Yet another coronavirus-related headline this week. This one comes from data provided by Johns Hopkins University that, for the first time since November, average new daily coronavirus infections in the U.S. have fallen under 100,000, well below the average infection rate in December and January. As reported by NPR, these figures are significantly below the average daily infection rate of 200,000 for December and nearly 250,000 in January.
This bit of good news comes with a familiar warning from health experts that we have a long way to go before we can celebrate a true turning point. As the NPR report points out, current cases remain at a level more than 2 1/2 times what was seen over the summer. With the encouraging news we are also entering what Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, referred to as “a really worrisome time” for the potential spread of new variants.
While it is an important reminder for us not to get ahead of ourselves, I did find myself starting to wonder what we will write about when the pandemic is no longer the lead story? How will science and medicine apply what they have learned from this pandemic to ensure protection from future outbreaks or to better care for those who become sick? A few of these types of stories are now beginning to emerge.
In the category of “a good idea can come from almost anywhere,” a New York Times article recently explains how a college student’s simple invention appears to have solved an age-old medical care issue. We all know of the healing power of sleep, yet hospital patients in great need of sleep must be routinely disturbed at night by nurses changing an IV or giving medications, who are unable to perform these tasks in a darkened room.
As the Times points out, “A 2019 Thomas Jefferson University study said that 44 percent of nurses provided care in almost complete darkness most of the time and that hospital lights can negatively affect a patient’s circadian rhythm.”
It is exactly the dilemma faced by Anthony Scarpone-Lambert, 21, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. “He has two choices,” the Times’ Allyson Waller writes, “turn on the overhead lights or attempt to use some sort of hand-held light to navigate in the darkness.” Neither solution was optimal.
You would think that some creative mind somewhere would come up with a wearable night light designed specifically for the work a nurse has to do while minimizing the disturbance to a sleeping patient. Working with neonatal intensive care unit nurse Jennifferre Mancillas, that’s exactly what Scarpone-Lambert has done. In what is called a breakthrough for frontline health care workers, the two have created the uNight Light.
Their product, which went through 30 prototypes and iterations, utilizing the roughly $50,000 they were able to raise, features a wearable LED with different light modes allowing nurses to “illuminate their work space without interrupting a patient’s sleep.”
According to the Times, more than 400 nurses have tested the uNight Light, with the overwhelming majority finding it helpful. They plan to start shipments next month.
To protect us from future pandemics, here’s an idea: Create what New York Times reporter Veronique Greenwood describes as “an immense surveillance system that can check blood from all over the world for the presence of antibodies to hundreds of viruses at once. … a weather system for viruses.” This project is called the Global Immunological Observatory.
The project is the brainchild of Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The concept started as the pandemic began. To accommodate the influx of blood samples the school was receiving, Mina made a deal with a cold storage company for three large freezers back in January 2020. They have since become the centerpiece of the pilot project, which Mina and his collaborators envision as an early warning system. “That way, when the next pandemic washes over us, scientists will have detailed, real-time information on how many people have been infected by the virus and how their bodies responded,” says the Times. Like a weather forecasting system that draws on vast numbers of buoys and sensors around the globe, passively reporting on events, the Global Immunological Observatory would report on emerging health threats where and when they arise. “We’re all like little recorders,” says Mina, in that we keep track of viruses without realizing it.
“The observatory would require agreements with hospitals, blood banks and other sources of blood, as well as a system for acquiring consent from patients and donors,” reports the Times. It is estimated that the observatory would cost about $100 million to launch. “According to (Mina’s) calculations, the federal government has allocated more than twice that much to diagnostics company Ellume to produce enough rapid Covid tests to cover the American demand for only a handful of days.”
As to keeping track of viruses, “We should have this happening all the time,” Mina says.
In a separate bit of health news reported by Massachusetts General Hospital News and Public Affairs, a team led by Harvard Medical School investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital has developed an automated method for identifying and tracking the development of harmful tau deposits in a patient’s brain. Tau deposits are “abnormal protein deposits that accumulate in the brain during the development of Alzheimer’s disease.” The research, recently published in Science Translational Medicine, shows that detecting the buildup of these proteins at an early stage could allow clinicians to intervene before the condition has a chance to take hold, as well as lead to earlier diagnoses of Alzheimer’s disease.
If nothing else, the above stories demonstrate one thing: Invention and science never sleep.