WHO Elevates Coronavirus Threat to Highest Level
By Jessica Corbett
The World Health Organization on Friday raised the global risk of the new coronavirus to its highest level and reiterated the necessity of worldwide containment efforts as U.S. President Donald Trump continued to face widespread criticism over how his administration has handled the public health crisis so far.
Since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak began in Wuhan, China late last year, it has infected more than 83,000 people globally, killing over 2,800, according to the Associated Press. A large majority of the cases have been in mainland China; however, the virus has reached more than 50 countries, with hundreds of confirmed cases in South Korea, Japan, Italy and Iran.
"Our epidemiologists have been monitoring these developments continuously, and we have now increased our assessment of the risk of spread and the risk of impact of COVID-19 to very high at a global level," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus explained Friday during a press conference in Geneva with other officials from the United Nations agency.
"What we see at the moment are linked epidemics of COVID-19 in several countries, but most cases can still be traced to known contacts or clusters of cases. We do not see evidence as yet that the virus is spreading freely in communities," Tedros said. "As long as that's the case, we still have a chance of containing this virus, if robust action is taken to detect cases early, isolate and care for patients and trace contacts."
@DrTedros @WHOWPRO @pahowho @WHO_Europe @WHOAFRO @WHOEMRO @WHOSEARO "🔟 it’s normal & understandable to feel anxious… https://t.co/6mOTB32F4L— World Health Organization (WHO) (@World Health Organization (WHO))1582904766.0
Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Program, told reporters Friday that "this is a reality check for every government on the planet: Wake up. Get ready. This virus may be on its way and you need to be ready. You have a duty to your citizens, you have a duty to the world to be ready."
Ryan added that it "unhelpful" to ask whether the outbreak is now considered a pandemic, because doing so would mean "we're essentially accepting that every human on the planet will be exposed to that virus. The data does not show that." However, he warned, "if we don't take action ... that may be a future that we have to experience."
As Common Dreams reported Tuesday, Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch has predicted that the virus could ultimately infect between 40 and 70% of the global population, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is encouraging U.S. residents to prepare for "significant disruption in their daily lives."
The CDC is tracking COVID-19 cases in the U.S. on its website. The federal agency has also published information about the virus and the national containment response, which includes deploying CDC staffers to dozens of sites across the country.
Despite the agency's efforts, Trump has come under fire for his administration's response to the outbreak. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted Friday that "we're looking at a serious economic downturn because of coronavirus — and the Trump administration is bungling every aspect of this crisis."
Trump announced Wednesday night that he was appointing Vice President Mike Pence to lead the administration's coronavirus task force — a move that was pilloried as "utterly irresponsible" by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). The congresswoman and other critics highlighted Pence's problematic track record on handling public health issues, including while he was the governor of Indiana.
Trump's plan for the coronavirus so far: -Cut winter heating assistance for the poor -Have VP Pence, who wanted to… https://t.co/pNUJzEBmRr— Bernie Sanders (@Bernie Sanders)1582763521.0
Pence announced early Thursday that he was appointing a global health official, Ambassador Debbie Birx, as the "White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator," a decision which Politico described as "installing a czar-like figure under him to guide the administration's response to the outbreak after a protracted public dance around how to display the power of the federal bureaucracy to the American people."
The New York Times reported late Thursday that the White House moved to "tighten control of coronavirus messaging by government health officials and scientists, directing them to coordinate all statements and public appearances" with Pence's office, citing multiple unnamed sources. According to the Times, "Officials insist Mr. Pence's goal is not to control what experts and other officials say, but to make sure their efforts are coordinated, after days of confusion with various administration officials making contradictory statements on television."
However, the news generated concerns among individuals and watchdogs groups — and came amid reporting that a whistleblower from the Department of Health and Human Services has accused the Trump administration of attempting to cover up possibly exposing federal workers to coronavirus by sending them to process Americans evacuated from Wuhan without providing essential training or equipment.
1. Trump is now requiring PUBLIC HEALTH EXPERTS and SCIENTISTS to clear their statements about the Coronavirus wit… https://t.co/NCFmdirAFW— Judd Legum (@Judd Legum)1582834446.0
"There's nothing wrong with a coordinated process inside the federal government to make sure it is sending out clear, fact-based information about the widening coronavirus epidemic," said Dr. Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. "But there's every reason to suspect something else is happening — that public health experts are being instructed to stay silent because they are sharing truthful information that the Trump administration finds inconvenient or that contradicts the random musings of the president."
"As we have seen in China's response to the outbreak, muzzling public health experts at a time of a potentially emergent public health crisis is reckless and endangers the public," Carmone added in his statement Thursday. "It should be obvious to the Trump administration, though perhaps it is not, that silencing truthful information about the coronavirus is likely to speed — not stop — its spread."
Trump and his allies, meanwhile, continue to tout the administration's efforts and dismiss critiques as politically motivated attacks. Trump's acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney on Friday characterized news coverage of coronavirus as "an attempt to bring down the president" and downplayed its threat level. As Common Dreams reported, some critics responded by charging that Mulvaney was the one politicizing the crisis at the expense of American families.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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