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Yaraslau Saulevich/iStock

(Yaraslau Saulevich/iStock)


Blowing the coronavirus away

As cold weather approaches, consider these ways to minimize indoor coronavirus exposure

Mugs of hot cocoa, falling leaves, and—for those in northern climates—an approaching end to warm evenings outside with friends, 6 feet apart but still together. 

It’s autumn, and the coronavirus has even changed how we think about the changing seasons. We know the virus travels through the air, and as Harvard School of Public Health professor Roger Shapiro told The Hill in May, “It definitely spreads more indoors than outdoors. … The virus droplets disperse so rapidly in the wind that they become a nonfactor if you’re not really very close to someone outdoors.”

So staying outside makes sense while the weather permits. But what about when it doesn’t? Indoors, things get more complicated with that 6-foot rule: Research suggests the virus spreads most efficiently in poorly ventilated spaces. At the website The Conversation, several engineering professors described this by pointing to how the smoke from one cigarette travels to every corner of an indoor room—and sticks around once there. Masks help prevent many virus particles from getting into the air, but how can we further reduce the risk of indoor transmission?

The simplest solution is the way we’ve all cleared the air after burning dinner: Just open a window, or better yet, several windows. A box fan in a window would speed up air exchange further. To consider airflow more precisely in settings like schools and churches, a carbon dioxide meter lets us quantify how we’re doing: People breathe out carbon dioxide, and it builds up when air stagnates. Conversely, when ventilation improves, carbon dioxide levels go back toward the near-zero level in outdoor air. (Note that carbon dioxide is the stuff we exhale, while carbon monoxide is the odorless, poisonous stuff in car exhaust.)

When falling temperatures make open windows impractical, air purifiers can still help remove the virus from the air. Their effectiveness does vary, and the simple, charcoal-based filters that take odors out of a room won’t remove meaningful amounts of virus from the air. HEPA filters, those old friends of hay fever sufferers, will. They won’t remove every last bit of virus, but they can reduce its load substantially. Other filter technologies exist but aren’t normally used in residential homes. For commercial settings, a powerful UV-C light system—installed inside an air duct or otherwise aimed away from eyes—can also help disinfect air.

Where a budget allows it, the best solution combines warmth with fresh air: A “heat recovery ventilator” exchanges stale air for fresh air from outside, and it also recycles the heat, using the stale air to warm the colder air coming in. Heat recovery ventilators aren’t cheap, but they work. My own church installed one several years ago, and testing with a carbon dioxide meter revealed that the system refreshed the air inside the church much better than opening the doors would have. They’re also more economical than leaving windows open in the winter.

Apart from the amount of virus in the air, one other factor affects potential viral exposure indoors: the amount of time you spend breathing that air. When all else fails, Mom’s time-honored advice for visiting friends still applies—don’t stick around until they wish you’d leave.

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Photo by Esther Eaton

(Photo by Esther Eaton)


Free care amid COVID-19

In Texas, a Christian medical clinic serves hundreds of low-income patients living in a coronavirus hot spot

On an August afternoon in Harlingen, Dr. Stephen Robinson had sweated through the armpits of his blue scrubs by the time he said goodbye to his last patient of the day. 

Robinson, with dark-rimmed glasses perched on his nose and a stethoscope draped around his neck, volunteers about 16 hours a week at Culture of Life Ministries. The 8-year-old pro-life medical clinic offers free care for low-income patients, but amid the coronavirus pandemic, it has had to adjust how it sees patients. 

Today’s last patient, getting help for chronic pain, also wondered how to get insulin for her husband, who she said had recently spent weeks in the hospital for COVID-19. After Robinson answered her questions, he ushered her back through a small lobby with four plastic chairs spread apart for social distancing. He locked up behind her—the clinic has had to reduce its hours this year due to staffing shortfalls, although if any walk-in patients drop by, they can ring the white doorbell taped to the door.

Robinson began donating his time, starting with a half day each week, in 2012. Others joined him, and last year, the clinic’s volunteer staff of doctors, medical students, retired nurses, and others cared for about 400 patients a month. The clinic runs on grants and donations, which Robinson says have increased during the pandemic. Although care is free, patients sometimes slip money into the wooden donation box by the door. Pre-pandemic, up to 50 patients at a time packed the waiting room while pastors offered to pray with them in the chapel. These days, many patients wait outside in their cars, and about three-quarters of the clinic’s regular volunteers are staying home or working remotely. Yet between calls and in-person visits, the clinic now treats about 600 patients a month.

Culture of Life sits between a Methodist church and a Baptist church in the center of Harlingen, a town surrounded by fields and wind turbines a 30-minute drive from the Mexican border. In 2017, almost 30 percent of Harlingen’s 65,000 residents lived below the poverty line. Some have to borrow a phone just to call the doctor. In this region, the Rio Grande Valley, COVID-19 has hit hard: Harlingen’s county has confirmed over 20,000 cases.

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AP Photo/Brian Inganga

Hungry residents of the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, stampede while seeking a planned distribution of food on April 10. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)


Hunger in a year of pandemic

A dangerous food crisis mounts for the world’s poor amid pandemic restrictions

In Burkina Faso, 12 million people, more than half the country’s population, will not have enough food to eat this year, according to Issaka Kiemtore, the national director of Compassion International there.

Observers say coronavirus-related restrictions are playing a major role in the West African nation’s food crisis. Yet Burkina Faso had only 54 confirmed deaths due directly to the virus, as of Tuesday.

Globally, starvation is threatening the lives of tens of thousands of children this year, according to the United Nations, and lockdowns deserve much of the blame: As the coronavirus pandemic spread in the spring, major world economies slowed to a crawl, and supply chains in developing countries faltered. Access to medical services became strained or impossible across parts of Africa and Asia. Closed borders and limited travel disrupted humanitarian shipments. During the early months of the pandemic, UNICEF reported low- and middle-income nations had seen a 30 percent decrease in “essential nutrition services”—or even 75 percent to 100 percent during lockdown scenarios.

Among the 100,000 families that the Christian aid group Compassion International serves in Burkina Faso, 30,000 are at high risk for malnutrition and starvation. That’s up from 3,000 to 5,000 last year. Kiemtore says lockdown restrictions are a major factor in that increase. “We had to move much of our intervention into a relief mode, instead of what we’ve previously been doing, like teaching,” he said. “We are focusing on child protection, on healthcare, on food.”

Late last month, medical journal The Lancet published a troubling report calling attention to skyrocketing child malnutrition.    

“Some of the strategies to respond to COVID-19—including physical distancing, school closures, trade restrictions, and country lockdowns—are impacting food systems,” the report warned. Researchers predict wasting among children under age 5 globally will increase 14 percent, and the UN anticipates an increase of 10,000 child deaths per month during pandemic restrictions.

The UN has requested $2.4 billion to provide emergency nutrition to children in need. According to the Lancet report, 4 out of 5 of the affected children live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Parts of Africa and Asia are also beset by devastating locust swarms this year.

In South Sudan, 7.5 million people depend on food aid. Before the pandemic, World Vision was a partner in school feeding programs that served 200,000 children. “That’s the main meal they would get per day,” said Dr. Mesfin Loha, World Vision’s national director in South Sudan. When schools closed in early April, the meal program was forced to end. The World Food Program and the Minister of Education began negotiations to implement take-home rations, but Loha said it took two to three months for the new program to be approved.   

In March, India’s lockdowns trapped many of the nation’s 160 million migrant workers in large cities. Public transportation shut down. Daily wage earners have ration cards only in their home states, so millions set out for home by foot, often carrying children.

Vanaja Hyd, a journalist who lives in Hyderabad, joined a WhatsApp group of professionals who organized to help the migrants. “We have seen people who walked along with their children for hundreds of miles without food. Some of them said they had walked 50 miles without water. Nobody cared for them,” she said. “We have seen so many little children waiting in the street for food.”

Local governments, fearing that the incoming migrants might carry infection, sometimes met them with chlorine sprays.

India has seen 2 million COVID-19 infections and recently surpassed 40,000 deaths. In several Indian states, officials have denied deaths by starvation, but reports to the contrary circulate widely. Stories of migrant mothers killing their children and committing suicide have gone viral on Indian social media. An independent group of developers and academics in Bangalore had identified nearly 1,000 reports of lockdown-related deaths in local media by the beginning of July. The leading causes of death were starvation and accidents during migration, followed by suicide and inability to access medical care.

“Lockdowns have massive costs,” says Jay Richards, a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and co-author of the upcoming book The Price of Panic. Richards cites the spread of tuberculosis during the pandemic as well as missed cancer screenings and increased addictions globally: “Too many authorities and scientific officials advising the government treated COVID-19 as a one-sided risk.”

In a May report, representatives from the Red Cross, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and others cautioned against blanket shutdown policies. Speaking of those “affected by humanitarian crises,” the report warned that the COVID-19 prevention measures used by developed nations could be “potentially harmful to the survival” of people in poorer countries.

—This story has been updated to clarify 7.5 million South Sudanese depend on food aid.

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