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Health officials discuss how to combat coronavirus in the early stages

At a Council of Foreign Relations event Tuesday, health experts said U.S. should work to prevent travel-related cases of coronavirus

Trump’s budget cuts jeopardize Affordable Care Act, Democrats say

Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee said fiscal 2021 budget shows Trump’s efforts to undermine health care coverage.

Congress pressed to lower prescription drugs

WASHINGTON — Juliana Keeping is overcome with mixed emotions every time she celebrates her son’s birthday. Eli, 7, has cystic fibrosis. Another year older means another $300,000 in medical bills.

“I’m deeply frustrated with the current system,” said Keeping, who testified before the House Ways and Means Health subcommittee Wednesday. “Congress must work to enact legislative solutions that would make drug costs affordable.”

Committee Chairman Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, began the hearing by calling President Donald Trump a liar for saying in his Tuesday State of the Union address that efforts by his administration led to the first decline in prescription drug prices in 51 years. The president called on Congress to pass legislation that would further lower prescription drug prices but provided no details on how he would achieve that goal.

Keeping is able to pay Eli’s medical bills because of patient assistance programs, nonprofit organizations that cover a patient’s copays and coinsurances. The problem with relying on these programs, however, is that they are tied to the patient’s health insurance plan.

“Ninety-seven percent of all patient assistance programs require patients to be on insurance in order to participate,” Keeping said.

Uninsured patients have virtually no access to programs to offer such relief. In addition, those with better health care coverage will receive better assistance. If Keeping lost her job and the health insurance that comes with it, she would also lose the patient assistance program’s payments for Eli’s prescription drugs.

Keeping pleaded with Republican committee members to push for the Senate GOP majority to support H.R. 3, a bill the House passed last year that would require Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate with drug companies for fair and affordable drug prices.

“H.R. 3 is not the answer,” responded committee member Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. “The answer is H.R. 19.”

H.R. 19, proposed by House Republicans, focuses on restructuring Medicare Part D. According to Tara Hayes, director of Human Welfare Policy at the American Action Forum, H.R. 19 could save the federal government $28.3 billion in reinsurance payments and beneficiaries and more than $10.6 billion in out-of-pocket costs.

“We don’t need to fix the broken patient assistance program; instead, we need to fix the entire broken drug pricing program,” Keeping said.

Another issue in the cost of prescription drugs is that manufacturers provide free samples to medical professionals, said Johns Hopkins University accounting professor Ge Bai.

“In 2016, drug manufacturers spent $13.5 billion on free samples, accounting for 73% of professional marketing for prescription drugs,” Bai said.

Bai suggested that eliminating the free samples would lower drug prices and endorsed a bipartisan bill introduced by subcommittee members Reps. Judy Chu, D-Calif., and Devin Nunes, R-Calif., last year. The act would require drug manufacturers and other medical product suppliers to report to the Department of Health and Human Services the number and value of free drug samples given to clinicians each year, to be posted publicly.

Another contributing factor to high drug prices is the large and growing trade deficit in pharmaceutical products, according to Brad Sester, senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Most of the United States’ leading pharmaceutical companies produce their most valuable drugs offshore in low tax jurisdictions like Ireland, he said, noting that $70 billion in pharmaceutical exports falls well short of covering $150 billion in imports. He added that pharmaceutical imports increased by around $40 billion over the last two years.

“The United States’ trade deficit in pharmaceutical products is now as large as America’s trade surplus in aerospace,” Sester said.

Quarantines and travel bans ineffective in combating coronavirus, disease control experts say

WASHINGTON— Experts on disease control said on Wednesday that quarantines and travel bans on China are not enough to control the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak and said the U.S. should provide more assistance to China and collaborate with other nations.

“We don’t have a travel ban, we have a travel band-aid right now,” Ron Klain, former White House Ebola response coordinator, told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee.
 
Klain said the Trump administration should be engaging diplomats globally to help other nations fight the disease, despite China’s refusal to collaborate with other world powers. He also urged the administration to present an emergency funding package to fight the coronavirus.

Reps. Gerry Conolly, D- Va., and Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, are introducing a measure that would establish a permanent government official in charge of epidemic and pandemic preparedness. Klain praised the bill at the hearing, but said additional policies are needed to mitigate the coronavirus outbreak.

Jennifer Nuzzo, associate professor and senior scholar at John Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security, said at the hearing that quarantines are not effective in combating the coronavirus because it is not known who should be isolated. As the virus rapidly spreads, people who have not been in China may be infected. Isolating travelers from China is insufficient and ineffective, said Nuzzo.

“We don’t know if travelers from other countries have the virus. We also don’t know if they’re already here,” said Nuzzo.

Klain and Nuzzo said monitoring individuals is a preferable to quarantines and travel bans. Foreign entities might stop reporting cases to avoid travel bans from the U.S., while quarantines disincentivize health workers from volunteering abroad, said Nuzzo.

Committee members and witnesses said that the U.S. cannot stop importing essential goods from China, such as vital medical equipment, which offers an additional risk for contamination.

“Reducing the amount of travel is good, but we need to be honest that we will always be at risk because we will never turn off the supply chain of traffic coming into the U.S.,” said Klain.

Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation, said that Congress is willing to work closely with the Trump administration to fight the coronavirus outbreak. He hopes to establish a long-term policy for fighting epidemics.

“Let’s just stop responding to crisis after crisis,” said Bera. “Let’s actually make this part of our national security agenda.”

House subcommittee calls for a change in maternal and infant care

WASHINGTON–Congress should expand Medicaid to cover a pregnant woman’s prenatal health care as well as the delivery and the baby’s health care, the chairwoman of a House Education and Labor subcommittee said Tuesday.

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said the federal government should provide affordable healthcare to women who now have no health care by expanding Medicaid, which currently covers 43 percent of births. She said there needs to be more support for women before and after giving birth through federal aid programs that provide breastfeeding support and help mothers to avoid pre-term births.

The nation’s pre-term birth rate has risen for the fourth consecutive year, March of Dimes CEO Stacey Stewart told the committee.

“It’s not fine that babies of color die at rates far higher than white babies,” Stewart said. “It’s not fine that babies are being born too soon.”

Along with babies being born earlier, the maternal mortality rate is also rising. According to a March of Dimes report, 700 women die each year from pregnancy complications that can happen up to a year after giving birth.

Stewart said there is a lot the United States can learn from other countries with decreasing mortality rates. She said policies that support women are needed including midwifery care and home visiting program.

“We interviewed women and what they want is less intervention,” Stewart said. “They want a midwife. They want someone who looks like them, who understand them.”

Women of color, specifically black women, are affected disproportionately by these health care issues and are up to 4 times more like to die from that than white women.

This is due to the racist research methods of Dr. J Marion Sims said Dr. Joia Crear-Perry, founder and president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative. Sims performed operations on black women without anesthesia to show that black women did not receive pain like white women. Crear-Perry said this idea is still prominent in the field and can help to explain the treatment of black women where their complaints of pain are ignored.

“Racism is the risk factor not my black skin,” Crear-Perry said.

One way Crear-Perry said the treatment of black women can be improved is through implicit bias training for maternal child health divisions and says they would help to improve healthcare.

Maternal mortality is also affected by the access to hospitals and health care providers as there are maternal care deserts throughout the country.

Former obstetrician Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said he represents five counties that do not have a central care facility which means women are forced to drive long distances when they need care. To address this, he said there need to be neighborhood clinics in rural areas. These clinics, ran by nurses, would help to limit hospital visits until absolutely necessary.

“We should continue this (conversation) because this is a travesty in the United States to have these kinds of mortality rates,” Roe said.

Lawmakers seek answers on cannabis

WASHINGTON — Congress should act quickly to change marijuana laws to allow researchers easier access to cannabis so they can conduct tests to determine whether it has medical value and what risks might be associated with using it medicinally, top government health officials said Wednesday.

The University of Mississippi has the only supply of marijuana that researchers who want to conduct Food and Drug Administration-approved tests can use to examine the medical benefits and risks of cannabis. The Controlled Substance Act classifies cannabis as a schedule I drug, which means that it is harder for researchers to gain access to the drug. Having the classification of a schedule I drug also means that there is not a medical value associated with the drug.

The director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora D. Volkow made it clear to the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, that cannabis research is urgently needed.

“We will try to come up with a process that will allow to safeguard the public, but at the same time facilitate and accelerate research,” she said.

Experts from the Drug Enforcement Administration and Food and Drug Administration also said quick action is needed.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., stated that researchers “are in a catch-22” due to the fact that they “can’t conduct research until they show cannabis has a medical use, but they can’t demonstrate cannabis has a medical use until they can conduct research.”

Many committee Democrats and Republicans mentioned personal experiences and constituent stories of the positive health effects of cannabis.

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., said that some of his friends once snuck cannabis into a hospital for a man who was suffering from cancer and wanted to improve the quality of his life in his remaining days. Rep. Debbie Dingell,D-Mich., said her late husband, former Rep. John Dingell, suffered excruciating pain toward the end of his life and was told that marijuana might help him, but he refused partly because of marijuana’s status as a schedule I drug.

The committee is considering six pieces of marijuana legislation, two of which would legalize marijuana on the federal level.

Marijuana is now legal in 11 states for adults over the age of 21, and legal for medical use in 33 states. With public sentiment for cannabis legalization growing, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are scrambling for answers regarding the health effects of marijuana usage.

House turns to states for advice on opioid crisis

WASHINGTON –The federal government can learn from some states’ successes in the 20-year battle against opioid addiction, the chairwoman of a House investigations subcommittee said Tuesday.

During that time, more than 400,000 people have died from opioid overdoses, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Officials from Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia reported to the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on the progress they’ve been able to make along but also suggested the federal government provide more help. They asked for more flexibility in how they use federal funding to create programs that will do more to combat the effects of many addictions, not just opioids.

Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jennifer Smith called for “more flexibility to address the system and not the substance.” Smith said her state is monitoring a rise in stimulant use and that flexibility in spending will allow states to address their unique needs.

“Our ability to orchestrate resources during the opioid crisis has been important in massive change,” she said.

Smith also addressed the importance of jail-based treatment programs.

North Carolina’s deputy secretary of behavioral health and intellectual and developmental disabilities, Kody Kinsley, agreed, saying the programs curb the number of overdoses after prisoners are released. Ex-convicts in North Carolina prison are 40 times more likely than others to die from an overdose.

Kinsley said his state created six jail-based treatment programs as well as an action plan to connect anyone who needs it to care, but says there is still a long way for North Carolina to go.

Democrats Reps. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Yvette Clark of New York highlighted the increasing rates of opioid overdosage in communities of color, specifically black and Latinx, and how states were dealing with those changes. They wanted to ensure that resources are sent to the most vulnerable communities.

Monica Bharel, commissioner of the Department of Health in Massachusetts said her team has had to reallocate funds to support addicted black men because previous methods did not reach that demographic as well as it did white communities.

Veterans Seek More Ways to Heal from Military Sexual Assault

WASHINGTON — Sexual assaults of members of the military have risen in recent years, and some female veterans say they need better mental health services from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which already has implemented some new treatment plans for mental health issues that women face following sexual trauma.

In fiscal year 2017, 5,277 service members, mostly women, reported a sexual assault had occurred during their military service, according to a Defense Department report. That was an increase of 10 percent – 4,794 victims – from the previous year.

Last week, Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., disclosed she had been raped by a superior officer during while serving in the Air Force. She is one of thousands.

The Veterans Health Administration screens everyone who goes to a VHA medical facility for mental health issues, including military sexual trauma. Commonly referred to as MST, military sexual trauma is a sexual assault or repeated threatening sexual harassment of a service member while he or she was in the military.

“We have a universal screening program,” said National Mental Health Director for Veterans Affairs, Dr. Susan McCutcheon.

McCutcheon said 29 percent of the women treated at VHA facilities said they have been sexually assaulted or harassed while serving in the military, and nearly 81 percent of those who screened positive for MST agree to mental health treatment.

“We find that many of our women who do experience MST have other medical and mental health issues,” such as posttraumatic stress disorder, depression and substance abuse linked to their MST, she said.

In addition to screening all patients for mental health problems, every VA health care facility has a MST coordinator and over 107 VA facilities have trained providers in Skills Training Affective Interpersonal Regulation, an initiative that provides counseling for emotional dysregulation, a commons symptom for women with MST.

Some women with MST prefer gender-exclusive treatment programs. The VA does not offer these at all VA facilities and McCutcheon said the VA does not promote one model over another when it comes to exclusive and mixed gender programs.

The Pink Berets, a nonprofit created in 2017 to provide mental health counseling to women veterans in Texas, said a majority of their applicants report having been sexually assaulted while in the military.

“The VA is doing everything they can to address this situation, but I don’t think that they’re equipped to handle the amount of women that are needing help,” Pink Berets founder and CEO Stephanie Grattas. She said some of the women her organization has helped say the VA’s waitlist is too long or that traditional methods to treat PTSD aren’t working.

In its two years of existence, the Pink Berets has provided counseling to over 300 female veterans, Grattas said. The “experiential and holistic” counseling programs include culinary art therapy, kayaking retreats and equine therapy.

“We’re branching out in a number of different ways to find out what helps,” said Grattas.

McCutcheon supports the Pink Berets’ work.

“These are certainly services that can complement what is going on within the VA,” she said. “Every VA should be connecting with these type of community resources because we can’t do it all by ourselves.”

In Washington, Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Minn., is trying to expand the spectrum of mental health issues resulting from military sexual assault that are recognized by the Veterans Benefits Administration.

In 2002, the VA relaxed its evidentiary standards for benefit claims resulting from MST to include letters from family, doctor recommendations, or noted changes in behavior following the alleged assault. Previously, it had required claimant to prove sexual assault had occurred with police reports, medical records, or other official evidence.

“The VA has recognized that MST is a valid basis for claiming service connection for disability,” said Pingree at a House VA appropriations committee hearing in March. “However, the relaxed standard is only available to those diagnosed with PTSD, not to those diagnosed with other mental health disorders.”

Director of VA’s Office of Media Relations, Susan Carter, said VA’s medical and benefits package is set by federal law.

At the same hearing, Dr. Patricia Hayes, chief consultant for VA Women’s Health Services, said that over 40 percent of women veterans who use VA services have been diagnosed with at least one mental health issue such as depression, anxiety or eating disorders.

Col Christensen, a former Air Force chief prosecutor and current president of Protect Our Defenders, a national organization dedicated to ending sexual assault of the military, said his goal is to remove roadblocks in the military that make victims fearful of seeking treatment.

Protect Our Defenders helped change military law in 2015 to prohibit the mental health records of MST survivors from being turned over to the defense in a court martial of a service member accused of committing sexual assault.

“This was obviously traumatizing for survivors to have their mental health records turned over to their rapist,” said Christenson. “Now, that door is not completely shut, but it is much less likely that the offender will get access.”

According to Christenson, the old law could have been the reason some victims of MST did not seek treatment. But some still don’t seek treatment because they fear retaliation.

“Every year around 60 percent of men and women who report sexual assault in the military say they were retaliated against after reporting,” he said.

In terms of mental health treatment, Christenson believes the VA has come a long way.

Grattas said women treated by The Pink Berets entered the program because they felt they wouldn’t be judged or experience repercussions due to speaking out about their military sexual assault.

“I feel a lot of women have healed here because they’re not going to be judged, they’re not going to be reported and it’s not going to be put on their military records,” she said. “Because it doesn’t ever leave these women, you know? The stories they told us… it doesn’t just go away.”

“I felt very detached,” says new mother who struggled with perinatal depression

WASHINGTON –– Gail Sasse gave birth to her son, Joey, in late February, but she didn’t feel close to the baby until recently. Joey spent the first days of his life in the NICU after he began experiencing tremors — a symptom of neonatal abstinence syndrome. He was no longer receiving the mood stabilizing medication he had grown accustomed to in the womb.

“They took him right away to the NICU. So I never really had that initial bonding experience with him because I was passing out from blood transfusions,” Sasse said. “Just in the past couple of days have I felt like he’s mine.”

Sasse was first diagnosed with depression when she was 14 years old and bipolar disorder when she was 18 years old.

She stopped taking her medication before she became pregnant because she was worried about how it would affect the baby. However, she said the change in hormones during pregnancy exacerbated her mood disorders. She found herself frequently tired and unable to function at her job in human resources at the University of the District of Columbia, where she was ultimately fired.

At that point, she went back on her medication, including depression medication Pristiq, a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor or SNRI, and lithium for bipolar disorder. The medications posed health risks to her baby, such as tremors from withdrawal and heart defects.

But her doctor did not properly adjust her dose for her pregnant body, which the National Institutes of Health says, on average, pumps 50 percent more blood than a non-pregnant woman. In December, Sasse was hospitalized at the psychiatric unit at Sibley Hospital for seven days.

According to Dr. Emma Basch, a psychotherapist specializing in women’s mental health, 15 to 20 percent of pregnant women struggle with perinatal depression.

She said perinatal mood disorders are often compounded by social expectations of pregnancy and early motherhood. “There is this shattered expectation of what is supposed to be a wonderful time of life. And it’s not for them, and that’s really heartbreaking,” she said.

Sasse continues to take antidepressants and find a community that can help her get through her mental health issues. She wants other women struggling with perinatal depression to know that they are not alone.

“What I would ultimately like to do is write a children’s book about the mother going to the hospital, getting stronger and getting better for her child,” Sasse said.

Departing FDA commissioner Warns against youth vaping

WASHINGTON — Departing Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency should remain committed to his fight against vaping at a Brookings Institution event on Tuesday, saying its benefits in helping adults quit smoking should not come “at the expense of youths.”

Gottlieb, the doctor and former venture capitalist who President Donald Trump appointed to the position in 2017, announced earlier this month that he is leaving the FDA on April 5 to spend more time with his family. One of his signature issues were fighting tobacco and teen vaping, including a proposal to limit the amount of nicotine in cigarettes and a crackdown on youth e-cigarette use.

Trump has named Dr. Ned Sharpless, the director of the National Cancer Institute, to acting head of the FDA.

Some tobacco and e-cigarette experts have said Gottlieb’s departure could mean cigarette and e-cigarette makers that may no longer have to worry about the tougher regulations he proposed.

In January, Gottlieb sent letters to Altria, the company that makes Marlboro cigarettes, and Juul, which controls 75 percent of the e-cigarette market, accusing them of backing off on promises they made to the agency to keep e-cigarettes away from minors. The agreement included a public pledge to remove nicotine flavor pods from store shelves. 

The Centers for Disease Control said in February that the number of high school students using tobacco products increased from 2.1 million in 2017 to 3.6 million in 2018. CDC Director Robert Redfield said in statement the rise corresponds with a hike in Juul product sales and puts “a new generation at risk for nicotine addiction.”

Gottlieb said though the long-term goal of the agency is to remove flavors from cigarettes and cigars. He added that the FDA is in the process of developing a guidance for flavored pod-based e-cigarettes, such as the ones Juul manufactures, and that the future commissioner may have to “take action” against that category. Associations like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids have praised Gottlieb for his proposals that aim to curb youth tobacco and e-cigarette use.

Juul’s pod-based products drive youth e-cigarette use and nicotine addiction, Gottlieb said, and next year he expects overall tobacco use among minors to rise.

“Even if these products offer some public health benefits in adult cessation, if that is outweighed by youth starting using nicotine, we have to consider banning these products,” Gottlieb said.   

George Conley, the president of the nonprofit advocacy organization the American Vaping Association, said Gottlieb is overlooking the benefits of vape products.

“Vaping products, including pod systems like Juul, have helped several million American adults quit smoking and improve their health,” Conley said. “Gottlieb is threatening to remove these products off the market before even seeing if his proposed policy works.”

Gottlieb said his proposals concerning youth vaping have support from Congress and the White House, and he expects the agency will follow through on his plans.

NASA unveils study of rare “active asteroid”

WASHINGTON — NASA on Tuesday unveiled new discoveries from its first asteroid sample retrieval mission, notably that the asteroid the scientists planned on sampling is a rare “active asteroid.”

According to the mission’s principal investigator Dante Lauretta, an active asteroid is one that has a layer of fine particles around it. However, the distant asteroid Bennu, the target of this mission, is spewing particles off its surface at a high velocity. The asteroid has projected these materials up to 11 times since the spacecraft arrived in December, but Lauretta said scientists are unsure why it is doing so.

Lauretta said this phenomenon has never been observed.

“The discovery of plumes is one of the biggest surprises of my scientific career,” he said in a press conference.

Active asteroids are extremely rare, he said, with only around a dozen recorded out of the 800,000 known asteroids in space. The team did not expect to target an active asteroid because of this low probability, but planned for it just in case, he said.

The asteroid sample retrieval spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, launched in September 2016. It is expected to return to Earth in 2023 with its sample— the United States’ first asteroid sample. A Japanese spacecraft successfully returned with asteroid samples in 2010, and another Japanese mission plans on returning with more samples in 2020.

The purpose of the mission, NASA Planetary Science Acting Director Lori Glaze said, is to help determine the origins of the solar system and Earth’s water. The team hopes to find samples high in the mineral magnetite because this could reveal the amount of water and organic material in Bennu’s past. Scientists think asteroids like Bennu may have brought the earliest water and organic material to Earth millions of years ago, helping to sustain life.

The team also revealed the asteroid’s surface is much different than expected. Instead of a smooth exterior, the mission found out Bennu has a rocky surface filled with boulders — something Lauretta said makes the sample retrieval much more difficult.

Because of this new development, flight navigator Coralie Adam said, the team has created a new strategy to recover a sample of the asteroid. The original design called for a hazard-free zone with a radius of 82 feet for sample retrieval, but the team has now been identifying smaller sites on the asteroid where the scientists believe the spacecraft can still touch down safely.

“NASA has a long history of doing very difficult things and making them look easy,” Lauretta said.

PANELISTS PUSH FOR NEW BREATHALYZING TECHNOLOGY TO COMBAT DRUNK DRIVING

WASHINGTON — Vehicle safety leaders and the mother of a drunk driving victim urged a House subcommittee Thursday to adopt comprehensive breathalyzer legislation and support new technology to prevent drunk driving.

Helen Witty, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said MADD is pushing for legislation that would require every convicted drunk driver use an ignition interlock device. The device, about the size of a cell phone and hardwired into the vehicle, acts as a breathalyzer, requiring the driver to blow into it before the car will start.

“Often, people who have been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol will still drive, even if their license is suspended or taken away,” said Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee Chairwoman Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. “Interlock devices allow them to drive when they need to but stop them from putting themselves and others in danger by preventing them from driving drunk.”

Interlocks are not new devices; 32 states require drunk drivers to use them, according to the Coalition of Ignition Interlock Manufacturers Executive Director David Kelly. Kelly said interlocks cost less than $3 per day, or $60 to $80 per month, all paid for by the offender, providing “a safety blanket for the cost of a cup of coffee.”

And they have had a great degree of success: The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that interlock use has reduced repeat offenses for driving while intoxicated by about 70 percent.

In January, the Abbas Stop Drunk Driving Act was introduced in the House, requiring interlocks in the vehicles of convicted drunk drivers, but is pending further action. Schakowsky said today that the subcommittee would seek further information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on its commitment to interlocks and have NHTSA testify in an oversight hearing.

The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, a research program for new vehicle-integrated tools to prevent drunk driving, is exploring two more advanced technology systems: touch-based and breath-based.

The touch-based system measures blood alcohol levels by shining an infrared light through the driver’s fingertip when they touch the starter button or steering wheel, while the breath-based system takes measurements as the driver breathes normally, distinguishing the driver’s breath from that of passengers.

Both systems would make calculating blood alcohol levels less obtrusive, which panelists said will help popularize them because they would not affect normal driving behavior.

This new technology, together with comprehensive interlock laws, Witty said should be implemented nationwide.

“I represent drunk driving victims who want this killing to end now,” she said. “Our goal is to get this technology into vehicles for consumers to purchase as soon as possible.”

CHINA POSES UNPRECEDENTED THREAT IN SPACE, EXPERTS SAY

WASHINGTON — The United States must prioritize its international partnerships and harness the private sector to maintain its position as the global leader in space, legislators said Wednesday.

Several senators expressed a growing concern at a Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing that China could replace the U.S. as the preferred partner for other nations in the new space race.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chair of the committee, said that as the competition to commercialize space heats up, the U.S. must stay ahead of rising space powers, most notably China, by maintaining its position as the international partner of choice and focal point of space commerce.

He called the International Space Station, a low-Earth orbit space station inhabited by fifteen countries, a “key part” of global U.S. leadership.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, talks with Kevin O’Connell after the hearing. (HENRY ERLANDSON/MNS)

China is not included in the current international space agreement between the fifteen nations that built the ISS. However, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said China is close to launching its own low-Earth orbit space station, which is drawing interest from several European space agencies.

Bridenstine said that China would likely be willing to fund the entire operation, whereas the U.S. funds roughly 77 percent of the ISS.

“While we are paying a bigger percentage, we are getting more benefits,” Bridenstine said. “However, we need to change that paradigm if we want to go to the moon and then Mars.”

Kevin O’Connell of the Department of Commerce said the ISS is crucial for American commercial interests in space. He also invited the private sector to play a bigger role in developing new technologies and establishing regulatory policies on things like orbital debris and data gathering.

O’Connell said he wants to “make the United States the flag of choice for responsible space innovation, investment, and operation.

“We need to have really impressive goals and stunning achievements that the world can get behind,” Bridenstine said. These goals include establishing a permanent commercial presence on the moon and landing an American astronaut on Mars, according to Bridenstine.

President Trump’s proposed 2019 budget slashed all federal funding for the ISS by 2025, something that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called “unwise.” Sen. Cruz added that it would be nothing short of “catastrophic” to see China become the frontrunner in space if the ISS no longer exists.

In response, the committee held a series of hearings last year and passed legislation to fund ISS until 2030. This move was prior to the release of Trump’s 2020 budget, which reneged on last year’s budget guidelines and continued funding for the program despite cutting $500 million from NASA.

Ranking Member Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., strongly opposed these budget cuts.

“I appreciate the administration’s focus on space, but the budget put forward undermines this goal,” she said. “We need to make sure that there are resources and the budget seems to cut some of the very programs that we need to keep this leadership.” Cantwell pointed to cuts in STEM engagement and Earth science missions as major causes for concern.

YOUTH COMPETITION PROMOTES HEALTHY SCHOOL MEALS DESPITE RELAXED FEDERAL NUTRITION STANDARDS

ALEXANDRIA, VA —School lunchrooms across Washington, DC will be serving an original recipe from five middle school students next year. The quinoa and chicken “Winter Bowl” recipe, created by a team from Takoma Park Middle School, won the 7th annual Real Food for Kids Culinary Challenge in early March.

“There is no emotion for this,” said Lilian Kebede, a seventh-grader from the winning team. “I’m so happy right now, I can’t even describe it.”

The 21 participating teams were required to make a healthy, appetizing meal in line with USDA school lunch nutrition standards, budget allowances and ingredient counts — an effort to involve students in the meals they eat.

The Trump administration relaxed meal requirements in November 2017, following stricter Obama-era stipulations. The final rule, which went into effect in December 2018, allowed schools to serve low-fat milk and secure exemptions to standards on whole grains. A three-stage salt reduction under Obama was cut to two, with the initial 2022 deadline delayed to 2024.

As they have in the past, however, the regulations mandate that all schools accepting federal reimbursements on free or reduced-price meals for low-income students comply with USDA rules.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement that the move was meant to give schools more flexibility in their lunch programs and serve students food they would eat.

“It doesn’t do any good to serve nutritious meals if they wind up in the trash can,” he said.

But a Harvard study of plate waste data found that the old guidelines, implemented in 2012, hadn’t resulted in any increase in food waste. While there was a decrease in the amount of vegetables thrown away, the authors still noted high overall waste levels.

Real Food for Kids Executive Director Jenn Yates said the competition is one way to ensure kids’ satisfaction with their meals.

Though the organization began with a group of parents, she said, “quickly, there was a recognition that if we want to really get the ownership and buy-in of the students, who are the ultimate customer and the target of the school food programs, then we needed to give them a voice.”

Mary Porter, director of programs at Real Food for Kids, said that the relaxed USDA standards had no impact on the competition.

“While there has been that rollback … we’re going to continue to fight for those high standards because we have an obesity problem in this country,” she said.

To Porter, schools have the opportunity to instill healthy eating patterns early on.

“We have within our school systems a solution to a public health problem, and if we leverage it the right way with healthy and appealing foods that kids really want to eat, then we have a chance of attracting them and helping them build healthy habits and better choices,” she said.

School food programs are self-funded, based off proceeds from lunches that students buy or reimbursements from the federal government on behalf of low-income students.

“Any money that’s available for the school food service directors to be innovative, to come up with fresher options — that really has to come from students participating in the program,” Yates said.

Real Foods for Kids could very well increase community participation. More than 500 people attended this year’s competition, which featured more than 100 student participants and about 50 volunteers. It was the first time districts other than Fairfax County competed.

One of the four newcomers was Montgomery County, which includes Takoma Park Middle School’s winning team.

“Who better to create wonderful meals that could be served to their peers than students?” Porter asked. “We’ve had great success with our past winners and those going on the menu and selling out in record time because clearly it’s food that students want.”

 


 

Medill Today // February 25, 2020