Satellite Indicates ‘Mini-Hole’ in Arctic Ozone Layer

Scientists studying data from a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite say they have observed a strong reduction in ozone concentrations over the Arctic, creating what they are calling a “mini-hole” in the ozone layer.The ozone layer is a natural, protective layer of gas in the stratosphere that shields life from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation, often associated with skin cancer and cataracts, as well as other environmental issues.The “ozone hole” most often referenced is over Antarctica, forming each year. But observations scientists made at the German Aerospace Center in the last week indicate ozone depletion over northern polar regions as well.The scientists refer to the Arctic depletion zone as a “mini-hole” because it has a maximum extension of less than a million square kilometers, which is tiny compared with the 20 million- to 25 million-square-kilometer hole that forms over the Antarctic.ESA released an animation using data from its satellite showing daily ozone levels over the Arctic from March 9 to April 1. Scientists say unusual atmospheric conditions, including freezing temperatures in the stratosphere, led ozone levels to drop in the region.



read more

India Considers Narrowing Lockdown to Coronavirus Hotspots

India is considering plans to seal off coronavirus hotspots in Delhi, Mumbai and parts of the south while easing restrictions elsewhere as a way out of a three-week lockdown that has caused deep economic distress, officials said on Wednesday.
 
The sweeping clampdown in the country of 1.3 billion people to prevent an epidemic of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, ends on April 14 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to decide this week whether to extend it.
 
He told a conference of political leaders on Wednesday that several state governments had asked for an extension of the lockdown to cope with the outbreak. But he also said that India was facing serious economic challenges, according to a statement issued by his office.
 
Scenes of poor migrant workers and their families walking long distances on empty highways to their homes in the countryside after losing their jobs have increased pressure on Modi to reopen parts of Asia’s third largest economy.
 
More than 80% of confirmed COVID-19 cases in India, the world’s second most populous country, have been traced to 62 districts representing less than 10% of India’s landmass, according to government data.
 
These are concentrated in the western state of Maharashtra, home to financial capital Mumbai, the capital Delhi and the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Kerala.
 
Many parts of the country have not reported a single case.
 
Such a skewed geographical spread strengthens the case for a more targeted approach under which the affected area and its neighboring district would be cordoned off, health officials said.
 
“To manage coronavirus, we are working on a cluster containment strategy,” said Health Ministry joint secretary Lav Agarwal, leading the effort to tackle the outbreak.
 
 “Bhilwara Model”
 
He said such measures were already in place in east Delhi, in Agra, site of the famed Taj Mahal monument, and in the textile town of Bhilwara in the western state of Rajasthan which has become a test case for a more targeted fight against COVID-19.
 
Under the “Bhilwara model,” which was adopted last month soon after about 30 people tested positive in the first big wave of infections, the town and its surrounding villages were sealed off with a virtual curfew in place.
 
People were not allowed even to step out of their homes to get essential stocks or medicines, instead they were asked to call helpline numbers for delivery of staples to their homes.
 
“It is a lockdown, within a lockdown,” said district information officer Gouri Kant.
 
The government of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, said 15 districts which had each recorded six or more cases of COVID-19 would be cordoned off beginning Wednesday night as it steps up the fight to stem the infections.
 
“There will be no movement in these areas and government will ensure the supply of essentials,” additional chief secretary Awanish Awasthy said.
 
The Delhi state government said late on Wednesday it was making it compulsory for people to wear masks if they step out of their homes, and 20 areas in the city would be cordoned off.
 
So far, India has registered 5,274 COVID-19 infections of whom 149 have died, government data showed on Wednesday.
 
The small numbers, in comparison to large countries such as the United States, Italy and China, have prompted questions from Modi’s critics about whether India has gone too far in shutting down its economy, throwing millions of those who depend on pay by the day out of work and onto the brink of poverty.
 
However, health experts say India needs to ramp up testing for infections to help ensure it has a grasp on how widespread the coronavirus is, and that a lockdown alone is no solution.
 
India’s Supreme Court said on Wednesday COVID-19 tests should be conducted free at all government and private laboratories. So far, only government labs were conducting free tests, while the private labs had been allowed to charge a fixed rate of 4,500 Indian rupees.
 
“The private hospitals including laboratories have an important role to play … by extending philanthropic services in the hour of national crisis,” the court said, ruling on a public interest litigation.
 
It was not immediately clear how and if the government would reimburse private sector’s costs.
 
A senior government official, aware of internal discussions on the lockdown, said parts of the country that had not reported a single case of the coronavirus and where people were not in quarantine could lift the curbs.
 
“There are proposals that are on the table, if there is a partial lifting it will be done on the basis of safety assessment,” the official said.
 
But it was unlikely that schools, colleges, rail travel and religious gatherings would be allowed anywhere in the country, the official said. Following are government figures on the spread of the coronavirus in South Asia:
 
  South Asia:
* India has 5,274 cases, including 149 deaths
 
* Pakistan has 4,072 cases, including 58 deaths
 
* Afghanistan has 444 cases, including 14 deaths
 
* Sri Lanka has 189 cases, including 7 deaths
 
* Bangladesh has 218 cases, including 20 deaths
 
* Maldives has 19 cases and no deaths
 
* Nepal has nine cases and no deaths
 
* Bhutan has five cases and no deaths 



read more

CDC Weighs Loosening Guidelines for Some Exposed to Virus

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering changing its guidelines for self-isolation to make it easier for those who have been exposed to someone with the coronavirus to return to work if they are asymptomatic.
The public health agency, in conjunction with the White House coronavirus task force, is considering an announcement as soon as Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday.  
Under the proposed guidance, people who are exposed to someone infected would be allowed back on the job if they are asymptomatic, test their temperature twice a day and wear a face mask, said a person familiar with the proposal under consideration. The person described the proposal on the condition of anonymity because the draft had not been finalized.  
The new policy is aimed in particular at workers in critical jobs. But it also comes as the Trump administration is eyeing what it calls a “stabilization” in infection rates and looks toward rolling back some of the restrictive social distancing guidelines and restarting the nation’s stalled economy.
The proposed guidance would follow recommendations made by the CDC that eased self-isolation requirements for front-line medical workers who were exposed to the virus. Under CDC guidance, medical workers who have been exposed to the virus without protective equipment but who have no symptoms can return to work with a mask and temperature checks after 14 days.
Pence on Tuesday said the White House is focusing on the “point of need” for the current situation but also is operating on another track to consider future recommendations for the public.
“Some of the best minds here at the White House are beginning to think about what recommendations will look like that we give to businesses, that we give to states, but it will all, I promise you, be informed on putting the health and well-being of the American people first,” Pence said.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
In fashioning the recommendations, the administration appeared to be trying to balance political concerns about wanting to preserve as much normalcy as possible with public health concerns that some infections are being spread by people who seem to be healthy.



read more

Pandemic Deals Blow to Plastic Bag Bans, Plastic Reduction 

Just weeks ago, cities and even states across the U.S. were busy banning straws, limiting takeout containers and mandating that shoppers bring reusable bags or pay a small fee as the movement to eliminate single-use plastics took hold in mainstream America. What a difference a pandemic makes.  In a matter of days, hard-won bans to reduce the use of plastics — and particularly plastic shopping sacks — across the U.S. have come under fire amid worries about the virus clinging to reusable bags, cups and straws.  Governors in Massachusetts and Illinois have banned or strongly discouraged the use of reusable grocery bags. Oregon suspended its brand-new ban on plastic bags this week, and cities from Bellingham, Washington, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, have announced a hiatus on plastic bag bans as the coronavirus rages. Add to that a rise in takeout and a ban on reusable cups and straws at the few coffee stores that remain open, and environmentalists worry COVID-19 could set back their efforts to tackle plastic pollution for years.  “People are scared for their lives, their livelihood, the economy, feeding their loved ones, so the environment is taking a back seat,” said Glen Quadros, owner of the Great American Diner & Bar in Seattle. Quadros has laid off 15 employees and seen a 60% decline in business since Seattle all but shut down to slow the pandemic. For now, he’s using biodegradable containers for takeout and delivery, but those products cost up to three times more than plastic — and they’re getting hard to find because of the surge in takeout, he said. “The problem is, we don’t know what’s in store,” Quadros said. “Everyone is in the same situation.” In this March 29, 2020, photo, a sign posted at an entrance to a 365 Whole Foods store advises customers not to use their own bags while shopping in Lake Oswego, Ore.The plastics industry has seized the moment and is lobbying hard to overturn bans on single-use plastics by arguing disposable plastics are the safest option amid the crisis. California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont have statewide bans on plastic bags, and Oregon and California have laws limiting the use of plastic straws. New York’s statewide plastic bag ban is on hold because of a lawsuit.  The Plastics Industry Association recently sent a letter to Alex Azar, head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and asked him to speak out against plastic bag bans because they put consumers and workers at risk. And the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance is doubling down on its opposition to plastic bag bans under a preexisting campaign titled Bag the Ban. Grocery worker unions, too, have joined the chorus. The union that represents Oregon supermarket workers is lobbying for a ban on reusable bags, and a Chicago union called for an “end to the disease-transmitting bag tax.” Critics argue people with reusable bags don’t regularly wash them. “If those bags coming into the store are contaminated with anything, they get put on the conveyor belt, the counter, and you’re putting yourself in a bad spot,” said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance. “It’s an unnecessary risk.” A study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health found the novel coronavirus can remain on plastics and stainless steel for up to three days, and on cardboard for up to one day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it appears possible for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes — but it’s not thought that’s the main way the virus spreads. More studies are needed to fully assess the dangers posed by reusable bags, which are mostly made of fabric, said Dr. Jennifer Vines, lead health officer for the Portland metropolitan area. “It’s not clear that a virus that you can find on a surface — whether it’s cloth or something else — is viable and can actually make you sick,” she said. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.  Some stores such as Trader Joe’s and Target are letting customers use their own bags if they sack their groceries themselves, while others are banning them. In Oregon, temporary rules now allow disposable “T-shirt” plastic bags with no fee to customers. Many stores ran out of paper bags amid a run on groceries, accelerating the move to ease plastic restrictions, said Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, which represents 1,000 retail locations in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.  “There are some stores out there that are saying, ‘For the time being, please don’t bring those in.’ Other stores are allowing them, but … right now we’re asking that only freshly laundered ones come in,” he said. Environmental groups, well aware of the nation’s current priorities, were at first unusually silent on moves to temporarily roll back plastic bag bans. But they responded forcefully after the plastics industry asserted bag bans could worsen the pandemic’s toll. “The fear-driven gains the industry was able to win this month are likely to be extremely short-lived,” said John Hocevar, of Greenpeace USA. “The movement away from throwaway plastic is the kind of awakening that is not going to be that easy for the plastic industry to stop.” In the meantime, some consumers are getting taken by surprise. Paul McNamara, who has used his own bags for a decade, said he was stopped at the entrance of his regular market in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, after the state enacted a temporary ban on reusable shopping sacks. His ratty bags have corners reinforced with duct tape from years of use; he instead left with his groceries in plastic bags. “My question would be, will it become permanent?” McNamara said. “I’m fine with the restrictions on reusable plastics. It makes a lot of sense, and that’s the way to go for the environment. But if it’s a public health issue, we’ve got to figure out some way to deal with it.” 



read more

Outbreak Poses Dilemma for Palestinians Working in Israel

At the construction site in Tel Aviv, Jamal Salman and the other Palestinian workers wore gloves and masks, and their employer provided apartments for them to stay overnight.But his wife, alarmed by the news about the coronavirus outbreak in Israel, called him every night from the West Bank, begging him to come home. He came back early this week.Now he sits alone in his basement all day, quarantined from his wife and five children and wondering how he’ll make ends meet. In Tel Aviv he earned $1,500 a month, enough to support his family. Now he’s unemployed.”Coronavirus is like an all-out war,” he said. “Everyone is suffering.”The coronavirus outbreak poses a dilemma for tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers working inside Israel who are now barred from traveling back and forth. They can stay in Israel, where wages are much higher but the outbreak is more severe, or they can return home to quarantine and unemployment in the West Bank.
Authorities on both sides are wrestling with similar trade-offs as they confront a virus that blithely ignores the barriers erected over the course of the decades-old conflict.Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority imposed sweeping lockdowns in mid-March, largely sealing off the occupied West Bank and heavily restricting travel within the territory.
But the laborers were allowed to remain in Israel, where many work in construction and agriculture — sectors deemed essential to the economy.Palestinians can earn much higher wages in Israel than in the West Bank, where economic development has been hindered by more than a half-century of Israeli military rule. Many support extended families, and their income is vital to the local economy.Israel and the Palestinian Authority initially agreed that the workers could remain in Israel for up to two months as long as they didn’t travel back and forth.It was left to Israeli employers to provide living facilities for the workers, some of whom were largely left to fend for themselves. The Associated Press spoke to workers last month who left their construction site after several days of living in close quarters, with little if any protective equipment.Many have chosen to go back to the West Bank, including thousands who returned ahead of the Passover holiday in Israel, when work grinds to a halt. Palestinian Labor Minister Nasri Abu Jaish told local media that 8,000 workers came back on Tuesday alone.  Their return to the West Bank poses a risk, both to public health and to the Palestinian economy.
The Palestinian Authority, which has reported around 250 cases and one fatality, says 73% of the infections have been linked to workers returning from Israel, which is battling a much larger outbreak. Israel has more than 9,200 confirmed cases, including at least 65 fatalities.Last week, Israel sent around 250 Palestinian workers back to the West Bank after a virus outbreak at a chicken slaughterhouse near Jerusalem, where nine workers tested positive.”With the borders closed, and no tourists or travelers, the only remaining source for coronavirus infections is Israel, where the outbreak is huge,” said Dr. Kamal al-Shakhra, an official in the Palestinian Health Ministry.The Palestinian Authority is stopping workers after they cross through Israeli checkpoints and taking their temperatures. Those with fever or other symptoms are taken to hospitals while the rest are ordered into 14-day home quarantine.All workers are barred from returning to Israel, and security forces posted at the entrances to towns and villages are confiscating work permits.”We cannot test all the workers returning from Israel because we have limited capabilities,” said Dr. Ali Abed Rabu, another Health Ministry official. Labs in Ramallah and Bethlehem can only process around 600 tests per day, he said.Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of the World Health Organization for the Palestinian territories, praised the Palestinian Authority’s response to the pandemic. But he acknowledged that screening and quarantining the returning workers was “easier said than done,” especially since many are unregistered.A major outbreak in the West Bank would overwhelm the local health system. West Bank hospitals have around 213 intensive care unit beds with ventilators, according to the WHO. That’s for a population of around 2.5 million.The situation in Gaza, which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the Palestinian militant group Hamas seized power there in 2007, is even more dire.The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can be spread by those who appear healthy. It can cause severe illness and death in some patients, particularly the sick and elderly.Mohammed Falah, a 24-year-old day laborer from the West Bank, returned from Israel on Tuesday after working on a construction site in Tel Aviv for the last three weeks.”If I had more work, I would have stayed,” said Falah, who is engaged and hopes to get married this summer. He makes around $70 a day in Israel, twice the going rate in the West Bank.
“I’m building a home myself. I cannot afford to stay in with no income,” he said.After he passed through the Israeli checkpoint, Palestinian medics sprayed him down with disinfectant from head to toe. “They even disinfected my shoes,” he said.After taking his temperature and finding no sign of fever, they ordered him to go into home quarantine for 14 days.”I will definitely follow the instructions,” he said. “I have parents and brothers and sisters, and I want to protect them.”



read more

New Research Gives Insight into Saturn’s Atmosphere

New analysis of data collected by the U.S. space agency’s Cassini spacecraft may have solved what has been a mystery to scientists for years: What keeps the upper layers of Saturn so warm?The warmth of Saturn and other gas giants in the solar system has puzzled scientists because the planets are too far from the sun for it to be the source of the heat that has been found in their atmospheres.But the authors of a report published this week in the scientific journal Nature Astronomy used NASA’s Cassini probe data to make the most detailed examination yet of Saturn’s temperatures and atmospheric density.They discovered auroras – similar to Earth’s northern lights – active at the planet’s north and south poles. The researchers believe the auroras, electrical currents triggered by interactions between solar winds and charged particles in the atmosphere, are what’s providing the heat.This complete picture of how heat circulates in Saturn’s atmosphere allows scientists to better understand how these auroral electric currents drive winds and distribute energy around the planet, and why the upper atmosphere is twice as hot as temperatures expected from the sun’s heat alone.The Cassini space probe, managed by NASA, was an orbiter that observed Saturn for more than 13 years. In September 2017 it exhausted its fuel supply and was plunged into the planet, in part to protect Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, which Cassini discovered might hold conditions suitable for life.



read more