What to Know About the New COVID-19 Variant

As our concierge primary care doctors in Jupiter have said more than once over the past couple of years, we may be done with COVID-19, but the coronavirus isn’t done with us.

It’s still spreading, it’s still sickening and killing people, and it’s still learning how to survive. That’s why the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) didn’t surprise many health experts.

Late last month the CDC estimated that about 40 percent of current cases of COVID-19 are caused by the latest omicron relative, known as XBB.1.5. In December, XBB.1.5 more than doubled its share of COVID-19 cases each week, rising from about four percent of new infections in the first week to about 41 percent by the end of the month.

“For a few months now, we haven’t seen a variant that’s taken off at that speed,” Pavitra Roychoudhury, director of COVID-19 sequencing at the University of Washington School of Medicine’s virology lab, told CNN.

Latest Mutation

Mehul Suthar, who studies emerging viral infections at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, told USA Today that XBB.1.5 appears to be about five times more contagious than earlier omicron variants, which were five times more contagious than the original virus.

“The numbers start adding up,” he told the paper.

For you who are trying to keep up with the “scrabble variants,” (so-named because these letters tend to produce higher scores in Scrabble) the XBB.1.5 is related to the XBB variant, which is a recombinant of the BA.2.10.1 and the BA.2.75 sublineages.

While scientists still aren’t sure whether the XBB.1.5 causes more serious illness than its predecessors, NBC News reports that studies performed in the lab have found that XBB appears to be more contagious.

“It’s clear that there are immune evasive properties of XBB,” Isaach Bogoch, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, told NBC News.

In other words, the virus is evolving to get around the antibodies we’ve built up from vaccines and infections with previous strains.

Improving its Abilities

CBS News reports that the XBB.1.5 variant also contains an additional mutation called S486P, which Chinese scientists say appears to offer a “greatly enhanced” ability to bind to cells. In addition, XBB is resistant to various monoclonal antibody drugs used to treat infections.

“The mutation is clearly letting XBB.1.5 spread better,” Jesse Bloom, a computational virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, told CNN.

“It’s got a better ability to get into cells,” Roychoudhury added.

“We’re projecting that it’s going to be the dominant variant in the Northeast region of the country and that it’s going to increase in all regions of the country,” Dr. Barbara Mahon, director of the CDC’s proposed Coronavirus and Other Respiratory Viruses Division, told CBS News.

The question is how much of this spread is due to XBB.1.5’s enhanced abilities and how much can be attributed to the increased travel and social gatherings over the holidays.

To Worry or Not?

Another looming question is whether it will make people sicker. The data so far are unclear.

While XBB.1.5 shows an ability to evade immunity, Bogoch told NBC News that even if cases begin to rise significantly, he doubts there’ll be the dramatic spike in hospitalizations or deaths we saw in previous waves.

In addition, other parts of the immune system can work to protect against the virus, and vaccines along with prior infections should offer some protection from severe disease.

“We might certainly have a wave, but it’s just much less likely to be as deadly or overwhelming to healthcare systems compared to earlier waves before we had this degree of hybrid immunity,” he said.

Still, experts worry that the falloff in vaccination boosters could create problems.

“We aren’t in 2020, but people still do need to take this seriously and protect themselves,” the CDC’s Mahon told NBC.

Get Protection

One way to protect yourself, which most people are resisting, is to wear masks in public because it’s safer to avoid getting infected at all, Suthar told USA Today.

“The ‘it’s OK if I get infected’ attitude is not the most viable,” he said, adding that he still wears a mask when in public indoor spaces.

And all of the experts are concerned that less than 15 percent of the population has received the latest boosters against the coronavirus. Although they aren’t designed for the XBB.1.5 variant, they will offer some degree of protection.

Michael Osterholm, who directs the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told CNN he sees reason for hope from the updated bivalent boosters, which target the original coronavirus as well as the omicron strains BA.4 and BA.5.

“They still provide a level of immunity that may not prevent you from getting infected but may have a significant impact on whether you become seriously ill and die,” he said.

“I mean, right now, the most recent data we have shows that for those who have the bivalent vaccine, they have a three-fold lower risk of dying than those who don’t,” he added.

Could You Have Hidden Thyroid Problems?

Has your sex drive decreased recently? Have you been constipated lately? Do you have brain fog or unusual fatigue? Are you unusually sensitive to heat or cold?

You could have a thyroid problem and not even know it. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 750 million people in the world have some form of thyroid disease, and as many as 60 percent of those are undiagnosed.

Because January is Thyroid Awareness Month, our concierge primary care doctors in Jupiter want to take this opportunity to share some facts you may not know about this critical gland in your body.

About Thyroid Disease

Many people go through their lives feeling “blah” or “not right” or putting up with symptoms they think is just a part of life, when in fact a malfunctioning thyroid is the real issue.

This gland, shaped like a butterfly, is located at the front of the neck, just below the Adam’s apple. It produces a hormone (thyroid stimulating hormone, or TSH) that influences nearly all the metabolic processes in the body. So when something goes wrong, this little gland can produce big problems.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reports that women are more likely than men to have thyroid disease. One in eight women will develop thyroid problems during their lifetime. Anyone over age 60, especially women, is at higher risk of developing thyroid disease, along with anyone who has diabetes.

In women, thyroid disease can cause several issues specific to their sex, including problems with the menstrual period, problems with getting pregnant, and problems during pregnancy.

In general, the two main types of thyroid disorders result from either underproduction or overproduction of TSH, and the symptoms of each are generally opposites of each other, although thyroid dysfunction can have hundreds of possible symptoms.

These two main disorders, hyperthyroidism, and hypothyroidism can result from many different causes, and can also be inherited.

Symptoms of Each Type

Hyperthyroidism results from the overproduction of thyroid hormones, thereby speeding up every process in the body. The heart beats faster, food is digested more rapidly, the kidneys process urine more quickly, etc.

Some of the symptoms of hyperthyroidism can include:

-increased perspiration
-insomnia
-increased appetite
-weight loss
-nervousness/anxiety
-irritability
-hand tremors
-muscle weakness, especially in the upper arms or thighs
-hair loss/fine brittle hair
-heart palpitations/irregular heartbeat/racing heart
-sensitivity to heat
-carpal tunnel syndrome
-more frequent bowel movements
-light or less frequent menstrual cycles

Hypothyroidism is the more common type of thyroid disease, in which the thyroid doesn’t release enough thyroid hormone. As you might expect, with this type of thyroid problem every process in the body slows down.

Some of the symptoms of hypothyroidism can include:

-fatigue
-sensitivity to cold, especially cold hands and feet
-constipation and gas
-pain, stiffness, or swelling in joints
-brain fog/memory problems
-weight gain
-irregular or heavy menstrual periods
-hoarseness
-dry skin
-poor appetite
-lowered libido
-puffy/swollen face
-fluid retention/bloating
-thinning hair or hair loss
-muscle weakness
-depression

There can also be other symptoms, and they vary from person to person. Often they are dismissed as stressed, feeling “run down,” or simply aging. So you can see why so many people have undiagnosed thyroid dysfunction.

Simple Treatments

Another type of thyroid issue that frequently has no symptoms is thyroid cancer. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), thyroid cancer is the most common form of cancer in women between the ages of 20 and 34, and the only symptoms may be difficulty swallowing, or sometimes throat pain accompanied by a persistent cough.

Approximately one percent of Americans are diagnosed with thyroid cancer in their lifetimes, representing about two percent of all cancer cases in the U.S. The good news is that this cancer is highly treatable, even in advanced stages.

And treatment for an over- or underactive thyroid is simple, safe, and effective. This includes anti-thyroid drugs, radioactive iodine, and beta-blockers to help control symptoms.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important that you let us know so you can get treatment. Untreated thyroid disease can damage many organs of the body, including the heart and kidneys.

Keeping it Healthy

Here are some steps you can take to keep your thyroid healthy.

  1. Be sure the salt you use is iodized. Many of the specialty salts do not contain iodine. The thyroid requires iodine to function properly, but the recent popularity of such specialty salts as sea salt and Himalayan salt has reduced the amount of iodine in some diets. Too little iodine can result in hypothyroidism.
  2. Avoid uncooked cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts kale, watercress, and kohlrabi. These particular vegetables contain substances called goitrogens that interfere with the efficient synthesis of thyroid hormones. Cooking inactivates these substances, making them safer to eat.
  3. Opt for more seafood in your diet, especially crab, shrimp, lobster, clams, and mussels. All of these are rich sources of iodine.
  4. Avoid processed foods. Although high in sodium, processed and packaged foods do not contain iodized salt.

These guidelines can help maintain the health of your thyroid. But do not try to self-treat a suspected thyroid problem, especially with iodine supplements, which can make symptoms worse.

Are You Sick? How to Tell Which Virus You Have

As most of us have shed our pandemic masks in favor of returning to less restricted socializing, some of the viruses we didn’t have to deal with for the last two winters have resurfaced—with a vengeance.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), seasonal flu activity is “elevated across the country.” The respiratory virus RSV is 10 times higher than normal, and more than 40,000 new cases of COVID-19 are being reported daily.

So if you’re sick, our concierge primary care doctors in Jupiter want to help you figure out which of these highly contagious viruses may be causing your symptoms, and what to do about them.

The ‘Tripledemic’

The flu season began six weeks earlier than normal this year, with at least 880,000 reported cases as of the end of October, including 6,900 hospitalizations and 360 flu-related deaths. This is the highest number recorded since the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic.

“The Southern Hemisphere has had a pretty bad flu season, and it came on early [there],” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Bloomberg News. So officials weren’t especially surprised when it hit early and hard here, too.

At the same time, the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, has been flooding children’s hospitals with cases. And while the media’s attention has largely been focused on children, RSV can also hit older adults and those who are immunocompromised.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases have leveled off, but as of the end of November, the CDC was reporting 281,000 new cases and 2,222 deaths a week, with cases expected to rise this winter.

And, of course, without universal masking, colds are also making a comeback. To make matters worse, it is possible to be infected with more than one virus at the same time.

Similar Symptoms

With all these viruses hitting at once, it’s doubly difficult to know which one you have, because all of them have overlapping symptoms.

“At this stage of the pandemic, it’s really difficult to differentiate between the flu, COVID, common colds, and even seasonal allergies,” Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist, epidemiologist, and senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told CNBC’s Make It.

“I, even as an infectious disease specialist who’s been practicing for a couple of decades now, cannot differentiate just on an exam,” she said. “You really need to do a test.”

Early on, it was easier to tell the difference at least at least with COVID-19, because of such distinctive symptoms as loss of smell and taste and red eyes or toes. But Gounder explained that because most people now have some degree of immunity, either through vaccination or infection or both, our bodies aren’t reacting the same way. Second, the newer variants are behaving differently than the original strain.

Ways to Tell

It helps to know which virus you have because they are not treated the same. With COVID-19, you can receive antiviral therapies, which can short-circuit the severity of the illness. But the antiviral treatments you can get for the flu are different.

As for RSV, Vandana Madhavan, clinical director of Pediatric Infectious Disease at Mass General for Children, told HuffPost that doctor’s offices are overrun right now, and if you bring your child in for mild symptoms that might otherwise get better at home, there’s a risk they could pick up something else while they’re there.

So how do you tell? As Gounder pointed out, there’s no way to know for sure, but here are some typical symptoms of each.

Common cold:

  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • headaches
  • body aches

Flu:

  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • muscle/body aches
  • cough
  • fever or chills
  • headache
  • fatigue

COVID-19:

  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • muscle/body aches
  • cough
  • fever or chills
  • headache
  • fatigue
  • diarrhea
  • nausea/vomiting
  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath

The CDC notes that this list does not include all possible symptoms. Symptoms may change with new COVID-19 variants and can vary depending on vaccination status.

RSV:

  • runny nose
  • decrease in appetite
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • fever
  • wheezing

The CDC reports that these symptoms usually appear in stages and not all at once. In very young children with RSV, the only symptoms may be irritability, decreased activity, and breathing difficulties. Almost all children will have had an RSV infection by their second birthday.

What To Do

With any type of respiratory virus, it’s important to keep from spreading the virus to others, especially those who may be immunocompromised or are otherwise at higher risk. There are tests for COVID-19 and the flu, but not for the common cold or RSV.

Stay home if you are sick and get in touch with us if you have any questions.

Call 911 if you see any signs of an emergency, especially with COVID-19, including:

  • trouble breathing
  • persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • new confusion
  • inability to wake or stay awake
  • pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone
  • if you think it may be an emergency

As the number of cases of all these viruses rise, it’s smart to take precautions. Wear a mask in crowded, poorly ventilated places, wash your hands frequently, eat well, and get plenty of sleep. 

And get your flu vaccine and a COVID-19 booster if you haven’t had one recently (there is no vaccine for RSV or the common cold).

BREAST CANCER

What to Know During Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Long-time cancer-screening activist Katie Couric, 65, announced last month that she’d been treated for breast cancer. Within days came the news that WNBA star Tiffany Jackson had died of the disease at age 37.

These two stories help to highlight Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, both the importance of screening and the fact that even young women can this deadly disease.

So our primary care concierge doctors in Jupiter want to offer you some facts you may not have known about breast cancer and what to look out for.

Some Little-known Facts

  • Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women in the U.S., except for skin cancers, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). And contrary to common belief, 85 percent of American women who are diagnosed have no family history of the disease.
  • This year, about 287,850 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women, with about 51,400 of those being ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). Nearly all women with this early stage of breast cancer can be cured.
  • About 43,250 women will die from breast cancer.
  • But it’s not just women. The ACS reports that in 2022, about 2,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in men, and about 530 of them will die from it.
  • And Yale Medicine reports that breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women ages 15-39.

Screening Guidelines Vary

Although different organizations offer different guidelines for cancer screening, in general, regular cancer screening can catch cancer before someone has symptoms. This allows a small, localized area to be removed, hopefully before it can spread.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), for example, recommends mammography screenings every two years (biennial) for women ages 50 to 74 years, while the ACS recommends such screenings annually for women ages 50 to 54 and every other year after that.

As for the standard clinical breast exam, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) states: “There is inadequate evidence that clinical breast examination reduces breast cancer mortality.” The American College of Physicians agrees. Even the ACS doesn’t recommend clinical examination to screen for breast cancer, preferring to emphasize mammography as the preferred method of detection.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) says, “Decisions between screening with mammography once a year or once every two years should be made through shared decision-making after appropriate counseling.” In other words, the benefits of annual mammography for those with average risk haven’t been firmly established, so it’s up to the woman and her doctor to decide on the frequency.

Different Outcomes

Katie Couric co-founded the organization Stand Up to Cancer after the death of her first husband, Jay Monahan, from colon cancer, so she was an advocate for regular cancer screenings. Still, her diagnosis stunned her.

Couric told CNN that she went for a mammogram in the summer, which found her breast cancer.

“I think those words, ‘It’s cancerous or you have cancer’ do stop you in your tracks,” she said. But her doctor told her it was treatable, so she underwent a lumpectomy in July, followed by radiation.

Unfortunately, as in the case of Tiffany Jackson, breast cancer is more likely to be found at a later stage among women under the age of 45, and is often more aggressive and difficult to treat.

She was originally diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in 2015 and thought her treatment had been successful.

But studies show that women who are first diagnosed before age 35 have between a 13-38 percent risk of recurrence that spreads to other parts of the body, while in women ages 50 and over, that risk is between 4-29 percent.

What To Do

Besides having the recommended mammographies, for both men and women of all ages, it’s important to know the risk factors for the disease as well as the early signs.

Risk factors include:

  • getting older
  • having dense breasts
  • a family history
  • hormonal changes
  • excess alcohol consumption
  • environmental factors, including exposure to radiation
  • obesity and overweight
  • beginning periods before age 12 and menopause after age 55
  • becoming pregnant at an older age or never being pregnant
  • taking hormones, including birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy
  • physical inactivity
  • night-shift work
  • smoking

It’s important to become familiar with your breasts, so you’ll know what symptoms to look for.

Warning signs include:

  • new lump in the breast or underarm (armpit)
  • thickening or swelling of part of the breast
  • irritation or dimpling of breast skin
  • redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast
  • pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area
  • nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood
  • any change in the size or shape of the breast
  • pain in any area of the breast

The CDC cautions, “Keep in mind that these symptoms can happen with other conditions that are not cancer,” so don’t panic if you see any of them. But do contact us right away if you do see such changes.

Remember, the sooner breast cancer is caught, the easier it is to treat.

vaccine

Latest on COVID-19 Omicron Boosters

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) earlier this month approved two new booster vaccines specifically formulated to target the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, so our primary care concierge doctors in Jupiter want to bring you up to date on the latest information.

What’s different about this vaccine?

The COVID-19 vaccines that have been in use since they were first rolled out in 2021 were all designed to target the original strain. They also effectively reduced hospitalizations and deaths against the different variants that emerged in the following months, including the widespread delta variant.

As the newest omicron subvariants emerged and are now responsible for 90 percent of COVID-19 infections, vaccine makers Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna developed new, more tailored versions to specifically target them.

The new formula is defined as “bivalent,” meaning it protects against both the original strain as well as the highly contagious BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. They are the first updated COVID-19 vaccines to be cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“The updated COVID-19 boosters are formulated to better protect against the most recently circulating COVID-19 variant,” said CDC director Rochelle Walensky.

“They can help restore protection that has waned since previous vaccination and were designed to provide broader protection against newer variants,” she added. “This recommendation followed a comprehensive scientific evaluation and robust scientific discussion.”

Tests in mice have shown they produce a good immune system response to omicron’s BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants.

Are they safe?

Some have questioned the safety of the new versions of the shots because they haven’t been tested in humans, only in mice. But the new vaccines have merely been “tweaked” to “change the recipe,” as the University of Colorado’s UCHealth website explains.

The original Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been fully tested in humans, and more than 600 million doses in the U.S. and millions more around the world have been given safely. The advisors and experts at both the FDA and the CDC have determined that the newly formulated booster shots are safe.

UCHealth infectious disease and COVID-19 expert Dr. Michelle Barron compared the new boosters to the flu shot, which is updated every fall as vaccine makers guess which strains of the flu will be circulating, and change the recipe to match. But the vaccine itself is not entirely new, she explained.

“We don’t test the flu shot each year. We just change it slightly,” Barron said.

“This new COVID-19 booster just tweaks the formula. The technology is the same. The safety of the vaccines will be exactly the same because it’s not a new vaccine,” she explained.

Who can get them?

The Pfizer vaccine is authorized for anyone ages 12 and older; the Moderna vaccine is authorized for adults 18 and older.

Like the previous coronavirus vaccines, the new boosters are free to the public. They will be available to anyone who has already had their primary vaccine series from any authorized U.S.-approved company regardless of how many boosters they’ve already received.

Public health officials recommend that those who are pregnant or have been pregnant recently should also get the updated boosters because they are at a slightly increased risk of more severe illness and death from COVID-19.

For those who recently received a booster of the previous vaccines, the FDA has set a minimum waiting period at two months, but advisers to the CDC recommend waiting longer: at least three months for those at high risk, or as long as six months for everyone else.

It’s also recommended that anyone who has recently recovered from a COVID-19 infection should wait at least three months to be vaccinated, not only to boost the effects of the vaccine but also to avoid the possibility of a rare side effect, heart inflammation, that sometimes affects teen boys and young men.

“If you wait a little more time, you get a better immunologic response,” CDC adviser Dr. Sarah Long of Drexel University told CBS News.

According to the CDC, side effects are expected to be similar to those associated with the current vaccine, including headache and muscle soreness, occasional fatigue, and redness and swelling at the injection site.

What about other vaccines?

As we head into the fall flu season, several of our clients have asked whether they can get a coronavirus vaccine along with a flu vaccine. The answer is yes, one in each arm.

In fact, health officials have recommended this protocol, and the government is preparing to launch a campaign that will urge Americans to do just this, due to the possibility of the high spread of flu and COVID-19 this season.

As for the Jynneos monkeypox vaccine, the CDC suggests that adolescent and young adult men consider waiting four weeks after receiving the monkeypox vaccine before receiving a Moderna, Novavax, or Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, because of the risk of inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) or inflammation of the tissue surrounding the heart (pericarditis).

However, the agency adds that the monkeypox vaccination “should not be delayed” due to recently receiving a coronavirus vaccine.

If you have any questions about whether or not to get the new booster, don’t hesitate to contact us for advice.

Coronavirus Pandemic

New Guidance on COVID-19 Can Be Confusing

Sometimes it seems as though we need a spreadsheet to keep track of all the changing information and recommendations on COVID-19.

  • Masks/no masks?
  • Boosters? Maybe not, maybe now, maybe later.
  • Quarantine? Yes, no, who, and how long?

Our primary care concierge doctors in Jupiter don’t mean to criticize the researchers and public officials who are responsible for keeping us healthy. The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is, after all, a disease we’d never seen until early in 2019. No one knew how to deal with it.

And thanks to the combined efforts of scientists around the world, we’ve made tremendous strides in the effort to combat it.

But one thing few counted on was “pandemic fatigue,” which meant many people rapidly grew tired of taking precautions and radically altering their lifestyles to help stem the spread of COVID-19.

Which may be what’s behind the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2022/p0811-covid-guidance.html

A new approach

This month the CDC relaxed many of its coronavirus recommendations, leaving measures to battle to limit viral spread largely up to individuals.

According to The Washington Post:

  • “No longer do schools and other institutions need to screen apparently healthy students and employees as a matter of course.
  • “The agency is putting less emphasis on social distancing—and the new guidance has dropped the ‘six-foot’ standard.
  • “The agency’s focus now is on highly vulnerable populations and how to protect them—not on the vast majority of people who at this point have some immunity against the virus and are unlikely to become severely ill.”

In releasing the new guidance, the CDC cited improved tools like vaccination, boosters, and treatments to better protect ourselves from the virus.

“We also have a better understanding of how to protect people from being exposed to the virus, like wearing high-quality masks, testing, and improved ventilation,” Greta Massetti, a CDC epidemiologist, said in a statement.

“This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives,” she added.

Isolation changes

In one fairly substantial shift, for example, the CDC no longer recommends quarantine if you’re up to date with your vaccines and have been exposed to COVID-19. Instead, you should mask for 10 days and get tested on Day Five.

Additional CDC guidance on isolation includes the following:

  • If you’ve tested positive and have a healthy immune system, regardless of your vaccination status, you should isolate yourself for five days. On Day Six, you can end isolation if you no longer have symptoms or have not had a fever for 24 hours and your symptoms have improved.
  • Once isolation has ended, you should wear a high-quality mask through Day 10. If you test negative on two rapid antigen tests, however, you can stop wearing your mask sooner.
  • Until Day 11 at least, you should avoid visiting or being around anyone who is more likely to have severe outcomes from COVID-19, including the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

These changes stem from a new statistic, according to Massetti: 95 percent of the U.S. population has at least some level of immunity against the virus, either from vaccination or previous infection.

What about boosters?

As for booster shots, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally decided last month against allowing adults younger than 50 to become eligible for a second booster vaccine (for a total of four mRNA shots).

Currently, only those age 50 and older and children at least 12 years old with impaired immune systems can get a second booster.

This is because the agency expects to have reformulated mRNA boosters available by next month that will contain components from both the original virus and its variants, as well as from the currently circulating (and highly contagious) omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5.

Meanwhile, the FDA still recommends that anyone under age 50 receive a single booster shot, and people older than 50 or those with weakened immune systems receive a second mRNA booster.

The mask question

No one likes wearing masks, especially in the heat. However, our primary care concierge doctors believe it’s better to err on the side of caution, especially if you’re immunocompromised or older than 65.

Especially given the new CDC guidance revisions, there’s no harm in wearing a mask in crowded indoor situations with poor ventilation.

It’s true that we now have effective treatments for COVID-19, but given the risk of long COVID—one recent study found that as many as one in every eight people who contracted it had lingering symptoms—what’s the point in taking unnecessary chances?

It’s up to you, of course, but in a recent interview with The Post, Ziyad Al-Aly, an epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, compared the current state of the country to “the Wild West.”

“There are no public health measures at all,” he told the paper.

“We’re in a very peculiar spot, where the risk is vivid and it’s out there, but we’ve let our guard down and we’ve chosen, deliberately, to expose ourselves and make ourselves vulnerable.”

pfas

How to Combat the Lingering Danger of ‘Forever Chemicals’

They’re called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down fully in the environment, and this summer the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned that they are more dangerous to human health than regulators knew.

Within weeks, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) weighed in with its own 300-page report on these chemicals, known as perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances, urging doctors to test high-risk patients for PFAS contamination.

Because of the heightened attention on these chemicals, our primary care concierge doctors in Jupiter want to summarize for you what we’ve learned about them, and offer tips on how to reduce your exposure.

The Problems with PFAS

In 1946, DuPont introduced its revolutionary non-stick product, Teflon. By 1950, studies by DuPont and 3M showed that PFAS could build up in the blood, but chose to keep these results secret, according to the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Since 1998, when a class-action lawsuit against a West Virginia DuPont factory revealed the extent of the pollution from the factory, researchers have found probable links to such diseases as:

  • thyroid disease
  • high blood pressure
  • kidney cancer
  • testicular cancer
  • breast cancer
  • higher cholesterol levels
  • ulcerative colitis
  • weakened immune system 
  • vaccine interference
  • weight gain
  • changes in liver enzymes
  • decreased fertility
  • growth and learning delays in infants and children

The NAS report encourages doctors to conduct blood tests for these chemicals on patients who are worried about exposure or who are at high risk for exposure or who are in “vulnerable life stages”: during pregnancy, early childhood, and old age. 

They’re Everywhere

As we’ve seen with microplastics, PFAS can begin innocently enough and end up in unexpected places, including our water.

Recently, for example, Consumer Reports (CR) tested more than 100 food-packaging products from U.S. restaurants and supermarkets. They found dangerous PFAS chemicals in many of the products, including paper bags for french fries, hamburger wrappers, pizza boxes, molded fiber salad bowls, and single-use paper plates.

These chemicals are used in a wide variety of products, including waterproof and sweatproof makeup, nonstick cookware, cellphones, waterproof clothing, carpets, and—especially—fast-food containers, where their ability to make products grease-proof has led to their widespread use.

They are also used to make products water-repellent and resistant to high temperatures, as well as in fire-fighting foams used at military installations, floor wax, upholstery, and clothing. The qualities that make items containing PFAS so desirable, however, also make them long-lasting in the environment.

Lingering Threat

“These chemicals are ubiquitous in the American environment,” Ned Calonge, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health and chair of the NAS committee that wrote the report, told CNN.

“More than 2,800 communities in the U.S., including all 50 states and two territories, have documented PFAS contamination,” he said.

Researchers have even detected them in the snows of Mt. Everest, apparently shed from climbers’ waterproof tents and parkas. 

“You are not just exposed in one place or one source,” toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, told The Washington Post. “They are everywhere.”

The problem is that these chemicals build up (or “bioaccumulate”) in the body over time. 

And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has been conducting studies of the U.S. population, PFAS has been found in the blood of nearly all people they’ve tested. Since the risk appears to rise with the amount of exposure, it’s important to try to limit the amount we come in contact with.

What You Can Do

Because PFAS chemicals are found in so many consumer products, they’re next to impossible to avoid. But there are ways to reduce the amount you’re exposed to.

“The most dangerous way that people are exposed to PFAS is through drinking water,” says Don Huber, director of product safety at CR.

That’s why the NAS report recommended filtering tap water as a major step consumers could take to protect themselves.

“The water filters that are most effective for PFAS are reverse osmosis filters,” David Andrews, a senior scientist for the EWG, told CNN, adding that some carbon-based filters can also reduce some levels.

“The important part is that you have to keep changing those filters,” he said. “If you don’t change that filter, and it becomes saturated, the levels of PFAS in the filtered water can actually be above levels in the tap water.”

The NAS committee also offered these tips:

  • Stay away from stain-resistant carpets and upholstery, and don’t use waterproofing sprays.
  • Look for the ingredient PTFE or other “floro” ingredients on product labels.
  • Avoid nonstick cookware. Instead, use cast-iron, stainless steel, glass, or enamel products.
  • Boycott takeout containers and other food packaging. Instead, cook at home and eat more fresh foods.
  • Don’t eat microwave popcorn or greasy foods wrapped in paper.
  • Choose uncoated nylon or silk dental floss or one that is coated in natural wax.
monkeypox

Why Monkeypox Is Not Like COVID-19

Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the newly spreading monkeypox virus a global health emergency.

This has prompted many to fear we’re heading into another coronavirus situation, as our concierge primary care doctors in Jupiter have found from talking with our patients.

While this is a debilitating, painful, and—occasionally—deadly virus, there are many reasons why it’s very dissimilar to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The history is different

Although both originated as “zoonotic” diseases—that it, they began in animals and spread to humans—we have a far longer history with monkeypox, meaning we know more about it than we did when the coronavirus first appeared.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), monkeypox was first discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease occurred in colonies of monkeys kept for research, thereby giving the disease the name “monkeypox.” Its typical animal hosts, however, are rodents and other small mammals.

The first human case of monkeypox was recorded in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo during a period of intensified effort to eliminate smallpox. Since then, monkeypox has been reported in humans in other central and western African countries.

Although relatively new to the U.S., a large monkeypox outbreak occurred here in 2003 as a result of imported rodents.

Transmission is different

Next, the ways the two viruses are transmitted are completely different.

Unlike the largely airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through aerosols that linger in the air, the monkeypox virus can only be spread through close contact with an infected person or animal, or materials such as bedding or towels that are contaminated with the virus.

In addition, monkeypox appears to be far less transmissible than COVID-19. One study found that just three percent of those in close contact with an infected person would develop monkeypox.

It appears at this time to be spreading primarily among gay and bisexual men following sexual encounters, but anyone who comes into close and prolonged, direct contact with the pox sores can become infected.

Even women, and at least two children, have been reported to have contracted monkeypox, as a result of being in close proximity to men who have sex with other men.

The symptoms are different

Unlike the stealth infections of the coronavirus, it’s very apparent when a person is infected with monkeypox. As with COVID-19 and other viruses, they develop fever, headache or body aches, chills, muscle aches, and exhaustion.

These symptoms are also similar to those of smallpox, a cousin of monkeypox, with one difference:

“A feature that distinguishes infection with monkeypox from that of smallpox is the development of swollen lymph nodes,” the CDC says.

Otherwise, however, both smallpox and monkeypox exhibit the same signature fluid-filled lesions (the so-called “pox”), which the coronavirus doesn’t produce. Some individuals have these sores all over the body, while others may have only a single lesion. This rash can be extremely painful.

The vaccines are different

When COVID-19 first appeared two-and-a-half years ago, it was a brand new virus (i.e., “novel” coronavirus).

We knew nothing about it, and at the time had no way to combat it in the form of either effective treatments or vaccines.

Because of our long history with monkeypox, however, we do have vaccines and antiviral treatments. Monkeypox and smallpox come from the same family of viruses (although monkeypox is not as severe as smallpox). That has allowed us to utilize the stockpile of smallpox vaccines and antivirals to fight monkeypox.

And, unlike the coronavirus vaccines, the vaccines for monkeypox are effective even after infection, if given within four days of exposure. Even if the vaccine is given as late as two weeks after exposure, it can still lessen the likelihood of severe illness.

Not to worry?

Does all this mean we don’t have to panic about monkeypox? Panic is never a good idea because it prevents thoughtful responses in a crisis. But at this time the monkeypox outbreak still appears to be confined largely to men who have sex with men and those who are closest to them and who may come in contact with the open sore or infected linens.

If you fall into one of those categories, it’s important to take precautions until the supply of vaccines and antivirals becomes sufficient to cover everyone at high risk of exposure, because cases are spreading rapidly in the U.S. At the end of July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported more than 3,500 confirmed cases but noted that is probably a significant undercount.

Experts advise that, if you’re at risk, you temporarily reduce your number of sexual partners, reconsider sex with new partners, and exchange contact details with any new partners to enable follow-up, if necessary.

Infected people are encouraged to self-isolate from other humans as well as pets, and to wear a mask and long clothing over any sores.

Although there is currently a limited supply of vaccines in the U.S., the government has purchased 2.5 million doses, which should be available in the coming weeks. This means it isn’t yet enough available to offer shots to all high-risk individuals.

So until there is, take precautions, and let us know if you think your symptoms might be those of monkeypox. It’s a painful, debilitating, and sometimes deadly disease, but we can treat it if it’s caught in time.

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