MT Weekly: COVID-19 Testing Updates, Criminal Charges for Not Isolating

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Toxic Exposure

An analysis released Tuesday by researchers from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and widely reported by CNN and other news outlets found an association between long-term exposure to air pollution and higher coronavirus death rates by county.

Researchers found that a “small increase” in airborne fine particulate matter, specifically 1g/m³, was associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate. Invisible fine particulate matter, a mixture of liquids and solids, is much smaller dust, dirt and smoke particles, and according to CNN can travel deeply into the lungs where they can “wreak havoc with our lungs and bodily functions.”

“The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis,” the authors wrote.

It should be noted that this new research is unpublished and has not been subjected to the scrutiny of the academic journal peer review process.

Research + Findings

Dr. John Balmes, professor of medicine at University of California San Francisco and professor of environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley told CNN that the counties with the highest levels of air pollution (in the study discussed above) also had “more poor people, and more poor people of color.” (Balmes was not involved in the study.)

According to an NPR report, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of coronavirus hospitalizations in 14 states in the month of March found the following racial and ethnic disparities:

  • Whites: 76% of the population, 45% of coronavirus hospitalizations
  • Hispanics: 18% of the population, 8% of coronavirus hospitalizations
  • African Americans: 13% of the population, 33% of coronavirus hospitalizations

The racial disparity is clear in the data: Though whites are 76% of the population, they make up less than half of the studied coronavirus hospitalizations; African Americans are only 13% of the population, yet they represent one-third of coronavirus hospitalizations.

At a White House coronavirus task force briefing on Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said that African Americans do not appear to have higher rates of coronavirus infection. However, he said, health disparities in terms of higher rates of chronic illness may make African Americans more likely to be hospitalized or die from coronavirus.

Of the approximately 1,500 hospitalized coronavirus patients studied, about 90% had a chronic underlying condition: high blood pressure (50%), obesity (48%), chronic lung disease (35%), and diabetes (28%).

Along the same lines, a Washington Post analysis found that counties with black majorities have three times the number of coronavirus infections and almost six times the deaths of white majority counties. Potential factors also include underlying health conditions and the quality of care and resources available.

Legal Developments

According to a ProPublica Illinois report, 36-year-old Jason Liddle of Olney, Illinois is facing a criminal charge of reckless conduct for failure to follow medical orders to self-isolate due to his coronavirus symptoms.

Liddle, who hadn’t been tested for COVID-19 when he was notified of the misdemeanor charge and summons on March 30, was recognized by a high school friend employed at a convenience store that Liddle had entered with his young son who needed to use the bathroom. The employee friend recalled a Facebook post by Liddle describing his self-isolation order and the friend alerted his supervisor, who called authorities after Liddle left the store.

While ProPublica reported singular incidents of legal enforcement of statewide stay-at-home orders in four states — New Jersey, North Carolina, Indiana, and California — Liddle’s case may be the first and only case of legal enforcement of doctor’s orders to an individual to self-isolate.

More than 40 states including Illinois have issued stay-at-home orders due to coronavirus concerns.

Drug Developments

On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its online guidance for prescribing hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine to treat coronavirus patients, including removing dosing instructions for health care providers, as reported by CNN.

The two antimalarial drugs have been touted by President Donald Trump as potential coronavirus treatments, despite scanty scientific evidence to support such claims. The drugs are currently being studied for their effectiveness against COVID-19 but have not yet been approved for that purpose by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

On April 4, however, the agency issued an emergency use authorization allowing the two drugs from the national stockpile to be administered to hospitalized coronavirus patients.

Questions swirl about the safety and efficacy of the drugs, which some say are best administered in the early stages of coronavirus infection, not to critically-ill hospitalized patients. And some experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have warned that the drug is unproven and there may be dangers in promoting it before data backs up its efficacy.

Public Health

According to a Wall Street Journal report, health experts believe that one in three patients testing positive for the coronavirus are receiving false-negative test results, an estimation based mainly on professional experience given the scarcity of scientific data on testing validity.

Many doctors say the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as other labs and manufacturers developing “a wave” of new coronavirus tests “are operating with minimal regulatory oversight and little time to do robust studies amid a desperate call for wider testing.”

Disappointing news on the eagerly anticipated coronavirus antibodies test: NBC News reported yesterday that according to leading British scientists, none of the antibodies tests developed so far are accurate enough to use.

The 20-minute finger prick test, which could be done at home or a pharmacy, was supposed to indicate whether someone has developed immunity to the coronavirus by detecting antibodies in the blood that could ward off future infection. It was hoped that the test would free millions of immune individuals from restrictive orders intended to slow the spread of the virus.

A rapid coronavirus test from Abbott Laboratories announced with fanfare last week by President Trump is apparently in short supply. According to Kaiser Health News, only 5,500 of these five-minute tests were made available to state and local public health labs, far short of the 500,000 tests White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said were “not being utilized” in the states. Abbott declined to comment about the accuracy of the test, which was fast-tracked through the FDA review process and said that data will continue to be collected in the field.

By Carah Wertheimer

Carah Wertheimer is an editor and reporter based in Boulder, Colorado. Her areas of specialization include food, health, environment, social justice and community reporting. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, The Denver Post, The Daily Beast, the Boulder Daily Camera, Boulder Weekly and other publications.

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