The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

NYC first responders have high COVID-19 rates

Photo via New York City Fire Department / Flickr

Compared to the general public, New York City firefighters and emergency medical workers were 15 times more likely to be infected with the new coronavirus during the first wave of the pandemic, researchers reported on Thursday in ERJ Open Research. They studied nearly 10,800 firefighters and 3,500 emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics. From the beginning of March to the end of May, 36.2% of these front-line workers were either confirmed as having the virus with a positive PCR viral test or suspected as having COVID-19 due to their symptoms. During the same period, the rate was 2.4% in the city’s general population. Compared to the firefighters, the EMTs and paramedics were more likely to contract the virus and to develop severe COVID-19. Everyone in the study had previously undergone tests to assess their lung health, and those with declining lung function before the pandemic had higher risks of severe COVID-19. These first responders “cannot avoid entering homes or having close contact with members of the public and co-workers,” Dr. Anita Simonds, president of the European Respiratory Society, said in a statement. “No matter where we live in the world, we… need to do all we can to protect them.” 

Public surfaces might give clues to virus spread

Local public health officials interested in how and where the new coronavirus is spreading might want to monitor the amounts of virus on “high-touch” surfaces in their communities, a new study suggests. From April to June, during a COVID-19 outbreak in one Massachusetts town, researchers swabbed 348 nonporous surfaces that frequently get touched by the public. Twenty-nine swabs, or 8.3%, were positive for the virus, including crosswalk buttons, trash can handles, and door handles at entrances to essential businesses like grocery stores, liquor stores, banks, and gas stations. In a report posted on Sunday on medRxiv ahead of peer review, the researchers note that the amount of virus on the surfaces was minimal and the risk of infection from touching one is extremely low. But the prevalence of the virus on high-touch surfaces in public spaces and essential businesses “reflected, and may even lead, local COVID-19 case numbers by one week,” they said. “Our findings demonstrate the potential for environmental surveillance of high-touch surfaces to inform disease dynamics during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

New app aids cancer decision-making during pandemic

A new app may help cancer patients decide how risky it is for them to delay treatment due to fear of contracting COVID-19. Using data from over five million US patients, researchers developed an online tool that quantifies that risk for individuals with 25 different types of cancer. In JAMA Oncology, they give two examples. The first is a 70-year-old New York City woman during the peak of the pandemic’s first wave. She had stage 2 triple-negative breast cancer and also suffered from hypertension and diabetes. Treatment involves surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. For her, the consequences of catching the coronavirus by going for treatment outweigh a three-month treatment delay due to her risk factors for severe COVID-19. Immediate treatment would reduce her odds of being alive five years later by 8%. By contrast, for an otherwise healthy 40-year-old with the same cancer living in an area less affected by the virus, survival odds with immediate versus delayed treatment would differ by less than 0.1%. Coauthor Dr. Matthew Schipper of the University of Michigan said his team is updating the app to include more recent data on cancer patients’ COVID-19 mortality risk and also working on methods to provide uncertainty estimates, “as the uncertainty can be large, particularly when looking several months in the future.” — Nancy Lapid/Reuters