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PPE Litter Is Worsening Plastic Pollution. And More Science Journal News

The latest roundup of pandemic findings gathered by Hakai Magazine.

Brian Owens 19 Jan 2021Hakai Magazine

Brian Owens is a freelance science writer and editor based in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. His work has appeared in Hakai Magazine, Nature, New Scientist, the Canadian Medical Association Journal and the Lancet.

Compiled by veteran medical journalist Brian Owens, this roundup of some of the newest science on the COVID-19 pandemic, straight from the scientific journals, is presented by Hakai Magazine in partnership with The Tyee.

COVID-19 may morph into a disease of early childhood

Over the next decade, COVID-19 is likely to turn from a pandemic into an endemic disease — circulating at a constant baseline level in the population like the common cold. A model based on four other endemic human coronaviruses suggests that it will likely become a disease of early childhood, with the first infection between the ages of three and five causing mild symptoms. People may still get reinfected when they are older, but their earlier childhood infections will provide some immune protection, preventing severe disease.

Science, Jan. 12, 2021

Disposable PPE is worsening plastic pollution

While the proliferation of face masks and disposable gloves is helping to reduce COVID-19 infections, people failing to properly dispose of them is also making the problem of plastic pollution worse. Researchers in Toronto asked people to use a citizen science app called Marine Debris Tracker — originally developed to allow people to record pollution around waterways — to track disposable gloves, face masks, disinfecting wipes, and other PPE-related refuse in six neighbourhoods around the city.

People reported more than 1,300 pieces of PPE litter, and found that disposable gloves were the most commonly discarded item, at 44 per cent of the total, followed by masks at 31 per cent. The highest density of items was recorded around a large grocery store and a hospital, while the lowest density was recorded on a recreational trail.

Environmental Pollution, Jan. 15, 2021

Putting all child care on women is bad for everyone

More than a third of couples with young children relied on women to provide most or all of the child care during the early stages of COVID-19 lockdowns. A survey of almost 300 couples also assessed marital tension, health and job performance, as well as child care, and found that when the mother was responsible for most of the child care, the outcomes were worse for both partners. The results were better when couples used more egalitarian strategies, such as alternating days, planned mini-shifts, or shifts that changed day-to-day based on each person’s work needs.

Journal of Applied Psychology, Jan. 12, 2021

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Food insufficiency worsens mental health

A survey of more than 63,000 people in the United States found that food insufficiency — families not having enough to eat — has risen by 25 per cent during the pandemic. Black and Latino Americans had over twice the risk of food insufficiency compared to white Americans. Those who reported not having enough food were also much more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression than those who did have enough food. Providing free groceries and food, for example through the U.S. food stamps program, helped to alleviate both the nutritional and mental health burden.

American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Jan. 9, 2021

Isolation worsens student diets, activity and drinking

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to significant worsening of already poor dietary habits, low activity levels, sedentary behaviour, and high alcohol consumption among university students, according to researchers at the University of Saskatchewan. The study found that the students consumed less food every day during the pandemic compared to before — 20 per cent less meat, 44 per cent less dairy, and 45 per cent fewer vegetables. They also drank less coffee and tea, but their alcohol consumption increased significantly. And while only 16 per cent of participants were meeting Canadian guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity per week before the pandemic, that further decreased to 9.6 per cent meeting the guidelines during the pandemic.

Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, Jan. 15, 2021

Lockdowns had less impact on air quality than thought

Some of the most enduring images of the first round of COVID-19 lockdowns were of suddenly clear skies over cities like Los Angeles and Delhi as air pollution dropped while people stayed home. But new research has found that while air quality did improve during lockdown, the changes were smaller than expected once weather and seasonal trends were taken into account. Pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, a key air pollutant from traffic emissions associated with respiratory problems, and PM2.5, tiny particles that can worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease, fell only a small amount. Ozone concentrations actually rose during lockdowns in 11 major cities around the world.

Science Advances, Jan. 13, 2021

You still need to avoid people when wearing your mask

Wearing a mask helps reduce the risk of catching COVID-19, but only if you follow the rules around physical distancing. A study in Vermont found that the biggest risk factor driving transmission of the disease was the number of daily contacts people had, and those who wore masks tended to have more daily contacts and higher infection rates. The researchers said that masks may give people a false sense of protection, causing them to think it is safe to have more contact with other people.

JMIR Public Health and Surveillance, Jan. 11, 2021

Universities are major sources of infections

During the first two weeks of classes, university campuses became COVID-19 superspreader sites, with huge spikes in infections. A study of the 30 campuses in the U.S. with the highest number of cases found that more than half of them had spikes of more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 people — well above peak incidences of 70 to 150 per 100,000 seen in the country as a whole during the first and second waves. The outbreaks at many campuses also led to spikes among people in the county where they were located. Another study found that in the United Kingdom, university students returning home for Christmas may have caused 9,400 new infections around the country.

Computer Methods in Biomechanics and Biomedical Engineering, Jan. 13, 2021

Health Systems, Jan. 17, 2021

Saliva sampling could be alternative to nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing

Nasopharyngeal swabs, the long cotton swab pushed to the back of your nasal passage to test for COVID-19, are currently the main way the disease is detected, but they require a trained health-care professional and extensive PPE. Researchers at McGill University have looked at the evidence comparing nasal swabs to saliva-based sampling and found that saliva sampling is both similarly sensitive and less costly, and could replace the swabs for routine testing without compromising the quality of tests.

Annals of Internal Medicine, Jan. 12, 2021

Brazil’s health system was overwhelmed

The spread of COVID-19 overwhelmed Brazil’s health systems in all parts of the country, particularly those in the north and northeast that were already fragile. A study of the first 250,000 patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 found that many required intensive care and respiratory support, and the death rate was high — 38 per cent among those hospitalized, rising to 60 per cent among those in intensive care, and 80 per cent for those who were mechanically ventilated.

The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, Jan. 15, 2021  [Tyee]

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