WHO Warns It is Running Out of Money to Tackle Ebola Epidemic in DRC

The World Health Organization is urgently appealing for $40 million to salvage its operation to bring the Ebola epidemic to an end in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The Ebola operation in eastern DR Congo’s conflict-ridden North Kivu and Ituri provinces is on financial life-support.  The World Health Organization reports its coffers will be empty at the end of this month.  It is urging donors to step up immediately and contribute the money needed to tackle this virulent disease.  WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic says failure to support this operation would be tragic as good progress is being made in containing the Ebola virus.  Over the past two months, he says between three and 15 cases of Ebola have been reported each week.   This is compared to 120 reported cases of Ebola in April 2019.“Last week there was only one case reported and we are down to only two health zones in eastern DRC where we have Ebola cases.  But again, if we do not receive this funding, we risk obviously to have more spread of the virus.  So, therefore, there is this appeal to get more funding,” he said. WHO reports 3433 cases of Ebola, including 2253 deaths, for an overall case fatality rate of 66 percent.  Jasarevic says money from the $40 million appeal also will be used for preparedness activities in neighboring countries.  FILE – A person dressed in Ebola protective apparel is seen inside an Ebola care facility at the Bwera general hospital near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo in Bwera, Uganda, June 14, 2019.He notes a modest WHO investment of $18 million in helping Uganda set up screening, monitoring and other systems succeeded in stopping Ebola from taking root in that country last year.He tells VOA it is crucial that the Ebola operation not be interrupted because as long as there is one case of the disease, there will be a risk of further spread.“So, we have to really get down to zero.  We are making progress, but again, whether you have one case, or you have more cases, the activities that you have to put in place are the same.  So, we need to make sure that activities are funded,” said Jasarevic. There have been eight confirmed cases of Ebola reported from Beni and Mabalako in North Kivu Province in the past 21 days.  But WHO reports there have been no new cases reported for more than 42 days from Butembo and Mambasa Health Zones.  WHO calls the reduction of geographic spread of the Ebola virus and the declining number of cases encouraging.   

Italy Town Shuts Schools, Cafes as 6 Test Positive for Virus

Italian officials ordered schools, public buildings, restaurants and coffee shops closed in a tiny town in northern Italy Friday after six people tested positive for the new virus, including some who had not been to China or the source of the global health emergency.
    
The new cases represented the first infections in Italy acquired through secondary contagion and tripled the country’s total to nine. The first to fall ill met with someone in early February who had returned from China on Jan. 21 without presenting any symptoms of the new virus, health authorities said.
    
Authorities think that person passed the virus onto the 38-year-old Italian, who went to a hospital in the town of Codogno with flu-like symptoms on Feb. 18 but was sent home. He returned to the hospital after his conditions worsened and is now in intensive care, Lombardy region public welfare director Giulio Gallera said.
    
The man’s wife and a friend who did sports with him have also tested positive for the virus. The Italian Health Ministry ordered anyone who came into direct contact with the three to be quarantined for 14 days. About 150 people, including medical personnel, were in isolation undergoing tests.
    
Another three people in the Lombardy region also tested positive Friday, the health ministry said later.

US States Step Up Funding for Planned Parenthood Clinics

Several states have begun picking up the tab for family planning services at clinics run by Planned Parenthood, which last year quit a $260 million federal funding program over a Trump administration rule prohibiting clinics from referring women for abortions.
    
States including New Jersey, Massachusetts and Hawaii already are providing new funding, and Democratic governors in Connecticut and Pennsylvania have proposed carving out money in state budgets to counter the effects of the national provider’s fallout with the Republican presidential administration.
    
The proposals have stirred political debates over abortion at the state level, with some opponents claiming it’s a government endorsement of abortion and an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.
    
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont earmarked $1.2 million for Planned Parenthood in his new budget proposal. The executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, Christopher Healy, criticized it as a purely political act.
    
“Where is the pressing need here to do this?” Healy said, arguing Planned Parenthood does not need taxpayer money. “They have the ability to raise money.”
    
Lamont said he wants to help cover an expected shortfall for Planned Parenthood to ensure women in Connecticut have access to all the health services they need. A spokesman for Lamont said the administration doesn’t want the abortion debate to stymie access to things like contraception and cervical cancer screenings.
   
“Look, this is the law of the land. Here in a state like this, we believe that abortion rights are right, and we believe they ought to be affordable for folks who otherwise might not have that availability,” Lamont said. “So I think it’s the right thing to do.”
    
Nationwide, about 4 million women across the U.S., many low-income and uninsured, were receiving services last year under the Title X federal program, including STD testing, various screenings, education and wellness exams. Planned Parenthood and some other providers decided to withdraw from the program  rather than comply with what Planned Parenthood calls the Trump administration’s “gag order,” which bars clinics that participate in Title X from referring women for abortions. The move caused a money crunch for some clinics.
    
Since then, some of the rejected federal funds have been replenished by state or local funds in Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Vermont, Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, California and New York. Hawaii’s current fiscal year budget sets aside $750,000 to partly cover a $2 million loss in Title X grant money.
    
In Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation authorizing up to $8 million. In California, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors last year voted to cover a $482,000 expected shortfall for six Planned Parenthood clinics serving 36,274 patients. And Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, has included a $3 million line item in his proposed 2020-21 budget to also help offset the funding loss for Planned Parenthood providers.
    
In Oregon, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s rule, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon said the agency has been “working closely with state officials to create critical backstops and protect access to care for all Oregonians who need it, regardless of federal action on Title X,” and commended Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, for prioritizing funding for reproductive health services.
    
Abortion opponents have accused governors of providing the money to gain favor with an organization that often supports Democrats at election time.
    
In New Jersey, where Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy last month signed legislation that set aside $9.5 million in state money for family planning at Planned Parenthood, New Jersey Right to Life called it a disgraceful money grab.
    
“The taxpayers of NJ should not be forced to fund abortion, and make no mistake, that is what this bill will do,” Marie Tasy, the group’s executive director, said in a written statement.
    
Title X regulations prohibit funds from being used for abortions, with some narrow exceptions, and the money Lamont has proposed would fund Title X services and not on abortions, according to Connecticut’s Department of Public Health.
Abortion opponents in Connecticut have argued for years that state funds should not be used for abortions or abortion referrals. The state’s health insurance program paid for 6,995 abortions in 2018. A Department of Social Services spokesman said Connecticut is under a court order to pay for any abortion for a Medicaid-covered woman that she and her doctor have determined to be necessary.
    
The state money budgeted by Lamont would not go toward abortions, as it would fund only Title X services, according to state health officials. But opponents say that regardless of where it goes, the money for Planned Parenthood makes it appear the state is outwardly advocating for abortion.
    
“I’m disturbed by it, that it’s now state policy to outwardly advocate it no, matter what,”said Chris O’Brien, executive director of Connecticut Right to Life.
    
It’s unclear how long the help from states will continue.
    
Jacqueline Ayers, vice president of government relations and public policy at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said it’s “encouraging” that governors and state legislators are trying to fill the gap, but said the state-by-state efforts cannot replace the nearly 50-year-old Title X program.
    
“While we applaud leaders in the states for taking these temporary but critical steps, we must continue fighting for a nationwide solution,” Ayers said. “Only Congress has the power to permanently stop this harmful rule, and people across the country are continuing to call on them to do so.”

Iran Reports Two More Deaths, 13 New Cases of New Coronavirus

Iranian health authorities on Friday reported two more deaths from the new virus that emerged in China and said the fatalities were from among 13 new confirmed cases of the virus in Iran.
    
The report by the semiofficial Mehr news agency came as Iranians voted in nationwide parliamentary elections. After authorities reported two earlier deaths this week, the death toll from COVID-19, the illness caused by virus, stands at four in Iran.
    
So far, 18 cases have been confirmed in Iran, including the four who died.
    
The spokesman of the health ministry, Kianoush Jahanpour, said the newly detected cases are all linked with city of Qom where the first two elderly patients died on Wednesday.
    
Jahanpour said the new cases were either from Qom or had visited the city recently. He said four of them have been hospitalized in the capital, Tehran, and two in northern province of Gilan.
    
Minoo Mohraz, an Iranian health ministry official, said the virus possibly came from Chinese workers who work in Qom and traveled to China.'' She did not elaborate. A Chinese company has been building a solar power plant in Qom.
    
In Lebanon, Health Minister Hamad Hassan on Friday reported the Mediterranean country's first case of the new virus.
    
At a news conference in Beirut, he said the patient was a 45-year-old woman who arrived Thursday on a flight from Qom. He said the woman was in
good health” and the ministry was also following up on the cases of two other people suspected of having the illness.
    
The woman and two other suspected victims were quarantined at the Rafik Hariri government hospital in Beirut.
    
Concerns over the spread of the virus, which originated in central China, prompted authorities in Iran this week to close all schools and Shiite seminaries in Qom, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Tehran.
    
Also, earlier news reports said Iran had recently evacuated 60 Iranian students from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicenter of the epidemic. The students were quarantined upon their return to Iran and were discharged after 14 days without any health problems.
    
Qom is a popular religious destination and a center of learning and religious studies for Shiite Muslims from inside Iran, as well as Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan and Azerbaijan. It is also known for its cattle farms.
    
Iran once relied heavily on China to buy its oil and some Chinese companies have continued doing business with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions. Unlike other countries _ such as Saudi Arabia, which barred its citizens and residents from traveling to China _ Iran has not imposed such measures. But it has suspended all passenger flights with China for the past two weeks, allowing only cargo flights.
    
Iran’s civil aviation spokesman Reza Jafarzadeh said on Thursday that the cargo flights, if necessary, are under supervision, and controls imposed by the health ministry are carried out.
    
In Turkey, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said officials have started to screen travelers arriving from Iran at border gates and are refusing entry to anyone with signs of illness. He also said Iranians who have traveled to Qom in the past 14 days will be refused entry.
    
The new virus emerged in China in December. Since then, more than 76,000 people have been infected globally, in as many as 27 countries, with more than 2,200 deaths being reported, mostly in China.
    
The new virus comes from a large family of coronaviruses, some causing nothing worse than a cold. It causes cold- and flu-like symptoms, including cough and fever, and in more severe cases, shortness of breath. It can worsen to pneumonia, which can be fatal. The World Health Organization recently named the illness it causes COVID-19, referring to both coronavirus and its origin late last year.
    
There have been few virus cases in the Middle East so far. Nine cases have been confirmed in the United Arab Emirates, which is a popular tourist destination, and one case in Egypt. Of the nine in the UAE, seven are Chinese nationals, one is a Filipino and another an Indian national.
    
Iran’s neighbor Iraq, which has reported no cases of the virus, took measures to contain it by suspending visas on arrival for Iranian passport holders and direct flights between the two countries.
    
Also Friday, one of 11 Israelis who were flown home after being quarantined on a cruise ship in Japan has tested positive for the virus, the first case to be reported inside Israel, the Health Ministry.
    
The Israeli cruise ship passengers, who had all initially tested negative, arrived on a charter plane overnight. They were met by medics in protection suits and immediately taken to the Sheba Hospital near Tel Aviv, where they will be kept in quarantine.
    
Another four Israelis were hospitalized in Japan after testing positive for the virus. Israel has cancelled all flights to and from China, and is requiring Israelis returning from China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore or Thailand to be quarantined at home for two weeks.
   

Woman Plays Violin During Brain Surgery

A procedure one might expect to see only on an episode of popular television show Grey’s Anatomy actually occurred at a London hospital recently as a patient played the violin while undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor. Dagmar Turner, 53, has had a passion for playing the violin since she was 10, and she is currently a member of the Isle of Wight Symphony Orchestra. So losing the ability to play because of a brain tumor was an especially frightening scenario for her. During a symphony performance in 2013, Turner suffered a seizure that brought to light the slow-growing brain tumor. Located on the right frontal lobe of her brain, it threatened to damage her left hand’s fine motor skills — the hand that controls the notes being played on the violin. According to King’s College Hospital, where Turner was treated, her first course of treatment was radiotherapy. But after that proved unsuccessful and the tumor continued to grow, surgery became the next best option. Surgery put her hand mobility and playing abilities at risk, though, and it was a possibility Turner could not ignore. It was neurosurgeon consultant Keyoumars Ashkan, a professor at the college, who understood firsthand Turner’s concerns about the surgery, since he is an accomplished pianist with a music degree. So they designed a plan specifically for Turner’s January 31 surgery. First, her brain was mapped, allowing doctors to recognize and identify sections  that were active while she played the violin, as well as sections that dictated movement and language. Then, halfway through surgery, Turner would be awakened to play her violin so surgeons could avoid the sections of her brain that were active as she moved her hands to play. With the brain having no pain receptors, Turner was able to be fully awake and performing as the tumor was removed. Turner’s surgery was a success, and she was released from the hospital and back home in just three days. She plans to resume playing soon in the orchestra. 

Can AI Flag Disease Outbreaks Faster Than Humans? Not Quite

Did an artificial-intelligence system beat human doctors in warning the world of a severe coronavirus outbreak in China?In a narrow sense, yes. But what the humans lacked in sheer speed, they more than made up in finesse.Early warnings of disease outbreaks can help people and governments save lives. In the final days of 2019, an AI system in Boston sent out the first global alert about a new viral outbreak in China. But it took human intelligence to recognize the significance of the outbreak and then awaken response from the public health community.What’s more, the mere mortals produced a similar alert only a half-hour behind the AI systems.For now, AI-powered disease-alert systems can still resemble car alarms — easily triggered and sometimes ignored. A network of medical experts and sleuths must still do the hard work of sifting through rumors to piece together the fuller picture. It’s difficult to say what future AI systems, powered by ever larger datasets on outbreaks, may be able to accomplish.The first public alert outside China about the novel coronavirus came on Dec. 30 from the automated HealthMap system at Boston Children’s Hospital. At 11:12 p.m. local time, HealthMap sent an alert about unidentified pneumonia cases in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The system, which scans online news and social media reports, ranked the alert’s seriousness as only 3 out of 5. It took days for HealthMap researchers to recognize its importance.Four hours before the HealthMap notice, New York epidemiologist Marjorie Pollack had already started working on her own public alert, spurred by a growing sense of dread after reading a personal email she received that evening.“This is being passed around the internet here,” wrote her contact, who linked to a post on the Chinese social media forum Pincong. The post discussed a Wuhan health agency notice and read in part: “Unexplained pneumonia???”Pollack, deputy editor of the volunteer-led Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases, known as ProMed, quickly mobilized a team to look into it. ProMed’s more detailed report went out about 30 minutes after the terse HealthMap alert.Early warning systems that scan social media, online news articles and government reports for signs of infectious disease outbreaks help inform global agencies such as the World Health Organization — giving international experts a head start when local bureaucratic hurdles and language barriers might otherwise get in the way.Some systems, including ProMed, rely on human expertise. Others are partly or completely automated.And rather than competing with one another, they are often complementary — HealthMap is intertwined with ProMed and helps run its online infrastructure.“These tools can help hold feet to the fire for government agencies,” said John Brownstein, who runs the HealthMap system as chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It forces people to be more open.”The last 48 hours of 2019 were a critical time for understanding the new virus and its significance. Earlier on Dec. 30, Wuhan Central Hospital doctor Li Wenliang warned his former classmates about the virus in a social media group — a move that led local authorities to summon him for questioning several hours later.Li, who died Feb. 7 after contracting the virus, told The New York Times that it would have been better if officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier. “There should be more openness and transparency,” he said.ProMed reports are often incorporated into other outbreak warning systems. including those run by the World Health Organization, the Canadian government and the Toronto startup BlueDot. WHO also pools data from HealthMap and other sources.Computer systems that scan online reports for information about disease outbreaks rely on natural language processing, the same branch of artificial intelligence that helps answer questions posed to a search engine or digital voice assistant.But the algorithms can only be as effective as the data they are scouring, said Nita Madhav, CEO of San Francisco-based disease monitoring firm Metabiota, which first notified its clients about the outbreak in early January.Madhav said that inconsistency in how different agencies report medical data can stymie algorithms. The text-scanning programs extract keywords from online text, but may fumble when organizations variously report new virus cases, cumulative virus cases, or new cases in a given time interval. The potential for confusion means there’s almost always still a person involved in reviewing the data.“There’s still a bit of human in the loop,” Madhav said.Andrew Beam, a Harvard University epidemiologist, said that scanning online reports for key words can help reveal trends, but the accuracy depends on the quality of the data. He also notes that these techniques aren’t so novel.“There is an art to intelligently scraping web sites,” Beam said. “But it’s also Google’s core technology since the 1990s.”Google itself started its own Flu Trends service to detect outbreaks in 2008 by looking for patterns in search queries about flu symptoms. Experts criticized it for overestimating flu prevalence. Google shut down the website in 2015 and handed its technology to nonprofit organizations such as HealthMap to use Google data to build their own models.Google is now working with Brownstein’s team on a similar web-based approach for tracking the geographical spread of tick-borne Lyme disease.Scientists are also using big data to model possible routes of early disease transmission.In early January, Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician and researcher at Toronto General Hospital, analyzed commercial flight data with BlueDot founder Kamran Khan to see which cities outside mainland China were most connected to Wuhan.Wuhan stopped outbound commercial air travel in late January — but not before an estimated 5 million people had fled the city, as the Wuhan mayor later told reporters.“We showed that the highest volume of flights from Wuhan were to Thailand, Japan, and Hong Kong,” Bogoch said. “Lo and behold, a few days later we started to see cases pop up in these places.”In 2016, the researchers used a similar approach to predict the spread of the Zika virus from Brazil to southern Florida.Now that many governments have launched aggressive measures to curb disease transmission, it’s harder to build algorithms to predict what’s next, Bogoch said.Artificial intelligence systems depend on vast amounts of prior data to train computers how to interpret new facts. But there are no close parallels to the way China is enforcing quarantine zones that impact hundreds of millions of people. 

China Reports Fewest New Cases of Coronavirus Patients Since January

China is reporting its biggest drop in new cases of the new coronavirus that has killed more than 2,000 people on the mainland since the outbreak began more than two months ago.The country’s National Health Commission said there were just 394 confirmed new cases of COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) Wednesday, compared to the 1,749 cases the previous day, the biggest drop since last month. The death toll rose to 2,118 after another 114 people died from the virus, while the total number of confirmed cases rose to 74,576.Chinese authorities have struggled to contain the spread of the new coronavirus since it was first detected in December in Hubei province, in the city of Wuhan. The province was placed under lockdown, with nearly all transportation in and out of Wuhan and several other cities halted.Outside of mainland China, at least 11 people have reportedly died from the virus, including one in South Korea, two people in Iran and an elderly couple in their 80s who were passengers aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which been quarantined at the Japanese port city of Yokohama since its arrival on February 3.  Japanese health officials placed the ship and its 3,700 passengers and crew under quarantine after a passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong was diagnosed with the coronavirus.  But the attempt to contain the spread of the virus backfired, as 621 people became infected, making it the largest cluster of confirmed cases outside of China.About 600 passengers are expected to leave the ship Thursday, a day after 500 passengers disembarked Wednesday after testing negative for the virus and showing no symptoms.  Meanwhile, more than 150 Australian passengers arrived in Darwin early Thursday after being evacuated from Yokohama.  The group was immediately placed in another 14-day quarantine.  Canberra extended a ban on foreign nationals who have traveled mainland China from entering Australia until February 29.Russian passengers walk with their luggage after leaving the coronavirus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship docked at Yokohama Port, south of Tokyo, Feb. 20, 2020.About 300 Americans were evacuated Monday and immediately placed in another 14-day quarantine. Several other governments, including Britain, Canada, Australia and Hong Kong, are also making plans to evacuate their citizens from Yokohama.Despite the drop in the daily number of confirmed cases, the World Health Organization cautioned people earlier this week against relaxing and believing the worst is over. The WHO said it is still too early to predict exactly which way the outbreak will go.

Weather and Protests Hamper Ukraine Quarantine Efforts

Ukraine’s effort to evacuate more than 70 people from China over the outbreak of a new virus faced setbacks Thursday as weather conditions delayed the return of the evacuees and protests broke out near a hospital where they are to be quarantined.
    
Dozens of local residents protested Thursday morning seeking to prevent the evacuees from being quarantined there because they fear being infected. People put up road blocks and burned tires, while Ukrainian media reported that there were clashes with police.
    
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy weighed in saying that those demonstration show “not the best side of our character” and sought to assure people that the quarantined evacuees wouldn’t pose any danger to local residents.
    
In a statement published on his Facebook page, Zelenskiy said the people evacuated from China are healthy and will live in a closed medical center run by the National Guard in the village of Novi Sanzhary as a precaution.
    
“In the next two weeks it will probably be the most guarded facility in the country,” Zelenskiy said.
    
In the early hours of Thursday, a plane with 45 Ukrainians and 27 other foreign nationals took off from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak that has infected  more than 75,000 people worldwide and killed over 2,100.
    
The plane stopped off in Kazakhstan to drop off two Kazakh passengers. Later, it sought to land in Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine, but could not due to bad weather conditions.
    
Instead it flew to Kyiv to refuel, and eventually arrived in Kharkiv.
    
Also Thursday, the Russian Embassy in Japan said that two more Russians aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined in Japan have been diagnosed with the virus, the Russian Embassy in Japan said. That raises to three the number of Russians on the ship confirmed to have the virus.
    
The two will be transferred to a hospital in Japan for treatment, according to the embassy.
    
The Diamond Princess has been docked in the Yokohama port near Tokyo since Feb. 4, when 10 people on board tested positive for the virus. So far 621 cases of the virus, which has been named COVID-19, have been confirmed among the the Diamond Princess’s original 3,711 people on board.
    
Russia so far has reported only two cases of the disease on its soil. Two Chinese nationals diagnosed with the virus and hospitalized in two different regions of Siberia in late January have recovered and have been released from hospitals.

Chinese Study: New Coronavirus Spreads More Like Flu Than SARS

Scientists in China who studied the nose and throat swabs from 18 patients infected with the new coronavirus say it behaves much more like influenza than other closely related viruses, suggesting it may spread even more easily than previously believed.In at least in one case, the virus was present even though the patient had no symptoms, confirming concerns that asymptomatic patients could also spread the disease.Although preliminary, the findings published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, offer new evidence that this novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 2,000 people, mostly in China, is not like its closely related coronavirus cousins.“If confirmed, this is very important,” said Dr. Gregory Poland, a virologist and vaccine researcher with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who was not involved with the study.Easily spreadUnlike severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which causes infections deep in the lower respiratory tract that can result in pneumonia, COVID-19 appears to inhabit both the upper and lower respiratory tracts. That would make it not only capable of causing severe pneumonia, but of spreading easily like flu or the common cold.Researchers in Guangdong province monitored the amount of coronavirus in the 18 patients. One of them, who had moderate levels of the virus in their nose and throat, never had any disease symptoms.Among the 17 symptomatic patients, the team found levels of the virus increased soon after symptoms first appeared, with higher amounts of virus present in the nose than in the throats, a pattern more similar to influenza than SARS.The level of virus in the asymptomatic patient was similar to what was present in patients with symptoms, such as fever.“What this says is clearly this virus can be shed out of the upper respiratory tract and that people are shedding it asymptomatically,” Poland said.Related to SARS, not behaving like SARSThe findings add to evidence that this new virus, though genetically similar, is not behaving like SARS, said Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at Scripps Research in La Jolla who uses gene sequencing tools to track disease outbreaks.“This virus is clearly much more capable of spreading between humans than any other novel coronavirus we’ve ever seen.“This is more akin to the spread of flu,” said Andersen, who was not involved with the study.The researchers said their findings add to reports that the virus can be transmitted early in the course of the infection and suggest that controlling the virus will require an approach different from what worked with SARS, which primarily involved controlling its spread in a hospital setting.

Small Businesses Embrace Wellness to Help Retain Staffers

Every month, the 30 staffers at Chris Boehlke’s public relations firm each get $100 to pay for anything that contributes to their wellness. And not just for typical expenditures like gym memberships or yoga classes.“You can get nails done, anything you feel is helping your overall well being,” says Boehlke, co-owner of San Francisco-based Bospar. The company also has flex time and a generous time off policy including 17 paid holidays each year.As a result, Boehlke says, the 5-year-old company has lost only two staffers.Many small business owners are starting wellness programs to help employees be healthier, happier and more likely to stay. Wellness efforts encompass a wide range of benefits and services, including gym subsidies, stipends for classes and activities and apps that help motivate staffers to exercise and take care of themselves. n this Feb. 11, 2020, photo, Brent Frederick, founder of Jester Concepts, a restaurant group in Minneapolis poses at P.S. Steak.Owners are aware that many big companies have wellness programs, an advantage when it comes to recruiting and retaining staffers.Rob Wilson sees interest in wellness programs growing among his small business clients, and his company, human resources provider Employco, is focusing more on these programs.“A lot of it so far has been online classes and health coaching, also a lot of online tools right now that employees can access anywhere to help them keep track of what they’re doing,” says Wilson, whose company is based in Westmont, Illinois.“The companies doing it are really interested in keeping their employees,” he says.Work can take a tollThey also want to care for staffers who can be sacrificing good health habits by working long and hard hours. At MonetizeMore, an advertising technology company, CEO Kean Graham has sensed that the sedentary lifestyle of his more than 100 staffers has taken a toll. He’s seen extended absences and depression, and staffers have said that they’ve gained weight.“We came up with a steps program that measures everybody’s number of steps per month via their smart watches or apps on their phones,” says Graham, whose company is based in Victoria, British Columbia. After several months, he saw an improvement in absenteeism and spirits.The 100 employees at Birch Coffee get stipends toward a variety of wellness activities, and the company pays for monthly massages at its 14 New York stores. Birch is trying to offset the physical and mental stress staffers encounter, co-founder Jeremy Lyman says.“Each barista engages with hundreds of people every day,” Lyman says. “Mentally, it can take its toll, and you’re standing on your feet for seven hours.”Encourage good healthSome owners sign up with companies that run structured wellness programs. These can include encouraging staffers to take care of their health with weight-loss and smoking cessation aids, health screening and coaching and apps to track steps, calories and other metrics. Some businesses have point systems and competitions to reward staffers.Nearly all the 86 employees at Connor & Gallagher OneSource take part in its program created by a wellness software company, says Kayla Roeske, the director of client wellness at the Lisle, Illinois-based human resources and employee benefits firm. She finds that staffers are more likely to participate fully when the program is presented to them in a positive way, rather than the company coming across as “Big Brother” trying to control them. The company doesn’t get individual data but instead “we can see aggregate data from an organizational standpoint that tells us where we are year to year,” she says.Avoid cheerleading Owners need to steer clear of being overbearing and negative about employees’ health. While a boss might be happier if staffers didn’t smoke or if they lost weight, if the company comes across as intrusive, it could lose good employees.“If you start to push decision-making and judgment on these things, that’s where you may begin to cross the line,” says David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, an HR provider based in Norwalk, Connecticut. He advises that owners offer education and make tools available, but avoid too much cheerleading.“If you say, `we want you to live a better life,’ to some extent employees are going to take that, but they’ll be skeptical if it’s syrupy,” Lewis says. He suggests owners speak to staffers about realities, like the need to lower health insurance costs.Owners may need to be creative about funding their wellness efforts, especially when they include health insurance, a benefit many small businesses can’t afford. Brent Frederick, founder of Jester Concepts, a Minneapolis restaurant operator, includes a voluntary 3% surcharge on guest checks to pay for health and mental health insurance. ‘A better business’Frederick has 250 employees among his four establishments, which include restaurants, a food truck and a sports arena concession. Even the part-timers get coverage. That has made Jester Concepts a more competitive employer.“We’ve been able to retain employees and be a better business in the community,” Frederick says.The majority of Jester Concepts’ customers are willing to pay the 3% surcharge, which amounts to $3 on a $100 check. Some question it, but Frederick estimates that no more than once a month at each location does a guest ask to have it taken off their bill. Customers can look at the surcharge as proof that the company is concerned about its staffers’ well-being.Owners who want healthier employees may have to set a good example, and even make some changes to office routine and policies. A boss who likes to keep cola and other highly sugared beverages in the break room fridge may need to stop stocking it.  And at companies where the culture is for everyone to work through lunch at their desks, there may need to be a new normal — staffers have to break away.At Hoppier, an Ottawa, Ontario-based company that delivers snacks and supplies to businesses, “we don’t let anyone eat behind their computer screens. We think that everyone deserves a proper break, so we ask them to eat somewhere that doesn’t require any work,” CEO Cassy Aite says.Aite used to work at a consulting firm and eat at his desk; it’s what people did. His next job was at a German company, where he learned a very different approach — talking 90 minutes away from the office each day for lunch.“It’s an amazing way to break up the day,” says Aite.