By Dr. Anthony Policastro

Canaries used to be common in mines. They were used from about 1913 until the 1980s. They were more sensitive to carbon monoxide than the miners were. If carbon monoxide was present they would be the first ones to die. This would serve as a warning to miners. Fortunately, they have been replaced by real carbon monoxide detectors.

The use of canaries was what was known as a sentinel species. Honey bees can be used to monitor air pollution. Aquatic animals can be used to monitor water pollution. Bats and swallows eat insects so they can be used to monitor pesticides.

Historically, we know that rats carried bubonic plague. What people do not often realize is that the rats began dying before the humans did.

Sometimes this happens by accident. In Minamata, Japan a chemical factory was opened in 1908. They began making acetaldehyde in 1932. The process of its manufacture changed in 1951. The new process led to methylmercury being released into Minamata Bay.

Local cats started developing something that the people called “dancing cat fever”. Cats would develop neurologic symptoms that affected their ability to walk. Ultimately, they would develop concussions, go mad and die.

Crows fell from the sky. Fish died and floated to the surface. Seaweed stopped growing. The reasons were unclear. Then in 1956 two sisters developed trouble walking, difficulty speaking and convulsions. Eight more patients with similar symptoms were found in the neighborhood.

Within six months a total of 40 patients were found. Fourteen of them died. The mortality rate was 35 percent.

The chemical plant was immediately suspected. However, when they looked at its wastewater, there were seven possible causes in the water. It took almost two years to identify mercury as the cause of the poisoning.

Scientists have taken all of this to a new level. Modern technology has allowed that to happen. For example, micro sensors are being attached to the backs of honeybees to track their pollination abilities. It is kind of like a honey bee Fitbit.

Drones are being used to catch samples from the blowholes of whales at sea. This allows scientists to test their well-being.

DNA and RNA sequencing in Daphnia, a small crustacean, allow us to look at nutrient levels. They allow us to monitor synthetic chemicals. They even give us information on the effect of climate change.

Lichens help monitor air pollution. Scientists can now draw air quality maps based upon the study of lichens in various areas.

We are not intentionally using these creatures to tell us what problems will occur in humans. However, we know that many of the contaminants that they detect can affect humans. Hopefully in the future, we can be better at detecting things than they were in Japan in the 1950s.

COVID update- Nationally the number of new cases continued to increase. They went from 923,000 last week to 1,079,000 this week. That is the same level that we had during last winter’s surge. The number of new cases in Sussex County this week showed an increase from 540 to 578. That is also as high as the weekly figures were during the January surge. We just had one day with 269,000 new cases. That is the fifth highest day since the beginning of the pandemic.

In May the CDC said that vaccinated individuals did not have to wear masks any longer. That was before the Delta variant surged. In addition, vaccinated individuals now have a 25 (Moderna) to 50 percent (Pfizer) chance of having a breakthrough infection.

For those reasons the CDC now recommends that all Americans (regardless of vaccination status), resume wearing masks in public, indoor spaces. That should be done in locales with “substantial” or “high” COVID transmission. Right now those designations apply to more than 90 percent of counties in the U.S. That includes Sussex County.

This week there was a recommendation that booster doses of vaccine be given eight months after the last dose. This decision was based on information obtained from four sources. Those were New York State data, Mayo Clinic data, CDC data and Israel data.

The first three showed that there were breakthrough infections with the Delta variant. We already knew that. They also said that breakthrough infections in general were not more serious in vaccinated individuals. We knew that too. Thus the U.S. data did not point to the need for a booster dose.

The decision was based more on the data from Israel for that. They only studied Pfizer vaccine. We already know that breakthrough infections with Pfizer are more common. They did the study when the Delta variant was the most common cause of infection. Thus breakthrough infections were expected.

They started giving third doses to high risk individuals at the end of July. They have given third doses to about 16 percent of the country. It clearly boosted immunity in that group.

This created a dilemma. One choice was to acknowledge the fact that so far vaccine protection against serious infection is still occurring. That would mean booster doses are not necessary.

The second choice was to assume that the better protection provided by the third dose made it necessary. It is still not clear if the booster dose will decrease the number of severe infections any more than the first two doses.

Health insurance premiums are calculated each year for January implementation. Employers cover health insurance. One of the things that employers currently do is charge higher premiums for smokers.

It is likely that some employers are going to pass on the medical costs of COVID-19 infections to their unvaccinated workers. They would pay a higher premium in 2022. There are some estimates that the higher premium could be as high as $50 more per month.

Sometimes people’s lack of medical knowledge can be dangerous to them. There was a time when racism was so bad that people would commonly object to getting a transfusion from someone of a different race. They would rather die than receive blood that was absolutely identical in composition to their own. They were medically naive.

People’s lack of medical knowledge hasn’t exactly changed. There are now unvaccinated people refusing blood transfusions because they might get blood from someone who has received the vaccine. There is no vaccine in the blood. There might be antibodies but not vaccine. So these individuals would rather die. They are medically naive.

A new study showed that a drug called Ivermectin appears to significantly cut mortality when used early in the course of the disease. It is usually used as a drug to treat worms. Most often that is done in high dose in cows.

There is no evidence that it prevents disease. However, people in Mississippi have been buying over-the-counter high dose cow Ivermectin to try and prevent COVID-19. Of the calls to the Mississippi poison control line last week, 70 percent were for cow Ivermectin overdoses.