Pandora Report: 3.6.2020

COVID-19 Continues
As of 5 March, there are 99 confirmed cases as well as 10 COVID-related deaths in the US. Among the 50 States, 13 are reporting cases: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin. The global case count is approaching 100,000 and the death toll is just under 3,300. Now, 79 countries are presenting with coronavirus cases. As the pandemic unfolds, conspiracy theories and misconceptions persist, but financial support for the response grows and the progress made in pandemic preparedness unveils itself.

As the outbreak crests into a pandemic, the onslaught of information and advice, both accurate and baseless, intensifies at a commensurate rate. Conspiracy theories claiming that COVID-19 is the result of bioterrorism perpetrated by either the Unites States against China or by China in an effort to wage war against the United States been espoused and then rejected. These fantastic claims are unsupported given the lack of evidence within the virus’s genome that it is the product of bioengineering; COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease. Beyond its origins, the internet is overrun with faulty advice about protecting oneself from the virus. To combat these inaccuracies, the WHO published a myth busters page for COVID-19 with quick facts and clarifications for coronavirus-related topics ranging from prevention folklore to treatment misconceptions. For example, neither dousing yourself in alcohol nor submerging yourself in a hot bath are effective in killing the virus. Though delicious as an addition to whipped butter, garlic does prevent COVID-19 infection. According to NewsGuard, an online tool that assesses the credibility of news and information websites, the barrage of myths and misinformation regarding the pandemic dwarfs reliable information. For instance, Zero Hedge, a site that supported the fabrication that coronavirus was a bioweapon stolen from Canada, had 2.1 million social media engagements over the last 3 months; however, the CDC’s website had less than 200,000 social media engagements over the same time frame. NewsGuard’s Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Centerfound almost 100 sites publishing false information about COVID-19 in the US, UK, Italy, Germany, and France.

On a cheerier note, resource support for the COVID-19 response is growing. The World Bank just announced a support package that will make immediately available up to $12 billion in financing for country response needs. This funding is intended to support response and lessen the impacts of COVID-19 as well as provide policy advice and technical assistance. Similarly, the US Congress approved $8.3 billion in emergency spending for coronavirus response, specifically for the research and development of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. Current funding will support the current response activities but also aid in the preparedness for the next big outbreak. Though it is easier to wag fingers and berate preparedness failures, impressive improvements have been made over the last 20 years toward stronger preparedness, response, infection control, and policy. Health Security is using this pandemic as a chance to reflect on the progress made toward outbreak preparedness since the turn of the century. This special release features 10 articles that span lessons from SARS, quarantine, economic impacts of infectious disease outbreaks, health information communication, public health policy, and preparedness.

News of the Weird
As the chaos and anxiety grow amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, shortages of staple items abound. As the old adage goes, desperate times call for desperate – and puzzling – measures. A newspaper outlet in Australia, NT News, published its latest issue with an additional eight pages to serve as emergency toilet paper for its subscribers. Australians are among the many people stocking up on groceries and household essentials as the pandemic continues, leaving many such items, like toilet paper, unavailable. In fact, some stores are instigating quotas on these products to prevent frenzies from shortages and price gouging by stockpilers. Similarly, the surge in demand for hand sanitizer means that stores are straining to maintain stock levels, so some customers are turning to DIY options. Unfortunately, homemade sanitizer, experts warn, must be precisely formulated to be effective. For example, an effective hand sanitizer must contain at least 60% alcohol content for efficacy, which also makes the substance quite harsh on skin. Instead of turning to Pinterest and YouTube, prevent disease transmission by thoroughly washing hands with soap and water. This is an easy yet underutilized preventive tactic given WebMD’s latest tweet stating that only 31% of men and 65% of women wash their hands after using the restroom. WYH.

Highlights from Dr. Gerstein’s Book Talk
This week, Dr. Daniel Gerstein, graduate of the GMU Biodefense PhD program, was the featured speaker in the Center for Security Policy Studies (CSPS) Speaker Series. Gerstein spoke on his new book, The Story of Technology: How We Got Here and What the Future Holds, discusses the swift proliferation and inescapable influence of technology in human societies. His lunchtime presentation illuminated the perils of technology but also the benefits. Beyond his latest publication, Gerstein talked about his career accomplishments, noting the critical role his Schar School education played in his later successes. He is currently a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, and previously served in the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as Under Secretary (Acting) and Deputy Under Secretary in the Science & Technology Directorate. Current students in the Biodefense master’s program found the presentation informative and inspirational as they prepare to soon launch their careers as in the field.

Upcoming Event: Policy vs. Pandemics with Dr. Nathan Myers
On 26 March 2020, GMU’s Biodefense, MPP, and MPA Programs are co-sponsoring an event featuring Dr. Nathan Myers – Policy vs. Pandemics: Polarization and Public Health Emergency Preparedness. Dr. Nathan Myers is an associate professor of political science and public administration at Indiana State University. His research interests include public health policy, U.S. executive branch politics and administration, emergency planning and preparedness, and regulation of biotechnology. He is the author of Pandemics and Polarization: Implications of Partisan Budgeting for Responding to Public Health Emergencies (Lexington Books, 2019). Political polarization is being blamed for many areas of dysfunction in the U.S. government, and the response to infectious diseases is not immune to this concern. This presentation will discuss how a lack of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans has hindered the ability of the nation to carry out essential public health emergency response functions, such as biosurveillance and the development and deployment of medical countermeasures. Particular attention will be given to bipartisan efforts to move forward with public health preparedness efforts, such as the implementation of the National Biodefense Strategy, in light of the challenges posed by the global coronavirus pandemic. Light refreshments will be served for attendees and books will be available for purchase. Register for the event at here.

 

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