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Covid 19

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By Nancy Burner, Esq.

Nancy Burner, Esq.

For certain retirement accounts, the IRS requires you to take distributions based upon your life expectancy once you reach the age of 72 ½ (the required age was raised from 70 ½ with the passage of the SECURE Act in December 2019).

As a result of the COVID-19 emergency, the CARES Act suspended the requirement to take these distributions in 2020. There are many who did not yet take a distribution for the year. For them, they can decide if it is a piece of income they need and whether to take it. However, some took their Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) at the beginning of the year and they may now be realizing that they did not need this income and that they do not want to pay the associated income tax on the distribution. Even worse, they may have taken it in January and have found themselves in a position where the time period to return it without taxation has lapsed.  What can they do?

The IRS has issued guidance for individuals who received an RMD for retirement accounts in 2020 prior to the COVID-19 emergency and now wish to return it. Notice 2020-51 provides procedure and rules allowing for a return of these monies in light of the fact that an RMD is not required for this year. In many instances, you may be able to return the distribution, thus eliminating the income tax liability on that amount. Most importantly, this rollback must be done by August 31, 2020.

The ability to return the RMD without tax consequences extends to those who took a lump sum distribution as well as to those who received an amount monthly.  It will also apply to persons of all ages that are the beneficiary of an inherited IRA. Note that while the RMD can be returned, the IRS did not extend these provisions to allow you to “rollback” or give back an amount in excess of your RMD.

In addition to the RMD rollback provisions, the IRS Notice 2020-51 allowed special provisions for Corona-Virus related distributions. If you fall in the broad category of persons impacted by COVID-19, you can receive an early distribution of your retirement account without the 10% additional tax/penalty that would otherwise have been assessed. This is significant if you are under 59 ½ and you need to use funds in your retirement account but wanted to avoid the large penalty. 

If you received some or all of your required minimum distribution from your retirement account in 2020 before the enactment of the CARES Act, you should contact your financial advisor, accountant or attorney to determine whether you qualify for these special rollbacks and if it is in your best interest to take advantage of this provision.  Not all retirement accounts have the same treatment so an individualized look is essential and should be done as soon as possible to comply with the August 31, 2020 deadline.

Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.

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By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Three men in my life, whom I would normally be hugging a lot this third week in July, are missing. Their birthdays line up nicely for a wonderful celebratory period. First comes my youngest grandson, then four days later my oldest son, and then two days after that, my youngest son. This has provided my family an annual occasion to get together with multiple cakes and dinners, noise and fun activities, usually at my home. But in this Year of the Pandemic, it’s not going to happen in yet another instance of how our lives have changed.

The sad news is that we miss each other’s physical presence. The good news is that we live in a digital age. It could be worse. Not only could we not hug each other, we could not even see each other over the many miles of separation. But thanks to Zoom and the other video platforms, there we are, at least in two dimension and we can talk back and forth with only a tiny lag between voice and picture.

Tuesday night my family did even more than that. When my oldest son was asked by his two boys a couple of weeks ago what he wanted for his birthday, he asked for something that they would make rather than buy. They met his request grandly. They pooled their particular talents, along with those of their friends, and created a four-minute full color animated video in which they mentioned many details of their father’s life set to original hip-hop music. It was a highly personal Happy Birthday card, sent through the ether and bathed in love.

For example, the video mentioned their father’s love of sailing — and in the same frame, of fruit. They slyly referred to his disposal of an unwanted shot of beer in the nearest flower pot. They alluded to his passion for tennis — and for peanuts, which he has been known to carry in his pocket on the drive into work. They generously included those who love him the most in the film, and they ended with half a dozen corny jokes that made us all howl.

Needless to say, in joyfully fulfilling their father’s wish, they brought us all together with the requisite laughter and hijinks. My grandsons and their friends, like so many of the young people today, are not working at their day jobs or are working remotely. In a way, this strange new existence made such a present possible because, coupled with the internet, they had the time and resources for such a creative gift. They were able to adapt to our altered existence and flip the messages that typically would have been sent in birthday cards presented at the party to Tuesday night’s video-sharing.

It makes me realize how quickly so many of us have harnessed our new lives. Many meetings and events are now held, in revamped fashion, on the internet. Education, only recently thought of as unusual if taught over the internet, now looks like it has found a home there. Doctors’ visits, requiring an appointment in a professional office, are now being conducted via telemedicine. Shopping, which has been ever creeping onto the internet, has now in just a couple of months become a way of life there — and not just for a book or a patio umbrella but even for food that is routinely delivered.

Will this exclusively two dimensional existence come to an end? Sure it will, perhaps sooner, perhaps later. The virus has been the driver, and whenever humans have figured out how to overcome the contagion, COVID-19 will just be another disease in the annals of medicine. But as far as the internet goes, you can’t put the cork back into the bottle. We will work more remotely, meet more remotely, be entertained more remotely and otherwise permanently embrace convenient exchanges that can be performed digitally.

One thing is for certain, however. Nothing will ever take the place of a hug.

John Inglis. Photo courtesy of CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

In the post COVID-19 world, the pace of science and, in particular, scientific publishing has changed, giving researchers a sense of urgency to share information that might lead to preventions, treatments and cures.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has produced two preprint research services, bioRxiv and MedRxiv, that complement the longer peer-reviewed path to publication.

After numerous scientists restructured their labs to contribute to the growing body of knowledge and information about COVID-19, these researchers turned to preprint services to share the results of their work and the evolution of their thoughts on how to defeat the virus.

“It’s absolutely unprecedented for scientists to drop what they are doing and switch their focus to something completely new to aid society and mankind in general,” said John Inglis, the co-founder of bioRxiv and one of the members of joint management group for medRxiv.

MedRxiv, which started in June of 2019, helped provide the scientific community with an outlet for their health science research, with the caveat that the results haven’t received a thorough peer review, as they might in the New England Journal of Medicine, Cell, or other periodicals.

The number of preprint research papers has climbed dramatically this year, as scientists race to get their results from the bench to the server. The number of papers in bioRxiv increased to 88,268 in June from 71,458 in January. The increase at the newer medRxiv is much more dramatic, climbing from 953 in January to 7,541 in June.

The number of pandemic related papers on medRxiv and bioRxiv in total is 6,458, with 5,133 on medRxiv and 1,325 on bioRxiv.

Pandemic-related papers account for close to 70 percent of the new research published on medRxiv since January 1st, while the percentage of virus-related papers on bioRxiv is 6.2%, in large part because bioRxiv includes numerous other subject areas, including ecology, bioinformatics, plant biology and zoology.

The world has taken notice of all these papers, with page views peaking in April for medRxiv to almost 11 million for the month.

While the papers aren’t peer reviewed, the managers of these sites urge readers to remain cautious in their interpretation and use of these findings, while the scientific community continues to duplicate any encouraging or compelling results.

“We remind people all the time that these are preprints,” Inglis said, as the site has numerous reminders about the early nature of the findings. “They are preliminary reports and should not guide clinical practice or be reported as established information. That’s a battle we’re still fighting.”

The peer review process has also picked up some speed, as journals, inundated with potential game-changing material, have been accelerating the process of reading and reviewing papers. The median time between posting an article on bioRxiv and publication in a journal before the pandemic was nine months. Some papers in medRxiv have been published in journal in as few as 35 days.

For medRxiv, the screening process requires an ethics statement, a funding statement, and any potential conflicts of interest. These requirements are “all far more familiar in medical publishing than in scientific publishing,” said Inglis.

At bioRxiv, which recently introduced a competing interest statement as well for authors, freelancers and a group of Principal Investigators look at everything before it posts, to make sure it’s science and that it’s not dangerous. The screeners turn the manuscripts back to the team if they have any concerns.

“We felt, early in the pandemic, that it was necessary to make sure we have people with expertise in outbreak science,” Inglis explained. “We brought on volunteers.”

According to Inglis, the percentage of manuscripts that scientists submit, but that bioRxiv doesn’t publish, is between 5 and 10 percent, while that figure is closer to 20 to 25 percent for medRxiv.

Inglis said numerous scientists have done some modeling based on public data, but that the preprints don’t accept those papers unless they contain additional research.

The preprint management team was “worried about the indiscriminate use of these models to guide public policy,” he said.

Additionally, the team excluded manuscripts that might be dangerous to human health or human-health related behavior. They didn’t want people to rush out and take something that, theoretically, might help, but that hasn’t received sufficient testing. A treatment might block a receptor, but also have significant side effects.

Inglis said the team of people who work at the preprints, which includes five full-time preprint-platform dedicated staff members and seven other CSHL staff with other responsibilities, including the founders, tech developers and production staff, worked seven days a week, with long working days to meet the increased need and demand.

People working on this effort “are not doing it because they are getting rich or handsomely acknowledged.” An arduous job with thousands of papers, the staff are working out of a “sense of purpose and mission,” Inglis explained.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and CSHL provide financial support for these preprints. The research community has shared their appreciation for these preprints and CSHL generously acknowledges the work of the staff.

Inglis and Richard Sever co-founded bioRxiv. MedRxiv is managed by Sever and Inglis in collaboration with Professors Harlan Krumholz and Joe Ross from Yale and Dr. Theo Bloom and Claire Rawlinson from BMJ, which was originally called the British Medical Journal.

Inglis said numerous papers have become game-changers in the battle against the virus, including a study from two weeks ago in the United Kingdom on dexamethasone, a steroid that was proven effective in severe cases of COVID-19. Indeed, just recently, a Bethesda hospital became the first in the nation to use the steroid to combat the virus.

The team working in preprints at CSHL appreciates the opportunity to contribute to the public health crisis.

Inglis is pleased with how the community trusted the preprints with their work, while numerous members of the community helped screen manuscripts and provide advice about how to react to the needs of the pandemic.

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By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Most of us like to try to peer into the future and see what may lie ahead. That’s one attraction of a world’s fair and of futurist books. One such popular book of half a century ago was “Future Shock,” by Alvin Toffler, which dealt with how people can adapt to changes and even embrace them. During this coronavirus pandemic, the first such in 100 years, consensus seems to be that life will be changed after the disease ends, that this is a defining moment in
our history.

But how will things change?

A columnist for The New York Times, David Leonhardt, tried to provide a few answers this past Sunday in his article entitled. “It’s 2022. What does life look like?” Here is some of what he has to say that you and I can probably agree with, understanding that the timing of a vaccine can, in turn, alter the most clairvoyant of predictions.

Many traditional department stores will disappear. Already weakened by specialty stores like Home Depot or discount stores like Costco, the one-stop of Sears and J.C. Penny have been bypassed by shoppers, who have also embraced the convenience of the internet. Walmart and Amazon are among the world’s richest public companies today. Retailers in general have been stricken by the consumer move to online shopping. As investment guru Warren Buffett has been often quoted, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.”

Retail stores that have just managed to hang on will now experience a death blow. This could be devastating for shopping malls that depend on retailers’ rent. Of course, after a vaccine frees people to go shopping as something more like recreation, those retailers who provide an “experience” along with their goods for sale will have a better chance of surviving and even thriving. The demise of small retailers will have a huge impact on villages and unemployment, I believe. Many residents across the country work in their local stores.

Another change will be in higher education, according to Leonhardt. Dozens of colleges, private and public, despite being heavily subsidized by government, are in trouble. There are a couple of reasons. While college enrollment has pretty consistently been growing in the United States since the Civil War, in the last decade undergraduate numbers have fallen, the result of fewer births and, I believe, of a reconsideration of the value of pricey college education. Colleges have lost the revenue from summer school, from food service and parking fees. Of greatest concern is the imminent reduction of state aid due to stricken state budgets. The big question now is whether colleges will be able to bring back students for fall classes. If they cannot return, revenue is likely to drop sharply. Remote learning was not as successful or satisfying as was hoped. This could have severe implications for the educational level of the next generation of Americans.

The positive side of the remote coin can be found among white collar workers, many of whom will prefer to work at least part of the week from home in the future. There will be less business commuting, less travel with attendant fatigue, less cost. But that will negatively affect commercial real estate, the airlines and hotels.

The third at-risk industry, in Leonhardt’s view is local newspapers. “Between 2008 and 2019, American newspapers eliminated about half of all newsroom jobs. The virus has led to more job cuts — and could end up forcing dozens more papers to fold … If that happens, their cities will be left without perhaps the only major source of information about local politics, business, education and the like.” To what end? “Corruption and political polarization tend to rise while voter turnout tends to fall,” says Leonhardt. In short, the community begins to shrivel.

The solution, as we see the future, is to embrace change and make it work for us. That is why we here at the local newspapers are also the popular news website, tbrnewsmedia.com with almost 150,000 unique viewers a month. We are the sponsors of several social platforms and the innovators of such valued print products as the 2020 graduation supplement and the TBR Artists Coloring Book released in the last month alone. With, and only with your support, we at Times Beacon Record News Media are here to stay.

Marci Lobel. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Pregnant women with access to the outdoors are less stressed during the pandemic.

In fact, according to an unpublished finding that isn’t yet peer reviewed, pregnant women who had outdoor access were 67 percent less likely to worry about contracting the virus and 63 percent less likely to feel stress about being unprepared for the birth.

Lobel with a recent doctoral student, Jennifer Nicolo-SantaBarbara.

Stony Brook University recently awarded a project led by Dr. Heidi Preis in the Department of Psychology, with co-Principal Investigators Dr. Marci Lobel in the Department of Psychology and Dr. Brittain Mahaffey in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health that explored the link between stress and pregnancy. The researchers are hoping to identify what helps pregnant women and what may make them more vulnerable to the impacts of stress.

Stony Brook provided a total of $398,200 in seed funding to 17 research projects in response to the pandemic. Researchers at Stony Brook had put together 63 submissions, using a peer review process to choose the projects to fund, including the COVID-19 Pregnancy Experiences (or COPE) Study. The funding, which is for one year, is designed to provide the kind of seed funding that will lead to further research and that other funding agencies will support.

The COPE study tapped into a global network of collaborators that Lobel, who is the Director of the Stress and Reproduction Lab at SBU, established over the past 30 years to compare the different factors that mitigate or exacerbate stress for pregnant women in Spain, Israel, Italy, Germany Poland and Switzerland.

“The biological impact of COVID-19 is getting the lion’s share of attention, as it should,” said Lobel. “We don’t yet know enough about how the psychological impact will affect vulnerable groups, like pregnant women.”

Indeed, Lobel has spent three decades studying the effect of stress and related psychological factors on pregnancy. In other studies, major stressors, such as earthquakes, ice storms, and periods of warfare, confirm the toxic impact of prenatal stress, particularly for preterm births and low birth weight, she said.

Lobel and her colleagues created a self-report instrument called the Pandemic-Related Pregnancy Stress Scale, or PREPS, in which women report their specific concerns or anxieties caused by COVID-19.

Throughout the United States, the team sought responses from about 4,500 women recruited through social media at the end of April and the beginning of May.

Marci Lobel with her family at Yosemite in 2016. The photo credit is: Photo courtesy of Marci Lobel.

Among the women in the study, just over half of them were pregnant with their first child. In many studies that predated the current work, including some from her own research group, Lobel said women pregnant with their first child had higher levels of stress.

In some preliminary findings, 21.7 percent of pregnant women in the study reported severe levels of anxiety. “I think that is higher than what we typically would find in a population study of pregnant women,” Lobel said.

Women with a history of interpersonal violence also reported higher levels of stress and those whose prenatal appointments were canceled or altered were 1.78 times more likely to experience high stress related to a lack of preparedness and 1.49 times more likely to experience high stress related to worries about perinatal infection.

Some women in the study have found ways to reduce the accumulating stress about the health care crisis. The techniques that work for some women, Lobel said, may not work for others, suggesting that stress relief is specific to the individual and is usually determined by the situation itself.

“I don’t recommend any particular way of coping,” Lobel said. “What works for one may not work for another. It’s good to have a tool kit with lots of ways of coping.”

Indeed, some of the techniques pregnant women have found helpful include meditation, prayer, and faith-based practices. Pregnant women have also benefited from social support, which is particularly important during the pandemic when some women may feel “literally and figuratively isolated from others,” Lobel said.

Of all the research Lobel has done, the one that has received the most attention and landed her in the bible for pregnant women, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” was a study on optimism. She found that women who were more optimistic had better birth outcomes due in part to the better are they took of their health during pregnancy.

Coping with stress by avoidance predicts increases in emotional distress, Lobel explained. This corroborates much research which shows that avoidance is usually an ineffective way to cope with stress, except in limited cases such as when a stressful situation is brief and uncontrollable.

When people avoid the things that bother them, they can do it cognitively or through alcohol, which is especially dangerous for pregnant women and their developing fetuses. Avoidance can also involve excessive sleeping, as pregnant women may decide they don’t want to deal with life and stay in bed all day.

The scientists plan to collect a second set of data from these women, who were recruited through social media and who represent a diverse socioeconomic background, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other factors, on July 15th.

Lobel said she already has some preliminary, unpublished findings from Poland, which are showing the same kinds of stressors and distress among pregnant women. Polish women have expressed stress related to worries about lack of preparation for birth during the pandemic and stress related to worries about infection.

Lobel said the researchers hope to explore a host of questions as they collect more information. They hope to look at obsessions and compulsions and would like to measure anger. They also will measure levels of depression and anxiety and will compare that to the norms for non-pregnant women.

On the other side of the stress meter, the group will study how being pregnant during the pandemic may help some women appreciate their pregnancy more. For some women, the pregnancy may give them strength to deal with the pandemic, as they focus on having a baby.

The researchers will also explore the level of control women feel over the outcome of their pregnancy and the health of their baby. Feeling in control can create a positive response associated with lower distress.

While Lobel and her colleagues won’t answer all these questions in a year, they hope their initial studies will lead to more funding and research. “Hopefully, we’ll get a [National Institutes of Health] grant to follow up these women for a couple of years to study them and their children to see if there are any developmental or mental or physical health effects” of the pandemic.

Many dogs, puppies, cats and kittens available for adoption

Friday,  June 5, was a big day for Kent Animal Shelter. The no-kill haven for homeless, abused and abandoned animals in Calverton reopened its doors to the public for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic forced a temporary shutdown. 

“That being said, the shelter never really closed as it is an essential service. However, operations continued at a snail’s pace compared to its pre-COVID-19 normal,” said Pam Green, Executive Director of the shelter. 

The spay/neuter clinic was closed for two months and adoptions were limited. Rescues were few and far between. The staff remained to take care of the animals that were on hand of course, but adoptions slowed down.

“Unfortunately, we were unable to allow the public to enter the buildings to visit the animals and that is undoubtedly an impediment to adoption. However, the shelter was able to find forever homes for some long time pets which is probably the best news that came out of the pandemic,” said Green.

Pre-COVID-19, rescue transports were received every 10 days as the shelter’s van traveled to locations with high-kill shelters. Other rescue groups ceased transports to Kent Animal Shelter because of the pandemic. “We had to figure out how to best proceed in the days of the pandemic since this virus is not going away any time soon,” explained Green. 

So the shelter reopened with certain guidelines. Interactions with pets and adoptions are mainly done by appointment. Visitors are permitted to enter the buildings with masks or face coverings and for a limited amount of time. Pets for adoption can be seen online and the public can complete their adoption applications via the website at www.kentanimalshelter.com. Rescue transports have resumed with 22 animals being saved from a terrible fate just this past week. 

The clinic is now open three days a week to continue spay/neuter operations by appointment only and pet owners must wear a mask and are asked to wait a short time in their vehicles until the technicians come outside to receive the pets. Feral cats are also being sterilized and the shelter was able to secure a grant to cover the surgical fees. Information and appointments can be made by calling the clinic at 727-5731 ext. 2. 

Of course, donations have plummeted as many supporters have lost their jobs. Individuals that are able to donate can do so via the shelter’s website or by calling the office. “The animals in crisis situations can’t wait, they need help now. It is the mission of the shelter to provide a lifeline and we must continue to do so with urgency,” said Green.

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Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, the dean of the Stony Brook Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, is eager to restart the educational mission of training medical school students.

Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, the dean of the medical school at SBU, said there’s a real possibility of a second wave of COVID-19. File photo

While Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has said that medical schools can restart on June 22, Kaushansky has asked for a waiver to allow students to continue to build on their clinical knowledge sooner.

“I was worried about the delay in doing the experiential learning,” Kaushansky said. A delay that lasts too long could push graduation back for the rising fourth year students, which is “not good for any health care professional. We need health care professionals, including respiratory therapists, physical therapists, nurses and social workers” among others.

On top of the need to ensure on-time graduation for the Class of 2021, he said another wave of the COVID-19 crisis will increase the demand for graduates.

The medical school dean said Stony Brook University Hospital is watching carefully the protests over the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the hands of a police officer charged with his murder. The hospital and staff are ready in the event of a spike in demand for health care after large gatherings on Long Island and in New York City.

“We are ready to mobilize on a moment’s notice because we did it the first” time, albeit with numerous questions about the course and potential treatment for the new virus, Kaushansky said.

On Saturday, he sent out a letter to the health sciences community addressing what he termed “health care racism.”

“We witnessed the sum of all these effects in the disproportionate lethal burden of COVID-19 on communities of color, a combination of overcrowding at home, of jobs that do not allow the protection afforded by work from home, or from the disproportionate burden of health care conditions that arise, in part, from health care disparities,” he wrote in the letter. He urged the Stony Brook community to “do everything in our power to work toward erasing the social determinants of disease that contribute to our unequal society.”

He urged learners and critical staff to develop and practice cultural sensitivities, and he also suggested that the school should make “certain our graduates reflect the diverse society in which we live.”

In its admission decisions, SBU includes the notion of overcoming hardship as a part of the process through which the school evaluates prospective students.

In the coming years, Kaushansky plans to emphasize further the importance of encouraging those who have faced significant hurdles in applying to the medical school.

In terms of treating patients who have COVID-19, he is encouraged by the use of remdesivir and convalescent plasma. The school has these treatments available for people who are sick and is studying the effectiveness of these approaches.

More than 1,500 patients have been admitted through the university hospital, Southampton and Eastern Long Island hospitals and have benefited from the clinical study of symptoms including clots.

Surgeons had noticed that D-dimer levels, which are proteins that indicate the presence of clots, were shooting up. They decided when this protein reached a certain level, they would use a full dose of anticoagulants.

Stony Brook has put the results of these aggressive anticoagulant treatments into an article that has been submitted for publication.

In the meantime, the university has taken an across-the-board approach to raising anticoagulants.

“That will improve the mortality rate should we get a second wave,” Kaushansky predicted.

In the event of a second wave, Stony Brook Hospital and, indeed, New York will be better prepared, with more tests, greater awareness and contact tracing.

Kaushansky believes that the people who have already fought off the virus are presumably immune from getting it a second time. What’s unclear, he explained, is whether the antibody test is predictive of resistance. Additionally, it’s unclear how long that resistance will last.

He expects that monoclonal antibodies can work, but that they should be reserved for the sickest patients. They are expensive and are hard to produce the level necessary for the U.S. population of more than 300 million people.

What worries the Stony Brook dean is that people have had enough of staying at home, social distancing and wearing masks. In the worst of the crisis, when the numbers of people sick and dying were climbing, Kaushansky could get to work in much less time than normal, as traffic on the roads had lightened up considerably.

Days before the Phase 2 reopening, which began on Wednesday of this week, the level of traffic has returned to a more normal density.

Meanwhile, Phase 2 for Stony Brook University involves reopening research laboratories and allowing people who were previously deemed nonessential workers to return to the labs in an “orderly and safe fashion,” Kaushansky said.

The university has installed plexiglass shields, requires social distancing, built partitions between people who don’t have their own offices, and requires everyone to wear masks and have their temperatures taken when they come to work.

The hospital opened up for elective surgery two weeks ago. Everyone who is scheduled for surgery has to get a viral swab the day before.

The approach the university has taken in requiring personal protective equipment and social distancing has paid off for hospital staff who have been exposed to all those sick patients. The rate of antibody tests of employees is much lower than in the general community.

“It’s safer to be a frontline health worker at Stony Brook than to work at some grocery stories,” Kaushansky said.

On the clinical side, he believes Stony Brook Hospital needs more highly skilled nurses. At the peak, the university hospital had 437 patients. If it had reached 500, “we would have been in trouble,” he added.

Upstate New York had sent 20 experienced nurses to help out.

“Nursing is important and high-level nursing, operating-room nursing, was particularly stressed,” Kaushansky said. “We need to hire more nurses.”

He added that the school trains excellent nurses and plans to hire some of its own graduates.

In terms of medical school classes, the dean said the university hasn’t decided yet whether to bring small groups back together. The big lecture halls will still involve remote teaching.

“Are the smaller group educational exercises going to be back safely?” he asked. “I’m working to make that happen.”

Kaushansky takes solace in the way PPE reduced the infection rate for the hospital as a whole, and believes such an approach could work for medical school classes as well.

Nancy Reich. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Even as pharmaceutical companies are working furiously to produce a vaccine for COVID-19, scientists are taking other approaches that might lead to treatment for this disease or for other viruses that might threaten public health.

Nancy Reich, a Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, and several colleagues at SBU recently received a $450,000 grant from the G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Foundation to pursue the laboratory study of two possible interventions.

Reich and her colleagues plan to investigate the use of interferon-lambda, which is in clinical trials for Hepatitis D virus, and an inhibitor for bradykinin called icatibant, which is approved for angioedema.

“Although we are very hopeful for a vaccine in the near future, vaccines can take months or years” to develop and use, Reich said. “The likelihood is that there will be more emerging diseases” which increases the need for broad spectrum first line defense therapeutics that might provide relief and save lives.

A few months ago, several faculty in microbiology and immunology got together on a Zoom call to discuss what they could do to combat COVID-19. The group was “very enthusiastic” about interferon, which is a natural hormone and is the only cytokine that’s antiviral. It has the ability to prevent the spread of the virus by reducing replication.

Reich will work with Patrick Hearing and Erich Mackow, who are both professors in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, on the molecular aspects of COVID-19. Associate Professor Janet Hearing and Assistant Professor Hwan Kim are certified to work in high containment biosafety laboratories.

COVID-19 seems to have figured out how to block the action or production of interferon, Reich said, although the lower levels of the hormone haven’t been confirmed yet.

Other researchers are testing how the virus that has caused the pandemic has blocked the production of this defense mechanism. The Reich-led group is also planning to test this process.

To get protection from interferon, people would likely need an increased amount of the antiviral molecule early in the infection process, Reich said. She and her team are focusing on interferon lambda, which is a specific type that primarily affect epithelial cells, which are the type of cells that line the respiratory and digestive systems.

Interferon alpha and beta cause systemic problems, which can trigger an overactive immune system to cause a cytokine storm. This can lead to severe symptoms, if the body’s reaction is strong enough.

“Because interferon lambda is more specialized in the targets it hits, it doesn’t cause this crazy, global effect in your body,” Reich said.

At this point, Reich is looking to use a pre-clinical animal model of COVID-19 to understand the processes involved with the virus and its reaction to different concentrations of this hormone at different times after infection.

Reich has reached out to a company called EIGR Pharmaceuticals, which is the only company that produces a pegylated version of interferon lambda. By adding polyethlylene glycol, or PEG, EIGR can extend the time that the drug remains in the body, reducing the need for new doses.

The interferon lambda receptors are prevalent in hepatocytes, or liver cells. The liver is particularly important in capturing bacteria, viruses and macromolecules that might otherwise cause harm in the human body. The interest in the liver and interferon is mainly because of hepatitis viruses.

Interferon lambda’s higher specificity reduces potential side effects that other interferons trigger in the blood or in the central nervous system. EIGR has created this interferon to treat Hepatitis D.

“I have contacted [EIGR] to do some COVID work and now they are,” Reich said. “They have some clinical trials going on in the United States, Israel and Australia.” In addition to their research work with interferon lambda, the group will also study the effects of bradykinin, which is a small peptide hormone that the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (or ACE2) receptor inactivates.

The group is exploring the use of inhibitors for bradykinin, hoping to reduce a molecular trigger that exacerbates symptoms of the disease.

“We are taking two approaches; one is more about the symptoms, through bradykinin inhibition, and the other is trying to block virus replication,” said Reich.

In their research with interferon and inhibitors to bradykinin, Reich is hoping to generate data that will be ready within several months.

If both of the approaches proves effective independently, Reich said the next steps could involve combining them.

If the combination works better than either of the treatments alone, the researchers, and, down the road, the doctors, who might use this approach could use a lower dose of both drugs, which could reduce any potential side effects.

Reich said this research is possible at Stony Brook because it has a Biosafety Level 3.“We are able to do these experiments that others may not be able to do,” she said.

The animal facility that will house the mice for her studies is still not accepting new animals. Reich hopes they start to accept them in June.

Reich appreciated the speed at which the Mathers Charitable Foundation reacted to their request for funds.

The Foundation, which was created by a Santa Barbara, California couple who donated their wealth to research in 1983, made a decision within weeks, reflecting the urgency that the public health crisis triggered by COVID-19 has created.

Many foundations typically take six to eight months to decide on funding.

Reich appreciates that she and her colleagues will have a chance to contribute to a growing body of research about a virus that has caused close to 100,000 deaths in the United States and has disrupted billions of lives around the world.

“Everybody realizes the urgency,” Reich said.

The bride and groom pose for a photo in the front yard of the couple's home

“A sense of love, family and community could never be taken away by a virus!”

His and her face masks worn during the wedding

In the last few months many couples have decided to postpone their wedding plans due to COVID-19, but one Stony Brook University Hospital (SBUH) employee decided she wouldn’t let the situation stop her from marrying the love of her life.

Kristie Golden, PhD, LMHC, CRC, Executive Administrator and Associate Director of Operations, Stony Brook Medicine had planned a dinner celebration with friends and family at a local restaurant for their May 17 wedding until the establishment was forced to close due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It would have been easy to just postpone everything but we decided that we would not let the circumstances stop us,” said Dr. Golden.

A sign that was displayed on the front lawn of the couple’s home after the ceremony

Instead she and then fiance Greg Campo decided to get married in their Smithtown backyard complete with a wedding trellis, flowers, bubble machine and handmade face masks for the bride and groom. The only people in attendance were the couple’s children and six guests who all wore masks as well. Extended family and friends were able to watch via Zoom and Facebook Live. 

“Everyone’s participation in their own way brightened our world and we hope it did theirs as well,” said Dr. Golden. “The day was beautiful, the birds were chirping and the celebration was everything we had hoped. Our goal was to shine light on a difficult time by celebrating our love.”

Stock photo

As a part of a drive-in movie series, Smith Point County Beach will show the movie “Jaws” on June 20, 45 years after the Steven Spielberg-directed film terrified theater goers throughout a country a year removed from a gas crisis that appears tame by comparison to the confluence of today’s challenges.

“Hopefully that will be an experience people will enjoy with their families,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said on his daily conference call with reporters. “Hopefully, they will enjoy it in a safe way.”

Suffolk County is approaching the end of its first full week in Phase One of an economic reopening, even as emotions run high in the county, the country and the world after the killing of George Floyd by a now-fired Minneapolis police officer who is now facing murder charges.

Group gatherings, even peaceful protests, themselves pose a health risk to attendees as researchers continue to try to develop a vaccine for a virus that threatens the health and lives of residents, particularly those with underlying medical conditions.

“We are always going to be concerned with people coming together in large gatherings, where they are not practicing social distancing,” Bellone said. “We want people to protest and express their First Amendment rights, but we want to do it safely.”

The county executive again thanked the community for peaceful expressions throughout the efforts to restart the economy and as protests in urban areas have, at times, led to violent confrontations with police and to rioting and looting.

Bellone said the Suffolk County Police Department is taking the approach that the officers are a part of the community and are not just in place to restrict or police others.

“When people are out there protesting because they have a message they want to get across, ‘We are there to make sure they are safe,’” Bellone said.

While officials remain concerned about the possibility of larger gatherings leading to resurgence of the virus after hard-won gains during the deadly month of April, they are also willing to change their guidance if such gatherings don’t lead to an increase in infections or put a strain on the recovering health care system.

The county can look at these gatherings and see how they affect public health, Bellone said. “We can take something away from that,” he said.

Still, the county executive said he urges residents not to become too cavalier about following rules that have led to an improvement in the overall health of the county, albeit at the cost of a slowed economy and an increase in unemployment.

“After being cooped up for so long” with all the devastation from the effort to flatten the curve and save people’s lives, residents need to think about “how to prevent sliding back in any way,” Bellone urged. “If people continue to be smart and exercise caution, we can reopen our economy safely. We need the public to continue to be smart.”

Viral Figures

The number of new positive tests for COVID-19 was 62, bringing the total to 39,705. That doesn’t include the 14,138 people who have tested positive for the antibody.

The number of people in the hospital with the virus, a figure no one in the health care system over the course of the year is likely to ever take for granted, declined by 16 to 253.

The number of people in the Intensive Care Unit also declined seven to 67.

The percentage of hospital beds and ICU beds with COVID-19 patients, meanwhile, was at 62 and 63, respectively, which are well below the original target of 70 percent or lower.

Another 25 people were discharged from the hospital over the last day.

The number of people who died from complications related to COVID-19 climbed by five to 1,906.

The county distributed another 24,000 pieces of personal protective equipment over the last day. That total has reached over 5.7 million since the pandemic reached the shores of Long Island.