Musician couple host concerts to fundraise for food pantry
NEW YORK – When Erin Shields belted out “Being Alive” – the showstopper from the Broadway classic “Company” – the title had extra levels of meaning.
This virtual concert, broadcast from Shields’ living room, helped fund the food pantry at Mosaic West Queens Church, which is feeding hungry residents of the Sunnyside neighborhood. It also gave Shields and her husband, David Shenton, an opportunity to resume their artistic lives.
The couple, touring musicians, lost gigs worldwide during the coronavirus pandemic. With the concerts, they’ve used their art to raise thousands of dollars.
It began when they saw the lines that stretched for blocks outside the pantry, which is near their apartment. Several friends had lost jobs after Broadway closed, and they felt the need to help.
“When your entire industry shuts down, you think, ‘well, how are we going to do this?'” Shields said. “Seeing the people in line …, you go, ‘I can be that person and that could be my family member.'”
In September, they joined the volunteers at the church who distribute more than 1,000 boxes of food to families twice a week. As time passed, they felt the need to do more for others during the pandemic.
“I thought, I’m not a doctor … I don’t really have much to offer. But then I thought, well, you know, we can perform,” said Shields, a soprano from Illinois who sings with her husband, a British composer, pianist and violinist. Other talented friends were willing to join for a good cause.
“We have all these connections to Broadway singers outside of their work on Broadway, so we wanted to capitalize on that,” Shenton said.
During a recent concert, smiling families on Zoom clapped and sang along (on mute). Among the performers were Broadway musicians known for their work in everything from “Hamilton” and “The Little Mermaid” to “Tootsie” and “Les Mis’erables.”
Shields sang crowd favorites, including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz” – she played Dorothy in her high school’s production, her first big role. Shenton played a huge B”osendorfer 225 piano that he lovingly calls the couple’s baby. He named it “Wolfgang Kathryn,” in memory of his late mother and her favorite composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
For years, the couple have performed at churches in New York. And they’re no strangers to good deeds – they’ve sung to older adults and Alzheimer’s patients in Illinois, taught music to kids in Arizona and followed their passion for animal rights by traveling to Zimbabwe to take care of elephants and protect other vulnerable wildlife.
Shields said volunteering became especially important last year when New York turned into the epicenter of the pandemic, with the sirens of ambulances rushing patients to hospitals resounding throughout the city.
“It’s just something my mom always said: ‘If you’re feeling low, volunteer, give back to other people, because it will make you feel better,'” Shields said. “And it’s so true.”
Oregon prescription drug price control proposal would put the state out front, as legislatures nationally look to tackle costs
A bipartisan group of Oregon lawmakers is backing a proposal to tackle unaffordable prescription drug prices that would go further than any other state in the nation.
Several legislatures around the country are considering or have looked into similar proposals to create drug-pricing boards this year, based on a milder version Maryland passed in 2019.
The possibility that the Oregon Legislature could vote on such a plan has attracted national political spending for and against it, most visibly in the form of digital and print ads paid for by the pharmaceutical industry.
Drug pricing control “hasn’t happened at the federal level so states are saying, ‘Let’s do something here, what we can,'” said Sen. Deb Patterson, a first-year Democrat from Salem and one of four sponsors of the bill. “Health care continues to be one of the most expensive parts of people’s budgets.”
Senate Bill 844 would create a state Prescription Drug Affordability Board with the power to set upper limits on how much Oregon buyers would be allowed to pay for particularly high-priced drugs. Payment limits would apply throughout the health care system, from wholesalers and pharmacies to physicians, hospitals and nursing homes, according to another bill sponsor, Rep. Rachel Prusak, a Democrat from West Linn. For patients, the proposal could reduce what they pay for high-priced drugs.
If insurers, pharmacy benefit managers or individuals want to opt out of the payment limit for a drug, the proposal would allow them to do so. Bill language instructs the board to set up “a simple process” to allow opt-outs.
The board would have five members appointed by the governor. Board membership would be limited to Oregon residents with expertise in health care economics or clinical medicine and people with ties to the pharmaceutical industry would be barred from serving. The bill would create a stakeholder council to advise the board, and pharmaceutical industry representatives would be included on the council in addition to representatives of other health care sectors, labor unions, employers and diverse communities.
Lawmakers are scheduled to vote Wednesday afternoon on whether to move the bill out of committee and send it the full Senate for a vote. Democrats hold a supermajority in both chambers of the Oregon Legislature and in recent years Republicans have also enthusiastically helped to pass laws that force drug makers to give advance notice and explain large increases in the prices of medicines. It’s unclear how a proposal to cap price of some high-cost drugs would fare, however.
Both Prusak and Patterson have backgrounds in health care: Prusak is a nurse practitioner and Patterson spent 20 years working for various organizations on health policy, education and advocacy.
Rep. Kim Wallan, a Republican from Medford, is also a chief sponsor on the bill but did not respond to a request for comment. Sen. James Manning Jr., a Eugene Democrat, also signed on as a regular sponsor of the bill. Altogether, it’s a shorter list of sponsors than many bills this session.
Maryland was the first – and so far only – state to pass a comparable version of the pricing board law, although it only covered public employers and the board must get permission from legislative leaders on any payment limit, according to the health news organization Stat. The board’s price control authority takes effect in 2022.
In Maryland, the push to control drug prices got a boost from a billionaire Texas couple, John and Laura Arnold, through their funding of health reform advocacy, Stat reported. The Arnolds are also lending financial support to the Oregon proposal, according to registered lobbyist and former state House speaker Dave Hunt. Hunt represents a coalition of public employee unions, health insurance and health care companies, AARP Oregon and OSPIRG.
Oregon lawmakers’ proposal for the price control board comes three years after legislators passed a landmark drug price transparency law. Prusak said Senate Bill 844 is the logical next step. If the plan passes, “somebody can actually control the cost if the increase isn’t warranted,” Prusak said. “If (drug makers) can present their case that it’s warranted, I can’t imagine there’s a problem.”
Drug price data collected thus far by the state illustrates some of the limits of how much that approach has affected costs.
In 2018, the Legislature passed with strong bipartisan support a law that requires drug companies to report to the state any net annual price increase of 10% for prescription drugs that cost more than $100 a month. There is also a reporting requirement for new drugs that cost more than $670 a month. And under a second drug price reporting law the Legislature passed in 2019, companies must notify the state 60 days in advance if they expect annual price increases of at least 10% or $10,000 for brand name drugs and at least 25% or $300 for generic pharmaceuticals.
Proponents of the 2018 law described it as a first step to understand what drives increases in prescription drug prices. State regulators summed up the first two years of drug pricing data in annual reports which contain some interesting findings. The pharmaceutical industry has sued in federal court to overturn the laws, but in the meantime they remain in effect.
In 2020, “drug manufacturers submitted 70% fewer price increase reports to the state” than in 2019, according to the Department of Consumer and Business Services. “The reasons for this trend are unclear … One explanation suggested by the data is that manufacturers are spreading price increases more widely across their portfolio of drugs to avoid triggering transparency requirements.”
Pharmaceutical makers increased prices in 2020 on drugs that had been profitable in 2019, the state found. There was an average 2019 profit margin of 19% for drugs with 2020 price increases high enough to trigger reporting requirements, according to the state. Six of those drugs had profit margins of more than 80%, “meaning they make 80 cents of pure profit for every dollar of revenue from the drug,” state regulators wrote.
Stories of sudden steep increases in drug prices abound, from when former pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shkreli increased the cost of medicine to treat parasitic infections from $13.50 to $750 a pill, to continued cost increases for the decades old EpiPen and insulin which was discovered a century ago, NPR reported. News also continues to come out about pharmaceutical companies’ role in the nation’s opioid addiction crisis, for example that Purdue Pharma downplayed the addiction risk of OxyContin.
Still, the central role of vaccines in combating the COVID-19 pandemic and the speed at which drug researchers developed the shots has helped to rehabilitate the industry’s image with Americans. A February survey by the Harris Poll found 62% percent of respondents had a favorable view of prescription drug companies, up from 32% in January 2020.
Industry trade group PhRMA highlighted the successful development of vaccines “in record-breaking time” in a statement emailed to The Oregonian/OregonLive. “In the midst of this progress, Oregon legislators are promoting a harmful policy that would threaten the very research and investment needed to get us out of this and future pandemics,” the group’s Director of Public Affairs Jasmine Gossett wrote. She did not directly answer a question about how the Oregon price control proposal would undermine the industry’s ability to conduct research and develop vaccines, particularly given the option for purchasers to opt out of any potential price limits if they felt the need to pay more to support the research.
In ads against the Oregon drug board proposal, PhRMA said that any price limits could lead to some medicines no longer being available to patients in the state. When The Oregonian/OregonLive asked Gossett to explain the claim, she did not cite reasons but instead pointed to a PhRMA ranking of the number of cancer drugs available in nearly two dozen countries that shows the U.S. has speedy access to by far the most of any country, with Germany a distant second.
Prusak said drug companies are implying they would stop selling certain medicines in Oregon if the state started to set payment limits. “Those arguments … are so offensive and ridiculous,” she said. “They continue to sell to countries like Canada and around the world at the same or much less cost. And yet they’re threatening if Oregon and other states were to lower to those costs they wouldn’t sell here. It doesn’t pass the logic test.”
Prusak described PhRMA’s statement that payment caps could undercut vaccine development “fear mongering during the pandemic, during a time that people have lived through a scarcity in vaccines.” She pointed to a February 2020 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation that found 45% of Americans surveyed said they were “very or somewhat worried” about being able to afford prescription drug costs.
PhRMA targeted Prusak specifically with a Google ad that says, “Tell Rep. Prusak: Vote No – Stop Threatening Access.”
Rep. Rob Nosse, a Democrat from Southeast Portland, said the pharmaceuticals industry targeted him and other lawmakers in a similar way when they were pushing for the 2018 price disclosure law. The Register-Guard reported at the time that the industry paid for “a firm in Virginia to call Oregonians around the state to ask them whether they’re interested in sending a letter to 13 targeted lawmakers, a mix of swing-seat Democrats and moderate Republicans, during the ongoing session.”
“The pharmaceutical industry is powerful,” Nosse said in an interview, although in his experience the approach “doesn’t work. It’s kind of desperate.”
With that said, Nosse said he personally supports Senate Bill 844 but is unsure it will pass this year. “It’s an aggressive bill.”
After perilous climbing fall, Idaho outdoorsman has lessons to share on pride, safety
BOISE, Idaho – For weeks after his accident, Michael Lanza woke up each morning replaying the fall.
Last October, Lanza, 59, fell 25 feet and crashed headfirst onto a rock ledge while rock climbing in Little Cottonwood Canyon outside Salt Lake City with his son, Nate.
Lanza is an outdoors writer and has been rock climbing, hiking, backpacking and biking for most of his life. He founded his outdoors website, The Big Outside, to share tips and tales while offering online guides and trip-planning services to other outdoor enthusiasts.
For years, Lanza had been accustomed to sharing his experiences and expertise with his readers. But after the accident, he hesitated. To start, he needed to focus on healing. A team of first responders had evacuated him from the Utah canyon and took him to a hospital near Salt Lake City, where he learned he had fractured his C1 and T3 vertebrae, both of which can cause paralysis. After more than 24 hours in the hospital, Lanza and his wife, Penny, started the journey back to Boise – and the longer journey to his recovery.
In decades of outdoor adventuring, Lanza had never had such an extreme injury. But outside of the physical challenge, Lanza was also dealing with an emotional one. As he replayed the accident in his mind, he wondered how to share his story and drive home a balanced message: to be mindful of dangers without becoming too fearful.Acknowledging an ‘avoidable accident’
Five months after the accident, Lanza is quick to point out where he went wrong. He and Nate, a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Utah, were climbing Crescent Crack in Little Cottonwood Canyon. It was a route Nate had climbed before and was excited to share with his dad, who he’d been climbing alongside since childhood.
Lanza had started the climb with a variety of gear, including different-sized cams, devices that expand in crevices and act as secure anchors. He was about 150 feet up the granite rock face and approaching the end of that section of the climb, known as a pitch, as Nate belayed him – managing the tension of the rope connected to both their harnesses – from the ground.
“I had already used a lot of the gear I was carrying in the pitch,” Lanza said in a phone interview. “I really didn’t have quite the ideal size of cam for the crack I was trying to place it in, so I moved this one cam that was as close as I needed to the right size. I thought, ‘Well that’s not quite ideal but this position I have it in is the best I can find.’ And that was the self-deception there.”
Moving the cam meant the next closest piece of equipment acting as a fail-safe was more than 10 feet below Lanza. He tried moving ahead on the rock face, but his foot slipped. When his weight fell on the precariously placed cam, disaster struck.
“I’ve been climbing for 30 years. I don’t think I’d ever fallen on a piece that I’d placed and seen it fail and actually pop out,” Lanza said.
Without the cam to anchor him, Lanza fell even farther, a leg catching on the rope and turning him upside down. His son, 150 feet below and unable to see Lanza, didn’t realize anything had gone wrong until he heard his dad yelling for help. Together, the men painstakingly lowered Lanza to the canyon floor.
The failed cam became the anchor for Lanza’s regret: If only he had done things differently, taken the time to backtrack to the ledge and have Nate follow him up, bringing along the variety of gear he’d left behind him along the way. With a simple solution, Lanza said, there would have been a vastly different outcome. Was that something he wanted to tell the world?
“I had made this grievous error of judgment that could’ve been fatal, could’ve left me quadriplegic,” he said. “It’s difficult to share that with people.”
He wondered how readers would react. He already ruminated on the mistake and worried telling the story of his fall would leave readers hung up on the same detail of the poorly placed cam.
“I’ve seen tragedy in the backcountry previously, and I’ve seen time and time again that there are people who do these (activities) also who, I think, find kind of a false comfort in being judgmental,” he said. “… I think people take this false comfort because they can say to themselves: ‘They were being stupid. That was dumb. They’re idiots for making that mistake.’ ”
He doesn’t think the judgment comes from a malicious place.
“It’s a subtle way of reassuring yourself that ‘I wouldn’t make that mistake because I make good choices in the backcountry,’ ” Lanza said. “I wouldn’t want my kids or my friends or family to fall into that self-deception. It’s a danger. You’re not on your toes, not being as cautious as you can be because you believe your judgment’s always going to be good because you’re not fallible.”
That raised another concern. Lanza didn’t want to serve as a cautionary tale if readers would write off his mistake and convince themselves they’d never do the same.
“It took me a while to say ‘All right, there’s some value in sharing this’ and there’s a lesson in it if people are willing to read that lesson,” he said. “… I decided to expose myself to that criticism and acknowledge that that was an avoidable accident and it was my own judgment error that led to it. It’s less important that I feel badly about that happening than it is to share that important lesson with people.”Despite concerns, sharing story was a catharsis
Lanza started making notes for a potential story on The Big Outside just a few weeks after the fall. He remained unsure if he’d ever publish it, focusing instead on recovering. He continued publishing other articles on the website, his family and some close friends the only ones aware of the accident.
For a while, a back brace made it hard to keep the story to himself when he saw familiar faces in public.
“I’d occasionally run into people and they’d see I was wearing this brace and ask what happened,” Lanza said. “I’d always see the same reaction – this twisting, pained reaction on their faces. I thought, ‘I don’t want to share this with anyone else for a while until I have better news to share.’ ”
By December, he was skiing Nordic trails at Bogus Basin, his injuries virtually invisible. He’d run into acquaintances there, telling them not much was new in his life. He didn’t want to burden people with a painful story, he said.
Lanza started to work through the complicated thoughts and emotions from his accident at the same time he worked through a complicated physical recovery.
“The physical aspect of it is difficult,” he said. “There’s a whole lot of pain, and that certainly can affect your mood. And then there’s wondering how well I’d recover, when I’d be able to get back to the things I’d like to do.”
He had no plans to leave hiking, biking, trail running – even rock climbing – behind. But his accident had reiterated to some the idea that some of Lanza’s pastimes, particularly climbing, were too risky.
“I had friends who said: ‘Are you going to quit this rock climbing now? You going to be safer now?’ ” he said. “I try to be safe all the time and understand these sports and how to minimize these dangers.”
Lanza said he feels more danger on a road bike than climbing a rock face. That danger is constant, he said, where climbing includes specific moments of risk like the one that led to his accident.
One of the points Lanza wanted his readers to take away from his experience: Avoiding danger isn’t about never encountering it; instead, you try to find a balance, being aware of those risks and ensuring you never feel like you’re too careful for it to happen to you.‘It was a struggle over whether to be so public’
He wrote the story of his accident on and off over about three months. He published it on The Big Outside on Feb. 20.
“Writing about the details of the fall and rescue were the most difficult, but overall, it was a struggle over whether to be so public about what happened,” Lanza said. “For me, the most gut-wrenching aspect of what happened was thinking about the impact it would have had on my family.”
His family was behind him. Nate, just like he had been in Little Cottonwood Canyon, was there to encourage his dad.
“He recalled a brief exchange we’d had that day, once I’d gotten to the ground and was lying there while he called for a rescue,” Lanza said. “As we waited, he tried to soften any self-criticism I was feeling by saying to me, ‘It (the fall) wasn’t your fault.’ He recalled that I responded immediately, ‘There’s no one but me at fault for what happened.’ ”
With the story fully written, Lanza didn’t publish it until he was certain it was the right choice. By then, it felt like a weight lifting off his shoulders.
It wasn’t long before he found support and words of encouragement from readers. Some told him they often looked to him for advice and would take his experience to heart.
“The story resonated with them in a way that I hoped,” Lanza said. “They realize that these accidents can happen to really just about anybody and we shouldn’t kid ourselves when we head outdoors or into any environment.”
Though he’d spent weeks reliving his accident, this time retelling the story was cathartic.
“I suppose it’s sort of like admitting to yourself something that was hard to admit to yourself,” he said. “When you finally do it, it feels better. The reaction just reinforced that feeling.”
He hasn’t yet returned to rock climbing – it’s not ideal weather for the sport, plus he hopes to resolve some lingering stiffness and pain in his neck – but there’s little doubt in his mind that he’ll be back on the crags eventually. Lanza said all the benefits he finds in the outdoors are worth the risks, so long as he stays mindful of the dangers. That’s the final lesson he hopes to impart.
“Enjoy yourself, try to be safe, but don’t believe you’re inherently safer lying on your couch than going on a hike in the mountains,” Lanza said.
Family of autistic man says deputies were warned of his disabilities before shooting
LOS ANGELES – When Isaias Cervantes spiraled into a mental health crisis last week, his family called 911. A sister and a therapist who works with Cervantes told the Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies who responded that the agitated 25-year-old had autism and was hard of hearing, according to another sister and a lawyer for the family.
Despite the alleged warnings, the encounter quickly escalated and ended minutes later when a deputy shot Cervantes, causing injuries that could leave him paralyzed .
“Knowing he may not walk, it’s just not right,” said a sister, Yajaira Cervantes. “I wish that they would be more trained officers that know how to deal with disabilities.”
She and a group of demonstrators gathered outside the Hall of Justice downtown on Monday afternoon, some carrying signs that said “Justice for Isaias.”
The Sheriff’s Department said in a news release that deputies from the agency’s East Los Angeles station responded on March 31 to a family disturbance at the home where a man had “reportedly been assaulting a family member.” The news release did not name Isaias Cervantes, but said that the man “attacked one of the deputies gouging at his eyes while attempting to disarm him” and that the man was shot during the struggle. Sheriff’s detectives are investigating the incident.
Capt. John Satterfield, a spokesman for the department, said the shooting at the family’s house on Live Oak Street in Cudahy, along with the moments leading up to it and its aftermath, was recorded on body cameras worn by the deputies. “We will release video and other pertinent evidence in the near future,” he said.
Austin Dove, an attorney representing Cervantes and his family, said Cervantes had become irritated and pushed his mother away before one of his relatives called police in hopes they would be able to “calm things down.”
“My mom was really scared and she said … we should call the police, or they could come and maybe calm him down,” Yajaira Cervantes said.
Instead, Dove said, the deputies “immediately escalated it.”
When two deputies arrived, Dove said, they called Isaias Cervantes to the gate. Cervantes refused, saying he didn’t want to come.
The deputies made their way in and each grabbed one of Cervantes’ arms, Dove said. The three ended up on the floor, and during the scuffle one deputy warned the other that Cervantes “might try to get your gun,” Dove said.
As he struggled against the deputies’ attempts to handcuff him, Cervantes’ hearing aid fell out, Dove said. He added that one deputy drew his weapon and shot Cervantes at close range.
Cervantes was taken to a hospital, where a group of deputies blocked Dove from entering Cervantes’ room for about an hour, the lawyer said. The deputies abruptly left, telling Dove that Cervantes was no longer in custody.
Cervantes’ mother and a behavioral therapist who works with Cervantes witnessed the shooting. They were detained and questioned for hours with investigators asking whether Cervantes was suicidal and whether he hates the police, Dove said.
Citing the ongoing investigation, Satterfield declined to say whether members of the sheriff’s Mental Evaluation Team were called or responded to Cervantes’ house.
Dove said the team’s mental health experts were not at the house. The team typically is summoned by deputies who respond to a call and determine someone may be suffering from mental illness. Its members usually work in pairs: a deputy and a licensed mental health clinician trained to de-escalate and avoid the use of force.
In 2020, the team’s members responded to 7,246 calls involving people in mental health crises, a Sheriff’s Department report said. The report said that handling deputies or patrol supervisors at those calls believed that patrol deputies would have “very likely” used force during more than 430 of those encounters had it not been for the mental health team’s arrival.
Programs like the sheriff’s Mental Evaluation Team and the role of police in mental health cases were the focus of intense debate following the killings by police of George Floyd and other Black men and women. Widespread protests against police abuses included demands that police be removed altogether from mental health calls and involvement with the homeless.
Judy Mark, who runs a group that advocates for people with disabilities, said she also helps train police officers on how to approach people with mental disabilities. She said that after the shooting of Cervantes, she has decided she no longer can participate in those training sessions.
“I’m done with the collaboration – we have to create a different way. There is just too much resistance to reform,” said Mark, who has a 24-year-old son with autism. “As families we do not feel safe in reaching out to 911 or police for any circumstance where we may need assistance, so there’s got to be a better way.”
Health officials split on rapid COVID-19 tests as admission tickets
Epidemiologists and other public health experts are debating whether to use rapid COVID-19 tests as admission tickets to schools, businesses and entertainment and sports venues.
Even with the quickening pace of vaccinations, it will be months before all Americans who want COVID-19 vaccines receive them. As a result, testing could become ubiquitous as a requirement for students, office workers, spectators and visitors seeking to gather indoors.
Many enterprises have been doing such testing for months, from colleges and universities to Hollywood movie productions to professional sports teams. In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he wants to use extensive testing to enable Broadway to reopen.
More venues will take up testing as K-12 schools expand in-person instruction and a wide array of businesses and entertainment venues welcome people inside.
Manufacturers of tests say they are seeing a surge in interest from both public and private sources.
But some epidemiologists think that with uneven test and lab quality and varying skill levels among people administering the tests, the effort isn’t worth the time and money.
“With that kind of testing in most situations, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze,” said Dr. Daniel Morgan, an infectious disease doctor and professor of epidemiology at the University of Maryland.
But others hold the opposite view. “Active disease testing is the missing link for schools and employers to give them full confidence to come back in person,” said Mara Aspinall, a professor of health diagnostics at Arizona State University who advises the Rockefeller Foundation on COVID-19 research.
The testing debate coincides with arguments over whether proof of a COVID-19 vaccine should determine access to public spaces.
The skeptics’ chief complaint is the tests’ uncertain reliability. “We don’t have a gold standard,” said Dr. Anthony Harris, who is also a University of Maryland infectious disease doctor and epidemiologist. “There is not one test that is perfect.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved all COVID-19 tests and vaccines on the market under an emergency use authorization. During a public health emergency, the FDA can waive or loosen certain evaluation requirements to get essential products to the public as quickly as possible.
Harris said that because of time constraints, the COVID-19 tests now on the market were mostly studied for their effectiveness on those exhibiting symptoms of the disease. “They are not necessarily evaluated on asymptomatic people,” Harris said, who would likely be the majority of the people being to screened to determine if they can safely enter a venue.
There are two general categories of diagnostic COVID-19 tests. Molecular tests, usually referred to as PCR (for polymerase chain reaction) tests, can detect the genetic material of the virus. Antigen tests detect protein fragments specific to the virus that causes COVID-19.
The PCR tests are considered far more reliable, but are pricey and take hours to produce results. The Testing Wisely website, led by Morgan, lists PCR tests as producing 10% false negatives compared with 37% for antigen tests. (A false negative result occurs when a test shows someone is negative for the infection when it is actually present.)
“I’ve been involved with [antigen] tests that have up to 40% false positives and negatives,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
As an example of the tests’ unreliability, skeptics point to the failures of antigen rapid testing during the Trump administration, including at the White House reception honoring Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
At least 12 people who attended that September event later tested positive for COVID-19, including President Donald Trump himself, even though they had received negative rapid tests before being allowed in. More than 35 White House staffers and other Trump associates came down with the virus despite the ongoing testing there.
However, antigen tests are cheaper and return results faster – in as little as 15 minutes. These features make them attractive for on-site screening at, for instance, live events and airport terminals. A negative result would allow admission.
Harvard epidemiologist Dr. Michael Mina, one of the most prominent proponents of screening tests, has noted that while antigen tests can miss the presence of the virus, they are better at flagging people with moderate or high viral loads. That means they can identify the people most likely to infect others.
PCR tests have their own problems. While more reliable than antigen tests, they can show someone is positive for the virus up to 100 days after they are no longer infectious – an unnecessary overcorrection for admissions tickets.
The FDA has also recently approved rapid PCR tests that can produce results in just under an hour. In the NCAA basketball tournaments, the NCAA used PCR tests for men’s teams and antigen tests for the women, which caused an uproar over the unequal treatment.
But many epidemiologists stressed that the quality of FDA-approved tests varies considerably. Furthermore, the samples collected may be faulty or contaminated, the person conducting the tests might be sloppy and the labs themselves might be deficient. “There are crappy companies running good tests,” Harris said.
The problem of false positive and false negative results goes beyond the risk of exposing people to infection. Epidemiologists fear that excess faulty results could cause people to ignore results altogether and fail to take necessary public health precautions.
“People who want to do something or need to do something, like those who have to go to work – they probably wouldn’t look for a reason not to go to work if they didn’t feel sick,” said Maryland’s Morgan. “So, if they get a positive result, they may not choose to stay at home, figuring the test was wrong anyway.”
Osterholm said there should be national testing standards that explain who should be screened and how often, the meaning of positive tests and what actions those results should prompt.
But even epidemiologists skeptical about mass testing think it could occasionally be useful.
“If in a community prevalence is high and very few people have been vaccinated, then yes, I would say regular testing in schools and colleges and businesses can make sense,” said Harris.
“But if prevalence is low and you have a high vaccination rate, that reduces the value of testing and increases the probability that you are getting a lot of false positives.” It would be better to spend the effort and resources on other mitigation efforts and on getting people vaccinated, he said.
Dr. Michael Saag, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who also advises the university on COVID-19 public health measures, said that while the school has run a robust testing program, it will soon scale it back. With a positivity rate of less than 0.1%, he said it’s just not worth it.
“I’m not trying to rain on the parade of testing, but there are things we can do in a common sense realm that are more effective than testing,” he said, such as masking and social distancing.
Testing remains central to reopening plans despite its shortcomings. The COVID-19 relief bill President Joe Biden signed last month provides nearly $50 billion for testing, including $10 billion for testing in K-12 schools to enable them to open their doors to even more students for in-person teaching this spring.
Many school systems have implemented multistage testing protocols. Some seem designed to address the reservations some epidemiologists expressed.
Baltimore is one of those school districts. In March, the city began reopening lower grades in the public schools for in-person instruction, with plans to open other grades this month.
To reopen safely, the schools have implemented a multilayered PCR testing procedure that begins with pool testing. In pool testing a group of people is tested to determine whether anyone in the group is infected, without disclosing who in the group carries the virus.
All students, teachers and staff in Baltimore are subjected to pooled testing once a week. The average size of the pools in the city schools is just under 13 individuals, said Cleo Hirsch, director of priority initiatives for the Baltimore city schools and the lead for its testing program.
The tests are self-administered and supervised, Hirsch said. Kids and adults swab the lower part of their nasal cavity and then drop the swab into a tube, which is then sent to a lab.
Hirsch said even young kids can perform the procedure. “It’s really easy, they say it’s like picking your nose,” Hirsch said. “Sometimes they giggle, no one cries.”
Results are returned in a day, Hirsch said. If they show that somebody in the group is positive, everyone in the group is given an individual PCR test by a nurse from the University of Maryland Medical System.
As of last week, over a three-week period Hirsch said the schools had tested 992 pools and 12,500 individuals. Sixty people were ultimately found to have the virus. The prevalence rate, Hirsch said, was 0.5%.
“What’s most newsworthy is we are not seeing transmission,” Hirsch said. “We’re not seeing those cases spread. It shows that masking, social distancing and air filters are working.”
She said each pooled test costs about $150.
Massachusetts has implemented similar pool testing, with more than half its public schools participating and more joining all the time, according to Russell Johnston, a senior associate commissioner for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and its lead on the testing program.
The pool approach uses PCR tests, while the individual tests use the antigen tests. If, after a positive PCR pool test, the individual antigen tests don’t produce a positive result for anyone in the pool, Johnston said, then everyone is given a PCR test.
So far, few cases have been detected. The positivity rate for the pools is 0.76%, Johnston said. An average of about two people in the school testing program out of a thousand have been found to have the virus.
Massachusetts is picking up all the costs of the school testing, Johnston said, relying in part on money from Biden’s relief bill.
While there may be holes in testing protocols that still result in false positives and negatives, Linda Mendonca, president-elect of the National Association of School Nurses, said testing can be a useful part of a school system’s public health strategy.
“It’s what the CDC talks about, taking a Swiss cheese approach,” she said. “Masking, distancing, air circulation. You have to do all these layers. Testing is just one more to add in.”
Goldendale Observatory reopening to public April 24 with limited schedule
The newly renovated Goldendale Observatory State Park Heritage Site will reopen on April 24 with a limited schedule.
To comply with the state’s Phase 3 order, Washington State Parks will reopen the observatory at reduced capacity. The free observatory programs will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays only. Visitors must register online for the programs, according to a news release.
The observatory won’t open for drop-in visitors, and staff will not offer private tours. State Parks will not be able to schedule visits outside the Saturday and Sunday program dates.
During Phase 3, visitors will not have access to evening viewing through the main telescope.
Afternoon programming will include the opportunity to tour the newly upgraded facility. Registered participants will be able to view the sun through the observatory’s solar telescopes.
The current observatory schedule is temporary and expected to change. For updates and schedule changes, check the park’s web page; sign up to get email park alerts; or check Parks’ social media: Twitter (@WaStatePks) or Facebook (@WashingtonStateParks).
The observatory, 2 miles north of Goldendale, houses one of the world’s largest publicly accessible permanently mounted telescopes. Last year, State Parks completed work on an extensive multi-year renovation of the observatory and grounds.
Work included converting the old Cassegrain telescope to a Newtonian telescope by replacing the telescope’s original mirror with a new 24.5-inch mirror. The site also includes a new building with a 140-person capacity auditorium.
Study: Pesticide use falls, but harms pollinators more
American farmers are using smaller amounts of better targeted pesticides, but these are harming pollinators, aquatic insects and some plants far more than decades ago, a new study finds.
Toxicity levels have more than doubled since 2005 for important species, including honeybees, mayflies and buttercup flowers, as the country switched to a new generation of pesticides. But dangerous chemical levels in birds and mammals have plummeted at the same time, according to a paper in Thursday’s journal Science.
“The bottom line is that these pesticides, once believed to be relatively benign and so short-lived that they would not damage ecosystems, are anything but,” said Dr. Lynn Goldman, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator for toxic substances who wasn’t part of the study and is now dean of George Washington University’s school of public health
German scientists examined 381 pesticides used in the United States between 1992 and 2016, combining EPA data that calculates toxic dosage effects for eight types of animals and plants with U.S. Geological Survey data on how much of the chemicals were used year by year for dozens of agricultural crops. The scientists calculated a new measurement they call total applied toxicity for the eight groupings of species and trends over time.
“Very often politicians, media, scientists just talk about amounts. They always argue ‘OK, the amount of pesticides we use is reduced so things are getting better’ and this is not necessarily true,” said lead author Ralf Schulz, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Kolenz-Landau. “It’s sometimes true, but not always.”
Industry keeps developing new pesticides and “very often these new compounds are more toxic,” Schulz said. They include neonicotinoids, which have been connected to one of the many causes of dwindling honeybee numbers.
The newer pesticides are aimed more toward animals without backbones to spare birds and mammals, but this means insects such as pollinators get poisoned, Schulz said.
The same goes for some land plants and for aquatic invertebrates including dragonflies and mayflies, which birds and mammals eat, he said, adding that future studies should look at the harm higher up the food chain.
Chris Novak, president of the pesticide industry group CropLife America, said in an email that “it is critical to note that the study found great reductions in acute toxicity have been achieved for humans and mammals over the past few decades.”
Novak noted pesticides go through extensive studies and “only one in 10,000 discoveries make the 11-year journey from the lab to the market.”
It’s not surprising that newer generations of pesticides generally are more harmful to insects, which are undergoing a massive decline for many reasons, said University of Connecticut entomologist David Wagner, who wasn’t part of the study. But Wagner said this newest research doesn’t provide data needed to show “that pesticides are the major driver of insect declines.”
Census delay spells election chaos for states
The monthslong delay in tallying last year’s census is wreaking havoc on the states with elections this year and next.
The stakes are high in states with fast-changing populations: In states that are becoming more diverse, Democrats are eager to wield increased statehouse clout and advance agendas such as expanding voting rights and moving away from mass incarceration. Republicans hanging on to control in swing states want to draw new legislative and congressional district lines to retain endangered suburban districts by extending them into rural areas where conservative sentiment is still strong.
States and cities depend on detailed population totals to draw the new districts that determine representation in Congress, statehouses and local offices.
Normally, those numbers from the 2020 census would have come out in March, but now they’re delayed until August or September because of pandemic setbacks.
Two states, New Jersey and Virginia, already have decided to hold elections using the old districts drawn after 2010, a move that deprives growing and changing areas of the representation they deserve. Twenty-five states have laws, some enshrined in their constitutions, requiring new districts this year – a difficult feat if tallies don’t come out until the fall or winter.
Some states have turned to courts – Alabama and Ohio tried to stop census delays, and Oregon is asking courts to allow a delay in redrawing districts despite state law. Idaho and Oklahoma are among those turning to alternative data to get the job done on time, a move Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington also are weighing.
Alabama is considering a law delaying 2022 primaries because of the late data and a Texas bill would give the governor the power to postpone next year’s primaries if time runs short. And in North Carolina, some cities are waiting for state permission to either delay elections or use old districts for city council elections this year.
Many states have primaries next spring for November 2022 elections. With timetables cut short by months, there’s little time for legislature or commission debates and public input even as candidates look for support in yet-unspecified districts.
“It’s just going to be a mess,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
When states carry out elections using outdated districts, fast-growing areas that may be becoming more racially and ethnically diverse can be politically underrepresented.
In New Jersey, progressive groups clashed with the Democratic Party’s decision to use a constitutional amendment approved by voters in November to delay redistricting until after this year’s state elections. The state’s largest growth in the past decade, about 38,000 people, has been in Hudson County, where Hispanic and other immigrants predominate.
“New Jersey is much more diverse than it was 10 years ago, so this is delaying representation for communities of color,” said Henal Patel, a director of the progressive New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, adding that it deprives her organization of support for programs it advocates, such as voting and housing rights.
“We advocate for racial justice, so this will delay our agenda. It’s about power,” Patel added.
Red states also may be disadvantaged in elections with old districts, Jillson said. That’s because districts that seemed safely Republican when drawn in 2011 may have slipped away as the state’s population diversified over the decade.
“Republicans want to redistrict as soon as they can in swing states like Arizona and Florida as well as Texas, to buttress their majorities in places where it has deteriorated, by adding in some more rural areas,” Jillson said.
A clear example, he said, are suburban areas such as the 24th Congressional District between Dallas and Fort Worth, where Republican Rep. Beth Van Duyne won by just over 1 percentage point last year.
Virginia also has opted to run state elections this year without new lines. New districts may be available before November, but not in time to prepare for elections.
The idea of using alternative data, such as Census Bureau estimates of population and race, is inherently flawed because such proxies are not based on actual counts like the delayed data, and they don’t go into the fine-grained detail usually required by redistricting. The delayed data, called P.L. 94-171 after the 1975 law that created it, includes population down to the level of city blocks, allowing almost infinite variations on district lines.
“I don’t think anybody in these states would call these good alternatives, but they’re trying to do the best they can, given the pickle the Census Bureau has put them in with late data,” said Benjamin Williams, an elections and redistricting policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Three states considering alternative data, Idaho, Oklahoma and Oregon, all have backup plans if the legislature can’t finish the districts on time. Oregon’s secretary of state would draw the lines, and commissions would do so in Idaho and Oklahoma, Williams said.
In Idaho’s case, it was relatively easy to use estimates because state law requires that districts respect county lines, so most of the job can be done with county population estimates made before the 2020 census, Williams said.
Oregon’s legislature and secretary of state are in a legal battle even though all involved are Democrats. The legislature is asking the state Supreme Court to delay redistricting until the census data comes out, cutting out the secretary of state, who, under state law, gets to make the districts if the legislature can’t do it in time. Secretary of State Shemia Fagan says she could get the job done by July 1 using estimates, a plan lawmakers called “replete with uncertainties” in court papers.
Fagan said in a statement that her plan is “an opportunity to get the work underway much sooner and avoid challenges,” and that it leaves as much time for public input as possible and allows later corrections when better data arrives.
The alternative data Fagan wants to use is being built by a team at Portland State University and will use a combination of 2010 census data and estimates based on state information such as births and residential construction to estimate population down to the block level. The state also will use it to flag possible errors after the census releases the data, said Ethan Sharygin, director of the university’s Population Research Center.
Other states with similar projects include Colorado, Massachusetts and Washington, Sharygin said.
Oklahoma is taking a different route, using survey estimates for smaller areas than counties to handle line-drawing without the new numbers, Williams said.
On April 5, a coalition of voting rights groups urged Ohio to postpone next year’s May primaries, to give candidates more time to prepare to run in new districts. Illinois Democrats have said they’ll use alternative data estimates to avoid losing control to a commission because of the delay.
Kimball Brace, a Virginia-based redistricting consultant who works for the Illinois legislature, said the alternative data can speed up the process and avoid some of the risk that courts will overturn elections based on old districts.
“We could end up having these elections in 2021 done over again in 2022 and then again in 2023,” Brace said. “Nobody wants to face that, and nobody wants to go through more court challenges.”
N.R.A. Chief Takes the Stand, With Cracks in His Armor
Wayne LaPierre has led the National Rifle Association for 30 years, but his implacable image looked threadbare in bankruptcy court.
Lee Hart, Wife of Ex-Senator Gary Hart, Dies at 85
She stood by her husband when his presidential campaign was derailed by reports that he was having an affair.