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At Last, Aid for Senior Nutrition That Offers More Than Crumbs

Long before the coronavirus hit, nutrition programs that served the nation’s older adults struggled to keep up with a growing demand. Often, they could not.

In Charlotte, N.C., and nine surrounding counties, for example, the waiting list for Meals on Wheels averaged about 1,200 people. But Linda Miller, director of the Centralina Area Agency on Aging, which coordinates the program, always assumed the actual need was higher.

She knew some clients skipped meals because they couldn’t travel to a senior center for a hot lunch every weekday; some divided a single home-delivered meal to serve as both lunch and dinner.

Some never applied for help. “Just like with food stamps, which are underused,” Ms. Miller said, “people are embarrassed: ‘I worked hard all my life; I don’t want charity.’”

5.4 million older recipients.

For years, advocates for older adults have lobbied Congress for more significant federal help. Although the Older Americans Act has enjoyed bipartisan support, small annual upticks in appropriations left 5,000 local organizations constantly lagging in their ability to feed seniors.

From 2001 to 2019, funding for the Older Americans Act rose an average of 1.1 percent annually — a 22 percent increase over almost two decades, according to an analysis by the AARP Public Policy Institute. But adjusted for inflation, the funding for nutrition services actually fell 8 percent. State and local matching funds, foundation grants and private donations helped keep kitchens open and drivers delivering, but many programs still could not bridge their budget gaps.

food insecure,” meaning they had limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

And that shortfall was before the pandemic. Once programs hastily closed congregant settings last spring, a Meals on Wheels America survey found that nearly 80 percent of the programs reported that new requests for home-delivered meals had at least doubled; waiting lists grew by 26 percent.

Along with money, the Covid relief legislation gave these local programs needed flexibility. Normally, to qualify for Meals on Wheels, homebound clients must require assistance with activities of daily living. The emergency appropriations allowed administrators to serve less frail seniors who were following stay-at-home orders, and to transfer money freely from congregant centers to home delivery.

Even so, the increased caseloads, with people who had never applied before seeking meals, left some administrators facing dire decisions.

In Northern Arizona, about 800 clients were receiving home-delivered meals in February 2020. By June, that number had ballooned to 1,265, including new applicants as well as those who had previously eaten at the program’s 18 now-shuttered senior centers. Clients were receiving 14 meals each week.

By summer, despite federal relief funds, “I was out of money,” Ms. Beals-Luedtka said. She faced the grim task of telling 342 seniors, who had been added to the rolls for three emergency months, that she had to remove them. “People were crying on the phone,” she recalled. “I literally had a man say he was going to commit suicide.” (She reinstated him.) Even those who remained started receiving five meals a week instead of 14.

diminish loneliness and help keep seniors out of expensive nursing homes. They also may help reduce falls, although those findings were based on a small sample and did not achieve statistical significance.

Interestingly, Dr. Thomas’s research found daily meal deliveries had greater effects than weekly or twice-monthly drop-offs of frozen meals, a practice many local organizations have adopted to save money.

Frail or forgetful clients may have trouble storing, preparing and remembering to eat frozen meals. But the primary reason daily deliveries pay off, her study shows, is the regular chats with drivers.

“They build relationships with their clients,” Dr. Thomas said. “They might come back later to fix a rickety handrail. If they’re worried about a client’s health, they let the program know. The drivers are often the only people they see all day, so these relationships are very important.”

a prepandemic evaluation found.

So while program administrators relish a rare opportunity to expand their reach, they worry that if Congress doesn’t sustain this higher level of appropriations, the relief money will be spent and waiting lists will reappear.

“There’s going to be a cliff,” Ms. Beals-Luedtka said. “What’s going to happen next time? I don’t want to have to call people and say, ‘We’re done with you now.’ These are our grandparents.”

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Has the Era of Overzealous Cleaning Finally Come to an End?

When the coronavirus began to spread in the United States last spring, many experts warned of the danger posed by surfaces. Researchers reported that the virus could survive for days on plastic or stainless steel, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that if someone touched one of these contaminated surfaces — and then touched their eyes, nose or mouth — they could become infected.

Americans responded in kind, wiping down groceries, quarantining mail and clearing drugstore shelves of Clorox wipes. Facebook closed two of its offices for a “deep cleaning.” New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority began disinfecting subway cars every night.

But the era of “hygiene theater” may have come to an unofficial end this week, when the C.D.C. updated its surface cleaning guidelines and noted that the risk of contracting the virus from touching a contaminated surface was less than 1 in 10,000.

“People can be affected with the virus that causes Covid-19 through contact with contaminated surfaces and objects,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the C.D.C., said at a White House briefing on Monday. “However, evidence has demonstrated that the risk by this route of infection of transmission is actually low.”

primarily through the air — in both large and small droplets, which can remain aloft longer — and that scouring door handles and subway seats does little to keep people safe.

who wrote last summer that the risk of surface transmission had been overblown. “This is a virus you get by breathing. It’s not a virus you get by touching.”

The C.D.C. has previously acknowledged that surfaces are not the primary way that the virus spreads. But the agency’s statements this week went further.

“The most important part of this update is that they’re clearly communicating to the public the correct, low risk from surfaces, which is not a message that has been clearly communicated for the past year,” said Joseph Allen, a building safety expert at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Catching the virus from surfaces remains theoretically possible, he noted. But it requires many things to go wrong: a lot of fresh, infectious viral particles to be deposited on a surface, and then for a relatively large quantity of them to be quickly transferred to someone’s hand and then to their face. “Presence on a surface does not equal risk,” Dr. Allen said.

In most cases, cleaning with simple soap and water — in addition to hand-washing and mask-wearing — is enough to keep the odds of surface transmission low, the C.D.C.’s updated cleaning guidelines say. In most everyday scenarios and environments, people do not need to use chemical disinfectants, the agency notes.

“What this does very usefully, I think, is tell us what we don’t need to do,” said Donald Milton, an aerosol scientist at the University of Maryland. “Doing a lot of spraying and misting of chemicals isn’t helpful.”

Still, the guidelines do suggest that if someone who has Covid-19 has been in a particular space within the last day, the area should be both cleaned and disinfected.

“Disinfection is only recommended in indoor settings — schools and homes — where there has been a suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19 within the last 24 hours,” Dr. Walensky said during the White House briefing. “Also, in most cases, fogging, fumigation and wide-area or electrostatic spraying is not recommended as a primary method of disinfection and has several safety risks to consider.”

And the new cleaning guidelines do not apply to health care facilities, which may require more intensive cleaning and disinfection.

Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University, said that she was happy to see the new guidance, which “reflects our evolving data on transmission throughout the pandemic.”

But she noted that it remained important to continue doing some regular cleaning — and maintaining good hand-washing practices — to reduce the risk of contracting not just the coronavirus but any other pathogens that might be lingering on a particular surface.

Dr. Allen said that the school and business officials he has spoken with this week expressed relief over the updated guidelines, which will allow them to pull back on some of their intensive cleaning regimens. “This frees up a lot of organizations to spend that money better,” he said.

Schools, businesses and other institutions that want to keep people safe should shift their attention from surfaces to air quality, he said, and invest in improved ventilation and filtration.

“This should be the end of deep cleaning,” Dr. Allen said, noting that the misplaced focus on surfaces has had real costs. “It has led to closed playgrounds, it has led to taking nets off basketball courts, it has led to quarantining books in the library. It has led to entire missed school days for deep cleaning. It has led to not being able to share a pencil. So that’s all that hygiene theater, and it’s a direct result of not properly classifying surface transmission as low risk.”

Roni Caryn Rabin contributed reporting

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Researchers Are Hatching a Low-Cost Covid-19 Vaccine

A new vaccine for Covid-19 that is entering clinical trials in Brazil, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam could change how the world fights the pandemic. The vaccine, called NVD-HXP-S, is the first in clinical trials to use a new molecular design that is widely expected to create more potent antibodies than the current generation of vaccines. And the new vaccine could be far easier to make.

Existing vaccines from companies like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson must be produced in specialized factories using hard-to-acquire ingredients. In contrast, the new vaccine can be mass-produced in chicken eggs — the same eggs that produce billions of influenza vaccines every year in factories around the world.

If NVD-HXP-S proves safe and effective, flu vaccine manufacturers could potentially produce well over a billion doses of it a year. Low- and middle-income countries currently struggling to obtain vaccines from wealthier countries may be able to make NVD-HXP-S for themselves or acquire it at low cost from neighbors.

“That’s staggering — it would be a game-changer,” said Andrea Taylor, assistant director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.

Vaccines work by acquainting the immune system with a virus well enough to prompt a defense against it. Some vaccines contain entire viruses that have been killed; others contain just a single protein from the virus. Still others contain genetic instructions that our cells can use to make the viral protein.

Once exposed to a virus, or part of it, the immune system can learn to make antibodies that attack it. Immune cells can also learn to recognize infected cells and destroy them.

spike, latches onto cells and then allows the virus to fuse to them.

But simply injecting coronavirus spike proteins into people is not the best way to vaccinate them. That’s because spike proteins sometimes assume the wrong shape, and prompt the immune system to make the wrong antibodies.

The researchers injected the 2P spikes into mice and found that the animals could easily fight off infections of the MERS coronavirus.

The team filed a patent for its modified spike, but the world took little notice of the invention. MERS, although deadly, is not very contagious and proved to be a relatively minor threat; fewer than 1,000 people have died of MERS since it first emerged in humans.

But in late 2019 a new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, emerged and began ravaging the world. Dr. McLellan and his colleagues swung into action, designing a 2P spike unique to SARS-CoV-2. In a matter of days, Moderna used that information to design a vaccine for Covid-19; it contained a genetic molecule called RNA with the instructions for making the 2P spike.

Other companies soon followed suit, adopting 2P spikes for their own vaccine designs and starting clinical trials. All three of the vaccines that have been authorized so far in the United States — from Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech — use the 2P spike.

Other vaccine makers are using it as well. Novavax has had strong results with the 2P spike in clinical trials and is expected to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization in the next few weeks. Sanofi is also testing a 2P spike vaccine and expects to finish clinical trials later this year.

Dr. McLellan’s ability to find lifesaving clues in the structure of proteins has earned him deep admiration in the vaccine world. “This guy is a genius,” said Harry Kleanthous, a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “He should be proud of this huge thing he’s done for humanity.”

But once Dr. McLellan and his colleagues handed off the 2P spike to vaccine makers, he turned back to the protein for a closer look. If swapping just two prolines improved a vaccine, surely additional tweaks could improve it even more.

HexaPro, in honor of its total of six prolines.

The structure of HexaPro was even more stable than 2P, the team found. It was also resilient, better able to withstand heat and damaging chemicals. Dr. McLellan hoped that its rugged design would make it potent in a vaccine.

Dr. McLellan also hoped that HexaPro-based vaccines would reach more of the world — especially low- and middle-income countries, which so far have received only a fraction of the total distribution of first-wave vaccines.

“The share of the vaccines they’ve received so far is terrible,” Dr. McLellan said.

To that end, the University of Texas set up a licensing arrangement for HexaPro that allows companies and labs in 80 low- and middle-income countries to use the protein in their vaccines without paying royalties.

Meanwhile, Dr. Innes and his colleagues at PATH were looking for a way to increase the production of Covid-19 vaccines. They wanted a vaccine that less wealthy nations could make on their own.

experimenting with Newcastle disease virus to create vaccines for a range of diseases. To develop an Ebola vaccine, for example, researchers added an Ebola gene to the Newcastle disease virus’s own set of genes.

The scientists then inserted the engineered virus into chicken eggs. Because it is a bird virus, it multiplied quickly in the eggs. The researchers ended up with Newcastle disease viruses coated with Ebola proteins.

At Mount Sinai, the researchers set out to do the same thing, using coronavirus spike proteins instead of Ebola proteins. When they learned about Dr. McLellan’s new HexaPro version, they added that to the Newcastle disease viruses. The viruses bristled with spike proteins, many of which had the desired prefusion shape. In a nod to both the Newcastle disease virus and the HexaPro spike, they called it NDV-HXP-S.

announced the start of a clinical trial of NDV-HXP-S. A week later, Thailand’s Government Pharmaceutical Organization followed suit. On March 26, Brazil’s Butantan Institute said it would ask for authorization to begin its own clinical trials of NDV-HXP-S.

Meanwhile, the Mount Sinai team has also licensed the vaccine to the Mexican vaccine maker Avi-Mex as an intranasal spray. The company will start clinical trials to see if the vaccine is even more potent in that form.

To the nations involved, the prospect of making the vaccines entirely on their own was appealing. “This vaccine production is produced by Thai people for Thai people,” Thailand’s health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, said at the announcement in Bangkok.

In Brazil, the Butantan Institute trumpeted its version of NDV-HXP-S as “the Brazilian vaccine,” one that would be “produced entirely in Brazil, without depending on imports.”

Ms. Taylor, of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, was sympathetic. “I could understand why that would really be such an attractive prospect,” she said. “They’ve been at the mercy of global supply chains.”

Madhavi Sunder, an expert on intellectual property at Georgetown Law School, cautioned that NDV-HXP-S would not immediately help countries like Brazil as they grappled with the current wave of Covid-19 infections. “We’re not talking 16 billion doses in 2020,” she said.

Instead, the strategy will be important for long-term vaccine production — not just for Covid-19 but for other pandemics that may come in the future. “It sounds super promising,” she said.

In the meantime, Dr. McLellan has returned to the molecular drawing board to try to make a third version of their spike that is even better than HexaPro.

“There’s really no end to this process,” he said. “The number of permutations is almost infinite. At some point, you’d have to say, ‘This is the next generation.’”

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Researchers Are Hatching a Low-Cost Coronavirus Vaccine

A new vaccine for Covid-19 that is entering clinical trials in Brazil, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam could change how the world fights the pandemic. The vaccine, called NVD-HXP-S, is the first in clinical trials to use a new molecular design that is widely expected to create more potent antibodies than the current generation of vaccines. And the new vaccine could be far easier to make.

Existing vaccines from companies like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson must be produced in specialized factories using hard-to-acquire ingredients. In contrast, the new vaccine can be mass-produced in chicken eggs — the same eggs that produce billions of influenza vaccines every year in factories around the world.

If NVD-HXP-S proves safe and effective, flu vaccine manufacturers could potentially produce well over a billion doses of it a year. Low- and middle-income countries currently struggling to obtain vaccines from wealthier countries may be able to make NVD-HXP-S for themselves or acquire it at low cost from neighbors.

“That’s staggering — it would be a game-changer,” said Andrea Taylor, assistant director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.

Vaccines work by acquainting the immune system with a virus well enough to prompt a defense against it. Some vaccines contain entire viruses that have been killed; others contain just a single protein from the virus. Still others contain genetic instructions that our cells can use to make the viral protein.

Once exposed to a virus, or part of it, the immune system can learn to make antibodies that attack it. Immune cells can also learn to recognize infected cells and destroy them.

spike, latches onto cells and then allows the virus to fuse to them.

But simply injecting coronavirus spike proteins into people is not the best way to vaccinate them. That’s because spike proteins sometimes assume the wrong shape, and prompt the immune system to make the wrong antibodies.

The researchers injected the 2P spikes into mice and found that the animals could easily fight off infections of the MERS coronavirus.

The team filed a patent for its modified spike, but the world took little notice of the invention. MERS, although deadly, is not very contagious and proved to be a relatively minor threat; fewer than 1,000 people have died of MERS since it first emerged in humans.

But in late 2019 a new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, emerged and began ravaging the world. Dr. McLellan and his colleagues swung into action, designing a 2P spike unique to SARS-CoV-2. In a matter of days, Moderna used that information to design a vaccine for Covid-19; it contained a genetic molecule called RNA with the instructions for making the 2P spike.

Other companies soon followed suit, adopting 2P spikes for their own vaccine designs and starting clinical trials. All three of the vaccines that have been authorized so far in the United States — from Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech — use the 2P spike.

Other vaccine makers are using it as well. Novavax has had strong results with the 2P spike in clinical trials and is expected to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization in the next few weeks. Sanofi is also testing a 2P spike vaccine and expects to finish clinical trials later this year.

Dr. McLellan’s ability to find lifesaving clues in the structure of proteins has earned him deep admiration in the vaccine world. “This guy is a genius,” said Harry Kleanthous, a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “He should be proud of this huge thing he’s done for humanity.”

But once Dr. McLellan and his colleagues handed off the 2P spike to vaccine makers, he turned back to the protein for a closer look. If swapping just two prolines improved a vaccine, surely additional tweaks could improve it even more.

HexaPro, in honor of its total of six prolines.

The structure of HexaPro was even more stable than 2P, the team found. It was also resilient, better able to withstand heat and damaging chemicals. Dr. McLellan hoped that its rugged design would make it potent in a vaccine.

Dr. McLellan also hoped that HexaPro-based vaccines would reach more of the world — especially low- and middle-income countries, which so far have received only a fraction of the total distribution of first-wave vaccines.

“The share of the vaccines they’ve received so far is terrible,” Dr. McLellan said.

To that end, the University of Texas set up a licensing arrangement for HexaPro that allows companies and labs in 80 low- and middle-income countries to use the protein in their vaccines without paying royalties.

Meanwhile, Dr. Innes and his colleagues at PATH were looking for a way to increase the production of Covid-19 vaccines. They wanted a vaccine that less wealthy nations could make on their own.

experimenting with Newcastle disease virus to create vaccines for a range of diseases. To develop an Ebola vaccine, for example, researchers added an Ebola gene to the Newcastle disease virus’s own set of genes.

The scientists then inserted the engineered virus into chicken eggs. Because it is a bird virus, it multiplied quickly in the eggs. The researchers ended up with Newcastle disease viruses coated with Ebola proteins.

At Mount Sinai, the researchers set out to do the same thing, using coronavirus spike proteins instead of Ebola proteins. When they learned about Dr. McLellan’s new HexaPro version, they added that to the Newcastle disease viruses. The viruses bristled with spike proteins, many of which had the desired prefusion shape. In a nod to both the Newcastle disease virus and the HexaPro spike, they called it NDV-HXP-S.

announced the start of a clinical trial of NDV-HXP-S. A week later, Thailand’s Government Pharmaceutical Organization followed suit. On March 26, Brazil’s Butantan Institute said it would ask for authorization to begin its own clinical trials of NDV-HXP-S.

Meanwhile, the Mount Sinai team has also licensed the vaccine to the Mexican vaccine maker Avi-Mex as an intranasal spray. The company will start clinical trials to see if the vaccine is even more potent in that form.

To the nations involved, the prospect of making the vaccines entirely on their own was appealing. “This vaccine production is produced by Thai people for Thai people,” Thailand’s health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, said at the announcement in Bangkok.

In Brazil, the Butantan Institute trumpeted its version of NDV-HXP-S as “the Brazilian vaccine,” one that would be “produced entirely in Brazil, without depending on imports.”

Ms. Taylor, of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, was sympathetic. “I could understand why that would really be such an attractive prospect,” she said. “They’ve been at the mercy of global supply chains.”

Madhavi Sunder, an expert on intellectual property at Georgetown Law School, cautioned that NDV-HXP-S would not immediately help countries like Brazil as they grappled with the current wave of Covid-19 infections. “We’re not talking 16 billion doses in 2020,” she said.

Instead, the strategy will be important for long-term vaccine production — not just for Covid-19 but for other pandemics that may come in the future. “It sounds super promising,” she said.

In the meantime, Dr. McLellan has returned to the molecular drawing board to try to make a third version of their spike that is even better than HexaPro.

“There’s really no end to this process,” he said. “The number of permutations is almost infinite. At some point, you’d have to say, ‘This is the next generation.’”

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Getting One Vaccine Is Good. How About Mix-and-Match?

In January, Britain made a change to its vaccine guidelines that shocked many health experts: If the second dose of one vaccine wasn’t available, patients could be given a different one.

The new rule was based on sheer guesswork; there was no scientific data at the time demonstrating that mixing two coronavirus vaccines was safe and effective. But that may change soon.

In February, researchers at the University of Oxford began a trial in which volunteers received a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine followed by a dose of AstraZeneca’s formulation, or vice versa. This month, the researchers will start analyzing the blood of the subjects to see how well the mix-and-match approach works.

As growing numbers of vaccines are being authorized, researchers are testing other combinations. A few are in clinical trials, while others are being tested in animals for now.

created an Ebola vaccine whose first dose contained a virus called an adenovirus. The second shot used another virus, called vesicular stomatitis virus.

When the Covid-19 pandemic began last year, the Gamaleya researchers used a similar strategy to create vaccines against the new coronavirus. The first dose used the same adenovirus as in their Ebola vaccine, called Ad5. The second dose contained a different human adenovirus, Ad26. The researches inserted a gene into both viruses for the protein on the surface of the coronavirus, called spike.

Studies revealed that the vaccine, now known as Sputnik V, provided a strong defense against Covid-19. In clinical trials, the researchers found that it had an efficacy of 91.6 percent. Sputnik V is now in use in Russia and 56 other countries.

Recently, the Gamaleya institute joined forces with AstraZeneca, which makes its own Covid-19 vaccine. AstraZeneca’s consists of two doses of a chimpanzee adenovirus called ChAdOx1. Last week, the company reported that its vaccine had an efficacy of 76 percent.

found that the mixture worked better than two doses of the spike or of the R.B.D.

The researchers suspect that the first dose produces a broad range of antibodies that can stick to spots along the length of the spike protein, and that the second dose delivers a big supply of particularly potent antibodies to the tip of the spike. Together, the assortment of antibodies does a better job of stopping the coronavirus.

held back exports of vaccines to other countries as it grappled with a surge of Covid-19. For countries that were counting on those vaccines, a safe alternative for second doses could save lives.

After Britain was criticized in January for suggesting that vaccines could be mixed, researchers at the University of Oxford set out to put the idea to a formal test. In a trial called Com-Cov, they recruited 830 volunteers to test the two vaccines authorized by the British government: AstraZeneca’s adenovirus-based vaccine and the vaccine by Pfizer-BioNTech.

Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine uses a fundamentally different technology to produce spike proteins in the body. It contains tiny bubbles with genetic molecules called RNA. Once the bubbles fuse to cells, the cells use the RNA to make spike proteins.

stronger immune responses than mice that received the same vaccine for both doses.

Whether scientists carry out more experiments on other vaccines will depend on the willingness of the vaccine manufacturers. “You’re requiring quite large pharmaceutical companies to play nice together,” Dr. Wheatley said.

Dr. Bernard Moss, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suspects that a number of companies will be willing to let their vaccines be tested in combinations. “It’s always better to be a part of something that is going to be used,” he said, “than to wholly own something that isn’t.”

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Businesses May Benefit From Sharing Covid Testing Resources, Study Suggests

“The surprising thing is just how robust that finding is in the face of some pretty plausible variations,” said A. David Paltiel, a professor of health policy and management at Yale School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study.

Still, he noted, there were plenty of scenarios that the model didn’t test, and the paper still needs to undergo a thorough peer review.

Its predictions should also be tested in the real world, Dr. O’Connor said: “It needs to be explored and tested head-to-head with other allocation methods.”

But if the findings hold up, it would suggest that schools and other institutions that are trying to reopen safely should think beyond their own walls when they develop testing programs. “Even if your goal is only to protect the students in your care, you will still be doing the maximum to protect those students by taking care of the people in the surrounding community,” Dr. Paltiel said. “That’s a pretty strong argument.”

Some universities are beginning to adopt this outlook. C.M.U. now offers free tests to all of its students’ self-reported contacts, whether or not they are affiliated with the university, and runs a testing site that is open to local residents, said Amy Bronson, a co-chair of the university’s Covid-19 task force and an author of the paper.

And in November, the University of California, Davis, began offering free coronavirus tests to anyone who lives or works in the city. The Healthy Davis Together program, a partnership with the city, has since administered more than 450,000 tests and identified more than 1,000 people with the virus, said Brad Pollock, an epidemiologist at U.C. Davis who directs the project.

“A virus does not respect geographic boundaries,” Dr. Pollock said. “It is ludicrous to think that you can get control of an acute infectious respiratory disease like Covid-19, in a city like Davis that hosts a very large university, without coordinated public health measures that connect both the university and the community.”

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Three Feet or Six? Distancing Guideline for Schools Stirs Debate

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is clear and consistent in its social distancing recommendation: To reduce the risk of contracting the coronavirus, people should remain at least six feet away from others who are not in their households. The guideline holds whether you are eating in a restaurant, lifting weights at a gym or learning long division in a fourth-grade classroom.

The guideline has been especially consequential for schools, many of which have not fully reopened because they do not have enough space to keep students six feet apart.

Now, spurred by a better understanding of how the virus spreads and a growing concern about the harms of keeping children out of school, some public health experts are calling on the agency to reduce the recommended distance in schools from six feet to three.

“It never struck me that six feet was particularly sensical in the context of mitigation,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “I wish the C.D.C. would just come out and say this is not a major issue.”

reviewing the matter.

The idea remains contentious, in part because few studies have directly compared different distancing strategies. But the issue also boils down to a devilishly difficult and often personal question: How safe is safe enough?

“There’s no magic threshold for any distance,” said Dr. Benjamin Linas, a specialist in infectious diseases at Boston University. “There’s risk at six feet, there’s risk at three feet, there’s risk at nine feet. There’s risk always.” He added, “The question is just how much of a risk? And what do you give up in exchange?”

relatively low-risk environments; children under 10 seem to transmit the virus less readily than adults.

In recent months, there have been hints that six feet of distancing may not be necessary in school settings. Case rates have generally been low even in schools with looser distancing policies. “We know lots of schools have opened up to less than six feet and have not seen big outbreaks,” said Dr. Jha.

In a 2020 analysis of observational studies in a variety of settings, researchers found that physical distancing of at least one meter substantially reduced transmission rates of several different coronaviruses, including the one that causes Covid-19. But they found some evidence to suggest that a two meter guideline “might be more effective.”

“One of the really important data points that has been missing is a direct head-to-head comparison of places that had implemented three feet of distance versus six feet of distance,” said Dr. Elissa Perkins, the director of emergency medicine infectious disease management at Boston University School of Medicine.

the team reported in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases last week. The study also found that Covid-19 rates were lower in schools than in the surrounding communities.

The authors say the findings provide reassurance that schools can loosen their distancing requirements and still be safe, provided they take other precautions, like enforcing universal mask wearing.

“Masking still appears to be effective,” said lead investigator Dr. Westyn Branch-Elliman, an infectious diseases specialist at the VA Boston Healthcare System. “And so, provided we have universal masking mandates, I think it’s very reasonable to move to a three-foot recommendation.”

Not everyone finds the study so convincing. A. Marm Kilpatrick, an infectious disease researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said that the school-district data was too noisy to draw firm conclusions from. “It doesn’t really allow you to get, I think, an answer that you can feel really confident in,” he said.

The study’s authors acknowledged that they could not rule out the possibility that increased distancing provided a small benefit.

With aerosol transmission, safety generally increases with distance; the farther the aerosols travel, the more they diluted become. “It’s like being close to a smoker,” Dr. Marr said. “The closer you are, the more you’re going to breathe in.”

And distance aside, the more people there are in a room, the higher the odds that one of them will be infected with the coronavirus. A six-foot rule helps reduce that risk, said Donald Milton, an aerosol expert at the University of Maryland: “If people are six feet apart, you can’t pack them in. And so, it’s safer just because it’s less dense.”

Masks and good ventilation do a lot to reduce the risk. With these measures in place, the difference between three and six feet was likely to be relatively small, scientists said. And if Covid-19 is not very prevalent in the surrounding community, the absolute risk of contracting the virus in schools is likely to remain low, as long as these protections are in place.

“We can always do things to reduce our risks further,” Dr. Marr said. “But at some point, you reach diminishing returns, and you have to think about the costs of trying to achieve those additional risk reductions.”

Some experts say that a small increase in risk is outweighed by the benefits of fully reopening schools. “Trying to follow the six-foot guideline should not prevent us from getting kids back to school full time with masks, with at least three-foot distancing,” Dr. Marr said.

Others said it was too soon to loosen the C.D.C. guidelines. “Ultimately, I think there could be a place for this changing guidance,” Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University, said in an email. “But it’s not now, when we are struggling to vaccinate people, we’re still seeing over 60,000 cases a day and we’re trying to not reverse the progress we’ve made.”

Even proponents of changing the guideline say that any shift to looser distancing will have to be done carefully, and in combination with other precautionary measures. “If you’re in an area where there’s not a strong tendency to rely on masks, I don’t think it would be wise to extrapolate our data to that environment,” Dr. Perkins said.

Moreover, officials risk muddying the public health messaging if they establish different standards for schools than for other shared spaces. “I’ve evolved on this,” Dr. Linas said. “Last summer I felt like, ‘How are we going to explain to people that it’s six feet everywhere except for schools? That seems not consistent and problematic.’”

But schools are unique, he said. They are relatively controlled environments that can enforce certain safety measures, and they have unique benefits for society. “The benefits of school are different than the benefits of movie theaters or restaurants,” he said. “So I’d be willing to assume a little bit more risk just to keep them open.”

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Severe Obesity Raises Risk of Covid-19 Hospitalization and Death, Study Finds

Over the past year, many scientific teams around the world have reported that obese people who contract the coronavirus are especially likely to become dangerously ill.

Now, a large new study, of nearly 150,000 adults at more than 200 hospitals across the United States, paints a more detailed picture of the connection between weight and Covid-19 outcomes.

The study, performed by a team of researchers as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has confirmed that obesity significantly increases the risk for hospitalization and death among those who contract the virus. And among those who are obese, the risk increases as a patient’s body mass index, or B.M.I., a ratio of weight to height, increases. Patients with a B.M.I. of 45 or higher, which corresponds to severe obesity, were 33 percent more likely to be hospitalized and 61 percent more likely to die than those who were at a healthy weight, the researchers found.

“The findings of the study highlight the serious clinical public health implications of elevated B.M.I., and they suggest the continued need for intensive management of Covid-19 illness, especially among patients affected by severe obesity,” said the lead author, Lyudmyla Kompaniyets, a health economist at the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the C.D.C.

But the relationship between weight and outcomes is nuanced. Covid-19 patients who were underweight were also more likely to be hospitalized than those who were at a healthy weight, although they were not more likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit or to die.

Dr. Kompaniyets and her colleagues used a database of Covid-19 cases to identify 148,494 adults who received a diagnosis of the disease at American hospitals from last March to December. They calculated the B.M.I. of each patient and looked for correlations between B.M.I. and a variety of serious outcomes, including hospitalization, I.C.U. admission, mechanical ventilation and death.

They found that obesity, which is defined as a B.M.I. of 30 or higher, increased the risk of both hospitalization and death. Patients with a B.M.I. of 30 to 34.9 were just 7 percent more likely to be hospitalized and 8 percent more likely to die than people who were at a healthy weight, but the risks increased sharply as B.M.I. rose.

Providing evidence for this kind of “dose response” relationship makes the study particularly compelling, said Dr. Anne Dixon, the director of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Vermont Medical Center, who was not involved in the research. “What it shows is the more severe your obesity, the worse the effect is. And the fact that goes up stepwise with increasing levels of obesity, I think, adds sort of biological plausibility to the relationship between obesity and the outcome.”

The connection between obesity and poor outcomes was strongest among patients under 65, but it held even for older adults. Previous, smaller studies have not found strong links between obesity and severity of Covid-19 in older adults.

“Potentially because they had more power from this large sample size, they’ve demonstrated that obesity remains an important risk factor for death in older adults as well,” said Dr. Michaela R. Anderson, an expert in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, who was not involved in the study. “It’s a beautifully done study with a massive population.”

Dr. Kompaniyets and her colleagues also documented a linear relationship between B.M.I. and the likelihood of needing mechanical ventilation; the higher the B.M.I., the more likely a patient was to require such intervention, which is invasive and can come with serious complications.

The study also found that patients who were underweight, with a B.M.I. below 18.5, were 20 percent more likely to be hospitalized than those who had a healthy weight. The reasons are not entirely clear, but may stem from the fact that some of these patients were malnourished or frail or had other diseases.

The B.M.I. range associated with the best outcomes, the researchers found, was near the dividing line between what is considered healthy and overweight, consistent with some prior research suggesting that a few extra pounds might help protect people when they contract an infectious disease.

“Exactly why that association exists is currently unknown,” said Dr. Alyson Goodman, a pediatrician and medical epidemiologist at the C.D.C. and a co-author of the study. One possibility is that having a bit of extra fat may provide much needed energy reserves over the course of a long illness.

The findings highlight the importance of carefully managing the care of patients who are severely obese and of ensuring that people who are obese have access to vaccines and other preventive measures.

“This just provides further evidence for the recommendation to vaccinate those with a high B.M.I. as early as feasible,” said Sara Y. Tartof, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Department of Research & Evaluation at Kaiser Permanente, who was not involved in the study.

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Ivermectin Does Not Alleviate Mild Covid-19 Symptoms, Study Finds

Ivermectin, a controversial anti-parasitic drug that has been touted as a potential Covid-19 treatment, does not speed recovery in people with mild cases of the disease, according to a randomized controlled trial published on Thursday in the journal JAMA.

Ivermectin is typically used to treat parasitic worms in both people and animals, but scientific evidence for its efficacy against the coronavirus is thin. Some studies have indicated that the drug can prevent several different viruses from replicating in cells. And last year, researchers in Australia found that high doses of ivermectin suppressed SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, in cell cultures.

Such findings had spurred use of the drug against Covid-19, especially in Latin America.

not enough evidence “to recommend either for or against” using the drug in Covid-19 patients.

In the new study, Dr. López-Medina and his colleagues randomly assigned more than 400 people who had recently developed mild Covid-19 symptoms to receive a five-day course of either ivermectin or a placebo. They found that Covid-19 symptoms lasted about 10 days, on average, among people who received the drug, compared with 12 days among those who received the placebo, a statistically insignificant difference.

The new trial adds much-needed clinical data to the debate over using the drug to treat Covid-19, said Dr. Regina Rabinovich, a global health researcher at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study.

But she noted that the trial was relatively small and did not answer the most pressing clinical question, whether ivermectin can prevent severe disease or death. “Duration of symptoms may not be the most important either clinical or public health parameter to look at,” she said.

The researchers did find that seven patients in the placebo group deteriorated after enrolling in the trial, compared to four in the ivermectin group, but the numbers were too small to draw a meaningful conclusion.

“There was a small signal there, and it would be interesting to see if that signal that we saw is real or not,” said Dr. López-Medina. “But that would have to be answered in a larger trial.”

Dr. López-Medina also pointed out that the study population was relatively young and healthy, with an average age of 37 and few of the underlying conditions that can make Covid-19 more dangerous.

Bigger trials, which are currently underway, could provide more definitive answers, said Dr. Rabinovich, who noted that she was “totally neutral” on ivermectin’s potential usefulness. “I just want data because there’s such chaos in the field.”

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