitive decline and neurodegeneration in a study using mice.
Published in the Cell Press journal iScience, the Marshall University authors said that the diet creates these impacts on the brain through increased Na,K-ATPase signaling in adipocytes.
DEMENTIA SIGNS ARE IN THE BLOOD, RESEARCHERS SAY
Na,K-ATPase is a cellular sodium-potassium pump and adipocytes are fat cells and are the major energy storage sites in the body.
To reach these conclusions, the group used a gene-altered mouse model, feeding the mice either a normal diet or a western diet for 12 weeks.
The mice were also given the antibiotic doxycycline to activate the peptide NaKtide in the fat cells.
A burger, fries, chocolate and other calorie-rich foods (iStock)
The mice eating the western diet increased their body weight and showed insulin resistance, lowered oxygen levels and low energy.
Additionally, the mice on the western diet showed signs of behavioral changes in line with those typical of humans with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
"In this study, we found that a western diet produced systemic oxidant stress along with evidence of activation of Na,K-ATPase signaling within both murine brain and peripheral tissues," the authors wrote. "We also noted this diet caused increases in circulating inflammatory cytokines as well as behavioral, and brain biochemical changes consistent with neurodegeneration."
COVID-19 SIDE EFFECTS COULD INCLUDE MEMORY LOSS, BRAIN FOG, RESEARCHERS FIND
When researchers obstructed the Na,K-ATPase signal through the use of NaKtide in the fat cells, it stopped the adverse effects the western diet had on the animals' brains – and the hippocampus in particular.
The hippocampus is the region of the brain that is associated with regulating emotional responses and is principally involved in storing long-term memories.
"These data suggest that a western diet produces cognitive decline and neurodegeneration through augmented Na,K-ATPase signaling and that antagonism of this pathway in adipocytes ameliorates the pathophysiology," they said.
If these conclusions are also observed in humans, the study's authors posited that the adipocyte Na,K-ATPase could serve as a clinical target in the therapy of neurodegenerative disorders.
Previous studies have found that a western diet increases the risk of death after a prostate cancer diagnosis and intensifies the severity of sepsis.
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The western diet generally includes the overconsumption of over-refined sugars, highly refined and saturated fats, and too many calories.
While the western diet has been found to cause numerous adverse health effects, like obesity, scientists have also previously published studies regarding its negative impact on behavior, cognition and emotion.
More than 100 million Americans have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot. The proof? A 4-by-3-inch paper "vaccination record card" issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a post-pandemic world, that humble card for those who are fully vaccinated could become an important document used for travel, attending events, returning to the post-pandemic office and other purposes. At least a dozen colleges and universities have already announced that they'll require students to become immunized before they return to campus in the fall. Companies are currently weighing whether they will require employees and patrons to present proof of vaccination as a condition of employment or engaging in business.
In the meantime, here's what experts say you should know about vaccination cards.
Photograph your record card
The first thing experts recommend once you've been vaccinated is taking a digital photograph of both sides of your personal record card. You can also scan the card and save the file on a laptop or desktop, said Megan Ranney, an emergency physician at Rhode Island Hospital and an associate professor at Brown University.
One thing you shouldn't do: Share your personal proof of inoculation on Facebook or other social media sites, which could lead to identity theft because the CDC card includes a person's date of birth as well as first name and last name.
"I would not post it to social media with my birthday showing. It is a unique identifier that could allow somebody to potentially steal your identity, so I would first be careful about that," epidemiologist Danielle Ompad, a professor at the NYU School of Global Public Health, told CBS MoneyWatch.
By contrast, you may want to print a copy of the photo of the vaccination card and store it in your wallet. While some experts advise against having the original card laminated, so that booster shots of vaccine can be added if that becomes necessary, others say that's OK because a more sophisticated record-keeping system is likely to be in place by then.
"I would laminate it because by the time a booster comes along, the technology will have evolved," suggested Dr. Maureen Miller, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.
You can get your card laminated for free at office supply store Staples by using the code 81450 or at Office Depot with code 52516714.
Leave the original at home
Make sure to store the original hard copy of your vaccine card someplace safe — you don't need to keep it on your person at all times and risk losing it. Experts recommend keeping the original with other important documents or medical records and carrying just the digital copy.
"It doesn't need to be carried at all times at this point, unless you're traveling or doing something else where you'll have to provide proof of vaccination," Ranney said.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said he keeps his vaccination record tucked into his passport (along with a card showing he's been vaccinated against yellow fever).
Notify your primary care doctor that you've received the vaccine, as you would with any other inoculation. This helps health care providers to ensure your record of immunizations is up to date.
Not everyone has followed experts' advice to store vaccination records someplace secure. University of Illinois gymnast Evan Manivong recently nailed a perfect landing during a vault competition — and celebrated by pulling out his vaccine card tucked inside his leotard and flashing it to the audience. "Go get vaccinated everyone!" the 20-year-old advertising major later tweeted. Videos of the magic moment went viral this week.
What happens if I lose it?
If you do lose your card, don't panic. Every time a vaccine is administered, the provider records it with the state's immunization registry.
"Those flimsy pieces of paper aren't the only record of your vaccination status," Adalja said. "People should keep the cards safe so they have them on hand, but it's not the end of the world if they lose it or if it goes through the washing machine."
If you do misplace your card, call your state's health department and ask for a replacement.
"Right now it's what we have as proof that you've gotten the vaccine, but it's not impossible to replace," said Dr. Christine Whelan, clinical professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
For now, Whelan said, the CDC's simple white cards may have more symbolic value than practical function.
"Other countries aren't giving out pieces of paper like we are, and this may be a quaint thing we are doing. There is something satisfying about leaving with the card copy record just in case," she said.
No universal standard — yet
President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, this week said the U.S. government will not mandate so-called vaccine passports for travel and other business activities. Anything resembling a digital pass is likely to be developed by the private sector, he added.
Some experts lament that the government did not develop a standardized, digital proof of vaccination earlier.
"I think the U.S. government should have thought of a digital app early on and had it ready to go so that it activated when a person got a vaccine," Adalja said. "Now we're having to scramble to come up with a solution that's digital and secure so people don't have to worry about carrying that card around."
Ideally, one's vaccination status would be integrated and stored with other personal travel information that's reflected in programs like Global Entry and TSA PreCheck that ease the process of traveling through airport security.
Beware faux vax cards
Scammers are also capitalizing on the low-tech record-keeping system. Hundreds of fraudsters are selling fake versions of the CDC-issued vaccine cards through ecommerce platforms including eBay, Etsy and Shopify, according to Saoud Khalifah, CEO of Fakespot, which uses artificial intelligence to warn consumers of online retail scams.
The scam cards are being advertised at roughly $20 a pop, and are also offered in bulk. The fraud is brazenly out in the open. Fakespot has identified hundreds of Facebook pages and eBay listings offering "vax-cards" and "blank vaccine cards" for individuals who might not have been vaccinated yet.
"It has introduced this new dynamic to society where people can counterfeit immunity and replace it with a fake card. It's a new concept we haven't seen before," Khalifah told CBS MoneyWatch.
Khalifah suspects that some purchasers of the phony cards are anti-vaxxers who don't plan on becoming immunized, but still want whatever access the card affords them.
The FBI has warned that such schemes violate federal laws prohibiting unauthorized use of an official government agency's seal, including the one for the CDC. Fraudulent use of an official federal seal constitutes a felony that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein and a group of bipartisan attorneys general this week called on the e-commerce site OfferUp to clamp down on the illegal sale of blank and forged COVID-19 vaccination record cards. This kind of fraud puts the general public's health at risk, according to Stein.
"These cards will result in more people becoming sick by more variants of the virus and more people dying as the pandemic takes longer to get under control," he told CBS MoneyWatch. "By not getting the vaccine, it means more people will get infected with variants and that threatens everyone's health."
Race for digital passports and other solutions
As Fauci suggested, private companies are already developing ways for people to show they've been vaccinated or are coronavirus-free. For example, New York authorities are testing a digital health pass powered by blockchain technology in partnership with computer science company IBM.
"The aim is to eventually provide New York residents a simple, voluntary and secure method for showing proof of a negative COVID-19 test result or certification of vaccination," IBM said in a press release last month.
New York recently piloted the so-called Excelsior Pass with the Brooklyn Nets at one of the National Basketball Association team's home games at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. It will also be tested at theaters and other venues as more New Yorkers become vaccinated.
"The Excelsior Pass will play a critical role in getting information to venues and sites in a secure and streamlined way, allowing us to fast-track the reopening of these businesses and getting us one step closer to reaching a new normal," Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement last month.
Vaccine management company VaxAtlas has also launched an app for consumers to securely store vaccination record cards.
"Verification will soon be a requirement for travel, work, venues, even schools and every state might have different rules and guidelines. We need one centralized system to ensure vaccinations and certifications are not lost and that personal information is securely stored," said VaxAtlas CEO Judi Korzec.
VaxYes is another tool that provides free, HIPAA-compliant digital vaccine records for inoculated individuals. Company CEO Mohammed Gaber expects the product initially to be used most widely in the travel sector.
"I personally went through the highs of getting both doses of the vaccine and the lows of thinking and fearing I had lost my card. Everyone is going to have anxiety around this card and how to safeguard it," Gaber said.
VaxYes has partnered with different states and organizations around the U.S., including Kansas, which is testing the tool to allow residents to return to shows and other events. To date, thousands of Americans have digitized their paper cards through VaxYes, according to the company.
"People are already starting to think about summer travel plans, and they see this as an enabler for getting back to normal and resuming travel activities," Gaber said. "We're super excited to be a part of the solution."
The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are expected to announce that all vaccinated people will be eligible for booster shots at least eight months after their second dose.
But experts caution that vaccine efficacy is declining along a gradual slope -- not a sudden cliff that drops off suddenly after eight months. For the nation's public health experts, the question has become: What's an acceptable threshold?
Currently available data suggests all three authorized vaccines are offering good protection at least six months after initial vaccination -- likely even longer.
"We believe sooner or later you will need a booster for durability of protection," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, speaking at Thursday's White House press briefing. "We do not believe that others, elderly or non-elderly, who are not immunocompromised, need a vaccine [booster] right at this moment."
"We are evaluating this on a day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month basis," Fauci added. "So, if the data shows us that, in fact, we do need to do that, we'll be very ready to do it and do it expeditiously."
Vaccine experts have said protection from current COVID-19 vaccines is expected to wane slightly over time. Meanwhile, the delta variant is expected to chip away slightly at overall vaccine effectiveness. Executives from both Moderna and Pfizer have said booster doses eventually will be needed.
But so far, vaccines are still holding up well, experts said. Some studies have indicated a slight dip in efficacy, but mostly when it comes to protection from symptomatic and mild illness. Data thus far indicates that vaccines are still extremely effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths.
Moderna and Pfizer both reported positive data from their ongoing phase 3 trials, which have continued to monitor volunteers at least six months after their initial shots. Moderna has said its vaccine remains more 93% effective against symptomatic illness after six months, while Pfizer reported a dip in efficacy to 84%, though both studies were conducted with slightly different criteria and prior to the emergence of the delta variant.
Although an independent study from the Mayo Clinic hinted that Pfizer immunity might wane faster than Moderna immunity, experts said it's likely too soon to say that for sure.
Johnson & Johnson, meanwhile, has yet to report six-month data for its single-shot vaccine. The company, however, has released promising laboratory data showing a strong immune system response up to eight months later. And a real-world study from South Africa showed good protection against delta.
That said, some Americans aren't waiting for a formal recommendation to get an additional shot. According to an internal CDC briefing reported by ABC News, approximately 1.1 million already have taken booster shots.
Many doctors have cautioned against this. Booster doses are still being studied formally, and there could be still-unknown risks associated with getting them. Researchers are still evaluating side effects, proper dosages and the right time to get one.
"The main thing I really want to stress to everyone," said Dr. Simone Wildes, an infectious disease specialist at South Shore Health and an ABC News contributor, "is that, right now, we are not recommending booster shots. However, that could change."
Other doctors and public health specialists also said they're also not rushing to recommend boosters for the general public. Not only are current vaccines proving to be overwhelmingly effective, but doctors are also still collecting data on the potential impacts of an additional shot. And vaccine producers are still researching whether lower dosages will suffice as potential boosters.
"Everyone wants to know -- when is the timeline?" Wildes said.
Experts still aren't sure.
"We don't know how long immunity lasts," said John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital and an ABC News contributor. "We don't know what 'waning' means. We will clearly see that in the fall as we see a surge, and we'll understand what delta or any future variant means for cases in the population."
Engaging in deep conversation with strangers instead of sticking to small talk improves our well-being, according to a new study. Whether avoiding eye contact on the subway or resorting to awkward chit-chat about the weather when talking to people we don’t know, it’s common for people to think a stranger will have no interest in hearing what we have to say. However, new research suggests that most people will actually benefit from having a deep and meaningful chat with someone they don’t know.
“Connecting with others in meaningful ways tends to make people happier, and yet people also seem reluctant to engage in deeper and more meaningful conversation,” says study co-author Professor Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in a media release. “This struck us as an interesting social paradox: If connecting with others in deep and meaningful ways increases well-being, then why aren’t people doing it more often in daily life?”
Talking with strangers more enjoyable than people think
To answer the question, Prof. Epley and his colleagues designed a series of twelve experiments with more than 1,800 participants. The researchers asked pairs of strangers to discuss either deep or shallow topics by asking questions. The shallow questions included typical and cliché small-talk topics like, “What is the best TV show you’ve seen in the last month?” or “What do you think about the weather today?” While the deep questions were led by emotions and encouraged the pairs to share more personal and intimate information, such as, “Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?” or “If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, your future or anything else, what would you want to know?”
To keep the chatting flowing naturally, researchers let the pairs think of their own conversation topics. Before each conversation, the participants predicted how awkward they thought the chat would be, how connected they thought they would feel to their partner, and how much they would enjoy the conversation. After finishing their conversation, they then rated how awkward the conversations actually were, how connected they actually felt, and how much they enjoyed themselves.
By the end of the study, the researchers found that both interesting and dry conversations felt less awkward and led to greater feelings of connectedness and enjoyment than the participants had expected. That particular effect tended to more significant after deeper conversations and although most participants overestimated how awkward the meaningful chats would be, they found them more enjoyable and felt a stronger connection to their partner afterward.
Do strangers really like hearing your deep thoughts?
In another controlled experiment, the participants who had a deep conversation with one partner and a boring one with another partner initially expected to prefer the shallow conversation but actually preferred the deep conversation. If having a deep conversation is genuinely better for your health, it is a mystery why more people are not having them. The researchers suspected it might be because people underestimate how interested strangers are in learning about their deeper thoughts and feelings.
“People seemed to imagine that revealing something meaningful or important about themselves in conversation would be met with blank stares and silence, only to find this wasn’t true in the actual conversation,” Prof. Epley continues. “Human beings are deeply social and tend to reciprocate in conversation. If you share something meaningful and important, you are likely to get something meaningful and important exchanged in return, leading to a considerably better conversation.”
Moving past the small talk
In the final experiments, the researchers examined whether having more accurate expectations about a conversation partner increased people’s interest in having a deeper conversation. In one experiment, the research team told the participants to imagine that they would be speaking to a particularly caring and interested person, or to a particularly uncaring and uninterested one. Participants who expected they would be speaking to the caring person chose to discuss deeper questions than participants who expected to speak to an uncaring partner.
“Our participants’ expectations about deeper conversations were not woefully misguided, but they were reliably miscalibrated in a way that could keep people from engaging a little more deeply with others in their daily lives,” the study author concludes.
“As the pandemic wanes and we all get back to talking with each other again, being aware that others also like meaningful conversation might lead you to spend less time in small talk and have more pleasant interactions as a result.”
I have been on a fasting program since February. And it has been great. The first two weeks were horrible but ever since it has been easy. I am on the 16 -8 plan. 16 fasting- 8 eating. I have read many articles that tell you how this helps regulate your body. It increase your immune system and can help with cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes. The added benefit of losing weight is a huge plus as well.
I have a family member that suffers from chronic, daily, sometimes debilitating headaches. She has had multiple MRIs and has seen a dentist, ENT specialist and neurologist to check for jaw and balance issues, yet no one has been able to diagnose a cause of them. What would be your next course of action? We were referred to a doctor who specializes in headache/migraine, but go figure… he is leaving the practice and his replacement doesn't have any appointments available until April of 2022. Any suggestions or thoughts?