Pandora Report: 8.14.2020

Commentary – COVID-19 Data and Modeling: Applications and Limitations

Biodefense PhD student Stevie Kiesel discusses the importance of well-represented statistics and the danger of misrepresented statistics in COVID-19. Kiesel also provides her insights on the recently published Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, COVID-19 Data Quality and Considerations for Modeling and Analysis. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Beirut Explosions

On 4 August 2020, two explosions involving over 2,700 tons ammonium nitrate occurred in Beirut, Lebanon, a tragedy that has killed over 200 people and impacted several thousand more. Ammonium nitrate is chemical compound that is often used as a component in explosive formulas for mining, quarrying, and civil destruction. The chemical had been in storage for the last 6 years in a warehouse that likely combusted after a nearby fire reached it. The blast is one of the largest industrial accidents involving the explosive compound. The disaster is exacerbated by the lack of available medical care for those injured, either due to hospitals near the blast site that suffered damage or medical facilities already stretched thin under the demands of COVID-19. Additionally, the port in Beirut and the country’s primary grain silo were destroyed, so the entire nation will face economic consequences from the explosions. Lebanon now faces a several concurrent crises impacting their public health, economy, and political stability.

US Seizes Fake Website, Cryptocurrency Assets from Terrorist Groups

The US seized of millions of dollars in cryptocurrency assets is the largest ever of terrorist organizations’ cryptocurrency accounts. The seizure also included fake websites, such as FaceMaskCenter.com, that claimed to sell protective equipment like fake N95 masks and 4 Facebook pages. This was part of an interagency operation targeting the financial foundations of 3 terrorist networks: al Qaeda and the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The entities involved in the operation include the US attorney’s office in Washington, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The case could help justify a desire by the US Department of Treasury to tighten regulations on the cryptocurrency sector.

COVID-19–Related Infodemic and Its Impact on Public Health: A Global Social Media Analysis

A new study published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene analyzes the infodemic of COVID-19 information. An infodemic is “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” An infodemic is comprised of rumors, stigmas, and conspiracy theories and monitoring social media data is the best method for tracking these inaccuracies in real time in order to help “dispel misinformation and reduce stigma.” Islam et al. extracted COVID-19–related misinformation shared on online platforms – fact-checking agency websites, Facebook, Twitter, and online newspapers – and assessed their impacts on public health. The researchers identified 2,311 reports of rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories in 25 languages from 87 countries. Claims covered illness, transmission and mortality (24%), control measures (21%), treatments (19%), as well as causes of disease including the origin (15%), violence (1%), and miscellaneous (20%). Eighty-two percent of the analyzed claims were false. These findings are quite concerning because of the potentially serious health implications of misinformation fueled by rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories.

The COVID-19 Global Response Index

Foreign Policy Analytics released its COVID-19 Global Response Index, which provides an assessment of government responses to the pandemic for 36 countries. This is the first effort to “to track national leaders’ responses in critical policy areas, including public health directives, financial responses, and fact-based public communications.” Additionally, the Index tracks policy response on an ongoing basis. The Index and country profiles are based on data tracked from 31 December 2019 through 1 August 2020. The composite score of the Index contains major policy choices and actions and it reflects government decisions and actions to contain the spread of the virus and to provide financial support during the financial shock. This project was developed with expertise from social scientists, public health experts, and top epidemiologists working at the forefront of the pandemic response.

Virtual Workshop: Airborne Transmission of SARS-CoV-2

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) is offering a virtual workshop about the airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 on 26-27 August 2020. This workshop is from the Environmental Health Matters Initiative and will delve into the rapidly evolving science on the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.” The event will serve as an opportunity for interdisciplinary discussion, explanations about the basic foundational science, and clarification of terminology used differently among the relevant fields, all in relation to the state of the science on SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Register here.

Tracking Lost Healthcare Workers in COVID-19

Among the gaps in the COVID-19 information is the lack of limited availability of data regarding frontline healthcare workers and their risk of contracting the novel virus. A new article in The Lancet by Nguyen et al. assessed the risk of COVID-19 among front-line healthcare workers compared to the general public and estimated the effect of personal protective equipment (PPE) on risk. The authors conducted a prospective, observational cohort study in the United Kingdom and the United States of the general community and frontline healthcare workers using self-reported data from the COVID Symptom Study smartphone application from late March to late April 2020. They found that compared with the general population, frontline healthcare workers in the UK and the US were at higher risk for reporting a positive COVID-19 test. In the US, a joint database, Lost on the Frontline, created by The Guardian and Kaiser Health News has catalogued over 900 healthcare workers who have perished from COVID-19. The Lost on the Frontline database was created to count, verify, and memorialize every US healthcare worker – doctor, nurse, paramedic, hospital custodian, administrator, support staff – who dies during the pandemic. At present, the project has added the profiles of 167 workers to the database. The database also tracks the disparities among lost frontline workers. For instance, among those 167 profiles, the majority were people of color and nearly one-third were reported to have had inadequate PPE. Anesthesiologist Claire Rezba started tracking lost healthcare workers by tracking news reports and recent obituaries. Rezba posts memorials on her COVID-19 Physicians Memorial and, similar to the Lost on the Frontlines database, has posted 900 names of US healthcare workers who died from COVID-19. To stop the growing count of healthcare worker deaths to COVID-19, healthcare systems must ensure adequate availability of PPE and develop improved strategies to protect healthcare workers from COVID-19.

NACCHO Releases Comprehensive Survey of US Local Health Department Funding, Programs, and Partnerships

The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), an organization that represents the country’s 3,000 local health departments, released its 2019 National Profile of Local Health Departments report. The report is drafted every three years as a census of local health departments regarding the “state of local health department funding, workforce programs, and partnerships, as well as how these factors have changed over time.” The latest profile includes the impacts of COVID-19 on local health departments. The key findings include: (1) workforce capacity is down, (2) resources are limited, and (3) services have been impacted by the demands of the pandemic. Read the full report here.

The Era of DNA Database Hacks is Here

Last month, GEDMatch, an online DNA database that generates DNA profiles for genetic testing services, was breached. The hackers seemed to have gotten their hands on user emails, to which they sent out phishing emails in order to steal the passwords of recipients. The motivation of the hack is not yet clear; the culprits may have been targeting passwords, emails, or credit card information, or they have been seeking access to genealogical data or genetic information. Of course, this attack has likely compromised users’ trust of in the database, a valuable law enforcement tool for solving cold cases, such as the Golden State Killer case. Even if these hackers were not specifically after genetic data, the incident highlights the risk of insufficient privacy protection and security of such sensitive information. Genetic data is “valuable if you know how to use it,” according to genealogist and genetic privacy advocate Dr. Leah Larkin. In the online world of today, companies who maintain databases containing sensitive information should improve their cybersecurity to better protect their customers.

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