Sep 4, 2020

Axios Vitals

By Caitlin Owens
Caitlin Owens

Good morning. Vitals is off Monday for Labor Day — enjoy the long weekend!

🚨 On the next "Axios on HBO": Mark Zuckerberg warns that Facebook "and other media need to start ... preparing the American people that there's nothing illegitimate about this election," warning of the potential for civil unrest (watch clip). 

  • Catch the full interview next Tuesday, Sept. 8 at 11pm ET/PT on all HBO platforms.

Today's word count is 1,079, or a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: Pandemic depression is skyrocketing
Adapted from Ettman, et al., 2020, "Prevalence of Depression Symptoms in US Adults Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic"; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Americans are reporting symptoms of depression three times more than they were before the pandemic, according to a recent study published in JAMA.

Why it matters: The downstream effects of the coronavirus on our health, and particularly our mental health, are getting worse.

Between the lines: The same people getting hammered hardest by the actual coronavirus are also most likely to be at higher risk of depression.

  • Households with lower incomes, households with less than $5,000 in savings and people with high exposure to coronavirus stressors were more likely to report depression symptoms.
  • "As an event that can cause physical, emotional, and psychological harm, the COVID-19 pandemic can itself be considered a traumatic event," the authors write. "In addition, the policies created to prevent its spread introduced new life stressors and disrupted daily living for most people in the US."

The bottom line: "Post–COVID-19 plans should account for the probable increase in mental illness to come, particularly among at-risk populations," the authors conclude.

My thought bubble: In the short term, the best way to reduce mental health issues stemming from the pandemic is to reduce the severity of the pandemic, which means getting the virus under control and, in turn, lessening its economic disruption.

  • But mental health issues don't go away overnight, and our health care system was already bad at addressing them. Suicide and substance abuse have been huge issues in the U.S. for years.
  • If we're actually going to address these trauma-related mental health issues, that probably requires a serious policy effort, as the people most affected are the people least likely to have access to mental health care under today's system.

Go deeper: The coming coronavirus mental health crisis

2. The dangers of coronavirus fatigue

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Compounded stress and exhaustion from worrying about the coronavirus pandemic since the start of the year is leading to "COVID fatigue," Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports.

Why it matters: This can lead to risky behavior that can increase the spread of the coronavirus, along with the risks that accompany elevated levels of depression and anxiety — like the abuse of alcohol or drugs.

State of play: As schools, universities and businesses reopen, there's been anecdotal evidence people are taking riskier behaviors via large gatherings and other venues.

  • "We may feel like we are done with this pandemic, but, as the old saying goes, the pandemic is not done with us," Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, said Wednesday at the O'Neill Institute Colloquium.

What's happening: "COVID fatigue is a shorthand way of talking about a constellation of challenges that people are facing that are leading to just an overall sense of exhaustion," David Sbarra, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Arizona, tells Axios.

  • People are facing stressors that range from the constant need to change our normal behavior to mitigate the virus to the economic impact from an unemployment tsunami in a society without a strong social safety net, he says.

The length of the pandemic is also a factor in people's coping mechanisms, says Kaye Hermanson, a clinical psychologist at UC Davis Health.

  • "When it's gone on this long, our brains have to try to find a way to accommodate that," Hermanson says.

Go deeper.

3. The latest in the U.S.
Expand chart
Data: The COVID Tracking Project; Note: Does not include probable deaths from New York City; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Indiana University urged fraternity and sorority houses at its Bloomington campus to close after three-quarters of Greek houses have been forced to quarantine with coronavirus cases on the rise.

NIAID director Anthony Fauci told CNN on Thursday that colleges should only plan to reopen if they can test all students when the semester starts, conduct contact tracing and give students dedicate space to quarantine.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) lambasted Senate Republicans' stripped-down coronavirus relief package as "emaciated," accusing his colleagues in a Thursday letter of only trying to "give the appearance of action."

Thursday's initial jobless claims report was affected by the Department of Labor announcing it will change the methodology it uses to seasonally adjust data.

4. The latest worldwide
Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

Brazil surpassed 4 million cases of coronavirus on Thursday, the second highest caseload in the world, per Johns Hopkins data.

Globally, over 868,983 people have died from the novel coronavirus and almost 26.1 million have tested positive.

A study out of Iceland found that coronavirus antibodies lasted for at least four months, which could be good news for vaccine development efforts, the Washington Post reports.

5. Experts warn gene editing still isn't safe

Gene editing to correct genetic diseases isn't ready to be safely used in human eggs, sperm and embryos for pregnancies, according to a new report that lays out detailed criteria for determining when and how the technology could ultimately be used.

Why it matters: Scientists, ethicists and others have called for international rules — ranging from guidelines to regulations to moratoriums — for the editing of human genes that can be passed down to future generations, Axios' Alison Snyder writes.

Key takeaways: Human embryos that are used in a pregnancy shouldn't be edited before the technology can "efficiently and reliably make precise genomic changes without undesired changes," according to the report, written by 18 experts from 10 countries.

  • If the technology is one day deemed safe, effective and permissible, the group says its use should first be restricted to serious diseases that arise from mutations in a single gene — for example, sickle cell anemia and thalassemia — and then only when parents don't have other options for having a biologically related child who doesn't inherit the disorder.

What to watch: The World Health Organization is drawing up its guidelines for governing genome editing technology more broadly. The report released today is intended to inform those guidelines, which will also consider ethical and social challenges.

6. 1 happy thing: Dog of the week!

My dog, Piper! Photo: Caitlin Owens/Axios

One of the biggest pieces of feedback I got from readers is that you all want more happy news/lighter content. I will do my best to write more about positive developments when I see them, but for now the happiest thing I can think of is my dog.

Meet Piper: She is six months old and was rescued in May. She was abandoned in Georgia when she was only a little puppy, but somehow made her way to D.C. and into my life!

  • She loves bones, bugs, squeaky toys, sticks and OTHER DOGS. I have to literally drag her away from the dog park every time we go.
  • She also loves meeting new human friends. Her go-to move is a belly crawl, because she seems to know that no one can resist petting her when she does it.
  • Her biggest flaw is that she is a pandemic puppy, which means that she is very bad at being alone. My boyfriend and I have started leaving her alone for little bits at a time ... while watching her on the "Piper cam" to make sure she's not being too much of a nuisance in our absence.

What's next: Send me your dogs, and I will feature one of them on Fridays!

Piper with a stick. Photo: Caitlin Owens/Axios
Caitlin Owens