Staying connected with our loved ones can keep us healthy

The Latest
Yesterday, hours after the President defended his decision to change course and extend social distancing measures to the end of April, America’s COVID-19 fatalities surged passed 3,000. We now have the world’s highest number of reported cases. US health officials have warned that the coronavirus pandemic could result in 200,000 deaths, even “if we do things . . . almost perfectly”. Worldwide, more than 801,000 people have been infected with the virus and more than 38,000 have died.

In Illinois, the largest conference center in the country is being turned into a hospital. In New York, a floating Navy hospital with 1,000 beds and 12 operating rooms finally arrived to help ease the overflow of patients crowding the city’s hospitals. In Las Vegas, the homeless are being forced to sleep in painted squares in a stadium parking lot in an effort to maintain safe physical distances.

Even as the virus continues to sweep the globe, two US companies made positive announcements in the fight against the pandemic. Johnson & Johnson announced a potential vaccine that might be available as early as next year, while Abbott Laboratories launched a rapid test kit. J&J said it had discovered a vaccine candidate and is working with the US government on the drug. The company is investing $1 billion in development and expects to start testing by September. Abbott is launching a Covid-19 test that can be run on a portable machine the size of a toaster. Its diagnostic test could cut the wait time for results to as little as 5 minutes for a positive result and 13 minutes for a negative one.

The Public Health
In another sign of the Administration’s course change, officials at the CDC are considering revising guidance about the wearing of masks by the public, according to an anonymous federal official, who stressed that the discussion internally is ongoing and nothing has been finalized. Current CDC guidance is that healthy people don’t need masks or face coverings.

The new guidance would advise the general public to not use medical masks, including surgical and N95 masks, that are in short supply and desperately needed by healthcare workers. Instead, the policy under consideration would recommend using do-it-yourself cloth face protection. The hope would be that DIY cloth masks would lower the risk that the wearer, if infected, would transmit the virus to other people.

In a positive sign, social distancing policies appears to be having the desired effect in the Seattle metro area. Public health officials there have found that a measure of transmission, called the effective reproductive number, dropped by about half from about 2.7 in late February to about 1.4 on March 18. This number represents the number of new transmissions resulting from each infection. In order to see a drop in new cases, each infected person, on average, must infect fewer than one person.

Also, in New York City, our current epicenter of the outbreak, admission rates at intensive care units appear to be slowing.

The Economy
Millions of Americans already have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the worst of the damage is yet to come, according to a Federal Reserve estimate. Economists at the St. Louis Fed project the number of unemployed to reach 47 million, which would translate to a 32% unemployment rate. A record 3.3 million Americans filed initial jobless claims for the week ended March 21. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones expect another 2.7 million to join them this week.

Some of America’s biggest retailers – Macy’s, Gap and Kohl’s – have started to furlough workers at their closed stores, meaning potentially hundreds of thousands more added to the country’s unemployment rolls. At the same time, employees at Amazon, Whole Foods and Instacart have increased the pressure on management for better health protections. Workers at over a dozen Amazon warehouses have tested positive for COVID-19, according to reports.

The one potential bright side to this wholesale shutdown of the American economy is the likelihood that the downturn could be comparatively brief. The president of the St. Louis Fed commented, “This is a special quarter, and once the virus goes away and if we play our cards right and keep everything intact, then everyone will go back to work and everything will be fine.”

The Administration’s Response
Yesterday, the Federal Reserve announced a new program intended to help insulate the domestic economy from trouble overseas, yet another unprecedented action in response to the pandemic.

The Fed is starting an “international repo facility”, which will allow foreign central banks to obtain US dollars overnight by exchanging the US Treasury securities they hold. The goal of this latest Fed action is to prevent foreign central banks from panic selling their US Treasuries. Earlier this month investors were often selling both stocks and bonds, a very unusual situation, as nervous investors typically sell stocks and head to the safety of bonds.

The Fed has also lowered interest rates to zero, started buying hundreds of billions worth of government and corporate bonds, attempted to stabilize the Treasury, mortgage and money markets, and provided loans to banks at a historically low rate of 0.25%.

Congress has also granted the Fed the ability to start lending directly to small- and mid-size companies as well, and the Fed intends to announce a so-called “Main Street” lending program soon.

What We Can Do
The coronavirus pandemic has impacted all of our lives. For many of us, the most painful aspect has been the realization that at a time when we want to be close to those we care about most, closeness is something we must avoid.

Psychologists have expressed serious concern about the long-term effects of our new, socially distant lifestyle. Research has shown that loneliness and isolation are associated with a variety of health issues, including high blood pressure, chronic inflammation, and a weakened immune system.

However, there is also positive news in the data. Studies have revealed that human connection can ease pain and reduce physical symptoms of stress. This can be something as simple as getting an offer of help from a stranger or looking at a picture of someone you love. People who feel supported by their social networks are more likely to live longer. One experiment even found that people with relatively more social ties are less susceptible to the common cold.

Many of us are now isolated, lonely, and worried about family and friends we cannot see. But, a supportive phone call, an empathetic ear, an expression of love, can bolster the immune system at the molecular level. Kindness is good for your health, whether you’re the recipient or the giver.

We remain available to speak with you at any time.

Keep the faith, be safe and stay healthy.

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