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Weather experts: Cold disaster triggered by lack of preparation

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Weather experts: Cold disaster triggered by lack of preparation

 

The killer freeze of this week in the U.S. was no surprise.

Government and private meteorologists, some almost three weeks in advance, saw it coming. They began sounding alarms two weeks in advance. They’ve spoken to leaders. Via social media, they gave blunt alerts.

And still, a tragedy occurred. At least 20 people have died and 4 million households have lost electricity, heat or water at some point.

Meteorologists had all kinds of sciences down right: the prediction math-oriented atmospheric physics and the squishy social sciences about how to get their message across, experts said.

“Due to human and infrastructure fragility, a lack of planning for the worst-case scenario and the enormity of the extreme weather, this became a disaster,” said disaster science professor Jeannette Sutton of Albany University in New York.

The incident illustrates how unprepared the nation and its infrastructure are for extreme weather events, meteorologists and disaster experts said, which would become more troublesome with climate change.

According to a preliminary estimate from the risk-modeling company Karen Clark & Company, insured losses are potentially $18 billion for the nearly week-long severe freeze beginning Valentine’s Day weekend, just a fraction of the actual costs.

Kim Klockow-McClain leads the behavioural analytics unit of the National Weather Service, which works on how to make forecasts and alerts easier for individuals to understand and act on.

People have heard the message and have issued warnings, she said. They were unprepared for different reasons, Klockow-McClain said, believing cold is not a big deal, not having encountered this sort of extreme cold, and concentrating more on snow and ice than the temperature.

“Meteorology was the easiest part of this, by far,” said Klockow-McClain.

Judah Cohen of Atmospheric and Environmental Science, a private winter storm specialist, first blogged about the danger on Jan. 25. He said the meteorological signal from the Arctic, from which the cold air fled, “was blinking red literally.” It was the best one I’d ever seen.

At the University of Oklahoma, meteorology professor Kevin Kloesel, who is also the emergency manager of the school, sent out an alert on Jan. 31 warning of “sub-freezing temperatures and the possibility of sub-zero wind chills.” He sent several alerts a day on Feb. 7, about a week before the worst of the freeze began.

Jason Furtado, professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, tweeted on Feb. 5 about the cold “off the chart.”

Around two weeks in advance, the weather service began talking about the freeze and gave “the most precise forecast we can make along with consistent messaging,” said John Murphy, chief operating officer of the department. “The magnitude and severity of the event is one that was not fully prepared for by some people.”

Professor of meteorology at Texas A&M University Don Conlee said that private and public forecasting was’ probably the best I’ve seen in my meteorological career.’

So why did it appear unprepared for so many entities?

The Texas power grid, which is overseen by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, was one of the key issues.

Sutton said that part of the infrastructure was “an enormous failure.”

“Institutional memory appears to be less than 10 years because in 2011 this occurred and there was a comprehensive set of recommendations on how to prevent this in the future,” Kloesel said in an email.

The chief executive officer of the grid operator, Bill Magness, told reporters Thursday that the agency planned on the basis of previous cold outbreaks and “this one changes the game because it was so much bigger, so much more severe, and we saw the effect it had.”

It was not prepared for “is not a great way to plan,” Sutton said, “especially if we are supposed to learn from our failures,” essentially saying that it was too high.

Another potential problem is that warning meteorologists were not acquainted with the fragility of the Texas grid, so they were unable to emphasise power more in their forecasts, Klockow-McClain said.

This was also so rare that, Sutton said, ordinary individuals had no idea how to handle it. It was simply not something they had ever encountered.

Even though this was different and serious, people often assume that they know cold, so people probably assessed the forecasts based on far milder chills, Klockow-McClain said.

The forecast also included snow and ice that, Klockow-McClain said, possibly drew more interest from people than the temperature drop.

“We, human beings, live our lives as if we are not at risk,” said Sutton. “We come up with all sorts of justifications for ‘we’re going to be all right.'”

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Brigham and Women’s research group finds ‘pleasant surprise’: Black patients 50% more likely to utilize telemedicine than white patients

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Brigham and Women’s research group finds ‘pleasant surprise’: Black patients 50% more likely to utilize telemedicine than white patients

Telemedicine, which gained wider popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic and is likely to become a permanent fixture of the health care system, has become especially popular in two patient groups: Black patients and women, according to a new study out of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“Given the digital divide, we expected to see differences and the use of virtual care among these populations,” said Dr. Gezzer Ortega of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Center for Surgery and Public Health, who authored the study, of the Black patients in particular. “But it was a pleasant surprise when we noticed that there was over-utilization within these groups.”

Ortega’s study broke its data into two phases: March 24, 2020 to June 23, 2020, during the stay-at-home advisory in the state, and the rest of the year. The goal was to compare patient appointments for different groups during that time, and determine the breakdown of in-person, video and audio appointments for new patient consultation within the hospital’s Division of General and Gastrointestinal Surgery.

Ortega said the research team chose to focus on surgeries because of the existing disparities in care and outcomes among groups for these procedures. He added that the team specifically chose to study the gastrointestinal division over other areas of medicine “because it’s one of the large divisions within our department, and it also reflects a broad population of care that we see,” he said.

During the early days of the pandemic, the study, published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, found little difference in the races of the people seeking care in-person or remotely, though he noted that Hispanic and Latino patients used the audio-only feature at higher rates than average, as did older patients, those with lower education levels, and those with a primary language other than English.

In the second phase of the study, which stretched from June 24 to Dec. 31, 2020, the gap for Hispanic and Latino audio-only appointments declined, likely reflecting improved digital literacy and access.

Notably, these gaps remained for the other groups throughout the study. “It’s important for us to have the flexibility of audio and video because there are certain circumstances where a patient may not have broadband access to do video, or may not have the capacity or the privacy to do a video call,” Ortega said.

Still, he said anything is better than nothing, but video calls are even better because they provide doctors with nonverbal cues impossible to read over the phone. In-person appointments, he added, are the best option.

However, the rate of use of telemedicine for Black patients was double compared to white patients, though Ortega said more research is needed to determine what those those reasons are on “a cultural nuance and personal level,” he said.

Women were also more likely to use telemedicine throughout the study, he said, which likely reflects the reality that women took on additional caretaking roles during the pandemic.

Ortega said that the study results point to the need for expanded broadband access to close health care access gaps. Digital literacy training, patient outreach to enroll in telemedicine services, and user-friendly, multilingual digital health care platforms would also help, he said.

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Boston Police commissioner search committee hears input

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Boston Police commissioner search committee hears input

The search committee for the next Boston Police commissioner hasn’t settled on any candidates yet, Mayor Michelle Wu said at the start of a meeting geared toward getting locals’ opinions about what they want in the city’s next top cop.

Wu told the 200-plus people assembled that the commission hasn’t “ID’d or spoken with” anyone yet to lead the department, and said that they want to hear from the community first, starting with the meeting Thursday night and then with at least one more.

The suggestions came in largely around what priorities for the new top cop should be. Different people suggested focuses on gun violence, mental health — both responding to calls about it and also the cops’ own wellbeing — response times, “social justice,” gender violence, transparency and accountability for officers who break the rules.

Of course, some people had completely different options about who should be commissioner. One man toward the start of the meeting said the city should look outside the department for a fresh set of eyes and a willingness to shake things up. Near the end, another man said the city should promote from within to find someone who knows the streets.

The next police commissioner will be the first permanent head of the department in what will be more than a year. Now-former Police Commissioner William Gross departed in the early days of last February amid rumors of a mayoral run — though health issues ultimately sidelined him. Then-Mayor Martin Walsh quickly appointed Gross’ replacement, the commissioner’s chief of staff Dennis White, but White only lasted a couple of days on the job before decades-old domestic allegations surfaced.

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Long COVID study: Boston researchers recruiting long haulers who are having trouble concentrating, experiencing strong fatigue

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Long COVID study: Boston researchers recruiting long haulers who are having trouble concentrating, experiencing strong fatigue

As tens of millions of Americans continue to battle long-term coronavirus symptoms, Boston researchers are hoping to crack the mystery of Long COVID and what’s sparking the debilitating condition for so many people.

Hub scientists are recruiting adults who had acute COVID-19 more than two months ago and are still experiencing symptoms, such as trouble concentrating and abnormally strong fatigue.

The brain scan study will be done in-person in Charlestown, so the long hauler study participants must be in the Boston area.

“We’re looking to try to understand what’s happening,” neuroscience researcher Michael VanElzakker, with the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital, told the Herald on Thursday.

Since VanElzakker put out the call for long haulers on social media, people have been “really appreciative,” he said.

“Those who are dealing with this condition are really worried, and they’re hoping they get studied,” he added.

Nearly 20 million Americans are suffering from Long COVID, which is scientifically termed Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC).

That 20 million American estimate is from the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Of those 20 million people, about 387,000 long haulers live in Massachusetts.

VanElzakker had been studying chronic fatigue syndrome before the pandemic. Many people with that disease initially have some type of viral infection.

“Studying that, I knew what was coming when COVID hit,” VanElzakker said. “There would be a subset of people who wouldn’t get better.”

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