Happy Friday! In news that is technically really good and exciting but is also kind of icky: yarn made from human skin could eventually be used to stitch up surgical wounds as a way to cut down on detrimental reactions from patients. As CNN reports, “The researchers say their ‘human textile,’ which they developed from skin cells, can be used for knitting, sewing and even crochet.” My face has been stuck in the scream emoji since I read this story, so please join me. (Also for those who think neat!, make sure to check out Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, which has a journal bound with human skin and is actually very cool.)
Now on to what you may have missed this week.
It’s that time of year! President Donald Trump gave his State of the Union address to Congress, where he declared the nation’s future to be “blazing bright.” During his speech he promised to “never let socialism destroy American health care,” encouraged Congress to send him a bill on drug pricing (to which Democrats began chanting the name of the legislation the House has already passed), and touted his administration’s push for price transparency in health care.
He also said that Democrats were trying to provide health coverage for immigrants who are in the country illegally; called for a ban on abortions that are late in term; promised to always protect Medicare; said more than 7 million people have been shifted off food stamps during his term; and took credit for a drop in health insurance premiums. Various outlets fact checked these statements — which range from completely false to misleading to true — so I’ll link to a collection of them.
And now for the coronavirus roundup, where I sifted through hundreds of stories so you don’t have to. Before we dive in, just a reminder that there are still only 12 confirmed cases in the U.S.
— As coronavirus cases in China skyrocket past 30,000 (with 636 deaths), Chinese officials are now performing house-to-house searches in Wuhan, collecting the sick and warehousing them in quarantine centers. In the city, there’s a growing sense that the residents are being sacrificed for the good of the rest of the country. “There must be no deserters, or they will be nailed to the pillar of historical shame forever,” said Vice Premier Sun Chunlan.
— The death of one of the first Chinese doctors to warn about a coronavirus outbreak sent waves of grief and anger through a nation that’s growing more and more frustrated with how its government is handling the outbreak.
— After a week of cases jumping by double-digit percentages, health officials still say it’s too early to declare that the virus has peaked.
— Hundreds more Americans were evacuated from China and will be quarantined by the U.S. government. But the outrageous fact I learned this week is that those people (and their insurers) are on the hook for any medical costs that arise from being quarantined. For those who are deemed unable to afford health insurance, the government will pick up the tab but it might outsource some of those costs to programs like Medicaid when possible. The evacuees also have to pay for their flight out of China and the cost to get to their final destination when the quarantine is over.
— In what seems a bit like the start of a dystopian reality TV show, thousands of cruise passengers are being quarantined on two ships off the coast of Japan and Hong Kong. A third cruise has been turned away from multiple ports.
— This story is an interesting look at how the first case in the U.S. was discovered, and more broadly showcases local public health officials who are often the ones on the front lines of a new outbreak.
— The majority of human diseases, including the coronavirus, are zoonotic, or passed from animals to humans. If you want a brief summary of some notable ones throughout history, check out this piece from WSJ that includes a shout-out to a 5,300 mummified man who, before he died from an arrow, suffered from Lyme disease.
— Not to be all doom and gloom, it seems to be humans’ lot in life to constantly be at war with pathogens. That means even if we contain the coronavirus, there’s just another deadly pathogen waiting in the wings.
Meanwhile, this year’s strain of the flu is hitting children particularly hard. More than half of the positive flu tests from public health labs this season have been in children and adults under the age of 25.
It might be hard to focus on anything but the results snafu at the Iowa caucuses, but advocates for disabled voters are also reporting back on how the efforts to expand access played out. The Iowa Democratic Party took strides this year to better help disabled voters participate, and for some the experience was positive. Others, however, said that reality looked a lot different than what the party’s messaging promised.
In theory, employers pay their workers less because part of their benefits package includes health insurance. But if the country moved toward a “Medicare for All” model, would workers see their wages increase dollar-by-dollar of what was being spent on coverage? Not necessarily.
Although the Trump administration’s roll-out of the “Healthy Adult Opportunity” program that would encourage states to shift toward a block-grant style of funding drew lots of attention, a little-noticed change that could lead to big cuts flew somewhat under the radar. Governors of both parties, however, are sounding the alarm that an arcane fiscal accountability rule could lead to cuts up to $49 billion a year.
As is often the case with bans, teenagers are already finding a way around the e-cigarette flavor restrictions that went into effect this week. The FDA only regulated reusable vaping products, but disposable pods (with flavors like pink lemonade) are widely available at gas stations and the like.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie abruptly fired his undersecretary, James Byrne, this week in what he called a “simple business decision.” Wilkie was forced to defend the decision because Byrne was well-liked by the veterans community, and the loss was just the latest in a long string of turnovers at the top of the troubled agency. Some also questioned if the dismissal had anything to do with the investigation of sexual assault allegations by Navy veteran Andrea Goldstein.
And in the miscellaneous file for the week:
— Following the recent deaths of 15 inmates, the Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the Mississippi prison system, which seems to be in the grips of a violent crisis.
— Anonymous reporting systems that have been set up to help prevent school shootings have actually been helping combat the epidemic of suicides in teens. Schools and local officials are pouring billions of dollars into preventing the next mass attack, and yet self-harm and suicidal ideation are what students are reporting far more often than any kind of suspicious activity. Public health officials say this should be a wake-up call about the real threat to young people.
— How do you raise kids to prepare them for the projected negative effects of climate change without causing more trauma, anxiety and depression in a generation that’s already struggling to cope with such mental health issues? It’s a fine line to walk, experts say.
And that’s it from me! Have a great weekend.