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TBR Staff

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TBR News Media covers everything happening on the North Shore of Suffolk County from Cold Spring Harbor to Wading River.

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Suffolk County lost 28 more residents to the coronavirus, bringing the total in the county to 124, according to County Executive Steve Bellone (D). The residents who succumbed to the disease Covid-19 ranged in age from their mid 30’s to their mid 90’s.

“We extend our heartfelt condolences,” said Bellone on his daily conference call with reporters. “We pray for all those who are in the hospital and are struggling without family and loved ones to be there for them.”

Bellone reminded residents that the reason for social distancing rules and for the pause in non essential businesses is to prevent the spread of the disease and to save lives.

Bellone also reported that the county has given out over 1.7 million pieces of personal protective equipment, which has become a critical need for health care workers and first responders who help the public. At this point, the county has emptied its entire cache of supplies and is working to continue to get donations and to purchase personal protective equipment from around the world.

Bellone thanks the Long Island Chinese American Association for donating 20,000 ear loop masks. The county will “make sure they get to emergency personnel and to places that need them.”

The county executive suggested several ways residents could contribute to the effort to combat the virus and the effects it has had on the community.

People who have recovered from Covid-19 can become a part of the solution for others who are battling against the virus. Anyone who has had a confirmed case of the disease and has recovered can donate plasma as a part of a treatment regime. Their antibodies, which helped them fight off the virus, could also prove effective in the molecular battle others are fighting.

Bellone encouraged everyone who has had the virus and recovered to reach out to the red cross, at redcrossblood.org to see if they are eligible to donate life-saving plasma.

Additionally, people can provide financial support to organizations that work tirelessly to feed people throughout Long Island by donating to Long Island Harvest and Long Island Cares at LIHarvest.org and LICares.org.

As for the number of cases of coronavirus, Suffolk County now has 11,370 people with the virus. That’s an increase of 1,216 people over a 24 hour period.

The number of people hospitalized increased by 118, which is “a little bit of good news,” Bellone said. “That is a lower number than we’ve seen in the last couple of days.”

Health care workers throughout the county are currently caring for 427 patients in Intensive Care Units, which is up 26 from yesterday. The number of available ICU beds, however, climbed to 72, which is up from 43 the day before.

Also on the positive side, 96 patients hospitalized with Covid-19 left the hospital over the last day.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged people to wear masks when they go out in public, Bellone said the Suffolk County Police Department has “had conversations” about officers wearing masks, but has not yet reached a decision on that.

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From left, Daniela Galvez-Cepeda, Jovanna Fusco, and Derek Order present to the Comsewogue school board about moving forward after the passing of former superintendent Dr. Joe Rella. Photo by Andrew Harris

By Daniela Galvez-Cepeda 

Imagine one person tapping another, and then this person tapping another, and this one in turn tapping another, and so on. The number of people tapped increases by 1 after every person. Now imagine one initial person tapping two other people, and then those two people tapping two others each, and so on. In this case, the number of people tapped multiplied by 2 after each pass.

Melissa Levine appeals to administrators, board members, students and the whole community about taking Dr. Joe Rella’s message of love to a whole new level and exponentially paying it forward. Photo by Andrew Harris

This is exactly the difference between linear and exponential growth, the former involving only one more person every time, while the latter doubling the number of people every time. Exponential growth is, thus, more powerful, and it is especially relevant when finding ways to connect with your community. At Comsewogue High School, students light torches of optimism in an exponential way during these times of uncertainty.

Right before schools were shut down, Comsewogue students, including myself, showed up at the board meeting March 2. We usually do that. This time, however, we took a little departure from our regular presentation about the latest news from our high school. We wanted to show our appreciation for Dr. Joseph Rella, the former superintendent of the Comsewogue School District who passed away Feb. 21.

I started our presentation. I did a hands-on activity involving all the people in attendance, asking one person to start a “tap one person” chain (that is, in a linear growth manner) and then a “tap two people” chain (that is, in an exponential growth manner). The exercise was very illustrative. People understood that information and values can be spread out much faster exponentially, rather than linearly. And this is exactly what Dr. Rella always showed — he spread so much caring and selflessness in exponential ways. We are now bound to broaden his legacy.

We wanted this meeting to be optimistic. It was our purpose to communicate to our administrators, our community and perhaps most importantly the younger students that we need to not only keep what Dr. Rella started for ourselves, but also pass it on and make it multiply and continue to radiate throughout our district. The tapping exercise was just an illustration, the framework to understand what we students have been doing following Dr. Rella’s teachings.

Excelling in Academics and Sports

Comsewogue senior Derek Order recognized the academic achievements of the senior class and introduced me as the valedictorian of the class of 2020 — an honor I carry humbly. Many students in the district not only perform at high levels academically but also devote so much of their time, energy and focus on volunteer activities in our community. For example, Derek and I go on activities with the Athletics for All group of students with disabilities. 

Students rally together with a “let’s bring it together team” to help inspire the community. Photo by Andrew Harris

“Through Athletes Helping Athletes, I travel with these outstanding high school students helping out special athletes every month,” said Nicole Kidd, the Comsewogue teacher in charge of the athletes. “We have students from all types of sports encouraging our differently capable students to excel.”

“It seems like this kindness is something woven into our programs around here,” commented Matt DeVincenzo, the Comsewogue athletic director.

Furthermore, senior Jovanna Fusco celebrated the achievements that Comsewogue athletes had this 2020. A rousing round of applause went to senior Jake Vecchio, a Comsewogue swimmer who dedicates a large amount of his time off practice to help others. Vecchio not only placed at the state finals in swimming but won the coveted Section XI Good Sportsmanship Award. 

“In addition to grinding out hours of practice daily, many of our athletes participate in different types of community service activities,” DeVincenzo said. 

Arts

Then, junior Sarah Thomas invited everyone to the upcoming music and drama events while highlighting the importance of the arts in our community. Through the school’s productions of different plays and musicals, Comsewogue students express the idea of unity.

Both the music and drama departments in the high school have flourished because of the dedication presented here in our district. It is our steadfast belief that these students will continue to inspire empathy in the world with their voices and unmatchable talent. Along with the creativity culminating in their brilliant minds, the music in their hearts sits restlessly, just waiting to be passed forward exponentially.

Take Away

Finally, junior Melissa Levine wrapped the meeting up with a reflection about Comsewogue’s outstanding resilience — a colossal example of exponential growth. From the classroom to our neighborhoods, Comsewogue has always shown adaptability and strength, even in the most difficult times.

There is no denying that Dr. Rella ignited the torch that lit the path for success for all of our students. Because of him, Comsewogue has athletes being awarded scholarships and earning spots to compete in All County events, brilliant academic minds leaving the community ready to take on the greatest challenges, and talented performers who were taught to fall in love with the music of life again and again.

As an echo to the tapping activity, Melissa then encouraged everyone there, administrators, board members, parents, staff members and the whole community, to share the love Dr. Rella had for us, to pass it forward. 

“One torch can show us the way, but an army of them can be a beacon in the night,” said Levine.

Dr. Rella taught us to take action, to grow the love, to pass optimism forward. Whether we are students, teachers, workers or stay-at-home parents, we are all connected in the same community and we are all responsible for making everybody in our district better. And we have to do it exponentially, so we can see it grow efficiently for all the members of the Comsewogue family. Let’s do it together.

Daniela Galvez-Cepeda is a senior at Comsewogue High School.

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By Leah Chiappino

One of the most trying aspects of COVID-19 is the financial turmoil it has brought on both national and local business sectors. Financial adviser Michael Christodoulou of Edward Jones Investments in Stony Brook answered some commonly asked questions about how to secure investments and resources for small businesses, and the types of financial assistance offered through the recent stimulus package.

Q: What is your advice for people, especially those that are retired or nearing retirement, regarding their stocks and 401(k) plans?

A: For one thing, ask yourself this: When do you really need the money from your investment accounts, such as your IRA and your 401(k) or similar employer-sponsored plan? These are retirement accounts, so, depending on your age, you may not need to tap into them for 20, 30 or even 40 years. If so, your losses may be “paper” ones only for now and aren’t subjecting you to imminent financial jeopardy. This isn’t to minimize the effect this downturn will have on you, of course — it always takes time to recover lost ground, and there are no guarantees with investing. However, although past performance does not guarantee future results, it is useful to note that, over its long history, the U.S. stock market has typically trended in one direction — up — despite serious and sometimes lengthy declines such as we saw in the Great Depression and, to a lesser extent, the bursting of the dot.com bubble of the early 2000s and the financial crisis of 2008-09.

Nonetheless, you may have shorter-term goals — a wedding, down payment on a home, overseas trip, etc. — for which you need to save. For these goals, though, you wouldn’t want to touch your IRA or 401(k), anyway, as you’d likely face taxes and penalties. Instead, you’ll want your money invested in liquid, low-risk accounts that will be minimally affected, if at all, by declines in the financial markets. These vehicles might include Certificates of Deposit (CDs), money market accounts and even good old-fashioned U.S. savings bonds, all of which offer the protection of principal and can pay higher rates than traditional bank savings accounts.

Q: Should people stop contributing to retirement during this time?

A: Every investor has a different time horizon and risk tolerance. Depending on their time horizon and risk tolerance there may be a number of different recommendations.

For example, if a client has a longer-time horizon until retirement it may make sense to continue investing periodically in their retirement plan. But for someone who is looking to retire relatively soon, they might want to stop contributions or start saving those assets in low-risk accounts.

I highly recommend they work with their financial adviser in order to have a personalized strategy designed based on their goals for retirement.

Q: How would you advise small businesses go about applying for governmental assistance, especially through the federal stimulus bill?

A: Small businesses should work with their tax professionals/CPA and financial adviser in order to review their individual situation. I recommend they start by logging onto www.sba.gov/disaster. During this time, they should also be very cautious about scams. 

Q: The economic effects of this virus are already enormous, and will get exponentially worse. How do you think people can financially cope if this crisis continues?

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) offers help for investors and small businesses. As we go through the coronavirus crisis, we are all, first and foremost, concerned about the health of our loved ones and communities. But the economic implications of the virus have also weighed heavily on our minds. However, if you’re an investor or a business owner, you just got some help from Washington, and it could make a big difference, at least in the short term, for your financial future. Specifically, the passage of the $2 trillion CARES Act offers, among other provisions, the following:

  • Expanded unemployment benefits: The CARES Act provides $250 billion for extended unemployment insurance, expands eligibility and provides workers with an additional $600 per week for four months, in addition to what state programs pay. The package will also cover the self-employed, independent contractors and “gig economy” workers. Obviously, if your employment has been affected, these benefits can be a lifeline. Furthermore, the benefits could help you avoid liquidating some long-term investments you’ve earmarked for retirement just to meet your daily cash flow needs.
  • Direct payments: Individuals will receive a one-time payment of up to $1,200, although this amount is reduced for incomes over $75,000 and eliminated altogether at $99,000. Joint filers will receive up to $2,400, which will be reduced for incomes over $150,000 and eliminated at $198,000 for joint filers with no children. Plus, taxpayers with children will receive an extra $500 for each dependent child under the age of 17. If you don’t need this money for an immediate need, you might consider putting it into a low-risk, liquid account as part of an emergency fund.
  • No penalty on early withdrawals: Typically, you’d have to pay a 10 percent penalty on early withdrawals from IRAs, 401(k)s and similar retirement accounts. Under the CARES Act, this penalty will be waived for individuals who qualify for COVID-19 relief and/or in plans that allow COVID-19 distributions. Withdrawals will still be taxable, but the taxes can be spread out over three years. Still, you might want to avoid taking early withdrawals, as you’ll want to keep your retirement accounts intact as long as possible.
  • Suspension of required withdrawals: Once you turn 72, you’ll be required to take withdrawals from your traditional IRA and 401(k). The CARES Act waives these required minimum distributions for 2020. If you’re in this age group, but you don’t need the money, you can let your retirement accounts continue growing on a tax-deferred basis.
  • Increase of retirement plan loan limit: Retirement plan investors who qualify for COVID-19 relief can now borrow up to $100,000 from their accounts, up from $50,000, provided their plan allows loans. We recommend that you explore other options, such as the direct payments, to bridge the gap on current expenses and if you choose to take a plan loan work with your financial adviser to develop strategies to pay back these funds over time to reduce any long-term impact to your retirement goals.
  • Small business loans: The CARES Act provides $349 billion to help small businesses — those with fewer than 500 employees — retain workers and avoid closing up shop. A significant part of this small business relief is the Paycheck Protection Program. This initiative provides federally guaranteed loans to small businesses who maintain payroll during this emergency. Significantly, these loans may be forgiven if borrowers use the loans for payroll and other essential business expenses, such as mortgage interest, rent and utilities, and maintain their payroll during the crisis. Please visit sba.gov/disaster for more information.

We’ll be in a challenging economic environment for some time, but the CARES Act should give us a positive jolt — and brighten our outlook.

Q: Do you have any information on how residents will know the exact number on their stimulus check for those above the $75,000 income threshold?

A: I would advise individuals to contact their tax professional/CPA. They will be able to give more accurate guidance based on their clients’ taxable situation and possible qualifications for the CARES Act direct payment program.

Q: What is your advice for those that have recently lost jobs and need to prioritize their loans? How can people cut back, and are there any specific loans that should be paid over others?

A: In the unfortunate event that you or a family member loses your job there are some easy steps to follow to help you better prepare yourself for this event. The federal government has taken a big step in protecting renters by issuing a 120-day moratorium on evictions from federally subsidized housing and property with federally backed mortgage loans. Some states have barred evictions for a few weeks. Please check with your landlord and or mortgage company.

Q: With stocks dipping, is now a good time to buy?

A: Before investing we recommend that investors understand their time horizon with the asset they are thinking about investing. What will that money be used for in the future? At what point in the future will you need the money?

For investors with a long-term outlook and time horizon, we remain confident that a rebound will take shape. It may take a while longer to materialize, but we think it will be robust and fueled by a return of confidence in the post-virus outlook. Long-term investors don’t need to capitalize on the pullback all at once but should consider opportunities to benefit from this decline. Consider:

  1. Rebalancing: Trimming overweight allocations and filling gaps in underrepresented asset classes and sectors.
  2. Systematic investing: Taking advantage of the ongoing volatility by systematically investing at regular intervals, reducing the “timing” aspect as the selloff plays out.
  3. Look for good buying opportunities, because they are certainly out there. A well-managed company with a solid business plan that produces quality products and services is going to be that same company after the coronavirus and oil price panics subside and, right now, that company’s stock shares may literally be “on sale.”

We recommend you consult with a financial adviser in order to make sure you completely understand your level of risk and time horizon.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for a set amount people should have in savings in case of an emergency? What is the best way to do so?

A:  I believe everyone should have an emergency fund. Unfortunately, there isn’t a universal dollar amount that applies for everyone.

If you don’t already have an emergency fund, take these first steps to prepare:

  1. Detail your current financial situation including your income, expenses, assets and debts and any money previously set aside for unexpected expenses.
  2. Create a detailed budget in order to figure out what your monthly and annual living expenses add up to.
  3. Consider saving between three and six months of living expenses if you are still working; 12 months or more if you are retired.

This is just a starting point. Depending on your age, your list may look considerably different. Your financial adviser can help you put together your cash flow analysis related to your financial goals and help you calculate how much cash you may need for your next unexpected event.

Q: How do you think people should go about negotiating with credit card companies and banks if they need relief?

A: If someone is facing some financial hardship, they should contact their credit card company or bank directly. In most cases these companies can provide guidance and options so the individual understands their options and can make a decision based on all the information provided to them.

Dr. Bettina Fries and her neighbor Agjah Libohova holding new face shields that will soon be put into the PPE pipeline at Stony Brook Medicine and many metro area hospitals. Photo from SBU

By Kyle Barr and David Luces

In other years, the first day of April dawning would have been a time for celebration and maybe a few pranks. This year, during the coronavirus crisis, not many were up for such jubilation. 

In a daily call with reporters, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said as of today there were now 69 individual deaths from COVID-19 in Suffolk County. 25 of those individuals died in the past 48 hours and 16 in the past day. The vast majority of deaths were of people who had underlying medical issues.

“We are going to get through this but it is going to get worse before it gets better,” said County Executive Steve Bellone. “We all have the power to make this better by practicing social distancing. If you feel sick stay home.”
The total for all of New York was even more staggering, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announcing the morning of April 1 nearly 400 people have died in New York State in the span of 24 hours. 

Cuomo compared it to the movie “Groundhog Day,” where the main character keeps experiences the same day over and over.

“When does it end? how does it end? I don’t know,” he said during his morning press briefing.

In Suffolk, the current number of people confirmed with the virus is 7,605. Currently over 25,000 have been tested, including 5,400 from the Stony Brook site in the South P lot as of Wednesday morning, Bellone said. 

The County Executive also emphasized the 2020 Census, saying as we’re in the midst of this battle, we need to recognize the economic human service impacts. 

“If we don’t do what we need to do we will be experiencing shortfalls in aid for the next 10 years,” Bellone said. “We have to make sure we’re getting those census documents filled out.” 

The county executive added Child Protective Services continues to do house visits and they have done as many interviews as they can telephonically.

“The government does not close — we are here to deal with crises,” he said. “CPS is one of those they are continuing to operate.”

Stony Brook University Begins Drug Trials to Combat Coronavirus

In a COVID-19 briefing update, Stony Brook Medicine officials said that the hospital has begun a number of clinical trials designed to identify effective therapies for critically ill patients.

Remdesivir, an antiviral drug developed to treat two other RNA viruses, Ebola and Marburg, has been administered to two patients with severe coronavirus. The clinical trials on the drug are led by Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. Officials said the drug has appeared to be effective in treating COVID-19 in both China and Washington State. 

Doctors will also be involved in a Regeneron-sponsored clinical trial on Sarilumab (Kevzara), a monoclonal antibody which blocks binding of interleukin-6 to its receptor. Sarilumab is already FDA approved for the treatment of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and more recently for the cytokine storm that accompanies the use of CAR-T cells for acute leukemia. The first Regeneron patient was recruited on March 30. 

Stony Brook Medicine will soon be launching a clinical trial of donated, post-convalescent plasma from COVID-19 patients “very soon,” based on the level of antibody titers to SARS-CoV2 in the donor plasma. Serum or plasma therapy for infectious diseases dates to the 1890s, when serum made from immunized animals provided the first effective treatment for Clostridium tetani and Corynebacterium diphtheriae.

In addition, SBU professor Lily Mujica-Parodi has been part of a national effort to employ a wearable technology device called Oura to collect sufficient physiological data, and use deep learning algorithms to predict the onset of SARS-CoV2 infection. This type of device would be most productive and predictive in hospitals where there is a large number of healthcare workers in high-risk-for-infection roles. 

 LI Company to Begin New Face Shield Production

Clear-Vu Lighting, a Central Islip-based design company, will begin manufacturing an order of 20,000 new face shields that will be deployed to Stony Brook University Hospital. Mass production  is expected to start by early April. Clear-Vu Lighting is gearing up with an expectation to produce 40,000 faceshields per day and approximately 1.2 million per month. Production of face shields to Stony Brook will include supplies for Stony Brook University Hospital and all affiliated hospitals on Long Island. 

Preventing a Possible Shortage of Ventilators

Due to the projections of the COVID-19 pandemic, Stony Brook University Hospital is suggesting it may be required to use a single ventilator for up to two patients in case there is a shortage once the number of patients is at its peak. In a Stony Brook Medicine research laboratory, medical professionals are working on a solution to ventilating multiple patients with one ventilator. Putting two patients on one ventilator requires matching patients with similar characteristics, such as sex, height, age and lung sizes, to avoid one patient being over ventilated and the other being under ventilated.

Stony Brook said researchers and doctors are examining the forces that cause unequal distribution of lung volumes and airway pressures, while using complex test models of diseased lungs. With this research, doctors are able to vary airway resistance and compliance and mimic acute respiratory distress syndrome-like conditions, which allows to test the use of inline valves and resistance devices to solve these problems. 

Addressing the Growing Need for Additional Staff

To address potential staff shortfalls, the medical school is preparing to allow graduating students to volunteer on the front lines of the epidemic while awaiting the eventual surge of patients.

The Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University is allowing senior medical students to graduate in early April so they can begin their professional career as a physician at Stony Brook University Hospital. They will be able to work under the supervision of residents, fellows and attending physicians to address the growing number and complexity of patients being admitted to our hospital, precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The graduates would then proceed to begin their residencies July 1.

 

On March 7 Kelli O’Hara and Sutton Foster joined forces for the first time in a double headline show at Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts for their 2020 Gala and, though no one knew it at the time, this would be the last show of the Staller Center season. Performing songs from their lengthy repertoires, both Tony-winning performers gave it their all to a sold-out crowd despite mounting precautions and fears surrounding COVID-19. 

“I know this is a time of a little bit of nerves and wonder and mystery and anxiety … we want to give you a night away from that,” O’Hara said during her performance. The show went on, but out of an abundance of caution, the Gala’s reception was canceled. Little did O’Hara know, her comment about it being the last time audiences would be together, quickly became true. (see more photos at www.tbrnewsmedia.com)

Days later, on March 10, at the urging of Interim Stony Brook President, Michael Bernstein, the Staller Center announced that all March events were canceled. Bernstein’s bold and forward-thinking guided Staller Center Director, Alan Inkles, in his decision to cancel the Starry Nights concert, which was scheduled that same evening. 

One week after that, Inkles also took the lead and stated that all events at the Staller Center through May 15 would be canceled. In the following days, other theaters and arts organizations, including the Metropolitan Opera, followed suit. In a time of considerable unease, theatre venues across the world have closed their doors to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“We were the first East Coast Arts Center that canceled shows for March last week and second in the country,” Inkles said. Indeed, the Staller Center decided to close before larger venues such as Broadway, The Metropolitan Opera House, and London’s West End. 

Performances by the Russian National Ballet, America’s Got Talent finalist Diavolo, and the 30th-anniversary show of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, among many others, are no longer coming to the Staller Center this season. “We are working with all of our artists and their managers in attempting to reschedule their shows in upcoming seasons and working together to find creative ways to minimize the financial hardships that appear imminent for these performers,” said Inkles. 

Other canceled events include: three remaining MET Opera Live in HD screenings, the Spring Film Series, A Capella Live, Starry Nights, Jack Licitra: U are the Music!, the Emerson String Quartet, Carol Wincenc, and the Doo Wop Project. The Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery is also closed to all in-person visitors through the end of May.

The Box Office is closed to in-person visitors, but patrons are asked to call or email the box office at 631-632-ARTS[2787] or boxoffice@stallercenter.com with questions or concerns. 

While Staller is offering credit or refunds for all ticketholders, generous sponsors, donors, and partners are offering their help, and many patrons have kindly donated their tickets back. 

“We are certainly seeing some great humanity in the art world as everyone scrambles to help each other,” Inkles said. 

Stay tuned for announcements on the Staller Center’s 2021-22 Season at www.stallercenter.com and visit www.stonybrookfilmfestival.com for information on this July’s 25th Annual Stony Brook Film Festival.

All photos by Millie Elangbam/Staller Center

‘Life throws challenges and every challenge comes with rainbows and lights to conquer it.’

― Amit Ray

WELCOME SPRING!

Photographer Mimi Hodges of Sound Beach ventured out in her backyard on March 15 to capture images of these beautiful flowers, “reasons for joy,” and which she now shares with you as we welcome spring to our neck of the woods.

Setauket Harbor: In the last decade, Shore Road along Setauket Harbor has flooded approximately a half a dozen times a year, which is more than in the past due to astronomical tides. “All coastal communities will be increasingly impacted by rising sea level, and sea level rise goes hand in hand with climate change,” George Hoffman of the Setauket Harbor Task Force said. “One way to identify the areas that will be impacted is to look at the areas that are now impacted by storms and astronomical tides. All the low-level shore areas in the Three Village community are the most vulnerable. And, they tend to be the areas that we like to go down to, along the shore, such as beaches and docks and harbor areas. It is projected that in the next hundred years as sea level continues to rise that we will see portions of Route 25A flooding during storm events that we haven’t seen before.” Photo by Maria Hoffman

By Sapphire Perera

I haven’t been to school in 13 days and I don’t know when I’m going back. Many of the shelves in the grocery stores are empty, toilet paper is sold out and everyone is self-quarantining. This panic and fear are due to the outbreak of the most current pandemic — the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. This new strain of coronavirus originated in China and has spread globally. While it seems improbable that there’s a connection between pandemics and climate change, past pandemics prove otherwise. This connection shows us that for every action, there is a reaction.

Interview with Dr. Lisa M. Chirch

Dr. Lisa M. Chirch is a associate professor of medecine at the University of Connecticut who specializes in infectionous diseases.

SP: Sapphire Perera; LC: Lisa Chirch

SP: Due to habitat loss, there is evidence of vector transference between wild animals and livestock. Do you think this will eventually involve household pets, which may be more susceptible to loss of native immunity? 

LC: Good question, and very important to those of us with household pets we adore as part of the family. To date, it is unclear whether viral infections such as COVID-19 can infect dogs and cats, or whether they would become ill if infected. It really depends on the specific organism and how they infect, which tissues are targets, which receptors are used for cell entry, etc. Certainly, the potential for domestic animals to be affected is present, and we should probably be taking similar precautions with our beloved pets as with our family members whom we want to protect.

SP: Extreme changes in global weather patterns are one factor of climate change. With increases in climate change and warmer weather, do you feel that future pandemics will originate in places such as North America and Western Europe instead of Asia and Africa, as they did with the 1918 Spanish flu?

LC: Throughout history, pandemics have originated from sites all over the world. Pandemics originate when humans are exposed to “novel” organisms we have never seen before, exposing populations without immunity. Over time these have frequently been related to the animal/human interface in some way, with organisms “jumping” from one species to another, and in the worst-case scenario, becoming efficient at human-to-human transmission. So, to the extent that climate change drives animals and humans further together, it drives the possibility of further epidemics. Importantly, climate change has more immediate and tangible effects on infectious diseases in humans that have been recently notable, such as the appearance of certain mosquito-borne arboviruses in the southern U.S. (dengue, chikungunya, Zika), and tick-borne illnesses migrating northward as well, with the associated northward movement of the tick species that carry them.

Sapphire Perera

Climate change has made our winters shorter and the weather unseasonably warm. This global increase in temperature is just one of the causes of climate change, and directly affects vectors i.e., disease-carrying organisms such as mosquitoes, ticks, fleas and flies. These vectors spread diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, West Nile virus, and yellow fever which are some of the worst pandemics. The global increase in temperature is driving these vectors further from the equator and into the northern hemisphere. For instance, the United States has seen increased cases of dengue and malaria in Florida, California and Texas. Europe and the U.S. may soon be subjected to the same epidemics that plague people in equatorial climates. In contrast, other regions that usually struggle through the worst of the pandemics and epidemics will see a decrease in the number of outbreaks.

The increase in temperature, rainfall and humidity also creates more breeding grounds for vectors, leading to the easier spread of diseases. This was exemplified by India’s monsoon season from 1994 to 1996. The excessive monsoon rainfall and high humidity in the Punjab region of India led to an increase in malaria epidemics in places such as Rajasthan, Manipur, Nagaland and Haryana. Recent studies have shown that El Niño has actually increased the malaria epidemic risk in India by about fivefold. El Niño scientists have discovered increases in incidences of cholera, Zika, chikungunya, and hantavirus with El Niño occurrences. 

Deforestation is another cause of climate change that brings vectors closer to urban communities.  Sonia Shah, the author of the book “Pandemic,” says in her article in The Nation, “When deforestation threatens the survival of wild species, there are more opportunities for animal microbes to adapt to human bodies.” One example from the many pandemics that we’ve had in the past is the Ebola outbreak. In places such as Central and West Africa, there have been serious deforestation and habitat losses for bats, which are vectors for Ebola. These bats started inhabiting places closer to urban populations which, in turn, increased the likelihood of Ebola outbreaks. Studies in 12 countries have actually shown that it is twice as common to have vector mosquitoes in deforested areas than in intact forests. 

Apart from bringing vectors close to human communities, climate change is introducing prehistoric diseases to mankind. In 2016, the Russian city of Yakutsk saw the outbreak of anthrax during a heat wave in Siberia. The thawing permafrost soil there released long-dormant bacteria and viruses that had been trapped in the ice for centuries. One 12-year-old boy died and at least 20 people were hospitalized from infection. Scientists speculate that more diseases lie beneath the ice and with the rising global temperature, we may see the reemergence of diseases such as smallpox, the bubonic plague and the 1918 Spanish flu.

Since January, there has been a significant universal decrease in social and economic activity. The results from this are astounding. First of all, since there has been slower economic activity, there has been a drop in carbon dioxide emissions. In Hubei province in Central China, there has been a drop in air pollution as the cloud of nitrogen dioxide evaporated in February. Italy saw similar results in its environment pertaining to nitrogen dioxide levels. Additionally, the once-murky canal water in Venice is now so clear that you can see the fish below. In countries all over the world, we are seeing changes like this. Unfortunately, it’s taking a pandemic brought about by climate change to reduce climate change.

Sapphire Perera is a junior at Port Jefferson high school. The “Turtle Island,” as the name for this ongoing column refers to the Native American mythology about North America existing on the back of a great turtle that bears every living being on its spine.

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The Stony Brook School STEM faculty Jeremy Donovan, left, and Stan Winston wearing the laser cut face shields designed and assembled in The Stony Brook School’s STEM lab. Photo from The Stony Brook School

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and shortage of materials hospitals are facing, a small group of high school students and faculty from The Stony Brook School have come up with a solution that can be produced in their STEM lab and, soon, across the country — protective face shields at a fraction of the originally expected time and cost, according to a press release from the private school.

Stony Brook University Hospital recently reached out to the surrounding community to secure usage of 3D printers to produce face shields. The hospital, whose design would take approximately three and a half hours per shield, sought to commision 5,000 shields per usable printer.

When the Stony Brook School was alerted of this, Stan Winston, director of STEM Education, and Jeremy Donovan, STEM teacher, thought they could come up with a much more efficient solution with the help of their highly-skilled students. In a little over 24 hours, Winston had presented the idea to his classes — in virtual classrooms since the outbreak of the pandemic — and a prototype was made.

After three major roadblocks were overcome by the students, a final solution was found. In lieu of a time-intensive 3D print, a face shield constructed with the STEM lab’s laser cutter could be made in just 35 seconds. With the new design and process, about 100 can be made each hour at a cost of under 50 cents each, and the school will be producing at least 5,000 of them for SBU Hospital.

Students instrumental in coming up with this solution were Stony Brook School sophomores Cole Spier and Tiger Winston and junior Ethan Magnuson.

“Our students are committed to serving the world with their character and leadership,” Stan Winston said. “With their years of problem-solving experience in our STEM courses, along with a huge community effort, we have reached a great solution to a pressing issue facing our country today.”

Stony Brook University Hospital has accepted the school’s design and proposal, according to The Stony Brook School.