Deaths among people who have been fully vaccinated remain rare, but older adults and those with compromised immune systems are at much higher risk.
“It causes huge distress to tell a family, ‘We can’t serve you,’” said one state hospice organization director.
Rising immunity and modest changes in behavior may explain why cases are declining, but much remains unknown, scientists say.
Viral evolution is a long game. Here’s where scientists think we could be headed.
Parents are sneaking carbon dioxide monitors into their children’s schools to determine whether the buildings are safe.
David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian were honored for their discoveries about how heat, cold and touch can initiate signals in the nervous system.
Researchers have been studying how much care American adults will require as they age, and for how long.
Some districts have established robust virus testing programs, but many others are struggling.
Some districts have established robust virus testing programs, but many others are struggling.
Why do so many female body parts honor male scientists?
More school districts are embracing “test-to-stay” protocols that allow uninfected close contacts to remain in the classroom.
Too often, seniors who use opioids become targets for exploitation and abuse.
Vaccination remains the best defense, health experts say. But some infections occur regardless, and can come as a traumatic surprise.
The pathologies underlying brain decline can begin years before symptoms emerge. Can everyday behavior provide warning?
Health experts say that boosters are likely to be needed eventually and that more data should be available in the next several weeks.
A new study challenges assumptions about energy expenditure by people, including the idea that metabolism slows at middle age.
With infections increasing once more, and hospitalization rising among older adults, health experts offer a timely warning: a coronavirus infection can look different in older patients.
Governments and organizations around the world are using geospatial data and digital mapping tools to guide their vaccination campaigns.
The demands of the profession appear to clash with the process of starting a family. “There’s a health risk in it.”
Cases, hospitalizations and deaths remain far below last winter’s peak, but the director urged people to get fully vaccinated.
The link between the rare neurological disorder and the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine may be real, but the risk appears to be very small.
Scientists have been dreaming of disease-detecting breathalyzers for years. Has the time for the technology finally come?
But first the bad news: It’s already half over. Plus, typeface puzzles, the “Dragon Man” skull and more in the Friday edition of the Science Times Newsletter.
Summer in the Northern Hemisphere officially began on June 20, the day of the year with the most hours of sunlight, when Earth’s axis is at its maximum tilt — 23.5 degrees — toward our local star.
And yet already it feels as if it’s slipping away. “Dad,” a teenage son said, staring down the list of get-the-heck-out-of-the-house plans we’d plotted for him, “I feel like the summer’s going to fly by.” A friend notes on Twitter: “July?? Someone should find out how this happened.”
Well, I’ll tell you — and I have some improvements to suggest.
First, be aware that summer, as currently defined, is a scam; the brevity and disappointment are baked in. Tradition holds that the June solstice marks the first day of summer — but then what? It’s all denouement from there; every day that follows is darker than the last, until the solstice in late December. That’s not uplifting. That’s not cheery and invigorating. That’s not the “start” of anything except a slow descent into frigid darkness and death. That’s the start of fall, not summer.
Really, for dramatic narrative purposes, the summer solstice should mark the end of summer, or at least the middle of it. Which, in fact, it basically does.
Silly me, I had always assumed that “midsummer” was, you know, halfway between “the start of summer” and “the start of autumn” — July 25, plus or minus. But clearly I haven’t been spending enough time on Wikipedia, where just yesterday I learned that, for large segments of the world, “midsummer” is synonymous with the birthday of Saint John the Baptist, exactly six months before Christmas. Pretty much today.
Yes, you heard that right: Midsummer occurs just a few days after the official start of summer. If it feels as if summer is already half over, that’s because it is.
Clearly, then, the simplest way to make summer longer, if maybe not eternal, is to change the start date. How about early May, formerly known (to nobody) as mid-spring? Or push it all the way back to the vernal equinox, when the minutes of daylight begin — you know, start — to outnumber the minutes of night? Naturally, that would mean starting spring on the December solstice, which to be honest would address several problems I have with winter.
Another option, less simple: Live elsewhere. Deadhorse, Alaska, maybe. Svalbard, in Norway. Or anywhere north of the Arctic Circle, where the sun rises in mid-May and doesn’t set again until late July; the “longest day of the year” lasts for weeks.
Or there’s HD 131399Ab, an extrasolar planet 320 light-years away. The planet orbits a star (once every 550 Earth years) that is also orbited by two other stars, and for a period of about 140 Earth years one sun or another is always overhead, providing constant daylight. Summer would last a lifetime and more. (Avoid the lifelong winter, though.)
A third, more challenging but ultimately more satisfying way to make summer last longer: Adjust your outlook. Bear with me here for the logic.
To state the obvious, summer flies because we enjoy it. To be precise, in any situation, time “flies” precisely because you aren’t thinking about it. You’re busy with work, lost in a book, deep in conversation, planning the killer Scrabble move — you’re immersed, engaged. You look up: Whoa, where’d the time go? You lost track of it.
Note the vital corollaries. One, dwelling on the time — tracking it — makes it move slowly. (Think: endless dinner party.) Two, you can lose track of time, but by definition you don’t notice until afterward. Time doesn’t fly in the present tense; it only ever has flown.
And three: All things told, the experience that “time flew by” is a positive one. It’s an indication of time well spent, or at least fully occupied, of mental health and, hopefully, satisfaction. What’s the joy in life if not in forgetting what time it is? Did we not all just spend the past year going nowhere, seeing no one, crawling through the hours and days while wondering when the sentence might finally end? How pleasant was that?
So embrace it. Summer has started? It’s already half over? Let it fly, secure in knowing that you can reflect fondly on the flight afterward. That’s the point of winter, as far as I can tell.
What we’re metabolizing lately
These breathtaking photos of the Russian Arctic by Evgenia Arbugaeva in The New Yorker.
An interview with Neil Sloane, creator of the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, the Oxford English Dictionary of numbers.
Some baby cephalopod eye candy, in honor of Cephalopod Week.
The Wet Hot Cicada Buzzline: Did you miss the emergence of Brood X, or are you just nostalgic for it? Dial 855-883-8663 to hear a minute’s worth of cicada calls.
Science in The Times, 89 years ago today
SYRACUSE — The “evil eye” of ancient superstition has been found by scientific experiment to have a definite basis in fact, it was reported here today during the closing sessions of the American Association for the Advancement of Science by Dr. Otto Rahn, Professor of Bacteriology at Cornell University. He told of investigations conducted by him recently on “the influence of human radiation on micro-organisms.”
The human eye, Dr. Rahn declared he found only a few days ago, emanates a form of radiation similar in its action to that of ultraviolet rays and strong enough to kill yeast cells if held sufficiently close.
Sync your calendar with the solar system
Never miss an eclipse, a meteor shower, a rocket launch or any other astronomical and space event that’s out of this world.
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Flush the taps, focus on indoor air quality and consider getting creative about staff schedules.
For the last 15 months, many American offices sat essentially empty. Conference rooms and cubicles went unused, elevators uncalled, files untouched. Whiteboards became time capsules. Succulents had to fend for themselves.
But over the coming weeks, many of these workplaces will creak slowly back to life. By September, roughly half of Manhattan’s one million office workers are likely to return to their desks, at least part time, according to a recent survey by the Partnership for New York City.
Although the risk of contracting Covid-19 has fallen significantly in the United States — especially for those who are fully vaccinated — it has not disappeared entirely, and many workers remain nervous about returning to their desks. (Many others, of course, never had the luxury of working remotely in the first place.)
“If you’re still feeling uncomfortable or anxious, that’s totally understandable,” said Joseph Allen, an expert on healthy buildings who teaches at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “This pandemic has affected all of us in profound ways, and people are going to be ready to re-enter life again or re-enter interacting with people at different times.”
But scientists have learned a lot about the virus over the past year, and there are some clear, evidence-based steps that employers can take to protect their workers — and that workers can take to protect themselves. Some of these strategies are likely to pay dividends that outlast the current crisis.
“I think it’s important for us as a community, but also individual employers, to think about these questions in relation to not just this week and this month,” said Alex Huffman, an aerosol scientist at the University of Denver. “How do we make decisions now that benefit the safety and health of our work spaces well into the future?”
Address the risks of closures
Although Covid-19 is the headline health concern, long-term building closures can present risks of their own. Plumbing systems that sit unused, for instance, can be colonized by Legionella pneumophila, bacteria that can cause a type of pneumonia known as Legionnaires’ disease.
“Long periods with stagnant, lukewarm water in pipes — the exact conditions in many under-occupied buildings right now — create ideal conditions for growth of Legionella,” Dr. Allen said.
Some schools have already reported finding the bacteria in their water. In buildings with lead pipes or fixtures, high levels of the toxic metal can also accumulate in stagnant water. Employers can reduce both risks by thoroughly flushing their taps, or turning on the water and letting it run, before reopening.
“We know that flushing water during periods of inactivity usually reduces lead levels and also potentially bacteria that may form,” said Jennifer Hoponick Redmon, a senior environmental health scientist at RTI International, a nonprofit research organization based in North Carolina. She added: “A general rule of thumb is 15 minutes to one hour of flushing for long-term closures, such as for Covid-19.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends that companies check for mold growth and pest infestations before reopening.
Upgrade ventilation and filtration
“One thing you can do before you go back to work is simply ask them what they’ve done,” Dr. Allen said. “And if you hear things like, ‘Yes, we’re meeting code,’ then that’s a flag that something’s not right. They should be going above and beyond the bare minimum ventilation and filtration rates.”
Although the ideal ventilation rate varies, in general, employers should maximize the amount of fresh air coming in from outdoors, he said. In a relatively small space — say, the size of a typical school classroom — employers should aim for four to six air changes per hour, meaning that the air inside the space is being completely refreshed every 10 to 15 minutes. Opening windows can also improve air flow.
High-quality air filters, like those that are rated as MERV 13 or higher, can trap a majority of airborne viral particles. Some commercial buildings are not equipped for these heavy-duty filters; in those offices, portable air purifiers, equipped with HEPA filters, can be effective, experts said.
“These types of portable units can do a great job of taking particles out of the room,” Dr. Huffman said. “And the next level is even a desktop level HEPA filter, where you have a really small unit that provides clean air into your direct breathing zone.”
These personal units may be particularly helpful in poorly ventilated offices, although experts stressed that employers, not employees, should bear the burden of improving indoor air quality.
Be wary of chemical disinfection
While ventilation and filtration are crucial, employers and building managers should stay away from foggers, fumigators, ionizers, ozone generators or other “air cleaning” devices that promise to neutralize the coronavirus by adding chemical disinfectants to the air. “These are all really terrible ideas of things to do to indoor air,” said Delphine Farmer, an atmospheric chemist at Colorado State University.
The compounds that these products emit — which may include hydrogen peroxide, bleach-like solutions or ozone — can be toxic, inflaming the lungs, causing asthma attacks and leading to other kinds of respiratory or cardiovascular problems. And there is not rigorous, real-world evidence that these devices actually reduce disease transmission, Dr. Farmer said.
“A lot of employers are now — and school districts and building managers are now — thinking that they have solved the problem by using those devices,” Dr. Farmer said. “So then they are not increasing ventilation rates or adding other filters. And so that means that people think that they’re safer than they actually are.”
Surfaces pose minimal risk for coronavirus transmission, and disinfectants needlessly applied to them can also wind up in the air and can be toxic when inhaled. So in most ordinary workplaces, wiping down your desk with bleach is likely to do more harm than good, Dr. Farmer said. (Some specific workplaces — such as hospitals, laboratories or industrial kitchens — may still require disinfection, experts noted.)
Nor is there any particular need for special antimicrobial wipes or cleansers, which may fuel the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria and wipe out communities of benign or beneficial microbes. “As tempting as it may be to try to sterilize everything, it’s never going to happen, and there may be some real serious consequences,” said Erica Hartmann, an environmental microbiologist at Northwestern University.
Don’t depend on desk shields
In the early months of the pandemic, plastic barriers sprang up in schools, stores, restaurants, offices and other shared spaces. “They can be great to stop the bigger droplets — really they’re big sneeze guards,” Dr. Huffman said.
But the smallest, lightest particles can simply float over and around them. These barriers “may not provide enough benefit to justify their costs,” said Martin Bazant, a chemical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They may even raise the risk of disease transmission, by encouraging riskier behavior or impeding air flow.
There are some environments in which these kinds of barriers may still make sense. “It can be a really good idea for people who would otherwise have very close face-to-face contact, like grocery store workers at cash registers,” Dr. Farmer said. “But past that, in offices where you’re sitting for a lengthy period of time, there is no benefit to putting yourself in a plexiglass cage.”
Carefully consider staffing plans
Social distancing may still have some benefits; if an employee is exhaling infectious virus, people sitting directly in that person’s breathing zone will quite likely be exposed to the highest doses. “If you were sitting at a shared table space, two feet away from someone, then there could be some potential value to moving away a little bit further,” Dr. Huffman said.
But aerosols can stay aloft for hours and travel far beyond six feet, so moving desks farther apart is likely to have diminishing returns. “Strict distancing orders, such as the six-foot rule, do little to protect against long-range airborne transmission,” Dr. Bazant said, “and may provide a false sense of security in poorly ventilated spaces.”
In offices in which most people are vaccinated and local case rates are low, the benefits of distancing are probably minimal, scientists said. Higher-risk workplaces may want to consider de-densification, or reducing the number of people — any one of whom might be infectious — who are present at the same time. “That, to me, has been the biggest benefit of this social distancing indoors,” Dr. Farmer said. “It’s just having fewer potential sources of SARS-CoV-2 in a room.”
Companies could allow a subset of employees to work at home indefinitely or on alternating days or weeks. They could also consider “cohorting,” or creating separate teams of workers that do not have in-person interactions with those who are not on their team.
Creating these kinds of cohorts could also make it easier to respond if someone does contract the virus, allowing the affected team to quarantine without having to shut down an entire workplace. “When we think about reopening, we need to think about what do we do when, inevitably, we see a case?” said Justin Lessler, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. “There are creative ways to lessen the impact.”
Go back to basics
Regular hand-washing, which can reduce the spread of all kinds of pathogens, is always a good idea. “The messaging at the beginning of the pandemic about washing your hands and washing your hands for at least 20 seconds — that is totally valid and still really important,” Dr. Hartmann said.
And when your office itself needs cleaning, a mild detergent will generally do the trick, she added: “Soap and water is great.”
Masks, too, remain effective. “If you’re someone who’s vaccinated and still feeling anxious about going back to work, the best thing to do is continue to wear a mask for the first couple of weeks until you feel more comfortable,” Dr. Allen said.
Scientists recommended that unvaccinated workers continue to wear masks in the office. But for those who are eligible, the most effective risk reduction strategy is obvious, Dr. Allen said: “The No. 1 thing is to get vaccinated.”
No vaccine is ever 100 percent effective, experts say, stressing that the shots remain critical in reducing severe disease and death from the coronavirus.
Over the last few months, a steady drumbeat of headlines has highlighted the astounding real-world effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccines, especially the mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The vaccines, study after study has shown, are more than 90 percent effective at preventing the worst outcomes, including hospitalization and death.
But alongside this good news have been rare reports of severe Covid in people who had been fully vaccinated.
On June 3, for instance, Napa County announced that a fully vaccinated woman, who was more than a month past her second Moderna shot, had died after being hospitalized with Covid. The woman, who was over 65 and had underlying medical conditions, had tested positive for the Alpha variant, which was first identified in Britain.
Although these cases are tragic, they are uncommon — and not unexpected.
“I’m very sad that she had a sufficiently severe illness that it actually led to her death,” said Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a vaccine expert at Vanderbilt University. But, he noted, “we expected to have the occasional breakthrough infection.”
Such cases should not dissuade people from getting vaccinated, scientists said. “There is not a vaccine in history that has ever been 100 percent effective,” said Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “This is your best chance of avoiding severe, critical disease. But as is true of everything in medicine, it’s not perfect.”
Severe Covid is rare in people who have been fully vaccinated. In a paper published last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that it had received reports of 10,262 breakthrough infections by April 30. That is just a tiny fraction of the 101 million Americans who had been vaccinated by that date, though the agency noted that it likely represented “a substantial undercount” of breakthrough infections.
Of those breakthrough cases, 10 percent of patients were hospitalized and 2 percent died — and in some of those cases, patients were hospitalized or died from something unrelated to Covid-19. The median age of those who died was 82.
Older adults, who are at greater risk for Covid complications, may also be more likely to develop breakthrough infections because they are known to mount weaker immune responses to vaccines. People who are immunocompromised or have other chronic health conditions may also be at increased risk.
Some of the variants — particularly Beta, which was first identified in South Africa — may be more likely to evade the protection induced by vaccines. But Beta is not currently common in the United States, Dr. Schaffner noted.
The Alpha variant that infected the Napa County woman is highly contagious, but vaccines provide good protection against it — as well as against the original strain of the virus.
“Vaccines provide exceptional protection against death and illness from the virus and all residents should continue to get vaccinated to protect themselves and others,” Dr. Karen Relucio, Napa County’s public health officer, said in a statement.
Breakthrough infections are likely to decrease as more people get vaccinated and community transmission rates fall. “The virus will find fewer and fewer people to infect — it will be harder for the virus to work its way through the population,” Dr. Schaffner said. “These are great vaccines. In order for the vaccines to work optimally — on an individual basis and a community basis — as many people as possible have to be vaccinated.”