RESEARCH BRIEFING

Googling away your anxiety: search engine trends during the pandemic

The psychological impact of the covid-19 pandemic is hard to understate, and a variety of literature has already documented an increase in the prevalence of depressive and anxiety symptoms amongst both healthcare providers and the general population

A new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine attempted to assess every day levels of psychological distress by querying public information using Google trends. The authors leveraged non-identifiable aggregate data to monitor the number of daily internet searches that included the terms "anxiety" or "panic." The article included data from online searches conducted between January 1, 2004 and May 4, 2020. 

The authors found a marked uptick in such searches after the United States federal government declared a national emergency on March 13. Queries were cumulatively 17 percent higher than expected. During this time, national social distancing guidelines were initially imposed (March 16), then extended (March 29). Also during this period, the U.S. passed China as the nation with the highest number of reported covid-19 cases (March 26). Other key events include the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending the use of face masks (April 3) and the U.S. passing Italy as the nation with the most recorded covid-19 deaths (April 11). While there was an initial burst of anxiety related searches, levels appeared to return to historical norms in mid-April. 

As such, the authors ultimately concluded that the pandemic was associated with an increase in internet searches related to anxiety during the early phase which has since returned to normal levels. This also seems to suggest that the increase in this anxiety laden search traffic may have reflected the trend of individuals seeking "Dr. Google" to treat some mental health stressors in the early phase of the crisis. 

Yet, several key questions remain. The study does not provide information on what happened to individuals during the study period and after, including whether Americans have adapted to a new normal state of being, or if there are many people in the community still struggling with mental health issues, having exhausted their Google search attempts. Further research and clinical support is necessary to provide the broad behavioral and mental health access crucial to helping Americans through the long course of this still unfolding public health crisis.


POLICY BRIEFING

Federal funds sit unused or with hidden strings

A new analysis of funds allocated under the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act found that just approximately $121 million of $10.25 billion has been put to use since the act's passage in April. The intention of this legislation was to bolster testing, contact tracing and surveillance during the covid-19 outbreak in the United States. Additionally, only $1.62 billion of $5.7 billion allocated to federal agencies has been committed, and the majority of an $8 billion allotment to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) likewise remains untouched. There has been frustration among experts asking for more efficient testing, broader testing efforts and more thorough contact tracing. On one hand, it feels to many as if there is a lack of adequate funding for these efforts which are seen as vital in turning the tide against covid-19. But that sense has apparently been exacerbated by the knowledge that such funding actually is technically available, but for a variety of logistical reasons remains untouched or inaccessible. 

Separately, an email obtained by the New York Times from HHS Secretary Alex Azar indicated that allocation of the $100 billion from the Provider Relief Fund would be tied to healthcare facilities' reporting of covid-19 admissions data to a private contracting firm, TeleTracking Technologies. Critics have raised concerns with this plan for several reasons. Chief among them is that the policy requires hospitals to share public health information with a private firm that has not previously held such contracts, rather than reporting the information directly to federal health entities such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was the initial setup. The new workflow is seen as increasing risks related to transparency and data reliability. Many experts find it particularly problematic that relief funding is essentially being used to coerce hospitals into entrusting important and sensitive data to a private company, while keeping public health experts in the dark. Various.

FDA commissioner walks back misleading statements on plasma

On Sunday, FDA commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn falsely said at a White House briefing that convalescent plasma could save the lives of 35 out of 100 patients who have contracted coronavirus. Experts from the Mayo Clinic, from which the statistic was apparently drawn, told media outlets that they had no idea where this number came from. Monday evening, Hahn took to Twitter, admitting that expert criticism of the statement had been "entirely justified."

Hahn attended medical school at Temple University and completed an internal medicine residency at U.C. San Francisco. Biostatistics are taught at both institutions. Various.


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