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Stony Brook University

Michael Bernstein on the Stony Brook University campus. Photo from Stony Brook University

As the 2019-2020 school year comes to a close, Stony Brook University’s recent interim president is returning to familiar territory.

Michael Bernstein will remain at SBU, even though his last day as interim president was June 30. On July 1 he returned to his former position as provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs. Last August, Bernstein took on the role of interim president after the departure of former president, Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr.

Bernstein said he decided to stay after a request from new university president, Maurie McInnis, who was appointed in March, and added that a search for his replacement may take up to a year. He plans to move to California in the future.

“I’m in a position, I think, to help Maurie as she transitions in as the new president,” he said. “Obviously, we’re very much challenged with planning through this COVID emergency and figuring out how we’re going to manage the fall semester, not to mention the whole academic year.”

While the pandemic got in the way of working on some SBU goals such as strategic revisioning, strengthening a few of the business practices and revitalization of the computer system, he’s confident that McInnis, with whom he has been in constant contact since her appointment, will be prepared to take on the challenges once the 2020 fall semester can begin.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, which required colleges and universities to switch to online learning and hold events virtually since March, Bernstein said he enjoyed his time as interim president overall.

“I was surrounded by a superb senior leadership team,” he said. “We were getting a lot done in terms of managing university affairs.”

Bernstein said he realized the importance of taking precautions early on once the number of COVID-19 cases started rising in the U.S.

“My sense was that we were in the midst of an emerging crisis that was going to accelerate pretty quickly and pretty dramatically,” he said. “We made a decision to shut down and start canceling major campus events pretty quickly.”

He said that the campus nearly closed earlier than it did but the school had to wait for directions from the State University of New York administration to coordinate with the broader school network. Bernstein said the last major event at the campus was the 2020 gala held at the Staller Center March 7.

“I had said at that point that we will have no more major campus events, and we were a little early when we made that decision,” he said.

While he received some pushback, he’s glad he made the decision.

“I think within a couple of weeks people were circling back to me saying, ‘That was the right decision, thank you for making it as quickly as you did.’ I think it became clear to people that we had to shut everything down.”

He added that shortly after the university cut back on public events, students were asked to head home, and spring break was extended to two weeks so the university could prepare for online learning.

He said at the last in-person university council meeting, it was realized they were all in the midst of a critical moment in their careers and that everyone would be defined by what decisions were made. While he said it was a challenging time, he remained positive.

“There’s the old saying, ‘Calm seas and blue skies do not make good sea captains,’” he said. “You’re not in a leadership position to work when things are calm. When things are calm and fine, you don’t need leaders.”

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.

Kevin Reed. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

At the beginning of this month, the North Atlantic started its annual hurricane season that will extend through the end of November.

Each year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offers a forecast in May for the coming season. This year, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center anticipates a 60 percent chance of an above-normal season. The Center anticipates 13 to 19 storms, although that number doesn’t indicate how many storms will make landfall.

These predictions have become the crystal ball through which forecasters and city planners prepare for a season that involves tracking disturbances that typically begin off the West coast of Africa and pick up energy and size as they travel west across the Atlantic towards Central America. While some storms travel back out to sea, others threaten landfall by moving up the Gulf Coast or along Atlantic Seaboard of the United States.

Kevin Reed, an Associate Professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, and Alyssa Stansfield, a graduate student in his lab, recently predicted the likely amount of rainfall from tropical cyclones.

Alyssa Stansfield at the 33rd Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology in 2018. Photo by Arianna Varuolo-Clarke

 

Using climate change projection simulations, Reed and Stansfield came up with a good-news, bad-news scenario for the years 2070 through 2100. The good news in research they published in Geophysical Research Letters is they anticipate fewer hurricanes.

The bad news? The storms will likely have higher amounts of rain, with increased rain per hour.

“If you focus on storms that make landfall over the Eastern United States, they are more impactful from a rainfall standpoint,” Reed said. “The amount of rainfall per hour and the rainfall impact per year is expected to increase significantly in the future.”

In total, the amount of rainfall will be less because of the lower number of storms, although the intensity and overall precipitation will be sufficient to cause damaging rains and flooding.

Warmer oceans and the air above them will drive the increased rainfall, as these storms pass over higher sea surface temperatures where they can gain energy. Warmer, moist air gives the hurricanes more moisture to work with and therefore more potential rainfall.

“As the air gets warmer, it can hold more water in it,” Stansfield said. “There’s more potential rain in the air for the hurricanes before they make landfall.”

Stansfield said the predictions are consistent with what climatologists would expect, reflecting how the models line up with the theory behind them. She explored how climate change affects the size of storms in this paper, but she wants to do more research looking at hurricane size in the future.

“If hurricanes are larger, they will drop rainfall over a larger area,” which could increase the range of area over which policy makers might need to prepare for potential damage from flooding and high winds, Stansfield said.

While her models suggest that storms will be larger, she cautioned that the field hasn’t reached a consensus about the size of future storms. As for areas where there is greater consensus, such as the increased rainfall their models predict for storms at the end of the century, Stansfield suggested that the confidence in the community about their forecasts, which use different climate models, is becoming “more apparent as more modeling groups reach the same conclusion.”

Alyssa Stansfield at Sequoia National Park in 2018. Photo by Jess Stansfield

In explaining the expectations for higher rainfall in future storms, Reed said that even storms that had the same intensity as current hurricanes would have an increase in precipitation because of the availability of more moisture at the surface.

While storms in recent years, such as Hurricanes Harvey, Florence and Dorian dumped considerable rain in their path because they moved more slowly, effectively dumping rain over a longer period of time in any one area, it’s “unclear” whether future storms would move more slowly or stall over land.

Several factors might contribute to a decrease in the number of storms. For starters, an increase in wind sheer could disrupt the formation of some storms. Vertical wind sheer is caused when wind speed and direction changes with increasing altitude. Pre-hurricane conditions may also change due to internal variability and the randomness of the atmosphere, according to Reed.

Reed said the team chose to use climate models to make predictions for the end of the century because it is common in climate science for comparison to the recent historical record. They also used a 30 year period to limit some of the uncertainty due to internal variability of weather systems.

Stansfield, who is in her third year of graduate school and anticipates spending another two years at Stony Brook University before defending her graduate thesis, said she became interested in studying hurricanes in part because of the effects of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Alyssa Stansfield at Yosemite in 2019. Photo by Kathy Stansfield

When she was younger, she and her father Greg used to go to the beach when a hurricane passed hundreds of miles off the coast, where she would see the impact of the storm in larger waves. At some point, she would like to fly in a hurricane hunter plane, traveling directly into a storm to track its speed and direction.

Stansfield said one of the more common misconceptions about hurricanes is that the category somehow determines their destructive power. Indeed, Superstorm Sandy was a Category 1 hurricane when it hit New York and yet it caused $65 billion in damage, making it the 4th costliest hurricane in the United States, according to the NOAA.

After Stansfield earns her PhD, she said she wants to continue studying hurricanes. One question that she’d like to address at some point is why there are between 80 to 90 hurricanes around the world each year. This has been the case for about 50 years, since satellite records began.

“That’s consistent every year,” she said. “We don’t know why that’s the number. There’s no theory behind it.” She suggested that was a “central question” that is unanswered in her field. 

Understanding what controls the number of hurricanes will inform predictions about how that number will change in response to climate change.

Photo from SBU

Pierce Gardner, MD, Professor Emeritus at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, is the recipient of the 2020 Dr. Charles Mérieux Award for Achievement in Vaccinology and Immunology from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID). The award honors individuals whose outstanding lifetime contributions and achievements in the fight against vaccine-preventable diseases have led to significant improvement in public health.

Dr. Gardner’s career has centered on global health policy and training the next generation of public health providers to tackle health issues in low-resource countries. The Setauket resident has done extensive international work and has been a consultant for the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board (now the Defense Health Board). He served in many educational roles while at the Renaissance School of Medicine and remains instrumental in fostering students’ global health interests related to their career paths.

Previous recipients of this national award include luminaries in infectious diseases such as D.A. Henderson (who wiped out smallpox), Arnold Monto (a pioneer in influenza vaccine), and Kristin Nichol (a pioneer in pneumococcal vaccination).

Stock photo

Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) signed an executive order earlier today that will allow the state’s enforcement efforts to increase for businesses that aren’t following social distancing guidelines.

The state liquor authority can immediately suspend a business’s liquor license for violating rules. Bars and restaurants are not only responsible for ensuring these social distancing requirements inside their establishments, but are also required to enforce the area immediately outside their location, which includes the sidewalk and any expansion of their business into the street.

“Some of what we saw were people mingling and not seated,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said on his daily conference call with reporters. The county sent notifications from the Department of Health reminding the businesses of the guidance.

“We don’t want to be overly aggressive with businesses struggling to get back on their feet,” Bellone said, although he suggested that “egregious violations” have an appropriate mechanism in place to allow authorities to respond immediately.

Viral Numbers

The data from the county regarding the spread of the virus continues to be positive as Suffolk entered the second week of its Phase Two reopening.

An additional 40 people tested positive for the virus, bringing the total who have tested positive since the pandemic reached Long Island to 40,810. The rate of positive tests was 0.7 percent, which is well below the positive testing rate during the worst of the pandemic, which was above 30 percent.

Hospitalizations continue to hover around the same level, climbing one day and then falling the next. In the 24 hours ending June 16, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 was 125, which is a decline of four. That follows an increase from the day before of eight.

The number of people in the Intensive Care Unit with the virus remained the same, at 35.

An additional 15 people were discharged from the hospital in the last day.

The number of people who died from complications related to COVID-19 was three. Coronavirus has taken the lives of 1,961 residents of Suffolk County.

Hospital bed occupancy was at 66 percent, while the percent of ICU beds was at 62.

Earlier this week, the governor announced that hospital patients could receive visitors.

Stony Brook University Hospital received the updated guidelines to expand visitation with protocols for specific safety measures, health screenings and time limited visits, according to a Stony Brook Medicine official.

“We are currently reviewing these guidelines so that we can establish a safe process of visitation for our patients and their families while continuing to maintain a safe environment,” the SB official explained in an email. “We know visitors and loved ones play an essential role in the healing and recovery process of our patients and we look forward to welcoming them once again.”

The official didn’t indicate when the hospital might begin allowing visitors.

Summer Movies

At this point, the kick off to the summer film series at Smith Point County Park on Saturday, June 20 has sold out for the free showing of “Jaws” at 8:30 p.m. The date of the showing marks the 45th anniversary of the release of the film in which Richard Dreyfuss, playing Matt Hooper, proclaimed, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” when the shark attacked.

If those who have booked tickets do not arrive by 8:10 p.m., other residents can take their place, Bellone said.

The next movie in the summer film series is “Goonies,” which will be on June 24. Residents who would like to see the film can go to the web site suffolkcountyny.gov/driveinmovies to book their free tickets.

Other films on tap during the series include “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Elf”, and Harry Potter, although Bellone didn’t specify which of the eight films will be featured.

Main Street in Port Jefferson. Photo by Sapphire Perara

The Village of Port Jefferson approved a permit for protesters to march down Main Street June 18. 

Leaders of the protest filed an application for the protest earlier last week. Village officials said during their June 15 meeting that, originally, the protesters wished to organize by the basketball courts and make three laps of the downtown area. Considering the disruption this would cause, officials said they would allow the protesters to park in the Perry Street parking lot by the Port Jefferson train station, march down Main Street and eventually stop in front of Village Hall in order to make speeches. The protest is set to convene after 4 p.m, then start the march at 5 p.m. and end at 7 p.m.

Malachai Moloney, the speaker of the house for the Black Student Union at Stony Brook University, is at the head of facilitating and promoting the protest. He said the point of the march in PJ village is to give people more insight and perspective into how black communities feel on Long Island, especially in the wake of the deaths of black people nationwide before and after the killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd while in police custody May 26.

While village officials were concerned that those gathered wouldn’t leave the area after the time the application and flyers denoted, during the village’s live broadcasted meeting on YouTube, multiple people who claimed they were organizers for the protest said they intended it to remain peaceful, and that they would disband after holding speeches at Village Hall.

Along with the application, there is a fee attached that Mayor Margot Garant said helps to offset costs for additional village code presence. Village Clerk Barbara Sakovich confirmed protesters dropped off a check for that application fee the morning of June 15.

“It’s in our best interest to let this group organize peacefully rather than not organize peacefully,” Garant said. “At that point we would have another kind of organized protest of a different tonality.”

She added that the safety of the community “is of the utmost importance, only secondary to following the law.”

Moloney said the group originally planned to host the rally Friday, June 19, otherwise known as Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when a U.S. general finally read out orders in Texas that all slaves were free, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted. However, village officials emphasized to Moloney and other organizers it could not be hosted then. The airways have been abuzz due to the connotations of President Donald Trump (R) originally planning a rally on that date in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of the Tulsa race massacre that took place June 1, 1921. 

Otherwise, the protest organizer said he felt the village was only protecting village commerce and could do better to respect the opinions of the protesters.

“They want us to protest in a manner that’s convenient for them,” he said. “A protest is not supposed to not be disruptive.”

Other protests in neighboring communities have not necessarily filed permits, but village trustees said the fact organizers did file an application shows a degree of willingness to cooperate.

“We certainly appreciate reaching out and filing a permit for the event application — it is a very good thing — it’s appreciated by the village and we appreciate their goodwill,” said village attorney Brian Egan.

Moloney said the group used GoFundMe to fundraise for the $400 in fees to the village. He said the protesters were willing to do that but added that groups of counterprotesters who have already said online they likely will show up in response to the march are not filing an application or paying the village to convene. Moloney said its unfair how the onus is on marchers to follow the proper procedure, while those looking to decry their message will not go through that same process.

The village has not recieved any applications to convene from counterprotesters, and officials said the village has not given any other groups permission to assemble on that day.

Police and code enforcement have been notified, officials said. Main Street will be closed while the protesters make their way down Main Street, similar to how the roads are blocked during events like the Easter parade when it makes its way down to Harborfront Park. 

The village also stipulated in the permit that masks must be worn, and on the protests’ flyer it also states everyone is expected to wear masks. 

Garant said the question of social distancing was up to state mandates, which already stipulated that masks must be worn when people are unable to socially distance themselves. 

According to Suffolk County officials, the county has already played host to around 100 protests. So far, police have said, nearly all protests have remained peaceful. 

This article has been amended June 17 to clarify no others groups have been authorized to assemble.

A recipient of Stony Brook University Hospital's Starbucks give-back. Photo by Patti Kozlowski

Cup of Cheer

In an effort to give back to the healthcare heroes working around the clock to battle COVID-19, the community has raised more than $18,000 in donations to supply complimentary coffee to all Stony Brook University Hospital staff.

Headed by community members Holly Smugala, Patti Kozlowski, Nicole Volpini and Stefanie Devery, the group started when Volpini’s sister, a healthcare worker at the Hospital, snapped a photo of the Hospital’s Starbucks, which is adorned with photos and positive messages. Instead, said Smugala, something else jumped out at them. 

“We noticed all the staff waiting online for coffee and wanted to do something to give back to them,” she said. 

The women began a social media donation page dedicated to the cause shortly after. The funds donated go towards purchasing Starbucks gift cards at the hospital location, which can be used by any hospital employee that is working during the pandemic, from doctors and nurses to custodians and administrative staff. 

In order to enable healthcare workers of all shifts to be able to enjoy the benefit, the group worked out a plan with Starbucks in which $250 gift cards are used at different intervals during the day to pay for the drinks of any staff member that comes in. 

“We set an initial goal of $1,000, but we reached that in about an hour. Now, we just want to see how much it will grow. We don’t know how long this is going to go on and we don’t want to stop until it stops,” said Smugala. 

Those who are interested in donating to the cause can visit the group’s Facebook page, Starbucks for Stony Brook Superstars. 

“We are so thankful to be able to give back, because [this hospital] has touched all of our lives in one way or another. We are very thankful for everyone at Stony Brook,” Smugala added. 

Protesters rallied in Rocky Point Friday, June 12 in calling for an end to police brutality, and even to a complete restructuring of law enforcement. Photo by Kyle Barr

As the days pass between near daily protests related to the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd by a former police officer charged with his murder, the number of positive tests for COVID-19 remains at low levels.

In the last day, the number of positive tests was 56 as the county tested 5,879 people for a 1 percent rate for positive tests.

“My guess is that you’re not going to see a spike [in positive tests for the virus] as a result of the lack of social distancing in protests,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said on his daily conference call with reporters. “I do believe if you have those face coverings on outdoors, that is very safe.”

After the county entered Phase Two of its reopening this past Wednesday, Bellone hopes to expedite the process of moving to Phase Three.

“We thought the most relevant comparison would be to communities upstate where there are dense populations around the cities, to see whether they had impacts in Phase TWo and compare those and provide that information,” Bellone said. Based on what he has seen from the numbers in other areas, he doesn’t see any cautionary signs elsewhere.

As for the viral numbers in the county, Bellone said they continue to move in a favorable direction.

The number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 declined by nine in the day ending on June 11, bringing the total to 125. The number of people in the Intensive Care Unit also declined, with two people leaving the ICU, bringing that total to 39.

Bed capacity remains comfortably below targeted levels, with 65 percent of hospital beds occupied and 55 percent of ICU beds occupied, both of which are below the 70 percent target.

An additional 18 people were discharged from the hospital in the last day.

Meanwhile, the number of people killed by complications related to COVID-19 increased by 2 to 1,947. This follows a day in which the number of people who died from complications related to the virus was zero for the first time since mid March.

Meanwhile, the county will continue to maintain a field hospital built by the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers at Stony Brook University in the event that a second wave hits in the fall. If such an increase in viral cases hits Long Island at the same time as a difficult flu season, that could have a “devastating” impact on the health of the residents and the economy, Bellone said.

The county has not had to use that field hospital yet. If that facility, however, becomes necessary in the fall and into the winter, the county will add any necessary winterizing capacity.

Bellone continued to urge the federal government to help local governments, like Suffolk County, as they deal with the economic fallout from the virus. Bellone cited a municipal finance team’s report that estimated an economic hole that could be between $1.1 billion and $1.5 billion.

“We know we are in a recession right now,” Bellone said. “The numbers are cataclysmic in their impacts on local governments.”

Public health, public safety, and social services will all be “critical” in the days and months ahead, which will put tremendous strain on a county budget that depends on sales taxes that completely dried up after the county followed federal guidelines and shut down businesses to save lives and contain the spread of the virus.

“The good news is that our federal representatives are fighting for us in Washington to make sure the national government has done what it has always done throughout our history in times of need,” Bellone said.

The county executive said Long Island sends billions more to Washington than it receives each year, which increases the importance of helping Long Island’s economy recover.

Many Illnesses Carried by Ticks Share Symptoms with COVID-19

A deer tick is a common type of tick on Long Island. Stock photo

With summer close by and as New York State continues to relax shutdown restrictions, residents will naturally want to get some fresh air. But while open spaces like parks and nature preserves provide a temporary reprieve from the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also home to ticks. These arachnids can carry Lyme disease and other serious tick-borne illnesses. Experts say this is the time when ticks are most active and when their numbers increase. 

“We have already passed a month of tick activity here on Long Island,” said Jorge Benach, distinguished Toll professor of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology and Pathology at the Renaissance School of Medicine, Stony Brook University. “With minimal contact because people were staying indoors due to the pandemic, we have seen less cases.” 

Benach said that could change in the coming summer months, especially with an already large tick count this year. Currently, we are entering the second phase of tick season, which is when the arachnids are in the nymph stage and are harder to spot.

“For some reason Long Island has a heavy population of ticks,” Benach said. “It has the perfect environment for them and they really thrive.”

Three species of ticks call Long Island home. The deer tick can carry Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and other illnesses, while American dog tick can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The lone star tick can transmit tularemia and ehrlichiosis. 

“The lone star tick, we believe, is the most aggressive of the three species, and we didn’t know it existed until 1980,” the distinguished professor said. “And then it somehow found its way to Long Island.”

A 2019 study, headed by Benach and Rafal Tokarz, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, with co-authors from SBU and Columbia, found prevalence of multiple agents capable of causing human disease that are present in three species of ticks in Long Island.

Another concern this season is that tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease and anaplasmosis have symptoms that overlap with those of COVID-19, including fever, muscle aches and respiratory failure, but without persistent coughing. 

“It is true that they have overlap in the initial symptoms, but once you get past that first stage it should be easier to diagnose if that person has a tick-borne illness,” Benach said. 

Tick-borne diseases are usually treated with antibiotics. The effects range from mild symptoms that can be treated at home to severe infections that if left untreated can lead to death in rare cases. 

The distinguished professor stressed the need for people to be aware of ticks when they are in certain areas outdoors. 

Repellents and wearing long-sleeve pants and shirts can be good deterrents for ticks. Other tips include walking along the center of trails, washing and drying clothing when you come home and keeping pets from areas that could be tick infested. 

Benach said there is a misconception that humans get ticks from dogs. Instead, it is more likely one gets a tick from being in the same space as your dog.

“You should be checking yourself, and if you spot a tick get it off as soon as possible,” he said. “If you develop any symptoms or illness contact your doctor.”

Dr. Frank Darras. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Dr. Frank Darras, Clinical Professor of Urology and Clinical/ Medical Director of the Renal Transplantation Program at Stony Brook University Renaissance School of Medicine Hospital, has performed over 1,700 kidney transplants since 1990. 

This year has been especially challenging for the surgeon, as he has had to enhance safety procedures to protect patients who are on immunosuppressants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of the new normal for kidney transplants, Stony Brook takes time to test patients for coronavirus. In the first few weeks after the virus hit Suffolk County, the tests took all day. In recent weeks, the labs have produced test results within one to three hours.

Through late April, Darras said the hospital hasn’t had to send anyone home who had a positive COVID-19 test.

The long-term effects of COVID-19 on the function of normal kidneys is difficult to predict, he said. Many of the patients with the most severe symptoms from the virus not only needed ventilators, but also needed dialysis treatments. In the majority of cases where people recovered from the virus, their kidneys also recovered.

The hospital has also seen patients who received kidney transplants who have contracted the virus. “Several of these [transplanted patients] had diminished function, but all of them recovered their kidney function,” Darras said.

The longer-term effects of the virus are unknown. Some patients who were severely ill may have recovered, but have kidney problems that slowly escalate over time.

“I would not be surprised to see that happen, whether that’s months or years down the road,” Darras said.

Another unknown is how the virus would affect the transplant community in the longer term. “In the worst case, it’ll make our living donor pool smaller,” he said. About one out of three kidney transplants comes from a living donor. “On the other hand, in the best case scenario, [the virus will have] relatively little impact. It’s too early to tell,” he added.

According to Darras, people who need kidney transplants can extend their life expectancy by two to three times. He estimated that about five to six percent of the people waiting for a transplant died while on a kidney waiting list.

Darras explained that “time is of the essence” for many patients because the “longer patients are on dialysis, the more urgent [the need] to get them transplanted,” and added that finding donors is critically important, particularly during the pandemic.

“There is a concern about trying to make sure that we can get enough kidneys,” he said. “Our job and the job of LiveonNY is to raise awareness about organ donation.”