Nicole Karlis

What is a ”warrior poet”? The neologism that connects New Agers and Madison Cawthorn, explained

Earlier this month, Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina made headlines for making some unusual remarks on a podcast — specifically, claiming that his GOP colleagues were into orgies and cocaine.

"The sexual perversion that goes on in Washington, I mean being kind of a young guy in Washington with the average age of probably 60 or 70, and I look at all these people, a lot of them that I, you know, I've looked up to through my life," Cawthorn said. "Then all of the sudden you get invited to like, 'well, hey, we're going to have kind of a sexual get together at one of our homes. You should come there,' like... What, what did you just ask me to come to? And then you realize they're asking you to come to an orgy."

Cawthorn made these remarks on a podcast hosted by John Lovell, who is the founder of a multimedia network called Warrior Poet Society, which produces content that is focused around this idea of being a "warrior poet."

Anyone who's brushed up against New Age, yoga-loving wellness groups could easily mistake this term "warrior poet" as a coinage more befitting of that crowd. That's because it's certainly been used, and still is used, in those circles. Yet Lovell's right-wing idea of a warrior poet is specifically masculine, and involves toting firearms (Lovell is an NRA instructor).

Yet Lovell claims being a warrior poet does not explicitly mean being pro-violence, despite his many articles and videos centered around firearms. As he explained once on another podcast, a warrior poet is a man who is "more than guns," but someone who is interested in "family, faith and freedom." It's someone who is stereotypically masculine, but also vulnerable.

A quick search of the hashtag #warriorpoet on Instagram or Twitter will reveal two different, seemingly competing communities in which this phrase is wielded: one, by the right-wing, gun-toting "warrior poets" à la Lovell, but also in communities of New Age wellness followers and leaders. For example, Aubrey Marcus, founder of the "lifestyle brand" Onnit (whose vitamins are promoted by Joe Rogan) who runs retreats called Fit For Service (with promo videos that make it look like Burning Man), also frequently employs the phrase "warrior poet." In a February 2021 tweet, Marcus — who publicly shares his psychedelic experiences, and refers to himself as a "fitness junkie" and "human optimizer" — shared a poem entitled "Code Of The Warrior Poet."

"Be completely vulnerable," Marcus said. "Recognize your invincibility."

Marcus, who markets himself as some sort of New Age spirituality health guru, has also publicly promoted vaccine hesitancy throughout the pandemic and associates himself with people who promote QAnon-adjacent misinformation.

With that in mind, is it mere chance that the phrase "warrior poet" is employed by both groups? And is there more crossover between the two than one might think?

"It is no coincidence that the term 'warrior poet' is being used to promote libertarian men's groups and far-right ideology," said Dr. Stephanie Alice Baker, a senior lecturer in sociology at City, University of London who studies wellness, misinformation and conspiracies. "The term warrior connotes images of virile masculinity and being part of a community driven by a common cause; the term 'poet' frames this mission as an expression of inner wisdom and as part of a higher calling."

Matthew Remski, a co-host of the aforementioned Conspirituality podcast and a cult dynamics researcher, agreed that the term links two seemingly disparate communities, and said they have more connections than one might think.

"I think that's on brand for ways in which the various iterations of men's rights movements going back to pre-Warren Farrell times, have combined these two streams of leftist, progressive, feminist seeming, visions of manhood that men are able to be in touch with their feelings and express survivorship and confess traumas," Remski said. "And then men who are able to use the same kind of truth-telling spells to speak about their strength or their durability or their bravery or their quest for freedom; I don't think there's a contradiction at all."

Indeed, the use of "warrior poet" in both circles is reflective of the widening overlap between spiritual thinking and far-right politics — which also overlaps with QAnon and anti-vax conspiracies, which often cite mystical or semi-spiritual concepts — under a desire for these groups to reclaim masculinity in some way. As Remski pointed out, there have been prior iterations of this notion dating back to the '70s (not adjacent to QAnon) where the terms "warrior" and "poet" have appeared together. The specific coinage of a warrior-poet seems to trace back to the so-called Mythopoetic Men's Movement.

While Marcus' lifestyle brand and Fit For Service retreats aren't explicitly for men, there's a particular masculine vibe to these events; photos and advertisements feature very muscular men that are often shirtless and wearing Viking-esque gear.

In 2021, Cliff Leek, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Northern Colorado, argued to the Washington Post that this kind of masculinity and the movements they draw can be a reaction to pro-feminist men's groups that do work around reproductive health and sexual violence.

"As soon as we tie masculinity to spirituality, we turn masculinity into something 'sacred' as well as distinct and exclusive of women," Leek said. "I'm not entirely sure that is something that can be done in a way that doesn't reinforce or naturalize inequalities."

Baker told Salon there are "strong parallels with religious groups, as these communities tend to present their personal journeys of self-discovery as part of a cosmic battle and New World Order."

Notably, what both groups also have in common is their attempt to try not to brand themselves around a single ideology. For example, Lovell says being a warrior poet isn't being all masculine. However, maybe not so ironically, on the Warrior Poet Society website there is an article entitled "What is a Woman?," which seems to mirror the far-right's reaction to Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson's response to a question about the complexities of sex and gender. As for Marcus' stated politics, he identifies as "anti-political" and doesn't vote, according to an interview with Refinery29.

Remski called Marcus' politics "reactionary centrism," a position that ensures that people in these groups don't "buy into the system of labels that separates one person from another."

"What they'll say is that to label their behavior and positions with any kind of clarity is an attack on personal nuance and their pretense of universal oneness," Remski said.

But oftentimes, the the kinds of posts they share with their followers, Remski explained, are "straight from MAGA-land." In a way, this brand of rhetoric promotes extremism in a more subtle yet effective way.

"It gives a very sophisticated language for denying that one is actually extremely partisan," Remski said, which leads us to where these movements exist today — a seemingly odd convergence of two worlds, that has always had parallels, but are coming together in more distinct ways today.

"There's a new element in the crossover between New Age culture and right-wing militia culture, and that is the connective tissue of neuroscience and optimization, and MMA," Remski said. "Aubrey Marcus and Joe Rogan are doing a bro fist-bump between those two zones."

Scientists predict what COVID-19 could be like by 2100

Imagine it's March 2100. What cars remain are electric, or flying, or both; subways and high-speed rail are the dominant forms of transit. Contemporary architecture is designed around climate change, the main crisis humanity is facing. And as public health leaders around the world gather for an annual summit, they reflect on the 80th anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as 2008 marked the 80th anniversary of the 1918 influenza virus pandemic, March 2100 will mark the 80th anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Where will COVID-19 be then?

Of course, nobody can predict with perfect accuracy what COVID-19 will look like eighty years hence. Yet infectious disease experts know a remarkable amount about the SARS-CoV-2 virus two years since its discovery — and they have predictions as to how COVID-19 will play out over the next century.

Those predictions are based on what we've observed about how the SARS-CoV-2 virus has behaved in the past two years. For example, experts know that the virus can mutate to become more contagious, and (to some extent) can evade vaccine-induced immunity; yet we also know that vaccines have proven to be very effective at preventing severe disease and hospitalization, even if they cannot stop breakthrough infections of certain variants. Scientists also know that COVID-19 has a long tail: among those infected with COVID-19, about 10 percent will experience symptoms that can possibly persist as long as two years after an infection.

Knowing these caveats, Salon spoke to experts and scientists about how COVID-19 might look in 10, 20, and 80 years from now. Though their responses had some variation, the main lines of future prediction were remarkably similar.

The best-case scenario

Some theorize that the lesser phase of COVID-19 is already upon us. Indeed, last week, the World Health Organization reported that new coronavirus cases around the world are declining. While deaths by COVID-19 were up slightly, the new numbers did follow a 23% drop in fatalities the week before.

Thus, as COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted around the world, many have wondered if the world is finally entering an "endemic phase" — which, in epidemiology, means that the disease is present in a society, but at a baseline level rather than a widespread infection.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease and critical care medicine doctor, told Salon he believes by 2100 — or "actually much sooner" — SARS-CoV-2 will be endemic.

"SARS-CoV-2 will likely be one of the endemic respiratory viruses that humans deal with just like the other four coronaviruses that cause common colds," Adalja said.

The coronaviruses belong to a class of viruses known as RNA viruses, which also includes influenza, hepatitis C and SARS. RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2 have relatively malleable genetic codes, prone to mutation; every time they enter a host's cell and replicate, there is a chance that mutations will occur.

As Salon has reported before, this is not always a bad thing, as natural selection tends to favor viruses that are highly transmissible and not those that are necessarily deadliest. Hence, some experts hope is that SARS-CoV-2 has reached peak transmissibility — and, through immunity gained by previous infections and vaccines, the virus will stop mutating or its mutations won't cause more severe disease than we've already seen.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told Salon she agrees that in the year 2100, COVID-19 will be similar to the common cold. More optimistically, she believes it might not even be as bad.

"The thing to remember about the common cold coronaviruses, rhinovirus and adenovirus and other viruses that cause common colds, is that they can cause severe illness in older people," Gandhi said. "Because even a rhinovirus in a 90-year-old who is otherwise doing well can actually be a cause of death."

Gandhi said the difference with COVID-19 is that the world has a vaccine for it. Previously, creating a vaccine for the coronaviruses has been hard to make, partly because of how the virus infects the upper respiratory tract.

"But in this case [of COVID-19], we will have medications that will bring down the viral load of COVID," Gandhi said. "So, actually, I think the outcomes for older people will be better than a common cold."

Adalja said there may soon be a "universal coronavirus vaccine" that "covers SARS-CoV-2 plus other human coronaviruses." He speculated that might arrive by 2025.

Likewise, it is probable that all citizens will be immunized via vaccine by then, as part of a series of childhood vaccinations.

"It's unclear whether vaccination will be at birth or at age 6 months so as not to be blunted because of maternal antibodies," Adalja said, noting that only the hepatitis B vaccine is given at birth.

Medium-case Scenario

Not all infectious disease experts agree that in 80 years, COVID-19 will peter off to the point that it is more benign than a common cold. Among them is William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. When asked if COVID-19 will then be akin to the common cold today, Schaffner told Salon: "I don't think that there's enough information out there for us to be secure in any way."

"There are people who haven't received that first booster yet, and how is it that we haven't been able to communicate, motivate, persuade, comfort and reassure them that this is really the best thing for them in their families to do?" Schaffner lamented, speaking to the difficulties of gaining public trust around the vaccines. "We have major challenges ahead of us in that regard, and if it's necessary for us to do what we do with influenza, more or less to get an annual booster — you can see what a challenge that is."

Schaffner added that the way SARS-CoV-2 mutates makes it more difficult to predict the future of COVID-19 because they "occur at random."

"It's not as though the virus says 'well, I'd like to get from A to B' and then it designs its genetics to get there — they're random events," Schaffner said. "And, I suppose, having the virus modulate itself to become more like a regular common cold virus, or developing an entirely new variant that could evade the protection of our vaccine and have the whole Fandango start all over again, they're probably comparable statistically — so I don't know which way this is going to go."

A 2008 study suggested that the virus that causes cold-like symptoms today may have jumped from birds to humans as recently as 200 years ago. But not much is known about this jump, and how severe colds were at the time.

This is one reason why scientists struggle to find a proper historical analogy to draw from in terms of predicting COVID-19's future track. Indeed, on that note, Schaffner added that each group of viruses has very distinctive characteristics. For example, measles is known for its durable immunity — meaning if a person is infected with the virus (or vaccinated against it), they are immune to the virus for the rest of their lives. COVID-19 is different, in that vaccination or infection seems to merely confer transient immunity, meaning short-term immunity.

Moreover, some viruses are difficult to vaccinate against not because of issues with transient immunity, but because of their propensity to mutate. HIV is one: it has been difficult for scientists to develop an HIV vaccine over the last 40 years in part because of how rapidly it mutates.

Nonetheless, Schaffner said by the year 2100 — due to a growing human population and increased travel due to technological advances — humanity can expect to face new epidemics or pandemics as well.

"We are going to encounter a lot of the viruses that are out there in the world that circulate in the animal population, and then have the opportunities to jump species on occasion and get into humans," Schaffner said.

He noted that this situation will be somewhat balanced by an increase in scientific knowledge and advances as well.

"We will continually be making better and better vaccines against more and more of these potential viruses that are out there," he said. "If we don't use them all, we will have the potential to have them on the shelf ... and quickly manufacture vaccines."

Schaffner imagines vaccines will look differently, too.

"We will have vaccines that are delivered by patches on the skin by just taking oral capsules and swallowing them," Schaffner said. "So they will be much easier to deploy rapidly and safely."

Worst-case scenario

Schaffner warned there could be a worst-case scenario that humanity could be looking at 80 years from now.

"That would be the development of a new variant that was very contagious and was more inclined to create more severe disease," he said. "And most importantly, the third characteristic would be that it could distinctively evade the protection of our current vaccines."

Such a nightmare scenario would perpetually extend the pandemic, he warned. "If that happened, that would start basically a new pandemic with another coronavirus, and that would cause once again, an economic, social and political calamity," he fretted.

Schaffner added that in this case, the world would be able to respond more quickly with a vaccines — but noted that the world could face, once again, the issue of deployment.

True global COVID-19 death toll may be triple the official count: study

Last week, a consortium of health researchers published a harrowing report that reframed the magnitude of loss during the COVID-19 pandemic: an estimated 18.2 million people have lost their lives during the pandemic, they estimate, which is three times the official global death toll of 5.9 million COVID-19 deaths.

Researchers landed on the higher number, which was published in an analysis in The Lancet, based on their calculation of the number of "excess deaths." The term excess deaths refers to deaths that were above what would be expected on average over a given time, meaning that they were either caused directly or indirectly by the pandemic. The researchers looked at the difference between the number of deaths recorded from January 1, 2020, until December 31, 2021, and the number of expected deaths based on previous trends.

This report is the first estimate of global excess deaths to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

"Our estimates of COVID-19 excess mortality suggest the mortality impact from the COVID-19 pandemic has been more devastating than the situation documented by official statistics," the authors wrote. "Official statistics on reported COVID-19 deaths provide only a partial picture of the true burden of mortality."

According to the report, the gap between excess mortality and COVID-19 deaths was much larger in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa than in other regions. The researchers are calling on the scientific community to "highlight the importance of the use of COVID-19-related excess mortality estimates in policy and in monitoring and evaluation efforts."

In an interview with Salon, Haidong Wang, an associate professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington and co-author of the report, argued that reporting COVID-19 deaths — as in deaths by the virus — aren't an accurate metric to measure the true impact of the human mortality during the pandemic. Wang also noted that even the 5.9 million "official" number is likely lower than the real total deaths by COVID-19, since many countries lacked accurate reporting.

"So there was a lack of testing, and some people who died from COVID-19 were not reported as COVID-19," Wang said. "And then there was the impact of pandemic healthcare access — so people who died during the pandemic not directly from COVID-19, but [who] wouldn't have died over the last two years."

Indeed, Wang said, more research is needed to separate deaths caused directly by COVID-19 from those that were indirectly caused by COVID-19.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco — who was not involved in the study — described the results as part of a "reckoning" that's been happening nearly two years since the pandemic started.

"The majority of the world is likely underestimated," Gandhi said, adding that in Alameda County in the California Bay Area, deaths by COVID-19 were overestimated, which could indicate that in more developed countries counts could be overestimated. Gandhi agreed that it is important to look at excess deaths, especially since a lack of healthcare during pandemic peaks likely caused people to unnecessarily die, but noted that it is important to separate these deaths from deaths caused by COVID-19 directly.

"I think they should be divided into COVID deaths and then COVID-pandemic response deaths, that are related to COVID — but the problem is that if we historically look back and say 18 million, that will look like the infection-fatality ratio of the actual infection was higher than it was," Gandhi said. The infection-fatality ratio means a rate describing the number of infections proportional to the number of deaths. Gandhi said COVID-19's death to fatality ratio was "high enough," but was not nearly as high as the influenza of 1918, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates killed one in ten of those it infected.

"The IFR [infection fatality rate] was so much higher, especially if you think about the world's population at the time," Gandhi said of the 1918 pandemic.

But aside from lack of healthcare access and COVID-19, what exactly were people dying from that could factor into overall excess mortality rates?

Wang said that is a question for future researchers to answer. However, Wang told Salon he hopes this report encourages public health experts to factor in excess deaths to "more accurately assess the impact of the pandemic."

The CDC reports that there have been more than 1 million excess deaths in the U.S. due to the pandemic; 964,000 Americans died from confirmed Covid, but deaths from hypertension, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease were above the expected number. The number of drug overdoses has also significantly increased during the pandemic.

"I think it's important that we have a better registration system that can provide us with more data in a more timely fashion," Wang said. "And that's a really important lesson to learn from this."

Hospitals are struggling to access a 'last-resort' COVID-19 treatment that provides 'huge benefit'

For those hospitalized with severe COVID-19, there is a last-resort treatment available that has been shown to save their lives. Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, often referred to as ECMO (pronounced ek-mo), oxygenates blood outside the body in a machine, giving the heart and lungs a chance to rest when a patient is experiencing lung failure.

The treatment essentially buys time for a person's lungs to heal. But due to the treatment being so resource-intensive, as it requires a specialized machine and personnel who know how to operate it, it is not always available at every hospital. This was particularly pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic, when a lack of access to ECMO almost certainly cost lives.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, nearly 90 percent of severe COVID-19 patients who qualified for ECMO, but were unable to receive the treatment, died — compared to a 43% mortality rate for patients who received ECMO. Both groups were young in age (the median age was 40 years old) and had limited comorbidities.

The analysis was led by a team of researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), looking at the total number of patients referred for ECMO in one referral region between Jan. 1, 2021, and Aug. 31, 2021. The sample size of patients analyzed was small, 240 patients, but the analysis showed just how many lives could have been saved if ECMO treatment was available: 49 of the 55 patients (89.1%) who didn't receive ECMO died, compared to 15 of the 35 patients (42.9 %) who received the treatment.

"Because some patients die despite receiving ECMO, there has been debate about how much benefit it provides. This study shows the answer is a huge benefit," said senior author Jonathan Casey, MD, assistant professor of Medicine at VUMC. "This data suggests that, on average, providing ECMO to two patients will save a life and give a young person the potential to live for decades."

The patients were unable to receive the ECMO treatment due to a shortage of resources, on top of the fact that even in non-pandemic times, ECMO machines and personnel aren't always easy to find. But why?

Whitney Gannon, MSN, director of Quality and Education for VUMC and lead author of the study, told Salon there are a few reasons why ECMO treatment isn't offered in every hospital. First, it's a specialized device that's more high-tech than other devices that are offered in intensive care units (ICU). It can also be considered a more high-risk kind of treatment.

"The specialists providing the ECMO care have to really understand the technical aspects of the device, and that takes a good bit of training," Gannon said. "The doctors have to be able to understand how to care for their patients safely with the device and have to understand how all the ICU therapies work together with the ECMO machine, and so that requires extensive training."

Gannon explained that means more training for all personnel in the ICU.

"You're talking about more dedicated personnel," Gannon said."And there have to be technical specialists who are able to attend to the machine."

Sometimes, Gannon said, an ECMO machine can have an issue that a specialist needs to know how to technically solve.

"ECMO patients who receive ECMO, especially those who have COVID, are often on ECMO for long periods of time, longer than what we've seen historically, and so therefore, they're taking up an ICU bed, ICU nursing staff and ICU resources for longer," Gannon said. "So it's just a huge lift in all different aspects of the hospital, and frankly, that's why a lot of hospitals don't have ECMO."

Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease doctor and critical care medicine doctor, who was not involved in the study, agreed that the barrier to ECMO isn't necessarily about a lack of funding, but the resources available.

"It's not about investment in capital — it's about having the resources and expertise to deploy ECMO," Adalja said. "Often ECMO is available at hospitals that perform cardiac surgery because ECMO is used routinely during many of those surgeries."

Adalja added that it can be difficult for hospitals to offer when inundated with patients, especially if the hospital is already strapped for resources.

According to NPR, children's hospitals always provide ECMO because it is often used on newborns who are having trouble with their lungs. Most major medical centers have them, too. Yet that leaves many rural hospitals without them or far from a place that can offer the treatment. There is also no formal way to make transfers to a medical center for ECMO either.

Gannon said she hopes that their study will encourage government agencies and more medical centers to "invest in infrastructure for ECMO."

"And ECMO isn't just having the machines, but it's having the specialized personnel to take care of the patients, to have the ICU bed, to actually prioritize these patients, to prioritize ECMO and to think about resource allocation and better regional coordination and sharing of resources," Gannon said.

How likely is it for omicron to mutate into something deadlier?

It's hard to know what omicron means for the future of the pandemic. While some have optimistically suggested this could be the final surge before the U.S. moves into a more hopeful period of endemicity, scientists have also warned that the omicron variant — which is less severe albeit more transmissible than delta — could turn into something deadlier.

"People have wondered whether the virus will evolve to mildness, but there's no particular reason for it to do so," Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University, told the Associated Press last week. "I don't think we can be confident that the virus will become less lethal over time."

As Salon has previously reported, RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2 are, of course, always mutating; every replication in a hosts' cells creates a moment for a chance mutation to emerge. While viruses are technically not alive, it is their nature to mutate and evolve as they infect hosts' cells and replicate; this is how they survive.

In general, the process of evolution favors those who reproduce faster and better than their siblings. For viruses, this happens when they become more transmissible — which is what we saw with delta, then omicron. But who's to say the virus won't mutate into something more transmissible, and then more deadly later on during the infection period?

"We have two issues — one is can omicron take what it has and attach better to the receptors in the lungs with a single mutation?," said Dr. George Rutherford, a professor and head of the division of infectious disease and global epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco. "They have a couple of mutations away, and if it did do that better, then it would cause more severe disease and potentially be deadlier — but the evolution of this organism is taking some real twists and turns."

Indeed, while it's scientifically possible for omicron to mutate into a deadlier version of its transmissible self, there are reasons to believe this won't necessarily happen.

"As to predicting what's going to happen with the omicron variant, it could get replaced by something that looks very different," Rutherford said, adding that there are three possibilities he sees happening with omicron, considering it's already so transmissible that increased transmissibility might not favor the variant from an evolutionary perspective. "You have to envision something that has a selective advantage for the virus."

According to Rutherford, the first of the three possibilities is that omicron could become more transmissible and "dock the receptor." A second possibility is that the virus could shed in individuals for a longer period of time — instead of two to three days, it could be seven or eight — and infect more people that way. The third possibility is that it could develop properties to become more immuno-evasive and completely bypass immunity built by vaccines.

"So, what does the next mutation hold? Who knows, but those are the sorts of characteristics that would lead a virus to produce progeny per infection and give it a selective advantage," Rutherford said. "Killing the host doesn't necessarily give it a selective advantage — but don't overthink it because if it makes the virus more transmissible, the virus doesn't really care."

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told Salon that omicron's transmissibility might get in its own way of being able to mutate into something worse because so many people have been, and are likely to be exposed, to omicron. This means that more individuals in the population are building immunity.

"If omicron mutated to become more deadly, you'd still have immunity towards all of its other epitopes [little pieces of the virus]," Gandhi said. "With omicron and vaccinations, there's going to be fewer and fewer people in this country with no immunity whatsoever. So, if omicron mutated to become more deadly, you still have immunity towards all of its other antigens. It would have to be a whole new virus for you not to be able to combat it."

Gandhi added there is "no doubt" omicron has also increased worldwide immunity, more so than the delta variant.

"And because it's more mild, that's a big deal in terms of some people not knowing they have it," Gandhi said. "And that's how the [flu] pandemic ended. It's not that it went away — it became endemic and became something that we just dealt with."

Don't worry – the COVID vaccine could affect your period, but it's temporary

In spring 2021, as more people got vaccinated against COVID-19, some people who menstruate began to notice their periods were a bit off.

Anecdotal stories detailed heavier flows or delayed cycles. People who thought they were postmenopausal and done with bleeding, were bleeding. As the stories trickled through, many researchers began to wonder: Do the COVID-19 vaccines affect menstrual cycles? Or were people just paying more attention to their cycles, as more anecdotal stories surfaced?

At the same time, doctors were then fighting misinformation that made it difficult to have conversations around menstrual cycles and the COVID-19 vaccines without giving even more fodder to misinformation around the vaccines and fertility. (Studies continue to show that they don't affect each other). But researchers like Dr. Katharine Lee – a postdoctoral scholar in the public health sciences division at Washington University in St. Louis, who was part of the conversation in April 2021 that Salon reported — credits these conversations to taking science to where it is today.

That is to say, we finally have some answers around how the COVID-19 vaccines affect periods.

A study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology last week found that people's menstrual cycles did change following vaccination against the coronavirus. Specifically, the authors reported that people who received the vaccines had slightly longer periods than those who were not vaccinated. The study was partly funded by The National Institutes of Health's Office of Research on Women's Health.

"I think this study that was just published would not exist, had those discussions not happened last spring and summer," Lee, who was not involved in the study, told Salon. "I think it's an important step in the way that different types of data coming together helps us understand a problem or phenomenon a little bit better."

The study analyzed data provided by a company called Natural Cycles, which is an app that tracks menstrual cycles. Notably, these users don't use hormonal contraception. Researchers looked at records from nearly 4,000 people who consented to have their information used as part of the study. Nearly 2,400 of those users were vaccinated against COVID-19; 1,550 were not. All of the users were between the ages of 18 and 45 and were tracking their cycles carefully in the app for the last six months.

Overall, the researchers found that vaccination was associated with, on average, less than a full day's change in cycle length. However, a subset of people who received both doses of the vaccines within one cycle experienced a change of at least two days in their cycle. Nearly 10% of these people recorded having cycles that were eight days longer than usual, too, which is clinically significant. The unvaccinated group saw no significant difference. The authors noted that those who did experience delays often returned to their baseline cycle length quickly.

While the paper is an important first step, Lee — who launched a survey last year to collect anecdotal experiences — said it is restricting in some ways.

"I think cycle length is an important measure as just part of the variability of menstrual cycles, but what we kept hearing last year, and hopefully we will be publishing soon, is the number of folks who were concerned that they were bleeding more heavily and that doesn't start to address that," Lee said. "And this paper restricts it down to people who weren't on birth control, which removes a lot of people from the sample, and it isn't concerned with people who don't normally experiencing breakthrough bleeding, whether that's people on IUD, or gender-affirming hormones, or postmenopausal folks."

Still, Lee says it highlights "how much more awareness we need about understanding menstrual cycles."

"I think it highlights a need to listen to people when they are reporting changes to their menstrual cycles without something immediately to it being an actual problem," Lee added. "I think about collecting this information as part of all kinds of clinical trials moving forward, just so that people aren't surprised when things like this happen, and we learn a little bit more about how responsive the menstrual cycle is to things like large immune stressors."

A 'talking' cat is giving scientists insight into how felines think

Billi, a 13-year-old domestic cat in Florida, presses a button that voices the word "dog" — twice.

She proceeds to sit as if she's waiting for her human parent, Kendra Baker, to respond.

"Dog outside, hmm?" Baker asks Billi, via the buttons. A few minutes later, Billi presses another button for "tummy," twice.

"Accident or premeditated murder? You decide," Baker writes on the caption of the video on Instagram.

Those who follow the travails of internet-famous "talking" animals may be familiar with Bunny the Talking Dog, a TikTok- and Instagram-famous pet. Just like Bunny, Billi the cat uses an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device — essentially, a sound board made up of buttons with a different word vocally recorded on each — to "talk" to her human, Baker. Baker, like Bunny's human parent, was inspired to attempt this means of animal-human communication after she observed Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist, who taught her dog Stella to use an AAC device.

Of course, unlike Bunny and Stella, Billi is a cat. And while dogs, as social animals, are renowned for being able to understand human speech, cats are a different matter.

That didn't stop Baker. At the start of the pandemic, when she found herself with extra time on her hands, Baker decided to order an AAC device to see if Billi could "talk," too.

"At that point Billi was the first cat that I knew of to try it," Baker tells Salon. "I hadn't seen any cats do it."

Considering Billi's feline status, Baker was naturally a bit skeptical at first.

"I was concerned because they [the buttons] were quite large for a little tiny kitty, and I was not sure that she was actually going to be heavy enough to press them," Baker said. "So I started with a word that I'd really not recommend that you start with, which is 'food,' because it becomes very motivating for them. And Billi loves food."

Baker's concerns quickly washed away once it became clear that Billi was able to press the button "food" — which she appeared to enjoy doing perhaps a little too much.

"She was definitely heavy enough for it," Baker said. "And then I later regretted starting with food because it kind of backfired on me, but it definitely got the ball rolling."

Today, Billi has 50 words on her board, and — like Bunny — is part of the ongoing research project called TheyCanTalk, whose goal is to understand if animals can communicate with humans through AAC devices. While the study is mostly made up of dogs, about 5 percent of the animals using AAC devices are now felines. It turns out that many cats have been successful at using the device.

Leo Trottier, cognitive scientist and founder of How.TheyCanTalk Research and developer of the FluentPet system Billi uses, admitted to Salon he was "pessimistic" about cats using the buttons, but was pleasantly surprised when they started to see felines catch on. Now, he's intrigued by the ways in which cats appear to use the buttons differently from dogs.

"What's interesting is that they [cats] tend to not do that much in the way of multi-button presses, but there's like a lot of single-button presses," Trottier tells Salon. "With cats, you kind of have to find things they really want, and there are just fewer of those than with dogs."

Baker agreed that Billi appears to string words together less frequently than dogs. For example, Bunny is often putting together what appears to be sentences like "night talk sleep," which Bunny's human interpreted as the dog's attempt to communicate that she was having a dream. But Baker has a theory on why cats, like Billi, might be more prone to pressing one button to communicate.

"She does string words together, but it is much less frequent than what I see some of the dogs doing, and I don't know exactly why that is but I will say she's more deliberate in her button presses," Baker said. "Billi is very, very deliberate when she presses a button and knows exactly which one she's looking for, she takes her time . . . and if she is going to string a sentence together, she'll take a thinking loop and then she'll come back — very rarely does she go from one directly to another."

Could it be that in observing cats use the AAC device, humans are finding out that the stereotypical differences between cats and dogs are actually true? Perhaps, but researchers have been very cautious to jump to any conclusions about these "talking" animals yet. In fact, it's up for debate if these animals are, scientifically speaking, speaking — or if they've simply been trained to use specific buttons to conjure specific things. Whether or not their communications are spontaneous has yet to be concluded.

Still, the spectacle of an animal talking through speakers is fascinating to observe, and researchers are excited by the prospect that cats are part of the project now.

"I'm very intrigued by the cats that are using the boards, because there's really a dearth in cat cognition studies, particularly those that happen in the home," Gabriella Smith, a cognitive science researcher at CleverPet. "Cats are really kind of overlooked in the companion animal cognition world. I've been a big fan of Billi, and my animal cognition scientist brain just lights up because I see these behaviors that I know from my own cat — but now I'm able to look at it from a cognition lens."

Smith added that having cats as part of the TheyCanTalk study is a great way to study their cognition — and also, perhaps, dispel myths about cats.

"They have this reputation of just doing what they want and not really caring what the humans are doing, and I think this is a great opportunity to see that they actually are paying attention," Smith said. "Seeing that they can be engaged, that they're not just cat automatons, that aren't driven by instinct 24/7 can function a great deal positively for their role in other studies."

In some ways, including cats in the study has opened the door for other species too — like birds. Indeed, some birds are notorious for their ability to mimic and learn humans words, so their addition makes sense.

Regardless of what these studies ultimately tell us about cat cognition, Billi's owner has observed a noticeable shift in Billi's happiness since introducing the buttons to the talkative kitty.

"I really believe that the majority of house cats are bored and depressed," Baker said. "We don't give them any stimulation . . . and if this pandemic has taught us anything, it's that staying inside your house all day is terrible. So you know, anything that we can do for them that gives them a better life, I'm for it."

Is America experiencing mass psychosis?

In 2020, 34 percent of Republicans and independents who lean to the right surveyed by Pew Research Center agreed that it was "probably" or "definitely true" that powerful people intentionally planned the COVID-19 outbreak. Eighteen percent of Democrats and left-leaners agreed, too. That same year, results from a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey found that approximately three-quarters of Republicans did not trust the 2020 presidential election results.

It should go without saying that these kinds of beliefs are fantasy, not rooted in any rational fact or evidence. Hence, someone observing from afar the rise in conspiratorial beliefs and pseudoscience might characterize a vast swath of the American public as delusional. From the COVID-truther movement to people believing the 2020 presidential election was rigged, it appears that the body politic is — to put it mildly — no longer on the same page.

Given the perturbed psychological state of so many Americans, it is worth asking if something is happening — psychologically speaking — that is causing many Americans to live in very different realities.

Psychologists say yes; and, moreover, that what is happening was actually predicted long ago by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Indeed, Jung once wrote that the demise of society wouldn't be a physical threat, but instead mass delusion — a collective psychosis of sorts.

"Carl Jung noted that 'the wolf inside' man was far more a threat to human existence than external forces," Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of "Joy From Fear," told Salon. "When mental forces become so toxic as to harm our overall well-being on an individual and collective level a 'psychic epidemic' can result."

Indeed, Jung himself warned that modern society was prone to collapse due to a pandemic of "delusional ideas."

"Greater than all physical dangers are the tremendous effects of delusional ideas, which are yet denied all reality by our world-blinded consciousness," Jung wrote. "Our much vaunted reason and our boundlessly overestimated will are sometimes utterly powerless in the face of 'unreal' thoughts."

Notably, Jung believed that the United States was particularly prone to society-breaking delusions.

"Anything new should always be questioned and tested with caution, for it may very easily turn out to be only a new disease; that is why true progress is impossible without mature judgment," Jung wrote. "The man who is unconscious of the historical context and lets slip his link with the past is in constant danger of succumbing to the crazes and delusions engendered by all novelties."

Some psychologists believe that this is what the country is experiencing right now — more or less.

"Something's definitely happening, and I think COVID amplified it to a painful point, you could say," Katharine Bainbridge, a Jungian analyst, tells Salon.

But there are caveats. "It's complicated," Bainbridge said. "From the left's point of view, people that aren't being vaccinated or think the election was rigged are psychotic, right? If you're on the right, you think the left is psychotic and has lost its mind in identity politics. Both sides look at each other and say, 'you've lost your mind.'"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the concept of a "mass psychosis" has been seized upon by conspiracy theorists as a rationale for their conspiracies. For instance, anti-vaccination influencers like Joseph Mercola employ the term to suggest that those who are getting vaccinated are the real "delusional" ones.

Bainbridge said in order to contextualize what's actually happening in America through a Jungian lens, one must consider the role of a central guiding myth.

"Jung said man cannot live without religion — so you make it up," Bainbridge said. "You can't not have a central myth to live by. He would say maybe in this time that we've lost that — we don't have a collective unifying principle."

Cultural theorists often describe the history of human civilization as one of a transition between different central guiding myths. In the Western world, Christianity undergirded everyday existence and society for over a thousand years. After the Renaissance, the central guiding myth became a belief in rationalism; then, in modernity, a belief that technology might improve the lot of all humans.

Though the phrase is often reviled, the postmodern era — which, roughly, began in the 1960s or 1970s depending on who you ask — merely means the cultural transition into an epoch into which there were no longer any fundamental guiding myths that unified human societies and drove progress. Such an era is, by its nature, more fractured socially; two humans plucked at random from a postmodern epoch might find themselves believing wildly different things about human society, progress and morality, with little in common.

Jung believed, Bainbridge explained, that people needed myths to live by — hence the importance of religion. Yet interestingly, there has been an ever-increasing number of Americans leaving organized religion. In return, many people — perhaps those who were never religious in the first place — have turned to New Age spiritual beliefs, which in some circles have curiously syncretized with the tenets of the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon.

Bainbridge noted the contrast between New Age circles and QAnon in Jungian terms.

"One is super dark and apocalyptic and the other is utopian," Bainbridge said. "The problem with New Age thinking that is it leaves out the shadow — and then QAnon is obsessed with the shadow."

"Unfortunately, many people were gravitating toward conspiracy theories prior to the pandemic," Manly observed, "yet this trend has intensified during the pandemic due to surges in online time, anxiety, and feelings of helpless."

Manly connected this to Jung's "wolf within" idea. "Individuals and groups who perpetuate conspiracy theories are often intentionally 'feeding the wolf inside' masses of people — often with substantial negative mental health effects."

But why is this happening now? As Bainbridge noted, the coronavirus pandemic appears to have amplified existing rifts. Joe Kelly, a cult intervention specialist, also told Salon that humans are often drawn to extremism when they are suffering.

"If an individual is hurting — financially, on any level, losing a job, having trouble with their mortgage, having trouble feeding themselves — then they're more likely to listen to extremist ideologies and talk about a conspiracy around them that is beyond their control," Kelly said.

Social psychologists like Jung often see the government as a stand-in for authority figures like parents. Indeed, Bainbridge said, one might analogize the draw to conspiracy theories and New Age religions as children acting out when their "parents" (meaning, the state) are not taking care of them properly.

"If the parent isn't taking care of a child, then the child acts out, right? The child is angry because it's not getting its needs met," Bainbridge said. "And there are lots of people, like left-progressives, who asked: 'How did Trump get elected?' But once you really look into it, you're like, that was obvious because there's a huge part of America that's in between New York and LA, and those people are fed up and they feel forgotten."

Bainbridge says the way out of this conundrum, from a Jungian perspective, is to embrace humanism and empathy.

"We have to find our humanity, and [ask], 'what does it mean to be a human being?'" Bainbridge said. "It means that you have to integrate your own darkness, wrestle with your own paradoxes and stop projecting out onto other people the opposite inside of you."

Bainbridge added: "There are no simple answers. But we have to hold on to our own humanity, instead of projecting out and demonizing other people. That's how we survive."

The U.S. is at a dangerous 'level of polarization,' political scientists warn

Politics in the United States have become an increasingly polarized affair for decades, driven largely by the right moving further to the right. Observation of political polarization is not merely anecdotal; studies repeatedly bear this out.

Now, some researchers say the partisan rift in the United States has become so extreme that the country may be at a point of no return.

According to a theoretical model's findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the pandemic failing to unite the country, despite political differences, is a signal that the U.S. is at a disconcerting tipping point.

"We see this very disturbing pattern in which a shock brings people a little bit closer initially . . . but if polarization is too extreme, eventually the effects of a shared fate are swamped by the existing divisions and people become divided even on the shock issue," said network scientist Boleslaw Szymanski, a professor of computer science and director of the Army Research Laboratory Network Science and Technology Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "If we reach that point, we cannot unite even in the face of war, climate change, pandemics, or other challenges to the survival of our society."

As I've reported before, sociologists and experts in disaster resilience studies often observe that a "therapeutic community" surfaces in the wake of a disaster — whether that's a hurricane, wildfire, or a terrorist attack. While that was the case to some extent after 9/11, the pandemic hasn't united the nation the same way. Experts have argued that any possibility of unity was doomed from the start of the pandemic, in part because of how politically divided and polarized the nation was before the novel coronavirus began spreading. This latest paper adds to this theory, and suggests that the U.S. is so divided that it is at an irreparable point at which unity is not possible.

Szymanski and fellow researchers reached their conclusion by simulating the views of 100 theoretical legislators around 10 polarizing issues. The researchers had their theoretical legislators interact and network with theoretical neighbors and like-minded groups to see the influence these interactions had on polarization, too — akin to a "Sims"-like video game. When manipulating the group's "control parameters" — such as increased party identification, intolerance for disagreement, and extremism — the model found that polarizing behavior among politicians is one reason why the country is as politically divided as it is today.

At various points, the research team introduced an outside threat, like a pandemic, and then recorded how the group behaved. Interestingly, it appeared that when the group introduced an internal threat that failed to unite the country, that meant that the level of polarization was beyond repair.

"If the polarization is very, very deep in these 10 issues, then we are at the very dangerous stage in which it is very difficult to reverse polarization by democratic means," Szymanski told Salon. "When that tipping point is passed, there are no constitutional means that can reverse polarization."

Indeed, graphs displaying the relationship between polarization and the control parameters showed that in many situations a high amount of polarization that couldn't be rectified by an external threat meant that a society was in a "phase transition," where measures of polarization began to increase exponentially. In some scenarios, if the polarization was dialed down the trend could be reversed. In other cases, a recovery wasn't possible.

"Although political polarization is nothing new, expanding political division is creating an unpredictable environment that threatens the capacity of government to respond rationally in a crisis," said Curt Breneman, dean of the Rensselaer School of Science. "This research is designed to enhance societal resilience by predicting when the level of political polarization within an influential group is nearing the point where a sudden threat will no longer produce collective action."

Szymanski said he hopes people take away from this study that this "theoretical model confirms intuition."

"If the external strong signal does not unite people, we are in danger of getting into this irreversible polarization," which Szymanski alarmed is bad for democracy. "In a divided society, it's of course very difficult to maintain that democracy which requires agreements of all people and the people who win elections and lose elections."

Szymanski added that the research shows the U.S. is at a "dangerous level of polarization," but perhaps electing less polarizing politicians could reverse the trend the U.S. is facing.

"It's almost the last call," Szymanski said.

Why the coronavirus is unlikely to become deadlier

The idea of a once-mild virus might mutate into a deadly pathogen is a staple of science fiction, and a common fear since the dawn of the pandemic. Many of the SARS-CoV-2 virus' relatives, genetically similar viruses like SARS and MERS, have far higher mortality rates compared to the novel coronavirus, which hovers around 2 percent. Though higher than other seasonal viruses like the flu, COVID-19's mortality rate is just low enough to avoid the serious, civilization-threatening social disruptions that a more deadly pandemic might cause.

Now, as widespread vaccine adoption is slowly winding down the pandemic, fears of further mutation threaten our return to normal. Yet are such fears founded? And just how likely is it for SARS-CoV-2 to mutate into something deadlier?

The answer hinges on a deeper understanding of how viruses mutate. RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2 are, of course, always mutating; every replication in a hosts' cells create a moment for a chance mutation to emerge. While viruses are technically not alive, it is their nature to mutate and evolve as they infect hosts' cells and replicate; this is how they survive.

"Viruses replicate and survive and pass their genes to the next generation just by making more copies of themselves," Sasan Amini, founder and CEO of Clear Labs, a private genomics company, previously told Salon. "This replication process is not a perfect process, meaning that while you're going through the replication process errors will be introduced."

These errors, Amini said, are often self-correcting — which results in creating copies that are almost identical to each other. Hence, mutations aren't always a bad thing; in most cases, mutations are harmful to the virus' ability to reproduce, and thus often eliminated in the process of natural selection. However, if a mutation has a competitive advantage — like increased transmissibility — that mutation can outcompete a previous variant.

A virus' evolutionary strategy can be likened to animals with specific environmental niches: owls, for instance, evolved to be able to survive in one environment all year long, rather than having to migrate like other species of birds. In general, the process of evolution favors those who reproduce faster and better than their siblings. For viruses, this happens when they become more transmissible.

If this story sounds familiar, it's because this is what happened with the highly transmissible delta variant, which has spread 50% faster than the alpha variant and is 50% more contagious than previous variants. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this increase in contagiousness means that the delta variant can cause two times as many infections compared to previous variants, which is how it became the predominant variant in the United States. In other words, the delta variant thrived because of its transmissibility.

However, there is no conclusive evidence that suggests delta is more deadly. According to the CDC, some data suggests that it might cause more severe illness. For example, in two separate studies from Canada and Scotland, those who were infected with the delta variant were more likely to be hospitalized than those who were infected with alpha or the original variant that caused the pandemic. Yet a majority of these deaths were in unvaccinated people.

Indeed, scientists tell Salon that from an evolutionary perspective, mutating to become more deadly is not a successful evolutionary strategy for viruses in general. If a virus kills its hosts, how can it spread?

This is why Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California–San Francisco, told Salon viruses usually evolve to become more transmissible — not more lethal.

"They want more baby virus copies of themselves; they don't usually evolve to kill their host more readily because that's actually not very smart," Gandhi said.

That doesn't mean that deadlier mutations can't emerge — rather, that it is uncommon. Indeed, there are other viruses that exhibited this adaptation.

Curiously, this tendency for viruses not to mutate into more deadly strains has been exploited by COVID conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccination advocates in a deceptive way. According to AP News, a post on Facebook circulated widely which stated: "In the history of virology, there has never, EVER, been a viral mutation that resulted in a virus that was MORE lethal. As viruses mutate, they become more contagious/transmissible and LESS lethal." The central thesis of this claim is false, as deadly viruses like Ebola illustrate. Ebola is a norovirus that evolved to cause such severe symptoms in its hosts for the sake of transmissibility, though these same symptoms end up killing its host, too.

Still, Ebola is an unusual case.

"The virus, speaking anthropomorphically, just wants to spread and have its genes replicated," Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Health Security, told AP News. "If the best way for it is to spread by causing severe symptoms it will continue to do that."

For this reason, Gandhi said Ebola is "not a very smart virus."

Meanwhile, some scientists have wondered if the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 has reached "peak fitness," meaning that its genes are optimized in such a way that it is as transmissible as it can get. A virus that has achieved peak fitness will have minimal future mutations.

"More-fit variants can be expected to emerge over time (the occurrence of which will need to be monitored meticulously, as these pose a potential public health threat), but we believe that these will not continue to emerge indefinitely: nothing is infinite in nature, and eventually the virus will reach its form of 'maximum transmission,'" scientists wrote in a letter to the editor in Nature. "After then, new variants will provide no further advantage in infectivity. The virus will thus stabilize and this 'final' variant will prevail and become the dominant strain, experiencing only occasional, minimal variations."

Yet delta recently mutated further into a more worrying variant. As I previously reported, AY.4.2, also known as the "delta plus" variant, has two mutations to the spike protein, which can better assist it in invading its host's cells. Data from the United Kingdom suggests that this delta plus mutation might be more transmissible, but research is still being conducted.

Experts told Salon they weren't worried about AY.4.2, but it was something to monitor.

"This is the only one that we're watching, just because it could be more transmissible," Gandhi said. "None of the other ones were more transmissible." Gandhi emphasized that there was "simply no evidence that it beats the vaccines, which is, of course, the scariest thing that could ever happen from a variant."

Salon asked Gandhi about the idea that a future mutation might be more vaccine-resistant. Viruses are relatively simple structures; Gandhi said that there was a limit to the number of mutations that the virus could have before it was no longer functional.

"It's hard to imagine that could happen," Gandhi said. "If you develop so many mutations across the spike protein to evade T cell immunity, you've probably ruined the virus."

In any case, if a more transmissible and vaccine-resistant variant does somehow emerge, the good news is that mRNA vaccine makers Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca are working on "dress rehearsals" to modify existing vaccines to combat the hypothetical variant.

"At some point, inevitably, we're going to have to make variant vaccines — if vaccines are the way population immunity will be maintained — but we're not at the point where we can confidently predict the evolution of the virus," Paul Bieniasz, a virologist at the Rockefeller University in New York City, told Nature.

FDA authorizes Pfizer vaccine for ages 5 to 11

Many elementary school kids could soon have the opportunity to be vaccinated.

On Friday the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. The action is a turning point in the pandemic, and could finally bring some relief to parents of young kids across the country before the holidays.

"It's an incredibly important tool in the return to normalcy," Dr. Larry Corey, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told the New York Times. "To be able to know that your child is protected and not going to get severely ill by going to school is an incredible psychological relief."

The vaccine advisers for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are scheduled to meet next Tuesday and vote in favor of the emergency use authorization (EUA). If all goes as planned, children between the ages of 5 and 11 can start rolling up their sleeves next week. Nearly 28 million children will be eligible, but much of the success of the rollout will hinge on overcoming vaccine hesitancy. A Kaiser survey released this week found about three in 10 parents of 5- to 11-year-olds were eager to vaccinate their children right away. However, one-third said they will take a wait-and-see approach. An additional third said they will definitely not get their 5-11 year-olds vaccinated.

The authorization comes after Pfizer submitted its trial data to the FDA, which was reviewed by multiple advisory panels. Last week, the independent vaccine advisory committee to the FDA voted unanimously, with one abstention, in favor of emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The data reviewed came from 2,268 participants ages 5 to 11 who used a two-dose regimen of the vaccine administered 21 days apart, similar to the process for people who are 12 and older. Researchers measured the childrens' immune response by looking at neutralizing antibody levels in their blood and comparing those levels to a control group of 16- to 25-year-olds who were given a two-dose regimen with a larger dose.

As Salon has previously reported, there is one big difference between the vaccine for people over the age of 11, and those between five and 11: the amount of vaccine administered. Pfizer used a 10-microgram dose for 5- to 11-year-olds, which is far smaller than the 30-microgram dose that has been used for those 12 and older. Pfizer said this smaller dosage demonstrated a "strong immune response in this cohort of children one month after the second dose."

Why the smaller dosage? It is standard practice to test vaccines on older children first, because children of different ages can have a different response to the vaccine. The goal of clinical trials with children is to find a balance between age and dosage of the vaccine in which a strong immune response is triggered without too many side effects. The variables in a clinical trial with children are different.

"Children's immune systems are different — they've had prior exposures, their immune systems may not be as experienced, and children also weigh less than older individuals," Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases and associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of California, Davis, previously told Salon. "Getting the dose right is important, and we know that with some vaccines, what you need to do is give a higher dose of the vaccine in younger children because they haven't been exposed to the antigen — the active component of the vaccine previously. In other cases you give a lower dose, because it's more weight-based."

As far as reported side effects go, they were similar to those experienced by the 12 and older set: soreness at the site of injection, fever, headache, and fatigue, all of which lasted between 24 and 48 hours. Notably, there were no cases of myocarditis in the trial of young children.

A new paper suggests that the mysterious 'dark matter' filling our universe could just be a myth

What if dark matter didn't exist? Sure, scientists have never observed it, but they believe it exists because of apparent gravitational effects. But what if our current understanding of gravity was just plain wrong?

The question has been raised over the last several decades, but typically when a proposed modified Newtonian dynamics (MOND) theory is put forth it has too big a blindspot to be taken seriously in the scientific community. In this case, the theory arguing against the existence of dark matter can't account for observations of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which is the leftover glow of the Big Bang or explain what happens at a larger scale with galaxies. Certainly such a discovery would be a significant change in the world of physics and have a remarkable impact on science.

This month however, researchers Constantinos Skordis and Tom Zlosnik from the Czech Academy of Sciences published a paper in the journal Physical Review Letters suggesting that a new modification to the parameters of Newton's theory of gravity could provide an answer as to why dark matter has yet to be detected. And unlike previously proposed MOND theories, this one just might stick because the new proposal can match observations of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which is a key detail that has lacked in the previous MOND-like theories.

"This new paper suggests a way of having what is called a relativistic extension of MOND, a theory that is more general that can be applied to the universe at large," Avi Loeb, the former chair of astronomy at Harvard University who was not involved in the paper, told Salon. "It introduces some new fields, and according to the authors, seems to satisfy both what happens on the scale of galaxies, as well as what happens on the scale of the universe and that's quite a feat."

Dark matter is estimated to make up 27% of the universe's total mass and energy, which is nearly five times more than the "normal" matter that comprises planets and stars. True to its name, dark matter is hard to directly observe. So far, none of the efforts to figure out the nature of the dark matter have gone very far. Yet astronomers are quite convinced it exists because of the huge gravitational effect it has on galaxies and the stars that live within them. As far as anyone can tell, dark matter is extremely non-interacting: just as humans walk through a still room barely noticing the atmosphere that surrounds us, dark matter seems to barely ever touch, even faintly, the normal matter that it hovers around. It is bound to our world by gravity only, and only tugs on other things that also possess gravity.

But the newly proposed MOND theory suggests that gravity is actually created by three fields instead of two. The researchers set parameters to suggest that in the early Universe, a gravitational effect imitated that of dark matter. After evolving over cosmic time, the gravitational force eventually aligned with the MOND proposal, which is Mordehai Milgrom's alternative theory to replace Newtonian dynamics.

"It was difficult for many years to generalize [Milgrom's] theory that applies to galaxies like the Milky Way and find a theory that would also apply to the Universe at large," Loeb explained. "The Achilles heel of Milgrom's theory before that was that it applies to galaxies, but we know that, when we look at the cosmic microwave background or the distribution of galaxies on very large scales, we know that there is evidence for dark matter, but it wasn't clear that his theory can explain that."

Loeb said now the question is if scientists can distinguish between particle dark matter and this modified theory of gravity to come to a conclusion on what's going on with dark matter.

"And there are various ways you can think about it, there are ways to tell the difference between particle dark matter, and MOND," Loeb said. "Most of the scientific community simply dismisses MOND, and they say it's probably some particle that sounds the most natural [option], but the problem is we haven't seen the particle yet."

If this alternative gravity theory is correct, it would be a "major revolution," Loeb said, emphasizing it would be at the scale of Newton's law of gravitation and Einstein's law of gravity.

"If we find there is no dark matter, but a different behavior, that would be at the same magnitude as the previous revolutions," Loeb said. "It would be really major."

A glimpse into our solar system's future

Stars, much like humans, go through different stages of life, from birth through middle age through senescence. At the moment, our solar system's sun is in its yellow dwarf stage of life — essentially middle age for a star of its class.

But that won't always be the case. Earth's sun is about 4.5 billion years old, but in another five billion years, the sun will eventually run low on hydrogen fuel. After that happens, it will expand into a red giant and engulf many of the inner planets, and perhaps mess up the orbits of outer ones. (Scientific models conflict on exactly which planets will be engulfed and how orbits might be adjusted.) After expansion, the sun will contract until it becomes a white dwarf, at which point it will no longer produce any heat of its own, and rather will slowly cool for all eternity. Nothing in the universe lives forever.

While humans on Earth won't be around to see what happens at the end of the sun's life, other star systems in the universe can theoretically provide glimpses of our solar system's future — if only we could find one that was similar enough to ours.

Now, it seems, astronomers have. In a new study published in the journal Nature last week, astronomers observed the first planetary system that resembles the future trajectory of our own solar system. What they found is that even after the sun's death, there might be some surviving planets that stick around.

Using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, astronomers observed a Jupiter-like planet that is revolving around a white dwarf near the center of the Milky Way. The planet in question is an estimated 40 times more massive than Jupiter.

"This evidence confirms that planets orbiting at a large enough distance can continue to exist after their star's death," said lead author of the study, Joshua Blackman, a researcher at the University of Tasmania in Australia, in a news release. "Given that this system is an analog to our own solar system, it suggests that Jupiter and Saturn might survive the Sun's red giant phase, when it runs out of nuclear fuel and self-destructs."

This is a pretty remarkable discovery considering the violence that coincides with the death of a yellow dwarf star like our sun. When a yellow dwarf burns off all the hydrogen in its core, it balloons into a red giant star. From there, it collapses into a very faint white dwarf. The small size of white dwarfs is partly why it has been so difficult to detect a planetary system orbiting a white dwarf until now.

But while this might be good news for the outer gas giants, does this mean that Earth could survive the sun's death?

"Earth's future may not be so rosy because it is much closer to the Sun," said co-author David Bennett, a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "If humankind wanted to move to a moon of Jupiter or Saturn before the Sun fried the Earth during its red supergiant phase, we'd still remain in orbit around the Sun, although we would not be able to rely on heat from the Sun as a white dwarf for very long."

The team of scientists used a technique called gravitational microlensing to confirm their observations. In his General Theory of Relativity, Albert Einstein predicted that objects of large mass, things like black holes or stars, would distort space-time around them. Hence, light bends and distorts around these massive objects. Occasionally this is to the advantage of astronomers, as objects that are generally too distant or dim to observe directly can be briefly magnified by passing massive astrophysical bodies from the perspective of us on Earth. Such observations are known as gravitational microlensing events. It is not a common means of observing exoplanets, or planets in other solar systems; as Salon has previously reported, only 2% of discovered exoplanets have been found via microlensing.

In this case, astronomers tried to look for the planet's host star, and were surprised to discover that its starlight was not bright enough to constitute an ordinary, main sequence star. This helped rule out the possibility of the host star being anything besides a white dwarf.

"We have also been able to rule out the possibility of a neutron star or a black hole host. This means that the planet is orbiting a dead star, a white dwarf," said co author Jean-Philippe Beaulieu, an astrophysics professor at the University of Tasmania. "It offers a glimpse into what our solar system will look like after the disappearance of the Earth, whipped out in the cataclysmic demise of our Sun."

Do you need a COVID booster shot? Here's what you should know

Confused about whether you're eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot? You're not alone.

A series of piecemeal recommendations for different combinations of boosters for different groups has left many confused about if they need a booster or not — or if they even qualify. It doesn't help that pharmacies have varying rules in place, sometimes lax and sometimes strict, regarding who gets additional inoculations.

Last week, an expert committee called the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee that advises the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unanimously agreed that the agency should authorize boosters of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine to nearly 15 million Americans who have already received the initial dose. The same committee recommended Moderna booster shots to people over the age of 65 and and other high-risk adults. (Formal FDA "approval" is separate from the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee's recommendations, though the FDA is usually influenced by the committee.)

Meanwhile, many of those who received Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine already have been approved for booster shots — provided they fall into certain groups.

Now, as early as this Wednesday, the FDA is expected to formally decide the question of booster shots for those who received Johnson & Johnson or Moderna's COVID-19 vaccines. What is still up in the air, however, is whether the FDA will let Americans receive a vaccine booster manufactured by a different company than the vaccine they initially received.

But until the FDA gives the final stamp of approval, only a small group of Americans are eligible for booster shots. Indeed, COVID-19 vaccine booster shots are currently only available for those who received a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at least six months ago and who fall under one of the following categories: people who are over the age of 65, people over the age of 18 who live in long-term care settings, have underlying medical conditions, work in high-risk settings, or live in high-risk settings.

"If you work in an occupation that puts you at higher risk of exposure, such as a first response, medical work or health care or someone who works in food and agriculture, teachers, education, and public transit, if you work in a grocery store, you are now all eligible," said L.J Tan, chief strategy officer for the Immunization Action Coalition, a nonprofit that works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to distribute vaccine information. The reason, Tan said, was "because you're considered in an environment for an occupational setting that puts you at increased risk of exposure and transmission from those other people who are not eligible for boosters."

However, many of those who fall into these categories aren't eligible for a booster shot because the FDA hasn't approved a "mix and match" vaccine approach just yet.

At the meeting last week, researchers presented their findings of a federally funded study of people who received Johnson & Johnson's single-dose and then proceeded to receive a Moderna booster shot. Their antibody levels increase 76-fold in 15 days. Those who had previously been inoculated with Johnson & Johnson and then received a booster of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine only saw a four-fold increase in antibodies.

"If you boost people who have originally received J&J with either Moderna or Pfizer, the level of antibodies that you induce in them is much higher than if you boost them with the original J&J," Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. "But the data of boosting the J&J first dose with a J&J second dose is based on clinical data; so what's going to happen is that the FDA is going to look at all those data, look at the comparison, and make a determination of what they will authorize."

Tan questioned whether the FDA will approve the mix and match approach.

"There was a lot of really good discussion about what was called mixing and matching, what I call heterologous boosting — there [were] a lot of good discussions about safety and efficacy and whether we had enough data and whether the data is extensive enough," Tan said. "And so, as much as we want to be able to kind of mix and match our booster doses, I don't think that's going to happen."

Tan speculated that based on the FDA vote and the specific criteria set, those who received the Moderna vaccine or the J&J vaccine will be able to get boosters of the same vaccine. As he noted, that does not mean mixing and matching is completely out of the question. It is likely, Tan said, that more data will be needed to make a decision for what he termed an "evolving" situation.

Moreover, there may be a second round of boosters in the future — perhaps even annual COVID-19 vaccines, akin to how human civilization manages the flu with annual shot regimes.

"I wish I had a crystal ball," Tan said, when asked if boosters will be recurring.

At least for the immediate future, the public should know this week. For those who are confused if they qualify, Tan said, "I really think that the public should seriously be talking to their healthcare professionals to discuss the appropriateness of booster jabs for them."

Tan emphasized the importance of immunity-enhancing measures.

"It is my opinion that it's critical that we reduce transmission of this virus as much as possible," Tan said. "I do think that we have to keep an eye on reducing transmission, because we need to somehow stop the emergence of these variants, and to stop transmission of the virus, even from people who have been vaccinated."

A mysterious and powerful radio signal from space is repeating itself

Outer space is chirping, and no one quite knows why.

Known as fast radio bursts, or FRBs for short, these very brief yet incredibly powerful bursts of radio wave energy appear to be coming from all corners of the universe. And while astronomers can pick up such signals, they are, because of their brief duration, very difficult to study. Very few of them ever repeat; and since they only last a millisecond, telescopes can rarely focus on them in time to get a good look. Moreover, astronomers do not quite know exactly where they are coming from, or where the next one might land.

All of this uncertainty around fast radio bursts has only heightened their mystery.

But astronomers may have found some answers in a fast radio burst that, unusually, repeats — which has given them more opportunities to study the strange signals.

Dubbed FRB 121102, the first repeating FRB has revealed new insights about this mysterious phenomenon. According to a study published in Nature last week, an international group of scientists found 1,652 independent radio bursts from the same source over the course of 47 days between August 29 and October 29, 2019. The analysis is significant for being the largest set of FRBs ever recorded from a single source. At one point during observation, 122 radio bursts occurred in the span of one hour from the source.

"This was the first time that one FRB source was studied in such great detail," said astrophysicist Bing Zhang, an astrophysicist at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas and one of the study's corresponding authors. "The large burst set helped our team hone in like never before on the characteristic energy and energy distribution of FRBs, which sheds new light on the engine that powers these mysterious phenomena."

Part of the mystery around FRBs is that they are relatively new to science. Scientists discovered the first FRBs in 2007, and have since turned to powerful radio telescopes to track down the bursts and search for clues on where they originate and how they are produced. One prominent theory on their origins is that they spawn from a type of incredibly dense neutron star called a magnetar, which have some of the strongest magnetic fields in the universe. Another theory posits that FRBs emerge from shock waves traveling at near light-speed outside a magnetosphere.

In a news release, Zhang said the latest observations "pose great challenges to the latter model."

"The bursts are too frequent and — given that this episode alone amounts to 3.8% of the energy available from a magnetar — it adds up to too much energy for the second model to work," Zhang said.

Pei Wang, one of the article's lead authors from the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC), agreed.

"During its most active phase, FRB 121102 included 122 bursts measured within a one-hour period, the highest repeat rate ever observed for any FRB," Wang said.

Indeed, in a separate study published in Nature in June 2020 suggested that some fast radio bursts could be coming from a magnetar in our galaxy nearly 10,000 parsecs away.

"Because magnetars are spinning quickly and have powerful magnetic fields, they have huge reservoirs of energy that can produce outbursts," Alexandra Witze wrote in Nature. "One idea about the source of these outbursts is that something happening inside the magnetar — such as a 'starquake,' analogous to an earthquake — could crack its surface and release energy."

While their precise causes remain a mystery, astrophysicists have mostly ruled out the possibility that these mysterious radio waves are coming from an alien civilization, as Salon has previously reported.

"It is unlikely that all FRBs are from alien civilizations due to the power requirements at cosmological distances, but possible," Avi Loeb, the former chair of Harvard's astronomy department previously told Salon.

Experts say the delta surge may be the last major COVID-19 wave

Has the latest COVID-19 surge, fueled by the ultra-infectious delta variant, finally peaked in the United States?

On Wednesday, the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub, a group of researchers who have been studying and following the trajectory of the pandemic, announced a new prediction stating that the worst of the delta surge is likely behind us. Through combining nine different mathematical models, the researchers forecast that cases will finally start to fall again throughout the next few months and that the U.S. will avoid another winter surge like last year.

"Any of us who have been following this closely, given what happened with delta, are going to be really cautious about too much optimism," Justin Lessler at the University of North Carolina, who helps run the hub, told NPR. "But I do think that the trajectory is towards improvement for most of the country."

Indeed, the U.S. is already starting to see this happen in real-time. As a whole, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are declining (once again) across the country and even the world. According to the World Health Organization's most recent report, the number of new COVID-19 cases fell to 3.6 million new cases globally, down from 4 million new infections the previous week. In parts of the U.S. where delta hit the hardest, like Florida and Texas, cases and hospitalizations have declined over the last week, too. Of course, this trend doesn't track everywhere across the country. In Ohio, some hospitals are at or reaching peak capacity, as the delta variant just now takes hold in various communities.

"I think in general, with delta, we're peaking as a country, but there are going to be some states where they're on a different timescale and those states are less populous so they probably won't wouldn't affect the overall U.S. numbers," said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center. "But it may get difficult in some of those states if there are high-risk individuals getting infected as we've seen, for example in Idaho, where they're worried about the ability to care for patients."

The country, Adalja emphasized, is pretty "heterogeneous" and even if U.S. numbers as a whole fall, that doesn't mean the delta surge is over for everyone. Still, a trend of cases and hospitalizations falling is a positive one.

For Americans who recall over a year of surges in case numbers followed by declines followed by another inevitable surge, this prediction might induce deja vu. The delta variant surge has been dubbed the fourth officially COVID-19 wave since the pandemic began, and it certainly threw the pandemic on a different track. Unlike previous surges from 2020 and early 2021, vaccines were widely available for most people who were eligible during delta variant's rise.

Now, as this wave crests, more people who previously were ineligible for vaccines will be able to obtain vaccinations. The two-shot Pfizer vaccine is expected to be approved in the coming weeks for children between the ages of five and 11; previously, the youngest vaccine-eligible age was 12.

While there have not been official lockdowns during the delta surge in the U.S. (unlike previous surges), some parts of the country tightened pandemic restrictions because of the delta variant. These generally included rules about wearing masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, or denying entry to businesses if patrons lacked vaccine cards. Indeed, the delta variant delayed society's timeline for returning to any semblance of normalcy.

Unlike previous surges, experts like Adalja and those at the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub do not believe another "surge" is in our future.

"I think you have to also define what it means by surge — are we going to see an acceleration of cases when it gets colder, less sunny, less humid and people have to go indoors? Yes, that's just based on the biology of the virus," Adalja said. "There will be more cases during those periods of time, but will they be deadly? That's really a function of who's getting infected and how protected the high-risk populations are."

Adalja added that after this wave, he does believe that many people will be protected by either the vaccines or natural immunity.

"I do think there's going to be a significant amount of immunity when you combine natural immunity plus vaccine induced immunity plus people who are now dead and not susceptible because they're dead," Adalja said.

Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California–San Francisco, said it is likely a lot of vaccinated people have been exposed to the delta variant and don't even know it.

"The thing about delta to remember is that we are not getting away from it — it's really transmissible, and we did not lock down our society. We tried to do masks in some places, but we didn't even do capacity limits and we opened schools at the same time," Gandhi said. "So what does this mean? It means a lot of people have been exposed to delta, and for the vaccinated, many of them don't know it."

If they did, they likely had a mild breakthrough case.

If doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is insanity, then it's reasonable for expectations to need to be managed during yet another wind-down from yet another wave. While this fall might not be as relaxed and celebratory as life felt before delta happened, when cases were falling and vaccinations rates were rising, there is room to be optimistic. But does this mean the pandemic is finally nearing an end? That is a little more difficult to answer, Gandhi said.

"No one's defined an endpoint," Gandhi said. "I have really concluded that the endpoint is when everyone qualifies for a vaccine, including children; that's when there will be a relaxation that will be when we'll stop having articles that say, in the Washington Post, 'living with an unvaccinated child is like living through a fire alarm every day.'"

Similar to how the delta variant has affected different states and cities across the country, a sense of normalcy depends on where one is located, too. Blue states like California have more pandemic restrictions, like mask mandates indoors, compared to red states like Florida that have politicians who keep refusing to implement mask mandates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a set of recommendations for when the vaccinated should wear masks indoors, which includes wearing a mask indoors in public if a person is in an area of substantial or high transmission. Unvaccinated people are expected to wear masks regardless of transmission rates inside, which is partly why local jurisdictions reverted back to universal masking. Adalja said as COVID-19 cases fall, it's possible that some local governments will ease indoor masking restrictions.

"If you're in a place where those have fallen, then the CDC recommendations would not necessarily be applicable," Adalja said. "Some states or some counties may have gone beyond the CDC recommendations, but I think most of them would probably phase those out if they've fallen below the CDC threshold; I think you would see those types of things, not be enforced because transmission goes down."

Certainly getting more people vaccinated is the best way to slow transmission though, but at least for now gone are the days when symptoms of a cold — even for the vaccinated — could be easily brushed off. But as Gandhi noted, how the next phase of the pandemic looks in regards to masking and gatherings is largely a "blue state question"— as many red states didn't follow CDC recommendations at all once delta hit. Regardless of politics, both Adalja and Gandhi said we are moving to a phase of the pandemic where people have to learn to live with COVID-19 as an endemic disease.

"What does endemic mean? It means that you have to accept the highly transmissible respiratory variant," Gandhi said. "Whether you want to accept it or not, we have to accept the reality of endemicity."

No, the COVID-19 vaccines don't cause male infertility — but the virus might

Unsubstantiated rumors that the COVID-19 vaccine causes impotence have entered the public discourse because of comments made by rapper Nicki Minaj.

It started when Minaj recently tweeted that she would not be attending last week's Met Gala due to its vaccination requirement. "They want you to get vaccinated for the Met," she wrote in a since-deleted tweet. "If I get vaccinated it won't for the Met. It'll be once I feel I've done enough research. I'm working on that now."

Later, she suggested that the vaccine might be linked to male infertility, a suspicion that she said stemmed from a story she heard about her cousin's friend.

"My cousin in Trinidad won't get the vaccine cuz his friend got it & became impotent. His testicles became swollen," she wrote on Twitter. "His friend was weeks away from getting married, now the girl called off the wedding. So just pray on it & make sure you're comfortable with ur decision, not bullied."

Minaj's incredible reach — 22.8 million follow her on Twitter — combined with the anatomical peculiarity of the anecdote helped make her story about her cousin go viral, spawning memes, condemnations from public health officials, and even sparking a rebuttal from Trinidad and Tobago's Health Minister, who said there was no record of any such incident in the Caribbean nation.

As other health experts attested as well, there is no scientific evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine will negatively affect a male reproductive system. Yet contracting the virus itself can cause male reproductive health issues.

"I am not aware of any evidence that any of the COVID-19 vaccines cause male infertility, impotence, or swollen testicles," Allan Pacey, Professor of Andrology at the University of Sheffield, told Salon. "However, I am aware of published reports that catching COVID-19 can be associated with testicular pain, an increased frequency of erectile dysfunction, and a temporary reduction in sperm production."

Channa Jayasena, a Clinical Senior Lecturer and Consultant in Reproductive Endocrinology and Andrology at Imperial College, concurred.

"There is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine causes impotence or testicle swelling in men," Jayasena said. "However, a recent study suggests that mild COVID-19 infection (not the vaccine) may slightly reduce your sperm count and quality."

Indeed, this message has been confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Society for Male Reproduction and Urology (SMRU), the Society for the Study of Male Reproduction (SSMR) and many more medical experts.

There have been studies specifically related to COVID-19 vaccines and fertility. Ranjith Ramasamy, Director of Reproductive Urology at the University of Miami, co-authored a study looking at sperm count in 45 men between the ages of 18 and 50 years old.

"In this study, no significant changes in sperm parameters were seen following COVID-19 mRNA vaccination of males at 3- and 6-month follow-up," Ramasamy told Salon. "Thus far, vaccines have been proven to be safe and effective in combating COVID-19 with no evidence indicating they can negatively impact the sexual health of males or females."

Despite this, Minaj's comments reflect an ongoing false narrative in anti-vaccine and alternative health groups: that vaccines cause infertility in both women and men. Similar to unsubstantiated fear around how the COVID-19 vaccines might harm a woman's reproductive system, male infertility is often used as a way to cause fear around getting vaccinated.

But why are the two — vaccines and fertility — often linked in anti-vaccine propaganda?

Experts speculate that it is, in part, because fears of infertility play on common, deep human fears. In some cases, a lack of research around a topic can create a breeding ground for misinformation. And other times, myths stem from a misinterpretation of a study.

Unlike some previous instances of scientific misinformation having its origin in retracted studies, it is unclear exactly where myths about the COVID-19 vaccines harming the male reproductive system originated from. Aside from Minaj's remarks, it is possible that scientific evidence around fevers causing a temporary decline in sperm count have been manipulated.

As the Society for Male Reproduction and Urology (SMRU) and the Society for the Study of Male Reproduction (SSMR) explained in a joint statement: "It should be noted that about 16% of men in the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial experienced fever after the second dose. Fevers can cause temporary declines in sperm production."

Therefore, if a man experiences fever as the result of the COVID-19 vaccine, the joint statement said, that man may experience a temporary decline in sperm production.

"But that would be similar to or less than if the individual experienced fever from developing COVID-19 or for other reasons," the statement explained.

Conversely, there is scientific evidence that suggests getting infected with COVID-19 can affect male fertility, as multiple researchers described. Ramasamy worked on a separate study where he and his colleagues analyzed the autopsy tissues of the testicles of six men who died of COVID-19 infection. They found that in three of the men, there was a decreased number of sperm. The same study showed that a COVID-19 infection could lead to severe erectile dysfunction. The researchers speculated it could be because the infection causes reduced blood supply to the penis.

As Ramasamy previously wrote: "These findings are not entirely surprising. After all, scientists know other viruses invade the testicles and affect sperm production and fertility."

Any women or men who are concerned about their reproductive health and COVID-19 should get vaccinated, experts advise.

"I would urge all men (and women) to get vaccinated when they get the opportunity," said Pacey.

FDA panel rejects mass booster plan — undermining Biden's hopes

It looks like most Americans won't be rolling up their sleeves for a third COVID-19 vaccine shot this year — at least those under the age of 65.

On Friday, a federal advisory committee of 18 people voted against the Biden administration's mass booster plan to offer third Pfizer vaccine shots to everyone over the age of 16. Two members of the committee voted in favor of the plan to offer mass booster shots, while the remainder of the committee voted no. If a majority of the committee voted yes, boosters would have been offered to people 16 and over who received their last dose nearly eight months ago.

Then, in a rare second vote, the panel voted unanimously Friday to recommend emergency use authorization of a booster dose of Pfizer's vaccine in people 65 and older and those at high risk of severe COVID-19 six months after full vaccination.

The first vote that rejected the Biden administration's plan came as a surprise. The rejection of the booster plan ultimately hinged on a lack of adequate data that showed a third shot would slow transmission among people who get infected despite vaccination, and data suggesting that the antibodies from a third shot wouldn't wane over time as well. The panel questioned the accuracy of comparing data from Israel to the situation in the U.S., and questioned whether a third dose would increase the rare risk of heart inflammation that has been seen in mostly younger men after the second dose.

"I don't think a booster dose is going to significantly contribute to controlling the pandemic," said panelist Dr. Cody Meissner of Tufts University on Friday. "And I think it's important that the main message we transmit is that we've got to get everyone two doses."

Many members of the committee, assembled by the Food and Drug Administration, also expressed doubts about the effectiveness of a mass booster plan compared to one that would target specific groups — like people over the age of 65.

The FDA has yet to make its own decision on the recommendation, but their recommendation generally follows what's decided among the expert panel like the one that met today. Today's vote was the first step in the process for the FDA to officially approve boosters. A CDC advisory committee is scheduled to meet next week, as another step of the process, to debate who should get boosters and how many months after their second dose they should receive them.

In August, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced they were putting a plan together for booster shots. In the announcement, public health officials stated starting the week of September 20, 2021, people who were fully vaccinated and about eight months away from their last second shot would be eligible for a third.

"At that time, the individuals who were fully vaccinated earliest in the vaccination rollout, including many health care providers, nursing home residents, and other seniors, will likely be eligible for a booster," the statement read. "We would also begin efforts to deliver booster shots directly to residents of long-term care facilities at that time, given the distribution of vaccines to this population early in the vaccine rollout and the continued increased risk that COVID-19 poses to them."

As this so-called booster roll-out date neared, the initial plan appeared to be in flux. Since Moderna, maker of one of three approved COVID-19 vaccines in the US, hasn't provided adequate data on boosters, the Pfizer vaccine was the only possibility for a third shot to get into arms this month. While the Biden administration appeared to be confidently moving forward with approving a third Pfizer shot for everyone over the age of 16, a bit of a backlash and debate in the scientific community surfaced.

In particular, there have been a series of clashing reviews and arguments among scientists on whether or not boosters are really needed. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine argued that those who received a third Pfizer shot in Israel were far less likely to get a severe case of COVID-19 than those who received two shots. However, a group of scientists wrote in The Lancet that there's not enough evidence to suggest boosters are needed at this time.

Two of the authors of the paper are scientists at the Food and Drug Administration. According to the New York Times, Dr. Philip Krause and Dr. Marion Gruber is poised to leave this fall, in part because they were upset over the initial booster announcement.

As Salon previously reported, boosters are already controversial in part because mass distribution of them would decrease the supply of available vaccines that could be distributed in more needy nations with less vaccine access. Previously, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for a moratorium on booster shots in affluent countries throughout September. Yet Israel, Germany, and the UK had already approved COVID-19 booster shots for the elderly and those with underlying conditions.

"Even while hundreds of millions of people are still waiting for their first dose, some rich countries are moving towards booster doses," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "So far more than 4 billion vaccine doses have been administered globally. More than 80% have gone to high and upper middle income countries, even though they account for less than half of the world's population."

In the U.S., many have been obtaining booster shots illicitly, in many cases lying about their vaccine status to pharmacists or traveling to neighboring states where their vaccine information is not on state records.

Some feared the Biden administration's push for boosters was politically motivated.

"Weeks ago, the administration decided that the public needs cake and deserves cake, and so shall have cake," John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, told the New York Times. "Now, the public expects cake and would be very annoyed if its cake was taken away at this point."

According to AP News, Sharon Alroy-Preis of Israel's Ministry of Health previously said a third shot improves protection against COVID-19 by tenfold in people ages 60 and older.

"It's like a fresh vaccine," bringing protection back to original levels and helping Israel "dampen severe cases in the fourth wave," she said.

Currently, in the U.S., a third vaccine dose is approved for certain immunocompromised people.

The weird geology of Mars is causing problems for NASA's rover

Earlier this month, the Perseverance rover set out to collect some rock samples on Mars. It was supposed to be a key moment in the rover's historic sample-return mission, one in which Perseverance was to collect, store and return Martian rock and soil samples to Earth. (The rocket that will pick up the samples hasn't launched yet, and may not for almost a decade; currently, Perseverance is doing the grunt work of collection.) To date, Perseverance had been highly successful: its risky landing worked perfectly, and Ingenuity, the 4-pound helicopter that hitched a ride to Mars on Perseverance's back, overcame massive barriers to become the first powered-controlled flight on another planet. Compared to those feats, Perseverance's next task — drilling out a finger-sized hole in a rock — seemed simple. But after the drilling, the collection tube came back empty. Mission control was in disbelief.

As Salon previously reported, scientists rushed to figure out why the sample went missing. Did the drill somehow miss? It didn't seem so — images from the Red Planet revealed there was a hole in the rock.

So what happened once the drill came out of the rock?

After some sleuthing, NASA's Perseverance team determined that the rock most likely crumbled into "small fragments" — essentially, a powder. While the pulverization of the rock sample was disappointing to the team, it was also a lesson in Martian geology.

"It's certainly not the first time Mars has surprised us," said Kiersten Siebach, an assistant professor of planetary biology at Rice University and participating scientist on the science and operations team for Perseverance. "A big part of exploration is figuring out what tools to use and how to approach the rocks on Mars."

Siebach explained that something similar sometimes happens to geologists here on Earth. Certain rocks look solid, their appearance having been retained by their chemistry. But weathering events and erosion can weaken that chemistry.

"If you've hiked in California, sometimes it looks like you're hiking next to a rock. But if you kick it, it falls apart into dust," Siebach said. "It's probably something like that, where there's been more weather than anticipated."

Mars is a curious place, geologically speaking. The surface of the planet is rocky, dusty; and thanks to previous missions like the Sojourner rover, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity, we know that the soil is toxic. High concentrations of perchlorate compounds, meaning containing chlorine, have been detected and confirmed on multiple occasions. In some spots, there are volcanic basaltic rocks like the kind that we have on Earth in Iceland, Hawaii or Idaho.

Raymond Arvidson, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and a Curiosity science team member, explained that one big difference between Earth and Mars though is that Earth has active plate tectonics — meaning that Earth's surface is comprised of vast, continent-spanning "plates" that move and shift and abut against each other, creating valleys and mountains. Such geology has given Earth places like Sierra Nevada mountain range. Mars, however, never had plate tectonics.

"So those very primitive rocks that are called the basaltic, like we have in the oceans — that's the dominant mineralogy and composition of rocks on Mars," Arvidson said. "It's basically a basalted planet — not as complicated as here, not as many rocks." Jezero Crater, a 28 mile-wide impact crater and former lake located north of the Martian equator, is where Perseverance touched town. Arvidson noted that the crater has diverse geology: "It has clays, it has faults and carbonate, many of them produced [around] three and a half billion years ago."

For that reason, scientists believe Jezero may be an ideal spot to search for ancient signs of microbial life on Mars. Perseverance is now headed to the next sampling location in South Seitah, which is within Jezero Crater.

Notably, the tubes and instruments on Perseverance were built to collect more solid samples, and that's because the aim of this mission is to see if these rocks contain evidence of microbes, or any ancient fossilized life.

"Do these rocks contain evidence for life?" Arvidson asked. "To answer those questions, you need to get the rock back to Earth."

Arvidson said that these soft sedimentary rocks that turn into powder when you drill are "everywhere" on Mars. Previous rovers encountered them too.

"For example with Curiosity, which landed in Gale Crater in 2012 — and we'd been driving up the side of the mountain called Mount Sharp — we encountered soft sedimentary rocks that were easy to drill, and we'd get powders back," Arvidson said. "Then we found really hard rock that we couldn't drill into, so we gave up. Jezero is going to have hard rocks and soft rocks."

As Siebach previously mentioned, what happened with Perseverance is a learning experience. Scientists, Siebach said, rely on a basaltic signal from orbit to determine the mineralogy and composition of Jezero Crater's floor.

"It's a little bit ambiguous. . . we don't see a strong signal of hydration or something in these rocks in particular, instead, they look like most rocks on Mars which means they have a lot of these volcanic minerals and some dust on top," Siebach noted. However, orbital surveillance is not foolproof. "We don't know whether this crater floor was actually volcanic," Siebach added.

Hence, scientists won't always be certain about the consistency of the sample areas they choose to drill. But once on Mars, it's a mix of science, educated guessing, and luck to really find what they're looking for to bring back home.

"Some of these rocks could have a composition that makes it look igneous, when they could be sedimentary or igneous rocks," Siebach said. "That's the kinds of compositions we're seeing that makes it challenging and fun."

Siebach emphasized she has confidence that Perseverance will have success in sampling some of the other rocks.

"Those surprises and those unexpected events are what drives our curiosity and asking more questions, and learning more about this history of Mars that is written in these rocks," Siebach said. "If the sampling doesn't go as we expect, those surprises are inherent to discovery, and will drive us to learn more."

But the truly exciting science will happen when the samples get back to Earth eventually.

"We will be able to learn so much about Mars from those samples," Siebach said.

Unvaccinated pregnant women face a high risk of severe COVID-19

A new report published earlier this month is shedding new light on the risk of being pregnant and unvaccinated against COVID-19.

The study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), compared childbirth outcomes between pregnant women with and without COVID-19 between March 1, 2020, and February 28, 2021. What researchers found was that out of 869, 079 women's health retrospectively analyzed, 18 ,715 (2.2%) had contracted COVID-19. Among the infected cohort, preterm births were more common, along with ICU admission rates, intubation and in-hospital mortality rates. In fact, 0.1% of women with COVID-19 died in the hospital, compared to the 0.01% of uninfected women who died.

Notably, women who had COVID-19 in the JAMA study were more likely to be Black or Hispanic compared to women who didn't get infected.

To date, the study is the largest of its kind, yet it is one of a handful showing similar findings. This study also comes at a time when the pregnancy-related mortality rate in the U.S. has been on the rise over the last 10 years, especially among Black mothers.

Doctors across the country like Dr. Arianna Cassidy, a fellow in Maternal Fetal Medicine at the University of California–San Francisco who has been working with pregnant women for six years, described what she's seeing as "unprecedented."

"Every flu season, women who are pregnant who get the common seasonal flu are at higher risk for needing to go to the ICU, needing help breathing and even higher risk for dying. That was particularly stark during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009," Cassidy said. "We know that women pregnant women are at a higher risk for getting sicker from respiratory illnesses, but the degree of illness that we see in pregnancy with COVID — especially for unvaccinated pregnant women, both how sick they get and how many people we are seeing [in the hospital] — is just unprecedented."

Dr. Melissa Simon, an obstetrician gynecologist and professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, agreed with Cassidy's assessment.

"We are seeing more pregnant individuals coming in with severe COVID-19 disease that is severe enough to require intensive care unit, admission and intubation," Simon said, calling it "concerning, because we're talking about not just the health of the pregnant person themselves but also the fetus." "This is really serious," Simon continued. "The numbers are increasing, and we could prevent that — the vaccinations could prevent that."

And the crisis among pregnant women appears to only be getting worse. Data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows over the last month and half there has been a rise of pregnant women being diagnosed with COVID-19, with the exception of last week. While updated research like the JAMA study shows the risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes among pregnant women is high, vaccination rates are not. Less than 25 percent of pregnant people have received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the CDC, as of July 31, 2021.

Experts in women's health say vaccine hesitancy is common among pregnant women because misinformation runs rampant on social media, particularly in anti-vaccination and alt-health wellness groups on Facebook, Instagram or TikTok. Much of the time, myths stem from a misinterpretation of a study.

For example, the false claim that the COVID-19 vaccine can cause miscarriages likely stemmed from reports in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) in the US. (Critically, anyone can report their experience after getting inoculated in this system.) While miscarriages were reported, there is no evidence that the miscarriages were related to vaccination; indeed, a recent study has found that the miscarriage rate among vaccinated people was similar to what's expected among the general population, which is 12.5 percent.

Similarly, there has been another popular myth that is believed to have started with a shared petition started by an ex-Pfizer scientist named Michael Yeadon, who has become popular in anti-vax circles. Yeadon, who has been known to spread COVID-19 misinformation, suggested that the bespoke protein in mRNA vaccines could cause infertility or harm a pregnancy. Since then, researchers have found no connection between the vaccine and infertility. Yet the mere idea that the bespoke protein the mRNA vaccines would cause infertility doesn't check out either, because of how mRNA vaccines work.

"They [the proteins] don't live in our bodies for very long — we receive the vaccine and the vaccine teaches our immune system to make these antibodies against the spike protein of the coronavirus," Cassidy said. "We haven't seen any data at all that vaccines themselves are durable enough to make it to a placenta, like make it all the way through a mom's body and get to the placenta, let alone, cause problems with placentas."

Cassidy pointed to a separate CDC analysis that also found no increased risk of miscarriage due to COVID-19 vaccines.

Both Cassidy and Simon agreed that the lack of information about vaccines, COVID-19 and pregnancy during the beginning of the pandemic created a breeding ground for misinformation. During the COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials, pregnant women were actively excluded.

"It's a structural issue that has been long standing in research in this country for a long time, excluding pregnant and birthing and lactating persons," Simon said. "And that's really unfortunate because when certain groups are left behind from being included in clinical trials, there is relatively less data."

But now the data is here, and doctors and women's health organizations are urging pregnant women to get vaccinated. Especially since the novel coronavirus itself can, in contrast, lead to worse pregnancy outcomes.

Simon emphasized the urgency of "getting the message out consistently and clearly to all pregnant persons."

Simon added: "No one should deny you a chance to get the vaccine if you are pregnant, I think it's really important to get the message out there to people who are pregnant."

Here's what FDA approval really means

On Monday morning, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted full approval to the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Previously, the highly efficacious two-shot mRNA vaccine was being distributed under what is called "emergency use authorization," a regulatory standard that is different from "full" approval. Full approval of the vaccine, which is now officially named Comirnaty (koe-mir'-na-tee), is a huge milestone, as it is the first COVID-19 vaccine to be fully approved by the FDA in the United States.

"While this and other vaccines have met the FDA's rigorous, scientific standards for emergency use authorization, as the first FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine, the public can be very confident that this vaccine meets the high standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality the FDA requires of an approved product," said Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, M.D. "While millions of people have already safely received COVID-19 vaccines, we recognize that for some, the FDA approval of a vaccine may now instill additional confidence to get vaccinated."

As Woodcock said, the FDA previously approved the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use authorization (EUA) for people over the age of 12. The first EUA approval happened on Dec. 11, 2020, for individuals 16 years of age and older. Today, Comirnaty is officially FDA-approved for use in the United States for those 16 and over; adolescents between 12 and 16 can still get the vaccine under the EUA approval, though it has not yet been FDA-approved for those under 16.

The approval arrives at a historical moment in which the rate of COVID-19 vaccination has slowed precipitously in the United States, while the highly transmissible delta variant has become a dominant strain. Following the announcement, President Joe Biden said in a speech that he hopes this news will motivate unvaccinated Americans to get inoculated. He also advised corporate, state and local governments to "require your employees to get vaccinated or face strict requirements."

Official "approval" and "emergency use authorization" — what's the difference?

In short, FDA approval means that at least six months of sufficient data has been rigorously examined by the public health agency to determine a vaccine's safety and efficacy. From a bureaucratic standpoint, "full" approval of any vaccine was impossible to meet earlier because of time requirements and available data.

Importantly, that doesn't mean there wasn't a rigor to attaining an emergency use authorization which also requires specific conditions to be considered. Indeed, EAUs are often granted in situations when "there are no adequate, approved, and available alternatives." That was certainly that case with COVID-19. In other situations, the FDA can grant early access to a vaccine through a process known as expanded access.

On a call with reporters on Monday, Dr. Peter Marks, the FDA's top vaccine regulator, explained in depth the process the FDA followed to approve Comirnaty.

"We are highly rigorous in what we do, and we don't just look at what the summaries of data are, we go down to the level of the individual patients," Marks said. "What took time, is that we actually go and we monitor a percentage of the sites where the clinical trials were conducted in order to make sure that the data that was collected with accuracy, and matches what was submitted to the agency."

Marks said that the agency inspected specific facilities that are manufacturing the Pfizer vaccine.

"We went through [thousands] of patients' data to make sure we looked at adverse events, efficacy data, and we did our own analyses, in addition to the company's analyses, and then we also did benefit risk assessments based on our real world data that has emerged since the vaccine has now been used in hundreds of millions of people globally," Marks added.

Pfizer and BioNTech submitted their request for the full approval on May 7, 2021. Marks said FDA personnel worked day and night to sift through the data and grant approval 97 days later.

What did the data show?

When the FDA first issued an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, the agency made the decision based on safety and effectiveness data from a randomized, controlled, blinded ongoing clinical trial of 37,586 individuals.

In order to grant full approval, the FDA reviewed updated data from this same clinical trial which included a longer duration of follow-up and more participants. These varying factors determine that the vaccine is actually 91% effective in preventing COVID-19 — a slight decrease from the 95% effectiveness found during the EUA process.

In the updated data used for full approval, half of the participants were followed for safety outcomes and concerns for four months; 12,000 vaccine recipients were followed for six months. According to this data, the most commonly reported side effects were pain, redness and swelling at the injection site, fatigue, headache, muscle or joint pain, chills, and fever. The FDA conducted an additional analysis in data regarding myocarditis and pericarditis following the vaccine. Investigators observed the risk was higher among males under 40 compared to females and older males; it is highest in males 12 through 17 years of age. Most of the participants were able to resolve their symptoms, but some did require intensive care support.

The research teams still highly advocate for COVID-19 vaccines for this population as the health risks from the virus are far greater than those linked to the vaccine.

The FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will continue to monitor any safety concerns.

"These studies will include an evaluation of long-term outcomes among individuals who develop myocarditis following vaccination with Comirnaty," the FDA stated. "In addition, although not FDA requirements, the company has committed to additional post-marketing safety studies, including conducting a pregnancy registry study to evaluate pregnancy and infant outcomes after receipt of Comirnaty during pregnancy."

What changes now that the Pfizer vaccine is FDA approved?

Official FDA approval does grant some changes that the public will notice. First, the name is different. Second, Pfizer and BioNTech can directly market the shot to consumers now — prepare to possibly see some ads and commercials. The full approval could also push individuals, companies and schools to mandate vaccinations.

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey released in July found that 16 percent of adults surveyed who remained unvaccinated said the vaccine was "too unknown." Officials hope FDA approval will sway a number of vaccine hesitant people to get inoculated. A few individuals explicitly said they wanted full FDA approval before getting vaccinated.

What about the delta variant?

Notably, the data collected and examined by the FDA to authorize full approval happened before the delta variant took hold in the United States. On Monday, Marks said there is "real world evidence" that suggests that the vaccine is still effective against the delta variant. However, data coming out of Israel suggests "with time, immunity from the vaccine does tend to wane."

"So that's something we'll be following closely, and obviously we'll be leaning into consideration of the thoughts regarding boosters etcetera as we move into the fall," Marks said.

What about children under 12?

Marks said the FDA is still waiting for Pfzier and BioNTech to submit data from their clinical trials of people under the age of 12.

"Currently there are still trials ongoing here, and so the agency has to wait for the company to submit the data from those trials, so that we have a good safety data set because we certainly want to make sure that we get it right in the children ages five through 11 and then, even in younger children after that," Marks said. "And so we will obviously move swiftly once those data are submitted."

As Salon previously reported, late September is the earliest parents of 5 to 11 year olds could expect their children to be eligible for vaccination.

Can you get 'long COVID' from a breakthrough infection? Here's what we know

Early data from various states shows that COVID-19 breakthrough cases are becoming more common than they were earlier this summer. Whether that's because of the ultra-contagious delta variant or because the populace is socializing more remains unclear.

While that doesn't mean vaccinated people aren't protected from the coronavirus — a large majority of hospitalizations and deaths are still among the unvaccinated — the realization that a vaccinated individual can still get and spread COVID-19 has left many among their ranks recalculating their own personal risks, especially in parts of the country where transmission rate are high.

Public health experts have special guidelines for those who contract a breakthrough COVID-19 case, meaning when a fully vaccinated person catches the coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), when a vaccinated person tests positive they should self-isolate for 10 days. This means potentially missing work, school and other responsibilities.

In general, breakthrough cases are far less severe than "regular" COVID-19 cases that occur among the unvaccinated. In particular, those with breakthrough cases are far less likely to be hospitalized, although it does happen occasionally. Some counties, such as Douglas County in Oregon, actually track and report the vaccination status among their hospitalized COVID-19 patients; for instance, in their August 18, 2021 report, they noted that of 59 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, 51 were unvaccinated.

Still, the fear of contracting a breakthrough case is acute among many of the vaccinated, in part because of the risks of contracting COVID-19. Up to 10 percent of those who contract COVID-19 have long-term symptoms long after the virus has cleared their body, according to University of Alabama researchers. Patients have coined a term, "long Covid," to describe symptoms from a COVID-19 infection that last for more than one month.

People who experience long Covid sometimes refer to themselves as "long-haulers." Some long-haulers eventually experience full recoveries, while others do not. The long Covid symptoms patients report include (but aren't limited to) fatigue, brain fog, confusion, shortness of breath, headaches and chest pain. Notably, not everyone who became a long-hauler had a severe infection or was hospitalized after their COVID-19 diagnosis.

Doctors' current understanding of long Covid stems from pre-vaccine days. However, experts say it's likely a concern among the vaccinated who fear contracting COVID-19.

"I don't think we know that it does happen yet because we're still so early in the process of understanding what happens when people are infected despite vaccination," said Dr. Dave O'Connor, a professor of virology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "But biologically it's hard to think of reasons why it won't happen."

O'Connor said that's because in breakthrough infections — or what some infectious disease experts are now suggesting we call "infection despite vaccination" — high levels of viral genetic material appear in the upper respiratory tract. In fact, according to a study by scientists at the University of Oxford scientists, people who contract the delta variant after being fully vaccinated carry a similar amount of the coronavirus as those who are unvaccinated and get infected. What's a little less clear, O'Connor said, "is what's happening in the lower respiratory tract, or the lungs, and where most of the damage is being done by the virus."

However, O'Connor said if infections despite vaccination follow the same trajectory as unvaccinated infections, it is likely a proportion of these individuals will go on to develop long COVID.

"But we don't know that yet, we simply don't have enough data from people who have had these infections despite vaccination," O'Connor said. "First, it'll probably come in anecdotes of people who were infected despite vaccination and then start reporting those long COVID symptoms — the fatigue, the brain fog, you know all the different constellation of symptoms that people have reported, and then eventually you'd expect this to be substantiated in larger cohort studies where researchers and doctors enroll individuals who self-report they're having these symptoms, and then look for commonalities between them."

Scientists like O'Connor don't have definitive data on long Covid and breakthrough cases because, as O'Connor said, the data is still sparse. One recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine of Israeli healthcare workers showed the potential risk of long Covid after an infection despite vaccination: 39 percent of 1,497 fully vaccinated healthcare workers got COVID-19. While most of the cases were mild or asymptomatic, seven out of 36 people had persistent symptoms of prolonged loss of smell, persistent cough, fatigue, weakness, muscle pain, or labored breathing.

Notably, the study is a small sample size. However, as O'Connor suspected, similar anecdotal evidence is surfacing in the United States.

Heather Bury is a 43-year-old woman living in the Southwest suburbs of Chicago who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on April 4, 2021. Nearly a month later, she struggled with her typical seasonal allergies — but one day, these allergies felt a bit off.

"I started to feel run down, foggy-brained, and there was a cough," Bury said. "Then right before I left work, the chest constriction started; I went to immediate care, where they prescribed an antibiotic, but strongly suggested I get a Covid test."

Bury tested positive for COVID-19 on May 7, 2021; afterward, her symptoms worsened. Bury told Salon she felt like an "elephant" was sitting on her chest. On May 10, she was admitted to the emergency room, where she was told she had COVID-19 pneumonia in both lungs. Bury was discharged a week later, but still has "so many crazy lingering conditions" nearly three months later. Brain fog, exhaustion, concentration issues, having trouble finding words, migraines — "the list really seems endless," Bury said.

Bury said her doctors have been extremely helpful during her recovery. But since she had a rare breakthrough case, she is "a trial and error patient," as she described herself.

"They had never dealt with somebody who has had the vaccine," Bury said. "They're trying to help you, but they don't know how to help you yet."

According to the CDC, 8,054 people have had a severe COVID-19 breakthrough case that led to hospitalization, out of the more than 166 million people who have been vaccinated. Notably, 25% of those hospitalizations were reported asymptomatic or not related to COVID-19.

As we know from COVID-19 cases in unvaccinated people though, it's not just those who have severe cases who experience long Covid. When asked what Dr. O'connor would tell people who are scared about the potential long-term effect of having long Covid after a breakthrough infection, O'Connor said, "I'm right there with them."

"I'm vaccinated, and I most certainly do not want to get a breakthrough infection," O'Connor said. "My concern isn't so much that I'm going to be hospitalized — it's that I'm worried that I would be in that sizable fraction of people who have long COVID symptoms."

O'Connor added that vaccinated people won't be living in uncertainty for too much longer.

"The truth is we just don't have enough data right now to have clarity on how often long Covid will occur, and whether it's going to be different in people who are previously vaccinated, compared to people who have not yet been vaccinated," O'Connor said. "I expect that we'll be getting more clarity on this over the next couple of months."

How a right-wing obsession with a veterinary drug emerged as a tactic to undermine COVID-19 vaccines

In November 2020, a pre-print study touting the safety and efficacy of an anti-parasitic drug called Ivermectin was published on the Research Square website, a platform where scientific studies are submitted before they are peer-reviewed and accepted by a journal. The study, led by Dr. Ahmed Elgazzar of Egypt's Benha University, claimed that in a randomized control trial of nearly 600 people, hospitalized COVID-19 patients who "received ivermectin early reported substantial recovery."

In the search for a COVID-19 wonder drug, the preprint study seemed promising. But then, in July 2021, the paper was pulled "due to ethical concerns." Those concerns included alleged plagiarism and calculation of data points that were "mathematically impossible," according to The Guardian.

Despite the retraction, the anti-parasite drug is allegedly flying off shelves of local farmer supply stores, according to various local news reports who say some feed stores are struggling to keep it in stock.. That's because the drug has become a political flashpoint, enveloped by the culture wars just like nearly everything else related to the pandemic.

Indeed, Republicans politicians like Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) have promoted Ivermectin as a COVID treatment. Robert Malone, a doctor who has spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation on platforms like "Tucker Carlson Tonight," alleged to have personally used the drug to treat COVID-19, further popularizing it among followers of Carlson's show. The response to Malone's latest Ivermectin-related tweet reveals how many of his followers are using the so-called treatment to undermine the available COVID-19 vaccines. "You don't need a #vaccine, people," one commented. "Ivermectin works," another one chimed in.

Without a prescription, the only way for a layperson to obtain Ivermectin would be at a feed store or farm supply store, which sell the drug as a horse de-wormer. Some such stores report having to put up signage reminding their customers that the drug is approved for horse consumption, not human consumption.

Salon reached out to Tractor Supply Company, whose spokesperson would not share sales numbers, but did note that the retail chain has put up "signs to remind our guests that these products are for animal use only."

"The product sold in our stores is only suitable for animals and is clearly labeled as such," the spokesperson said via email. "The anti-parasite drug Ivermectin has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in treating or preventing COVID-19 in humans; if customers have questions about COVID-19, we suggest consulting a licensed physician and finding more information at FDA website."

Meanwhile, right-leaning politicians abroad have been promoting the drug. The presidential administration of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has spent "millions" to promote un proven drugs like Ivermectin as COVID-19 treatments, according to an NPR report. In India and elsewhere in Latin America, Ivermectin has gained momentum. Craig Kelly, an Australian member of Parliament, has repeatedly promoted Ivermectin.

The obsession over Ivermectin, and its politicization, is curious from an economic standpoint. Unlike climate change denialism or other anti-science culture wars, there is no lobby group profiting off of Ivermectin sales to the extent that they might pull politicians' strings. So why have so many on the right seized on an unproven drug as a COVID-19 treatment?

According to Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center, the right-wing obsession with Ivermectin may be important to that demographic merely because it sows distrust in science in general while stirring up vaccine skepticism.

"Politics got injected into it, and then Ivermectin became a crusade for certain individuals, as a way to kind of deflect the importance of the vaccine," Adalja told Salon. "It's the same kind of story of the politics of this pandemic that's driven a lot of the interest in Ivermectin — and when I do interviews on ivermectin I get a slew of hate mail."

Yet such promotion of unproven drugs can be dangerous. According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there have been "multiple reports of patients who have required medical support and been hospitalized after self-medicating with ivermectin intended for horses."

Ivermectin, as previously mentioned, is often used to treat or prevent parasites in animals. Reminiscent of how anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine was touted by former President Donald Trump as a treatment for COVID-19 despite there being little sound scientific evidence to support such a claim, Ivermectin has become weaponized in a way to distract efforts from getting the unvaccinated vaccinated. This kind of misinformation costs lives — not only because humans should not be taking Ivermectin that is meant for animals, but also because there is no scientific evidence to suggest that it treats COVID-19.

"There's no evidence that Ivermectin has a beneficial effect in treating COVID-19," Adalja said. "Studies that are there are of poor quality, none of which really has an unequivocally positive result. One of the studies which was touted to provide the most evidence has been shown to be invalid study."

Adalja was referring to Elgazzar's study. Salon reached out to Elgazzar twice and did not receive a comment prior to publication.

Imran Ahmed, CEO of Center for Countering Digital Hate, said that promoting the idea that treatments like Ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine can treat COVID-19 fall into one of three categories of misinformation promoted by anti-vaccine influencers. The three misinformation categories, Ahmed said, include "COVID isn't dangerous," "vaccines are dangerous," and the idea that you "can't trust doctors."

"This is all part of the spreading of the idea that vaccines might not be the safest way of dealing with this," Ahmed said.[It's part of] 'the government's trying to kill you with a vaccine,' and blah, blah. It's an extremist narrative."

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a warning against its use with the exception of clinical trials.

"The current evidence on the use of Ivermectin to treat COVID-19 patients is inconclusive," WHO stated in March 2021. "Until more data is available, WHO recommends that the drug only be used within clinical trials."

As Nature has reported, there are risks to people taking the unchecked drug to treat COVID-19. Not only has it been linked to convulsions, lethargy and disorientation; it can impede researchers' ability to conduct clinical trials.

Alejandro Krolewiecki, an infectious-disease physician at the National University of Salta in Orán, Argentina, told Nature that the more people take it, especially in Latin America countries, "the more difficult it will be to collect the evidence that regulatory agencies need, that we would like to have, and that will get us closer to identifying the real role of this drug."

It's not a fluke: Allergy season is out of control this year

If you've felt like your seasonal allergies are worse this year, you're not alone. Higher temperatures are linked with longer tree and grass pollen seasons.

According to a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports, temperature increases in northern California are worsening pollen-related allergies, while precipitation changes are associated with more mold spores in the air.

"Climate change is really a problem for health, and we are living and breathing the effects of climate change now," said the study's senior author, Kari Nadeau, professor of medicine and of pediatrics at Stanford School of Medicine.

Nadeau, according to a news release, became interested in the subject because she noticed that patients said their seasonal allergies were getting worse.

"As an allergist, it is my duty to follow the pollen counts, and I was noticing that the start date of the tree pollen season was earlier every year," Nadeau said. "My patients were complaining, and I would say, 'This is such a tough year,' but then I thought, wait, I'm saying that every year."

In the study, researchers collected data at a National Allergy Bureau–certified pollen counting station in Los Altos Hills, California. They indexed tree, grass, weed pollens and mold spores in the air weekly throughout an 18-year-period, from 2002 through 2019. In their analysis, the researchers found that the pollen season in northern California now starts earlier and ends later. Specifically, local tree pollen and mold spores grew by 0.47 and 0.51 weeks per year, each year of the study. The researchers also found links between allergen levels and environmental changes.

While the study is local to northern California, the trend tracks across the United States.

Beyond environmental changes, higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are believed to be connected to higher levels of pollen, too. A separate study published in 2000 found that ragweed plants , a culprit of seasonal hay fever, grew in size when they were exposed to more carbon dioxide. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, carbon dioxide increases plant growth rate. That's a particularly frightening prospect in the case of weeds like ragweed.

"In the fall, ragweed is a major culprit in allergies because when it's warmer it grows longer," Kenneth Mendez, the president and CEO of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, previously told Salon. "Frost is the first thing that kills ragweed, the first frost, so the later and later you have a longer growing season the worse the allergies will be."

In 2018, a study published in the journal PLOS ONE by researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst found that ragweed will expand its reach as temperatures rise. Using machine learning, researchers calculated that in roughly 35 years its ecological range will move northward, bringing hay fever to regions it has never been before. Seasonal allergies can be a trigger for asthma.

Last year, masks coincidentally provided some relief for allergy sufferers. Pollen grains range in size from 200 microns to 10 microns, and masks were able to block some of them out when people stepped outside.

As vaccination rates rise, Americans are collectively looking forward to spending this summer outside and unmasked, in contrast to last year's dismal pandemic summer that many spent cooped up inside. Yet for more and more allergy-sufferers, seasonal allergies are putting a damper on the joy we associate with summer weather.

Could a human actually be engulfed by a whale? A marine biologist weighs in

Last week, headlines about a humpback whale briefly "swallowing" a lobster diver in Cape Cod splashed across news outlets. "Diver describes being nearly swallowed by a humpback whale," CNN reported of the modern-day Jonah. "MA lobster diver survives being swallowed by whale," The Daily Beast stated.

For the record, the diver wasn't swallowed; indeed, it is inaccurate to say that because he was allegedly engulfed in the humpback whale's mouth, and did not go down the whale's esophagus. According to the Cape Cod Times, Michael Packard was on his second dive of the day just before 8 AM, about 10 feet above the sandy ocean floor, when he was engulfed by a humpback whale.

"All of a sudden, I felt this huge shove and the next thing I knew it was completely black," Packard said. "I could sense I was moving, and I could feel the whale squeezing with the muscles in his mouth."

At first, he thought he was getting attacked by a great white shark, but said he quickly realized it was a whale because he couldn't feel any teeth and hadn't suffered from any immediate injuries. On the Jimmy Kimmel Show, Packard said he was "struggling and banging and kicking," as he thought he was going to die. He estimated in a Reddit thread that he was in the whale's mouth for 30 to 40 seconds, and that he was released when the whale surfaced.

Since the story has been published, many skeptics have voiced their opinions on whether or not the account is true. According to The New York Post, the lack of barotrauma from ascending from 45 to 35 feet deep to the surface in such a short amount of time would likely cause more serious injuries. Yet, as a lobster diver, Packard is presumably an experienced diver, and perhaps knew how to adjust his body to avoid compression or decompression injuries.

Regardless, this latest tale of a man getting caught in a whale's mouth touches on an ongoing narrative in human history that intersects with the mysteriousness of whales, and perhaps our subconscious fear of their size. Humpback whales usually range from 39 to 52 feet in length and weigh around 36 metric tons — which equates to around 79,000 pounds. That's about the same weight as a fully loaded big rig semi truck. And while Packard's situation is very rare, it is not the first time there has been a report of such an incident.

In the late nineteenth century a man reported being trapped in a whale's mouth, although the accuracy of his story has been debated as well. Most famously, there's the biblical story of Jonah and the whale, in which the prophet Jonah allegedly spent three days and three nights in a whale's stomach. More recently, in California in November 2020, kayakers got in the way of a whale feeding by the surface — an incident that was documented on video.

But clearly, the most important question is one of plausibility. Does Packard's story add up? And if Packard, as he claims, did get engulfed in a whale's mouth, what would that be like?

To help answer these questions, I interviewed comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg, Ph.D., who is a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; her research focuses on whales. As always, this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

So, what would it be like inside a humpback whale's mouth? Especially 45 feet below the surface?

It's about the size of a small Volkswagen Bug. Think about the size of a Beetle car, in terms of the volume — and that's when it's fully expanded. Getting into a whale's mouth is kind of like getting into a small car. It's got about that much room, but you take out all the chairs in the car, the wall and, of course, the walls are going to be very different depending which part you reach out and touch.

Once you're inside a space like that, the throat and tongue area is extremely stretchy. So I would imagine it's a lot like jumping on a bouncy castle, one of those air castles, that kids play on. The sides will be very hard because there's the jaw itself which will have closed around you at that point. So that's bone, that will be hard, and the upper jaw is also made of bone, and it has the baleen plates hanging down from it on either side.

So, imagine a Polynesian hut with the statue roof that has the palm fronds on it. It's kind of like having that kind of material all around you on either side. It's very hairy, very brushy, a bit pointy — maybe a little bit more like hairs than like palm fronds — but just imagine that there's there's a lot of this hairy stuff hanging down on either this side, but very stiff bristles of hair are baleen plates which are used for filter feeding. So they have a brushy surface on the inside, but the plates themselves look like giant fingernails, and they're made of the same kind of material as your own fingernails. So while they're hairy on the tongue side, on the outside, they are very stiff almost like the edges of your fingernails are.

What is it like to touch the baleen plates?

If you push against them, they might feel like wire mesh, but it has a little bit of give to it. You couldn't swim between the plates because you could barely get your pinky finger in between each plate — that's how close together they are, and that particular pattern allows for water to be pushed out between the plates. The hairs trap the food that they're eating, like a sieve. You wouldn't be able to swim out through those planes, you'd have to wait for the whale to open its mouth to get back out again.

And I imagine it's pretty dark in there too?

Absolutely. Well, you know, it's pretty dark anyway if you're diving near the bottom of the sea floor which is where this guy was — I'm not sure how deep he was. But when you're inside the whale's mouth it would just be dark because there's no light in there. And so that's why I've only described that you'd feel as opposed to what you would see. You might not even see this whale coming. I'm sure trying to eat him wasn't intentional — which is why he was released — but if you are a fish, the camouflage of the whale's mouth is perfectly adapted for the way that it feeds. The inside throat area is actually black where the tongue is. So it's just like darkness coming toward you.

It doesn't really look like anything that you would recognize. Looking down from the surface of the ocean it's pretty dark. And if you look up, it's pretty light. So the baleen plates are lighter colored, they look a little bit more like sky, whereas the tongue looks more like the darkness you'd see if you look down in the water.

So what would it be like in a whale's mouth for 30 to 40 seconds?

Well, it's a long time if you think about it. Most people can't even hold their breath for that long. The problem is twofold: one is that you become very disoriented right away because you're now being swept up inside this animal's mouth. If you're trying to force your way out, you don't even know which way is out because everything's dark. But at least you know you won't be swallowed.

Right... because that's impossible?

Yes, it is impossible for a whale to actually swallow him. I want to draw that distinction. I know people are thinking of [Packard] as some modern day Jonah, but if you believe the story of Jonah, literally, Jonah was swallowed by technically a big fish. In those days, they didn't have the taxonomy we have today.

So whales were considered fish, but we don't know if they really meant giant fish or meant a giant whale.

Anyway, a whale's throat is actually pretty small. I've dissected a lot of whales, and I've tried to put my arm down the throat of a dead whale, and I can barely get my arm down that throat. So it'd be really hard for my whole body to go down that throat. It's too small of an opening, and that's because these animals are not swallowing large prey — they're swallowing lots of little tiny things. Feeding is kind of like drinking a thick milkshake for them. They squeeze out the water and then they have this flurry of little tiny fish or tiny shrimp-like animals that they swallow, and that flurry can go down to very small things. They don't want to drink the seawater — the kidneys have to work extra hard to get rid of all that extra salt. So they exclude the water by pushing it out through the baleen plates, and essentially licking off the baleen plates to get the snack that they want to eat, and just swallow the flurry of little tiny fish.

So if a whale has got a diver in their mouth, it would be like if you eat cherries and there's a pit — you feel it with your tongue you know it's there, you're like — I have to spit that out.

Do you know if the whale could have tasted the diver?

That's a really good question and nobody knows for sure because no one can really ask a whale: "Does it taste good?" But I will say anatomically there are taste buds in whales. It's been studied more in those small-toothed whales like dolphins. It's not really clear on the big whales. But there are anatomical structures that are taste buds, but they're just not as prevalent as the ones we have and it's not clear what they sense they work. Whales could be sensing salinity, or the mucus that sits on the outside of a fish's body, to know that it's fish and not a rock or whatever they might be scooping up, especially for feeding at the bottom, which is what this whale was doing.

So what would the journey to the surface be like?

Well, the whale would probably be trying to squeeze out the water at that point so they could then swallow its prey. At that point it would realize, "hey, there's nothing in here, and there's a thing that's way too large to just be prey because it's not compressing when I squeeze these muscles." So I imagine it would get tighter around the person as the muscles contract that throat area; your Volkswagen is starting to collapse.

To me, the biggest danger is actually the fact that the whale is moving to the surface. When you change pressures, which you would be doing if you are heading to the surface, the air in your body starts to expand. And as a diver, if you get panicked you could really injure yourself by not releasing the extra air, because you might get scared and hold your breath, which is you know a lot of us, We're scared, we freeze, and we hold our breath. That's the worst thing for a diver to do if they're being pulled up towards the surface. As an experienced diver, he probably knew to continue to breathe out when he felt the weight if he realized he was in a whale, which I assumed he did pretty soon afterwards. When you realize the whale was taking him upwards, he probably was breathing out, which is a good thing to do because then the air in his lungs would not tear the lung tissue as it expands.

And then what about when he reached the surface, how much force does the whale use to spit something out?

I'm sure it's hardly any pressure at all. It's just a little push to push him out.

How the anti-vaccine movement is trying to co-opt Juneteenth

After promoting conspiracy theories and unfounded claims about the COVID-19 vaccines on social media, Naomi Wolf's Twitter account was suspended. Once admired and embraced by third-wave feminists after publishing her first book, "The Beauty Myth," Wolf has deviated over the years into a conspiracy theorist and a COVID truther. From repeatedly pushing the false claim that a vaccinated woman's menstrual cycle can throw off an unvaccinated woman's cycle to more recently suggesting that the sewage of vaccinated people needed to be separated from those who are unvaccinated, Wolf's divergence exemplifies an ongoing trend in which the fringe left unites with the fringe right under the anti-vaccine umbrella.

This year, on Juneteenth — or June 19th, also known as Freedom Day — the latest variation of the anti-vaccine movement will be in peak form as it co-opts a celebration meant to commemorate the emancipation of those who were enslaved in the United States.

According to an event listing being promoted by the "medical freedom for all" organization Do We Need This, Wolf is headlining a fundraiser that day titled "Liberate Our Five Freedoms," which will cost $25 at the door (cash only). The event, which will take place in a small town in Columbia County in upstate New York, seeks to appropriate a holiday honoring the end of slavery by focusing on the "five freedoms" that anti-vaxxers claim have been taken away from them. Mask mandates and vaccine passports are among the policies that they say have infringed on their "freedoms."

Imran Ahmed, CEO of The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), told Salon this strategy to co-opt Emancipation Day is an attempt by the anti-vaccine movement to reach a new group of people while creating more divisiveness between the "fars and the not fars": in other words, pairing up extremists on both ends of the political spectrum and pitting them against non-extremists via one very offensive event.

Ahmed said the appropriation of Juneteenth is symbolically reminiscent of the attempts by some figures, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), to analogize the gold Star of David patches that Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust to vaccination logo patches meant to share one's vaccination status.

"It creates divisiveness, and it helps them reach people . . . on both sides of the divide," Ahmed said. "It is an attempt to show prima facie on the surface, an attempt to talk to African American audiences or to Jewish audiences and appropriate symbols of great historic atrocities.

"At the same time, it also allows them to access people who themselves have misappropriated these symbols for their own ulterior motives, often which are highly racist and offensive on their own level."

Throughout the pandemic, anti-vaxxers have frequently wed alternative health views with far-right conspiracy theories. That has created a previously unimaginable union: New Age-y, Hippie-adjacent types, who oppose vaccines and embrace holistic health views, aligning themselves with far-right activists.

At first glance, it might seem like these two types have nothing in common. But when one takes a closer look, Ahmed said, they're all opposed to "the existing order" in some "substantial way."

"Whether [that opposition] is to democracy, or to racial tolerance — it could even just be the way that our societies are structured to capitalism, for example — these are people who all agree that the system as it stands now [is] offensive for various reasons," he said. Ahmed noted that both groups are "anti-elist . . . conspiracists" who "use digital tools to simulate populism rather than actually being popular."

Unsurprisingly, the event Wolf is headlining on June 19 isn't the only one promoting a dual anti-vaccine/far-right agenda in an attempt to co-opt Juneteenth.

In Tampa, Florida, a so-called Health & Freedom Conference runs from June 17 through June 19, 2021; the event is being advertised as a "3-day, mask free, freedom fighting festival," and features prominent "Stop the Steal" figures with links to Donald Trump — including Roger Stone, Sidney Powell and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. It also features prominent alternative health speakers who have been promoting COVID-19 and QAnon conspiracy theories. That includes Christiane Northrup, who positions herself as "a leading authority on women's health and wellness."

In April, a similar conference took place in Oklahoma, which largely centered around opposition to COVID-19 public health measures. Among the speakers were General Michael Flynn and discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield, whose scientific paper linking the MMR vaccine and autism was retracted by medical journal the Lancet yet famously paved the way for much of the modern anti-vaccination movement.

The role of social media in fomenting the modern anti-vaccination conspiracy movement cannot be underestimated, Ahmed said.

"Extremisms are converging, hybridizing and creating new threats at an unprecedented pace. . . and the reason that's able to happen is of course because social media brought them together," he added. "It allows them to market to each other for free — and that's happening because they've been tolerated on those platforms."

Help! My family won't get the vaccine

Dear Pandemic Problems,

There's a growing rift between me and my son-in-law, who says the COVID-19 vaccines are not safe because they have not been "FDA approved." What makes our rift even more difficult? His wife and grown kids with families themselves will also not get the vaccine because of this FDA approval issue. What do I do?

Sincerely,

Ruffled by Rifts

Ruffled by Rifts, it does appear that rifts are all around you — or at the very least, you are in the minority of being willing to get vaccinated in your family. I know it's frustrating, and rest assured that you are not alone. I've answered many questions now from people who find themselves in similar predicaments. Plus, it doesn't help that families being divided on whether or not to get vaccinated is adding fuel to perhaps decades of family drama, and at the very least four years of the Trump era tearing families apart.

I have no idea if your family members are staunch anti-vaxxers, or to what extent political allegiances play a role here. But I do know that undermining their concerns won't help if there is any hope of them getting vaccinated. The best approach is to listen to their concerns, and have empathy, which it sounds like you've done a little bit of already.

So, you say that your son-in-law is saying the COVID-19 vaccines are not "safe" because they have not been approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While partly true, this is a classic example of how misinformation spreads. Technically, the COVID-19 vaccines haven't been "approved" by the FDA. However, all three vaccines available in the U.S. have been granted an emergency use authorization, also known as an EUA.

EUAs, by the way, aren't limited to vaccines — they sometimes are issued for medical devices, in vitro diagnostics, and some therapeutics. When it comes to passing an EUA, there are specific conditions that must be considered; they are likely to be granted in situations when "there are no adequate, approved, and available alternatives."

That is certainly that case with COVID-19. The FDA usually takes years to formally approve a vaccine, but in the coronavirus pandemic, the priority was to get a safe vaccine in as many peoples' arms as quickly as possible — hence the emergency use authorization.

But just because there's a bureaucratic difference between an EUA and approval doesn't mean that there isn't a rigor to attaining an EUA. Specific criteria must be met. For example, clinical trials must be done on tens of thousands of study participants to generate at least two months of sufficient scientific data needed for the FDA to determine a vaccine's safety and efficacy. You can read more about this process here.

In order to apply for full FDA approval, a company needs to show at least six months of data. Since Pfizer now has that, recently submitted an application for full approval. The FDA is expected to take at least a few weeks to review it, according to NBC News.

Now, what do you do? Well, I suggest expressing your concerns about their health and safety, and what the consequences are of not getting vaccinated. You could also note that attaining an emergency use authorization is a very rigorous process. And ask: Once the FDA formally approves the Pfizer vaccine, will you get it? While it's not ideal for your family members to wait, it's better than a straight-out refusal of getting vaccinated. Hopefully if they have more understanding into the EUA process, and perhaps speak with their doctors, they can be persuaded to be vaccinated.

Sincerely,

Pandemic Problems

Dear Pandemic Problems,

My husband is refusing to get the Covid vaccine. I will be fully vaccinated by the end of the week. Am I wrong to not want to be intimate with him for fear he could infect me?

Sincerely,

Hesitant about Intimacy

Dear Hesitant about Intimacy,

Congratulations on being fully vaccinated so soon. As someone who recently joined the fully-vaccinated club, I feel so grateful not having to worry (as much) about getting the coronavirus, potentially dying from it or spreading it to people. It seriously feels so good, and I'm excited for you to feel so good, too.

And yet, you are at a crossroads with your husband not getting vaccinated. I'm curious, why is he refusing the vaccine? The first step to understanding someone's hesitancy is to better understand why they don't want to be vaccinated. It could be due to misinformation they've consumed, a previous trauma or experience.

You ask: "Am I wrong to not want to be intimate with him for fear he could infect me?"

Unfortunately, I cannot answer this question for you. The CDC has not issued guidance on sex between vaccinated and unvaccinated people, and what the risk is. (Hopefully they will soon.) The CDC states that vaccinated people can still possibly get infected and spread the virus to others, but there is still much to be learned from this situation. I'm definitely not a marriage therapist, but here's what I would tell my best friend: do not anything you're uncomfortable with, as that won't be good for your marriage.

I hope you and your spouse can talk about the implications of him not getting vaccinated, and how that might impact the future of your marriage. My hope is that he will listen, and carefully consider your concerns. If not, there's always couple's therapy. If you can't afford to pay out of pocket, check with your insurance or look for free or low-cost counseling options.

Sincerely,

Pandemic Problems

"Pandemic Problems" is an advice column that answers readers' pandemic questions — often with help from public health data, philosophy professors and therapists — who weigh in on how to "do the right thing." Do you have a pandemic problem? Email Nicole Karlis at nkarlis@salon.com. Peace of mind and collective commiseration awaits.

Why some New Age influencers believe Trump is a 'lightworker'

Lorie Ladd gazes into the camera with glossy eyes, a look that mimics the long stare one gets after meditating. She's about to give one of her sermons, one of the "most challenging" ones she's ever had to make, she explains. Ladd says she's received a message that needs to be shared from "higher dimensional consciousnesses," what she refers to as the "Galactic Federation of Light." But before revealing the message, Ladd, a self-described "ascension teacher," advises her viewers to shed the stereotypes that have been "programmed" into them — "polarities," she calls them, like "Democrat" and "Republican" — and listen to her message: Donald Trump is a "massive and powerful lightworker."

"To say that I was shocked was an understatement," Ladd tells her nearly 139,000 YouTube followers of her revelation. "I have been digesting information from my guides about what this lightworker in human form looking like Donald Trump has been doing for the human collective; this man has more charge around him than any other human on the planet right now."

Ladd goes on to explain that her video isn't a "political one," but a "consciousness one," and that she's not talking about "voting," but "ascension." Trump, as she explains in the next half hour, is here to help assist humans in what many in the New Age and spiritual communities refer to as a great "awakening" of consciousness. The idea behind the awakening is that human consciousness is approaching a "fifth dimension," which will eventually bring humans closer to the "Source."

A lightworker, as defined by well-being magazine Happiness, is someone who feels "an enormous pull towards helping others." The term, they say, can be interchangeable with "crystal babies," "indigos," "Earth angels" and "star seeds"; "these spiritual beings volunteer to act as a beacon for the Earth, and commit to serving humanity," the story continues. The magazine states that the term was first coined by the New Age author Michael Mirdad.

This rhetoric might sound cultish, but these phrases don't belong to any one specific religious sect. Indeed, such belief systems are part of a larger, more diffuse New Age culture embraced by the ever-increasing number of Americans leaving organized religion in droves — or who were never religious in the first place — and turning to conspirituality by way of many self-described spiritual and wellness influencers online.

Conspirituality, the term that defines this movement, was coined by researcher Charlotte Ward. She describes conspirituality as "a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fueled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews." There is no official indoctrination video, no book to read; the hundreds of thousands of people who embrace these New Age-like beliefs find them on YouTube vlogs like Ladd's, as well as Instagram and Facebook. Recently, conspiritualists have begun to overlap with the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon.

This notion that Trump is a lightworker shares obvious parallels with the belief, held by some evangelicals, that Trump is comparable to Jesus; similarly, some QAnon followers believe that Trump is the "world leader" whose mission is to "save the children."

Yet what makes the lightworker theory especially odd is that it has emerged from a demographic that would have previously been described as apolitical, or even far-left.

However, as the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol showed, QAnon and Trump adherents are no longer just middle-aged, conservative white men like the Republican Party of yore. Many of those who embrace right-wing fringe beliefs are yogis, and love-and-light types, too. Take Jake Angeli for example, the so-called "QAnon Shaman" who donned a horned hat and spear-tipped American flag as he stormed the Capitol building on January 6. The 33-year-old, who identifies as having "shamanistic" beliefs, was recently granted the right to be fed an all-organic diet in jail in line with his religious practice.

Ladd's declaration that Trump was a lightworker sent shockwaves through conspiritual and self-help communities. (Salon reached out to Ladd for comment, but did not receive a response.) Some spirituality and consciousness bloggers vehemently disagreed. But many influential figures in the community thought Ladd was onto something, including Christiane Northrup, a physician and best-selling author who has been spreading anti-vaccination rhetoric and has embraced QAnon.

Matthew Remski, a co-host of the Conspirituality podcast and a cult dynamics researcher, described Northrup as a "conspirituality aggregator" who feeds what she finds most interesting to her followers, of which she has many.

"What I think is really brilliant about this particular iteration of QAnon — or 'soft' or 'pastel Q,' you could call it — is that it's really effective at evading content moderation," Remski said. "To only really say something positive about the person who's at the head of QAnon mythology and sort of soft-pedal all of the aggression and triumph that is going to be involved in his mission is a really good way of brand-washing QAnon for the wellness set."

Indeed, while social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have suspended many accounts sharing QAnon-related disinformation, the wellness influencers remain. Dr. Ronald Purser, a professor of management at San Francisco State University and the author of "McMindfulness," said that in uncertain times, societies see a rise of "occultures," meaning "groups of people who are attracted to strange occult and esoteric ideas, mixing them in unforeseen ways with political movements."

"A common theme in such movements is the need for purification, purifying and purging unwanted elements – toxins, impurities, or anything foreign or other," Purser said. "This is why we see so many New Age yoga practitioners seduced by QAnon."

Purser said there are parallels between the rise of "occultures" now and the role spirituality and mysticism played in Nazi Germany. Notably, the Third Reich appropriated the swastika, a symbol used by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains; the word means "well-being" in Sanskrit.

"Consider Hitler, who was obsessed with the occult, was a vegetarian, used astrologers [and] oracles," Purser said. "The Nazi Heinrich Himmler, head of SS, was enamored with Eastern mysticism, and he sent an expedition to Tibet in search of lost remnants of a secret and pure Aryan race; Hitler was seen as a 'light worker' [as in someone who's saving humanity] that would purge Germany of Jews."

Purser added that Trump and his enablers have "mastered the ability of weaponized mass delusion through social media."

"Many of the New Agers drawn to QAnon are probably suffering from unresolved trauma – like many in Trump's base as well," Purser said. "It's easier to look to a savior and to find scapegoats than to face one's own fears and pain."

When asked about the term lightworker, and where it derives from, Remski said he first heard it when he was in a "Course in Miracles cult" from 1999 to 2003. The name is a reference to a book, titled "A Course in Miracles," that was published by Helen Schucman in 1976; Schucman claimed the book had been spoken to her via "inner dictation" from Christ. Remski said the word "light" appears in the text frequently.

"Light is not only the sort of keynote of this Manichaean universe in which things are either light or shadow, they're either good or bad, it's also like schizotypal as a universe, it is given this materiality as well," Remski said of Schucman's book. "Light is said to be something that can fill a person up, it can blow a person apart, it can enter a person, and I think it probably overlaps with some pre-modern ideas like prana or ch'ithose kind of folk medicine ideas of vital force — but it's also associated with an absolute truth, an ontological transformation . . . like once once light enters into you, you are forever changed."

Remski believes the conspiritual rhetoric around "light" started after the book was published. While the book "A Course in Miracles" doesn't include the term "lightworker," the theme of light itself runs throughout. "The key is only the light that shines away the shapes and forms and fears of nothing," a typical passage reads.

One prominent figure who was deeply influenced by "A Course in Miracles" is former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. In 1996, Williamson wrote a book, "A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of 'A Course in Miracles,'" that was structured as a reflection on the original text. Williamson, too, has used the term "lightworker" before; in a 2013 Facebook post, Williamson wrote, "A light-worker is not someone who ignores the darkness; it's someone who transforms the darkness."

Obviously, Williamson and Trump are political opposites; Williamson, a Democrat, came down hard and repeatedly on Trump's policies during her 2020 campaign. Salon asked Williamson what she thought about the term "lightworker" being used to describe Trump. She replied via email: "I think it's insane. . . . Like many others, I don't understand it but I find it deeply disturbing."

When asked why he believes people have been so eager to embrace this belief that Trump is a "lightworker," Remski said that it is because it can "offer all of the benefits of the conspiratorial mindset, without a lot of the drawbacks."

"Because you're saying something kind about him," Remski said, "as the social psychologists basically repeat over and over again."

Remski believes conspiracy theories are attractive because they "satisfy epistemic needs." "Like, 'I'm now I'm going to know something that nobody else knows,' or 'I'm going to meet my survival needs, meaning this information is going to help me tolerate what's happening, but also maybe even preserve me from danger,'" he said.

But as the social media spread of the "lightworker" theory illustrates, conspiracy theories also open up their adherents to communities of people that they can hang out with, Remski mused.

'Vaccine guilt' is a real thing

When Emily Brimmer's family dentist sent out an email that they were administering vaccines, she jumped at the opportunity. Brimmer is certainly entitled to get one: though only 36 years old, she has type 1 diabetes, lives with family and helps to take care of her 101-year-old aunt. But once inoculated, Brimmer wasn't prepared for one of the unexpected side effects: guilt.

"When you say, 'I got a shot,' there's automatically this kind of perceived feeling of judgment that is like 'Why did you get a shot, and how did you get a shot?'" Brimmer told Salon. "There's just this need to justify the entire thing."

Technically, as a type-1 diabetic, Brimmer is in the "high risk" category. Her primary care doctor wrote her a note affirming this, which she used to get her vaccine. The caveat was that she had to travel from New York, where she lives, to Pennsylvania.

"So that kind of made me feel guilty," Brimmer said in reference to having to cross state borders. "But it's not like I cut any lines, or dressed up like grandmothers and tried to sneak in. . . everything I did was by the book, and on paper I shouldn't feel guilty."

But Brimmer does. And far from being an isolated anxiety, vaccine guilt is actually quite common. Psychotherapist Alyza Berman, founder and clinical director of The Berman Center, told Salon via email that such feelings emerge from a variety of factors: situational comparison, survivor's guilt, and fear of criticism or retribution. And certainly the piecemeal vaccine rollout, and arcane tiered system of eligibility, factor into that guilt when patients appear to sidestep the rules — even if they aren't actually doing so.

"Given the severity of this pandemic and continued rising death toll, people feel guilty when they qualify to be vaccinated before others who've already suffered great losses during the pandemic, or could stand to lose even more as COVID goes on," Berman said. "As human beings, we have an intrinsic nature to want to quantify and compare ourselves to others, whether for good or bad reasons."

Berman said that this can create "an enormous mental toll on people and weigh heavily on someone's psyche when they're trying to evaluate if they're doing the right thing."

Hence, feelings of guilt.

Berman said the phenomenon is "more common than you'd think" and that it's "affecting many people in very similar ways." In other words, something is happening sociologically.

Rick Patterson told Salon via email that he and his wife were able to receive their vaccines "substantially early." She was volunteering at one of the vaccination sites, which often is a way for volunteers to get a vaccine early.

"It was complete luck we were able to obtain our vaccinations when we did, and I feel that there are so many people who need this more than we do right now," Patterson said. He added that it was an "overwhelming thought," that there were "still so many who have not and might not be able to get it anywhere in the near future." Indeed, the inequity troubled him.

Patterson said he feels that his wife, as a vaccination site volunteer, deserved the shot more than him.

"But as her husband, what really gave me the obligation to have one too?" he asked.

Many bioethicists and mental health professionals agree that feeling guilty isn't beneficial to anyone. If you're offered a vaccine, you shouldn't feel guilty. But if you are committing fraud to get a shot early — say, dressing up like an elderly person — then that is something to feel guilty about.

"There is a difference between accepting and even taking advantage of unfairness that exists, and creating unfairness," Dr. Matthew Wynia, director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado, told Denver-based Magazine 5280. "We all have an obligation to try not to create unfairness."

So what are the guilty to do?

"The main advice I can give someone suffering from vaccine guilt is to give yourself a break," Berman said. "We've been put through an impossible situation over the past year, the likes of which no one has ever seen before." That's inarguably true.

Why some New Agers think Trump is a 'lightworker' — in a troubling parallel to mysticism in Nazi Germany

Lorie Ladd gazes into the camera with glossy eyes, a look that mimics the long stare one gets after meditating. She's about to give one one of her sermons, one of "most challenging" ones she's ever had to make, she explains. Ladd says she's received a message that needs to be shared from "higher dimensional consciousnesses," what she refers to as the "Galactic Federation of Light." But before revealing the message, Ladd, a self-described "ascension teacher," advises her viewers to shed the stereotypes that have been "programmed" into them — "polarities," she calls them, like "Democrat" and "Republican" — and listen to her message: Donald Trump is a "massive and powerful lightworker."

"To say that I was shocked was an understatement," Ladd tells her nearly 139,000 YouTube followers of her revelation. "I have been digesting information from my guides about what this lightworker in human form looking like Donald Trump has been doing for the human collective; this man has more charge around him than any other human on the planet right now."

Ladd goes on to explain that her video isn't a "political one," but a "consciousness one," and that she's not talking about "voting," but "ascension." Trump, as she explains in the next half hour, is here to help assist humans in what many in the New Age and spiritual communities refer to as a great "awakening" of consciousness. The idea behind the awakening is that human consciousness is approaching a "fifth dimension," which will eventually bring humans closer to the "Source."

A lightworker, as defined by well-being magazine Happiness, is someone who feels "an enormous pull towards helping others." The term, they say, can be interchangeable with "crystal babies," "indigos," "Earth angels" and "star seeds"; "these spiritual beings volunteer to act as a beacon for the Earth, and commit to serving humanity," the story continues.

This rhetoric might sound cultish, but these phrases don't belong to any one specific religious sect. Indeed, such belief systems are part of a larger, more diffuse New Age culture embraced by the ever-increasing number of Americans leaving organized religion in droves — or who were never religious in the first place — and turning to conspirituality by way of many self-described spiritual and wellness influencers online.

Conspirituality, the term that defines this movement, was coined by researcher Charlotte Ward. She describes conspirituality as "a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fueled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews." There is no official indoctrination video, no book to read; the hundreds of thousands of people who embrace these New Age-like beliefs find them on YouTube vlogs like Ladd's, as well as Instagram and Facebook. Recently, conspiritualists have begun to overlap with the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon.

This notion that Trump is a lightworker shares obvious parallels with the belief, held by some evangelicals, that Trump is comparable to Jesus; similarly, some QAnon followers believe that Trump is the "world leader" whose mission is to "save the children."

Yet what makes the lightworker theory especially odd is that it has emerged from a demographic that would have previously been described as apolitical, or even far-left.

However, as the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol showed, QAnon and Trump adherents no longer middle-aged, conservative white men like the Republican Party of yore. Many of those who embrace right-wing fringe beliefs are yogis, woo-woo, love-and-light types, too. Take Jake Angeli for example, the so-called "QAnon Shaman" who donned a horned hat and spear-tipped American flag as he stormed the Capitol building on January 6. The 33-year-old, who identifies as having "shamanistic" beliefs, was recently granted the right to be fed an all-organic diet in jail in line with his religious practice.

Ladd's declaration that Trump was a lightworker sent shockwaves through conspiritual and self-help communities. (Salon reached out to Ladd for comment, but did not receive a response.) Some spirituality and consciousness bloggers vehemently disagreed. But many influential figures in the community thought Ladd was onto something, including Christiane Northrup, a physician and best-selling author who has been spreading anti-vaccination rhetoric and has embraced QAnon.

Matthew Remski, a co-host of the Conspirituality podcast and a cult dynamics researcher, described Northrup as a "conspirituality aggregator" who feeds what she finds most interesting to her followers, of which she has many.

"What I think is really brilliant about this particular iteration of QAnon — or 'soft' or 'pastel Q,' you could call it — is that it's really effective at evading content moderation," Remski said. "To only really say something positive about the person who's at the head of QAnon mythology and sort of soft-pedal all of the aggression and triumph that is going to be involved in his mission is a really good way of brand-washing QAnon for the wellness set."

Indeed, while social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have suspended many accounts sharing QAnon-related disinformation, the wellness influencers remain. Dr. Ronald Purser, a professor of management at San Francisco State University and the author of "McMindfulness," said that in uncertain times, societies see a rise of "occultures," meaning "groups of people who are attracted to strange occult and esoteric ideas, mixing them in unforeseen ways with political movements."

"A common theme in such movements is the need for purification, purifying and purging unwanted elements – toxins, impurities, or anything foreign or other," Purser said. "This is why we see so many New Age yoga practitioners seduced by QAnon."

Purser said there are parallels between the rise of "occultures" now and the role spirituality and mysticism played in Nazi Germany. Notably, the Third Reich appropriated the swastika, a symbol used by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains; the word means "well-being" in Sanskrit.

"Consider Hitler, who was obsessed with the occult, was a vegetarian, used astrologers [and] oracles," Purser said. "The Nazi Heinrich Himmler, head of SS, was enamored with Eastern mysticism, and he sent an expedition to Tibet in search of lost remnants of a secret and pure Aryan race; Hitler was seen as a 'light worker' [as in someone who's saving humanity] that would purge Germany of Jews."

Purser added that Trump and his enablers have "mastered the ability of weaponized mass delusion through social media."

"Many of the New Agers drawn to QAnon are probably suffering from unresolved trauma – like many in Trump's base as well," Purser said. "It's easier to look to a savior and to find scapegoats than to face one's own fears and pain."

When asked about the term lightworker, and where it derives from, Remski said he first heard it when he was in a "Course in Miracles" cult from 1999 to 2003. The name is a reference to a book, titled "A Course in Miracles," that was published by Helen Schucman in 1976; Schucman claimed the book had been spoken to her via "inner dictation" from Christ. Remski said the word "light" appears in the text frequently.

"Light is not only the sort of keynote of this Manichaean universe in which things are either light or shadow, they're either good or bad, it's also like schizotypal as a universe, it is given this materiality as well," Remski said of Schucman's book. "Light is said to be something that can fill a person up, it can blow a person apart, it can enter a person, and I think it probably overlaps with some pre-modern ideas like prana or ch'ithose kind of folk medicine ideas of vital force — but it's also associated with an absolute truth, an ontological transformation . . . like once once light enters into you, you are forever changed."

While the book "A Course in Miracles" doesn't include the term "light worker," the theme of light itself runs throughout. "The key is only the light that shines away the shapes and forms and fears of nothing," a typical passage reads.

One prominent figure who was deeply influenced by "A Course in Miracles" is former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. In 1996, Williamson wrote a book, "A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of 'A Course in Miracles,'" that was structured as a reflection on the original text. Williamson, too, has used the term "light worker" before; in a 2013 Facebook post, Williamson wrote, "A light-worker is not someone who ignores the darkness; it's someone who transforms the darkness."

Obviously, Williamson and Trump are political opposites; Williamson, a Democrat, came down hard and repeatedly on Trump's policies during her 2020 campaign. Salon asked Williamson what she thought about the term "lightworker" being used to describe Trump. She replied via email: "I think it's insane. . . . Like many others, I don't understand it but I find it deeply disturbing."

When asked why he believes people have been so eager to embrace this belief that Trump is a "lightworker," Remski said that it is because it can "offer all of the benefits of the conspiratorial mindset, without a lot of the drawbacks."

"Because you're saying something kind about him," Remski said, "as the social psychologists basically repeat over and over again."

Remski believes conspiracy theories are attractive because they "satisfy epistemic needs." "Like, 'I'm now I'm going to know something that nobody else knows,' or 'I'm going to meet my survival needs, meaning this information is going to help me tolerate what's happening, but also maybe even preserve me from danger,'" he said.

But as the social media spread of the "lightworker" theory illustrates, conspiracy theories also open up their adherents to communities of people that they can hang out with, Remski mused.

Why America's power grids will keep failing us

Wednesday marked the third day millions of Texans found themselves without power following a rare winter storm and frigid temperatures dipping into the low 20s. While power is being restored in some areas, rotating outages are expected to start on Wednesday in Texas.

The situation is dire for many Texans. According to The New York Times, at least 23 people have died as of Wednesday morning. Emergency rooms saw a wave of people with carbon monoxide poisoning, the aftermath of attempts to keep warm. Likewise, clean water access is a growing issue as pipes freeze in the Lone Star State.

And Texas isn't alone: As the remnants of the winter storm make its way across the Midwest, and a second winter storm looms in the Northeast, rolling power outages are popping up in parts of Missouri, Louisiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oregon. The situation is eerily similar to what happened in California last summer, when rolling blackouts were sparked by a demand-driven energy shortage; then, a massive heat wave increased air conditioner use and forced rolling power outages. Those blackouts were the first of their kind since 2001 when California faced an electricity crisis.

All these recent incidents are raising concerns over the fragility of the country's fragmented power grid, and how vulnerable these systems are to extreme weather events compounded by climate change.

So what went wrong in Texas?

"Many of the problems we're seeing, both in California now in Texas, are due to the fact that the grid we have in both places is dumb and old, as opposed to being smart, new and flexible," said Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley. "Fossil fuel grids" like the one in Texas, and like what California used to have until they transitioned away from them, are "really dumb systems — they're not adaptive or flexible, and that is really causing a lot of the problems you're seeing in Texas today," Kammen added.

Indeed, fossil fuel power plants are generally built to be far away from population centers, which means that the power has to be shipped long distances. This alone, Kammen said, creates a very "inflexible" system. In Texas, the power shortage happened after natural gas plants couldn't supply the 30 gigawatts of power they were expected to supply. To put this in perspective, 30 gigawatts is more than the average demand in California, Kammen said.

"The idea that so much gas would go offline, because of these freezing events, really speaks to a system that's not adaptable," Kammen said. "It''s not able to reroute power because we have smart interchanges on the transmission network; it's a system that is fundamentally not up to speed . . . they don't have enough sensors on the power lines, on the power plants, so they can predict this."

In a smart grid, which would enable a two-way flow of electricity and data enabled by technology, there would be backup generators, and energy storage systems in place that would have the ability to send power if, say, the turbines went down. While ice forced some turbines in Texas to shut down, energy experts agree — despite Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott casting blame at frozen wind turbines — that frozen turbines are not the root of the cause of the power outages in Texas.

Kammen described the situation in Texas as "policy and technology" failing— especially for low-income communities.

"We know that when these events happen, the power losses are earliest and generally longest in the lowest income communities," Kammen said. "So there's a real environmental justice damage that comes from not having a smarter, more renewable energy–enabled grid."

Kammen added that California, New Jersey and New York — which have become leaders in implementing solar panels — are examples of how states can implement a renewable energy plan.

"In an ice and snow storm like this, what you would have needed to have people do is literally go and shovel the snow off the roof," Kammen said. "I'm hoping that this will push Texas to recognize the large economic benefit of moving to enabling distributed rooftop solar, and more wind farms distributed across the state can be a real benefit here." Modern wind turbines, Kammen noted, have built-in heating systems.

But the problems with the grid in Texas were also the result of a perfect storm of poor planning, decrepit infrastructure, and blind worship of the free market by policymakers.

Vijay Modi, a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University, told Salon what he believes is happening in Texas is the agglomeration of five separate shifts that have happened in America over the last few decades. First, we've built more housing. Second, our civilization has become more reliant on gas. Third, electric heat pumps have become more popular, especially in the South. Fourth, there's been a momentum in some parts of the country to embrace a free market power utility system — especially in Texas. And finally, many of our gas pipelines and power systems — like the one in Texas — aren't weatherized. Indeed, power grids across the country weren't built with climate change in mind.

"All these factors combined with a weather event unusual for Texas added up to an inadequate supply for this rare event," Modi said. "Unfortunately, we are likely to see more rare events in the future because we have so much more housing and people to support with an aging infrastructure and unusual weather systems."

Modi added that now is the time to "rethink how we engineer our systems for resiliency and for reliability."

Both experts had different opinions on whether this situation — more frequent power outages, rolling blackouts to ease the demand on power grids during extreme weather — would constitute the new normal.

"The short answer is that the new normal is not just because of climate and weather, but it's because of our expectations too," Modi said. "I work in countries where many don't have electricity access at all, for them, the new normal is to get at least enough for lighting and communication. Our new normal will go towards, 'I want to be able to run my electric heat, charge my electric vehicle, run my appliances and my WiFi all at the same time maybe and do so reliably.'"

Modi added that America "can and should deploy smarter engineering solutions that don't require a new $20,000 per customer infrastructure investment to get this reliability."

Meanwhile, Kammen deemed the situation in Texas "the new abnormal."

"It's the new abnormal, if anything — because only after the fact can analysts figure [whether] the Texas storm was driven by the abnormal climate change we're seeing."

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