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Dr. Deborah Birx leverages military, HIV background in COVID-19 fight

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March 19 (UPI) — Nearly every day for three weeks, Dr. Deborah Birx has stood next to next to Vice President Mike Pence as part of the White House’s efforts to battle the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 100 Americans.

Though her name may have been largely unknown to most Americans before the COVID-19 outbreak, she’s been working to fight the spread of communicable diseases on behalf of the U.S. government for well over three decades.

Pence described Birx, a U.S. ambassador at large, as a “world-renowned global health official and physician” on Feb. 27 when he announced her addition to the coronavirus task force.

“Three different administrations across both political parties have relied on her knowledge and judgment,” he said at the time. “She has worked from the research bench to the clinic, but understands the primary focus must always be to reach the individuals most in need.”

Birx, 63, a Pennsylvania native, brings a long military career and medical background in immunology to her new role.

In addition to being the White House coronavirus response coordinator, she is the U.S. global AIDS coordinator, chosen to serve in the position by President Barack Obama in 2014.

In that role, Birx oversee’s the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, as well as U.S. involvement in the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

She began her career with the federal government in 1985 as a clinician in immunology, with a focus on HIV and AIDS vaccine research, at the Department of Defense. She was assistant chief of the Hospital Immunology Service at Walter Reed Army Medical Center before becoming director of the U.S. Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research from 1996 to 2005.

From 2005 until 2014, Birx was the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Global HIV/AIDS. During that time, she received a lifetime achievement award from the African Society for Laboratory Medicine for her work at building local capacity and strengthening laboratory health services on the continent.

The White House said she has “developed and patented vaccines, including leading one of the most influential HIV vaccine trials in history.”

She was also awarded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s William C. Watson Jr. Medal of Excellence in 2014.

Pence described her as his “right arm” in the fight to halt the coronavirus spread.

A mother to two women in their 30s, Birx has called on millennials to step up to help stop the spread of the virus, which health officials initially warned is more deadly for seniors. She said young people also are becoming seriously ill with COVID-19.

“There are concerning reports coming out of France and Italy about some young people getting seriously ill and very seriously ill in the ICUs,” she said during Wednesday’s task force briefing.

“We think part of this may be that people heeded the early data coming out of China and coming out of South Korea of the elderly or those with pre-existing medical conditions were a particular risk.

“It may have been that the millennial generation … there may be disproportional number of infections among that group, and so even if it’s a rare occurrence it may be seen more frequently in that group.”

Birx said that since people in this younger age group are more likely to be out in public during the epidemic, it’s important for them to avoid gathering in large groups.

“The millennials are incredibly good about getting information out in a clear way, but more importantly, they are incredibly good about understanding how to protect one another, how to protect their parents and how to protect their grandparents,” she told ABC’s Good Morning America.



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‘Green prescriptions’ could cancel mental health benefits for some

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So-called “green prescriptions” may end up being counterproductive for people with mental health conditions, researchers say.

Spending time in nature is believed to benefit mental health, so some doctors are beginning to “prescribe” outdoor time for their patients.

That led researchers to investigate whether being in nature helps actually does help people with issues such as anxiety and depression. They collected data from more than 18,000 people in 18 countries.

The takeaway: Time in nature does provide several benefits for people with mental health conditions, but only if they choose on their own to visit green spaces.

While being advised to spend time outdoors can encourage such activity, it can also undermine the potential emotional benefits, according to the authors of the study published this month in the journal Scientific Reports.

The researchers said they were surprised to find that people with depression were spending time in nature as often as folks with no mental health issues, and that people with anxiety were doing so much more often.

While in nature, those with depression and anxiety tended to feel happy and reported low anxiety. But those benefits appeared to be undermined when the visits were done at others’ urging, the investigators found.

The more external pressure people with depression and anxiety felt to visit nature, the less motivated they were to do so and the more anxious they felt.

“These findings are consistent with wider research that suggests that urban natural environments provide spaces for people to relax and recover from stress,” said study leader Michelle Tester-Jones, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

But the findings also show that health care practitioners and loved ones should be sensitive about recommending time in nature for people who have mental health issues.

“It could be helpful to encourage them to spend more time in places that people already enjoy visiting, so they feel comfortable and can make the most of the experience,” Tester-Jones said in a university news release.

More information

For more on the benefits of green spaces, go to the National Recreation and Park Association.

Copyright 2020 HealthDay. All rights reserved.



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Study: Nearly half of ‘essential workers’ in U.S. at risk for severe COVID-19

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Nov. 9 (UPI) — Nearly half of those classified as “essential workers” in the United States are at increased risk for severe COVID-19, according to an analysis published Monday by JAMA Internal Medicine.

This means that more than 74 million workers and those with whom they live could be at risk for serious illness, based on disease risk guidelines developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the researchers said.

“Many parts of the country face high and rising infection rates, [and] we should not think about work exposure and health risks in isolation, given that workers and persons at increased risk often live in the same households,” study co-author Thomas M. Selden told UPI.

“Insofar as we can reduce the prevalence of COVID-19 in our communities, we can reduce the extent to which policymakers have to choose between the economy and keeping the population safe,” said Selden, an economist with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic spread to the United States in March, states and cities across the country have instituted lockdown measures designed to limit the spread of the disease.

Many of these measures entailed closing schools and non-essential businesses, with only banks, grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses deemed to provide vital services allowed to stay open.

For this study, Selden and his colleagues analyzed data on the U.S. workforce to examine how many people were in essential jobs, how often they were able to work at home, their risk for severe COVID-19 and the potential health risks for their household members.

Of the more than 157 million workers across the country, 72% are in jobs deemed essential — based on U.S. Department of Homeland Security criteria — and more than three-fourths of all essential workers are unable to work at home, Selden said.

Essential workers include those in the medical and healthcare, telecommunications, information technology systems, defense, food and agriculture, transportation and logistics and energy, water and wastewater industries, as well as those in law enforcement and public works, the DHS criteria stipulates.

The study notes that up to 60% of these workers have underlying health issues, placing them at increased risk for severe COVID-19 if they get infected, as defined by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Those with diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and chronic respiratory conditions like asthma are considered to be at high risk for serious illness, the CDC says.

Based on these findings, between roughly 57 million and 74 million adults working in on-site essential jobs — and their families — are at increased risk for serious illness, Selden and his colleagues estimated.

“Policymakers face important decisions about how to balance the economic benefits of keeping workers employed and the public health benefits of protecting those with increased risk of severe COVID-19,” Selden said.

“These issues arise in the context of decisions to close segments of the economy and decisions about how to distribute vaccines, which will initially be available only with limited supply, [and] become all the more difficult when the prevalence of infection rises in parts of the country,” he said.



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Study: Hydroxychloroquine no better than placebo for hospitalized COVID-19 patients

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Nov. 9 (UPI) — COVID-19 patients treated with hydroxychloroquine showed no signs of significant improvement in “clinical status” compared with those given a placebo, a study published Monday by JAMA found.

Patients given a five-day course of the drug were scored as “category six” based on the World Health Organization’s seven-category COVID Ordinal Outcomes Scale, the same as those given a placebo, the researchers said.

Also, 28 days after they started treatment, 10.4% of those treated with hydroxychloroquine died, just slightly lower than the 10.6% fatality rate in the placebo group.

“The results show that hydroxychloroquine did not help patients recover from COVID-19,” study co-author Dr. Wesley H. Self told UPI.

“In the study, patients treated with hydroxychloroquine and those treated with a placebo had nearly identical outcomes, [so] I do not foresee any role for hydroxychloroquine in acutely ill patients hospitalized with COVID-19,” said Self, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Hydroxychloroquine is an immunosuppressive and anti-parasitic drug that is used to treat malaria.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, it was touted by President Donald Trump and others as a potential treatment for the virus, despite the lack of any scientific data supporting its use.

Given its effectiveness helping those sickened with malaria — a mosquito-borne infection — to recover, “there was a strong rationale for why hydroxychloroquine may have been beneficial for patients with COVID-19,” according to Self.

However, in July, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned against the drug’s use in the treatment of those infected with the new coronavirus, due to potentially serious heart-related side effects.

For this study, Self and his colleagues treated 433 COVID-19 patients at 34 hospitals across the United States with either the drug or a placebo for a period of five days.

Patients assigned to the hydroxychloroquine group received 400 milligrams of the drug in pill form twice a day for the first two doses and then 200 mg. in pill form twice a day for the next eight doses, for a total of 10 doses over the five days.

All of the patients were then assessed based on the WHO’s COVID Ordinal Outcomes Scale, which categorizes those infected according to disease severity.

Most of the patients in both the hydroxycholorquine group and the placebo group were in “category six,” meaning they were hospitalized and receiving extracorporeal membrane oxygenation or invasive mechanical ventilation to maintain their breathing, the researchers said.

“Our results, especially when combined from other studies conducted in the United Kingdom and Brazil, are good evidence that hydroxychloroquine does not provide benefit for patients hospitalized with COVID-19,” Self said.



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