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Technology review

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will be tested in a new trial after questions over its data

The news: The Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine will be tested in a new global trial, AstraZeneca’s CEO, Pascal Soriot, has told Bloomberg. Previously it had been expected to just add an arm to its existing US trial. The news comes amid criticism of the way it has collected and presented its data so far.

The specifics: An announcement on Monday that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine could protect up to 90% of people against coronavirus generated huge excitement. It was the third vaccine candidate reporting positive results and held particular promise for poorer nations, as it is cheaper than the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech candidates and can be stored at fridge temperature.

However, the 90% claim came into question after it was pointed out the vaccine’s overall efficacy was 62 to 70% in trials in Brazil and in the UK, while the 90% figure was reached only among fewer than 3,000 participants who were given a lower dose as a result of an error. Researchers can’t explain why the accidental lower dose proved more effective. So AstraZeneca plans to run another trial, testing just this lower-dose regimen. “Now that we’ve found what looks like a better efficacy we have to validate this, so we need to do an additional study,” Soriot told Bloomberg. He said that because the efficacy is high, a smaller number of patients would be needed.

Age issues: There are also concerns that the low-dose group didn’t include anyone over the age of 55, so this second trial should give researchers the chance to confirm the vaccine’s efficacy in older populations. The US Food and Drug Administration may also demand more data from a wider range of ethnicities, ages, and genders before it grants approval. The full peer-reviewed data from the original trial is set to be published in The Lancet in the coming days.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will be tested in a new trial after questions over its data 2020/11/27 12:36

The apps keeping Rio’s residents safe from stray bullets

Julia Borges was at her cousin’s 12th birthday party when she was shot. The 17-year-old had been standing on a third-floor balcony when a stray bullet hit her in the back, lodging in the muscle between her lungs and aorta.

That was November 8. Luckily, Borges was taken to hospital and has since recovered. Many are not so fortunate. At least 106 people have been killed by stray bullets in Rio this year so far.

Among the most dangerous areas are the narrow streets of the city’s favelas, where more than a million people currently live. Here, the houses are piled up on each other, and the alleys that wind between them are dotted with small squares. These same streets regularly echo with the sounds of gunfire: shooutouts between police and drug traffickers, rival groups of traffickers, or even police-backed militias take place on a daily basis.

Innocent victims are often caught in the crossfire. In many cases residents must lie on the floor or create barricades to hide from stray bullets as they wait for a truce. In 2019, Rio saw an average of 20 shootings a day. Things have cooled slightly since the pandemic began, but there was still an average of 14 shootings every day up until the end of June. Around 1,500 people are shot dead in Rio’s metropolitan area every year.

Living in Rio is like “being a hostage to violence,” says Rafael César, who lives in the neighborhood of Cordovil, west of the city. 

screenshot of FogoCruzado app
A screenshot of Fogo Cruzado

Like many residents, César has started using apps to help keep himself safe. These crowdsourced apps help users keep track of dangerous zones on their way home and let residents warn others about which areas to avoid. 

One of the most popular apps, Fogo Cruzado (Cross Fire), was started by a journalist named Cecilia Olliveira. She had planned to do a story about victims of stray bullets in the city, but the information she needed was not available. So in 2016 she set up a Google Docs spreadsheet to collect information about shootings, logging where and when they happened, how many victims there were, and more. That same year, with the help of Amnesty International, the spreadsheet was turned into an app and a database to help those monitoring and reporting on armed violence. The app has been downloaded over 250,000 times and covers both Rio and Recife.

A user who hears gunshots can log it as an incident on the app. The information is verified and cross-checked by the Fogo Cruzado team with the support of a network of activists and volunteers and then uploaded to the platform, triggering a notification for users. Fogo Cruzado also has a team of trusted collaborators who can instantly upload information without such vetting. Users can subscribe to receive updates whenever they are heading toward a zone considered dangerous—such as a favela that’s known to have had recent shootings, or one that is currently contested by gangs. 

Fogo Cruzado is used by local residents who are planning on leaving home to work or need to check if it’s safe to return afterwards, says Olliveira. 

“I started using the Fogo Cruzado because there were frequent police operations in a region I was passing through every day,” says journalist Bruno de Blasi. He says that WhatsApp groups were full of rumors and false reports of shootings, so he decided to use the app as a way to “avoid unnecessary scares.”  

Like many in the city, he has had his own experience of being close to a shootout. He recalls one that began on the street where he lives. 

“The feeling was horrible, especially because that street was considered one of the safest and quietest in the neighborhood, which is also where the police battalion is,” he says. “Suddenly I had to stay away from the window of my own room because of the risk of a stray bullet. It was very tense.”

Fogo Cruzado has also worked with a number of other organizations to create a new map of armed groups in Rio de Janeiro. The map, which was launched in October, is designed to keep the city’s residents up to date about which areas are currently dominated by criminal factions or police militias and are therefore less likely to be safe.

Other apps also collect data on shootings, but Fogo Cruzado is one of the few to be updated by the public, says Renê Silva, editor of the website Voz das Comunidades (Voice of the Communities), which covers the Complexo do Alemão, a large group of favelas in Rio. “There are places where the app identifies shootings that don’t come out in the media,” he says.

The app Onde Tem Tiroteio (Where There’s Shooting) works in a similar way.  It was initially created in January 2016 by four friends as a Facebook page. While Fogo Cruzado focuses on the metropolitan region of Rio, Onde Tem Tiroteio(OTT) covers the entire state—and since 2018, it has covered the state of São Paulo too. It differs from Fogo Cruzado in that it lets the network of users double-check the veracity of shooting reports.

funeral of Matheus Lessa
Relatives and friends carry the coffin of 22-year-old Matheus Lessa who was shot dead when he tried to defend his mother during an assault at their family-owned store in Rio de Janeiro

Once you download the OTT app you can choose what you want to receive alerts about, whether it’s shootings, floods, or demonstrations. Each anonymous report is reviewed by a network of more than 7,000 volunteers on the ground and confirmed before being uploaded to the app. Weekly reports are also released to the press. More than 4.7 million people used the app last year, according to Dennis Coli, one of OTT’s cofounders.

“OTT-Brasil’s main mission is to remove all citizens from organized gang looting routes, false police blitzes, and stray bullets, with information that is collected, analysed, and disseminated in a very short period of time,” he says.

The apps have a political angle, too. As well as keeping Rio’s citizens out of danger, they can help researchers and public institutions understand patterns of violence—and help put pressure on politicians.

They “serve primarily to draw attention to the dimension of the problem,” says Pablo Ortellado, a professor of public policy management at the University of São Paulo. For him, such apps have “a specific but key function of increasing the pressure on the authorities.”

Indeed, Recife was chosen as the second city for the Fogo Cruzado app not only because of its high rates of violence but also because, Olliveira says, the state government had stopped releasing data and had started censoring journalists. “Before, there was excellent access to public security data, but the data gradually became scarce and the work of the press became more and more difficult,” she says.

In this way, data collection apps can help challenge the information provided by governments, says Yasodara Córdova, an MPA/Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts.

In the past, the state had a monopoly on official information, but today things have changed, she says. “It is healthy to maintain redundant databases, collected by active communities, so that data can be challenged in order to keep the civic space open and global.”

Felipe Luciano, an OTT user from São Gonçalo, a city near Rio, agrees. “The key is trust,” he says. “What motivated me to use OTT is the credibility of the information posted there. I feel safer using it.”

Correction: We updated the year Amnesty launched the FogoCruzado app and the number of shootings in 2019.

The apps keeping Rio’s residents safe from stray bullets 2020/11/26 17:10

Spaceflight does some weird things to astronauts’ bodies

Astronaut Scott Kelly famously lived and worked on the International Space Station for 340 days—the longest time an American has spent in space. His mission gave scientists some vital insight into what happens to the human body during long-duration stays in orbit. That’s because Kelly has an identical twin, Mark (also an astronaut, and now soon to be a US senator). The Kelly twins offered scientists a rare opportunity: as they studied what happened to Scott’s body during his year in space, they had the benefit of a control subject, Mark, who stayed on Earth.

The NASA Twins Study provided more evidence for what we already suspected. In a confined capsule under microgravity and prolonged exposure to radiation, the immune system takes a hit, the eye changes shape for the worse, and there’s some significant loss in muscle and bone mass.

But we also learned about some surprising effects. Kelly experienced changes in his gut microbiome, his cognitive abilities slowed down, certain genes would turn off and on, and his chromosomes experienced structural changes. 

“The Twins Study gave us a first sketch of the human body’s molecular responses to spaceflight, but these outlines needed to be filled in,” says Christopher Mason, an associate professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine. “The changes we saw needed more context and replication. We needed additional studies to map out the frequency of the changes we observed in other astronauts, and other organisms, that go into space, and also to see if the degree of change was similar for shorter missions.”

That brings us to a new package of research that builds on the Twins Study, reanalyzing some of the original data with new techniques and providing comparisons with other astronauts. In a set of 19 studies published today in a slew of different journals (along with 10 preprints still under peer review), researchers like Mason (a senior author on 14 of the papers) studied the physiological, biochemical, and genetic changes that occurred in 56 astronauts (including Kelly) who have spent time in space—the largest study of its kind ever conducted. 

The new papers, which incorporate results from cell-profiling and gene-sequencing techniques that have become easier to run only recently, reveal that “there are some features of spaceflight that consistently appear in humans, mice, and other animals when they go to space,” says Mason. “There appears to be a core mammalian set of adaptations and responses to the rigors of spaceflight.” 

The good, the bad, and the inexplicable

The researchers highlight six biological changes that occur in all astronauts during spaceflight: oxidative stress (an excessive accumulation of free radicals in the body’s cells), DNA damage, dysfunction of the mitochondria, changes in gene regulation, alterations in the length of telomeres (the ends of chromosomes, which shorten with age), and changes in the gut microbiome. 

Of these six changes, the biggest and most surprising one for scientists was mitochondrial dysfunction. Mitochondria play a critical role in producing the chemical energy necessary to keep cells—and by extension, tissue and organs—functional. Researchers found irregular mitochondrial performance in dozens of astronauts and were able to broadly characterize these changes thanks to new genomics and proteomics techniques. Afshin Beheshti, a bioinformatician at NASA and senior author of one study, says mitochondrial suppression helps explain how many of the problems astronauts experienced (like immune system deficiencies, disrupted circadian rhythm, and organ complications) are actually holistically related to each other, since they all rely on the same metabolic pathways.

“When you’re in space, it’s not just one are or organ that’s affected, it’s the whole body that’s affected,” says Beheshti. “We started connecting the dots.”

Other research homed in on problems observed at the genetic level. The Twins Study showed that Kelly’s telomeres got longer in space before shrinking back to normal or even shorter lengths soon after he returned to Earth. Telomeres are supposed to shorten with age, so lengthening makes little sense, and the Twins Study didn’t provide enough data to prompt any real conclusions as to why it happened and what the effects were. 

Susan Bailey, a Colorado State University expert on telomere research and a senior author for several of the papers, says the new research found that 10 other astronauts experienced the same telomere lengthening Kelly did irrespective of mission duration—as well as the same telomere shrinking once they came back to Earth. 

Notably, one of the papers in the new package found that longer telomeres were also associated with climbers of Mount Everest. For Bailey and her colleagues, this suggests that telomere lengthening is affected by oxidative stress—something that climbers and astronauts both experience, and that disrupts proper telomere maintenance. 

Akihiko Hoshide blood draw
Astronaut Akihiko Hoshide draws blood from his vein on the ISS.

They are still trying to pinpoint how these pathways work and exactly what the consequences could be (it’s probably not a secret to longevity), but “we now have a foundation to build on—we know what to look for and be aware of in future astronauts on long-duration [and deep space] exploration missions,” she says. 

Though some of the changes are unexpected, many are no cause for concern. “What is amazing to me is how well we adapt to space,” says Jeffrey Sutton, director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine, who was not involved with the new research. Blood cell mutations decreased in Kelly while he was in space (a total surprise for Mason). Astronauts also exhibited decreased levels of biomarkers associated with aging and increased levels of microRNAs that regulate the vascular system’s response to radiation damage and microgravity. One of the strangest findings was that astronauts’ gut microbiomes managed to bring space microbes found on the ISS back to Earth.

“The studies individually and collectively are truly impressive,” says Sutton. “We have entered a new era of space biomedical research, where the approaches and tools of precision and translational medicine are being applied to advance our understanding of human adaptation to space.”

Long-haul worries

Ultimately, however, the data highlights just how much havoc and stress even the healthiest bodies face during space missions—which should have an impact on planning for longer missions. “I don’t think we’re close to sending untrained people into space for really long periods of time,” says Scott Kelly. 

Physiologically, he thinks it’s probably safe to send people to Mars and back. In the distant future, however, “instead of going to Mars, we’re going to be going to the moons of Jupiter or Saturn,” he says. “You’re going to be in space for years. And at that point, we’ll have to take a closer look at artificial gravity as a mitigation. I wouldn’t want to be arriving on the surface of another planetary body and not be able to function. A year or so is workable. Several years probably isn’t.”

scott kelly medical tests
Scott Kelly uses ultrasound to image his jugular vein with the aid of Gennady Padalka, in order to evaluate the effectiveness of a lower body negative pressure countermeasure used to reverse the headward fluid shift that occurs in the weightlessness environment of space.

We’re still far away from having to evaluate those kinds of risks. Mason and his colleagues suggest that there should be pharmacological strategies for reducing the impact of gravity on the bodies of returning astronauts. 

Sutton believes precision medicine could play a huge role in tailoring those drugs to protect astronauts against the effects of microgravity and radiation. And the shared biological responses between astronauts and Mount Everest climbers suggest that some interventions used to protect extreme sports athletes from oxidative stress could be applied to astronauts too. 

What we need is more data—and more populations to use for comparison. Mason, Bailey, and their colleagues are starting to collect cell and gene profiles of more astronauts, especially those going on future year-long missions. They also want to study people who’ve experienced other conditions similar in some way to spaceflight, such as radiotherapy patients, pilots, and flight attendants. 

“The more we know about the health effects of long-duration spaceflight, the better able we will be to help maintain the health and performance of astronauts during and after spaceflight,” says Bailey. “Such knowledge benefits those of us on Earth as well—we are all concerned about getting older, and being in poor health.” 

This post has been updated with comments from Afshin Beheshti.

Spaceflight does some weird things to astronauts’ bodies 2020/11/25 17:00

How to make the next election even more secure

In the last few days, a cascade of election results from battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan have been certified—delivering key defeats to President Trump in his continued but failed attempts to block the result. Certifications will continue in the coming days before the Electoral College, and later Congress, make the results official.

This process is what is supposed to happen. In fact, in many ways the 2020 election was actually a success. There was historic voter turnout: 65.5% of eligible adults cast their vote, a higher proportion than in any presidential election since 1900. That was down to a number of contributing factors, one of which is the expanded use of mail-in ballots to help deal with the pandemic.

For the first time ever, millions of voters had an easier way to vote, and history shows that Americans who try mail-in voting demand to keep it. Mail-in voting is secure, as decades of independent study have shown, but it’s not just security that is important: integrity matters too.

Expanding the vote

Enfranchisement is a key dimension of election integrity: it is at its worst when Americans cast their votes on the same single weekday in limited locations, and at its best when people have maximum flexibility and time to consider and cast their vote. 

Expert-backed ideas like automatic voter registration and standardized voter databases all drive toward the same goal: making it permanently easier for all qualified Americans to vote. Most developed countries are far ahead of the US on this issue.

Better paper trails

Integrity is also improved by being able to cross-check results, especially close ones. For that, nothing beats paper. An estimated 95% of American votes had a paper trail this year thanks to mail-in ballots and in-person voting machines—a great help with verification and audits. Paper offers a whole array of benefits in elections. For example, if a hacker brings down important voter databases on Election Day, a paper backup means the vote can keep going. 

More, improved audits

Paper also means you can verify that your vote was recorded correctly. Audits—either manual checks or risk-limiting audits that use statistical modeling to detect inaccuracies—are an efficient and public way to confirm that the reported outcome of a vote is the correct one. 

Audits are required in 24 states, while the more robust risk-limiting audits are currently required by just four states. However, they are touted by election security experts as one of the most transparent and strong signals authorities can proactively send about the security of elections—and they’re much quicker and easier than a full recount. Officials should adopt them as a requirement; voters should demand them.

The funding gap

So that’s three ways to improve elections. But the state and local governments that actually run elections around America are severely behind on technology, budgeting, and staffing. All of this adds up to real security risk—not to mention gross inefficiency— for future US elections. The State and Local IT Modernization Act would give states $25 billion to close that gap, an easy first step that would have positive consequences far beyond elections.

A big reason local governments were able to do well this time around, despite a long list of tech problems, was a team effort across all levels of government. That included the Election Assistance Commission and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which each helped raise the bar on security issues in areas from voting machines, which the EAC tests and certifies, to CISA’s broad mandate to help secure elections infrastructure. Both of those agencies could use more money and authority to help states out.

CISA, at least, is on that path. Although Trump fired the agency’s director, Chris Krebs, because he debunked the president’s election disinformation, the agency itself is on an upward trajectory in virtually every way. Increased budget, profile, and power for CISA will have myriad ramifications, one of which is a stronger capability to help protect election infrastructure. With $13 million in 2021, EAC has a fraction of the budget, which chairman Ben Hovland says is characteristic of the country’s chronic underfunding of election officials.

The 2020 election was a fair and secure success in the face of a catastrophically mismanaged pandemic and a storm of disinformation. Despite the ongoing tragedy, there is much good news that we can carry forward to future elections. 

This starts now. Officials will look to start improvements over the next few months. And what progress they make will be crucial in deciding the fate of the next few elections. 

We may never get a genuine concession from the president. In fact, this week’s announcement that Trump is beginning to allow the US government’s transition process to move forward could be the closest we ever get. But even as the president continues to make baseless claims, virtually every election official says the vote was free, fair, and secure. Keeping it that way takes work.

This is an excerpt from The Outcome, our daily email on election integrity and security. Click here to get regular updates straight to your inbox.

How to make the next election even more secure 2020/11/25 13:00

The Zoom-fatigued person’s guide to connecting virtually on Thanksgiving

Lisa Long is immunosuppressed and suffers from chronic pain. That means that since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the US in March, she and her family, which includes her two daughters, 11 and 14, have been isolating at home outside St. Louis, save for the occasional doctor’s visit. Visiting family is out of the question for Thanksgiving.

But Long will get to be with her nieces and nephews in Utah and Colorado on Thursday. She’ll sit down to dinner with them on Bloxburg, a simulation game on the popular children’s video-gaming platform Roblox. For months, Long has been working with her daughters and their cousins to build a house on Bloxburg, and those efforts will lead to a “Bloxburg Thanksgiving,” as Long puts it.

“We’re going to try to get together to make turkeys and set big tables,” she says. “We’re going to try to get as many family members as possible to role-play and have the meal together.”

Long is among the millions of people for whom a “normal” Thanksgiving is not happening in 2020. State governments have pleaded with families not to travel and instead to hunker down at home; the Centers for Disease Control has also recommended against travel to tamp down spiking coronavirus infection rates.

That means reimagining Thanksgiving virtually. And while it might be easy to send out a Zoom link to family and chosen friends inviting them to gather with plates at a set time, you wouldn’t be blamed for feeling disdain about joining Yet. Another. Zoom.

As a thank you to our customers, we will be lifting the 40-minute limit for all meetings globally from midnight ET on Nov. 26 through 6 a.m. ET on Nov. 27 so your family gatherings don't get cut short. ❤🏡 #ZoomTogether pic.twitter.com/aubsH0tfxG

— Zoom (@zoom_us) November 10, 2020

Zoom fatigue, after all, is very real. While companies like Microsoft are trying to work around the collage of squares we’re used to by superimposing cutout figures at a table, for example, the fact is that staring intensely at faces for long periods of time is draining. As we trudge through the eighth month of this pandemic (and counting), signing on to a Zoom might signal “work mode” to our brains, which can be anxiety-inducing and not at all what the doctor ordered for Thanksgiving.

So with that in mind, here are some ideas for making the best of Thanksgiving—and the rest of the end-of-year holidays—at a distance. 

Find another space online to do something together 

Video games have emerged as a social media platform and gathering space of their own during the pandemic. One of the most accessible, family-friendly ways to participate is on Animal Crossing, which requires a Nintendo Switch. Players take on cute avatars, build their own house, explore, and “travel” to other islands if they want.

If a Nintendo Switch isn’t something you have access to, millions of families log on to Roblox to play a myriad of games that offer similar opportunities to connect. Beyond the home-building simulation game Bloxburg, there are competitive sports, fashion-oriented games, and more. All Roblox requires is an internet connection.

Or if you want to dip your toes into the fall’s hottest game, have everyone download Among Us from Google Play or the App Store. Private sessions with up to eight players are available; one to three are designated “imposters” who assassinate fellow players. Think Clue meets Knives Out. A periodic chat function lets players convene to deduce who the imposters are—or commiserate about Thanksgiving traditions.

Other options include Jackbox, a popular virtual party game in which players sign in to an app to play games reminiscent of charades or Pictionary.

If you’d rather not play a game with your ultra-competitive relatives or are looking to zone out a bit, various co-watching apps and extensions have allowed the quarantined to replicate the tradition of watching a holiday film all snuggled up on the couch. Teleparty (formerly Netflix Party) integrates a single screen and chat function for groups wanting to view something on either Netflix, Disney, HBO, or Hulu. If your group is more into YouTube videos and drama, Airtime is your way to co-watch.

And if you’re fed up with screens, consider voice games, which require a smart speaker. In the past year, voice games have quietly become increasingly more complex, moving from “choose your own adventure” games and Jeopardy! showdowns to sci-fi tales that embed players into the action. Kids can get in on this too: Pretzel Labs has released a series of voice games aimed at children. One of their most popular is Kids Court, in which Alexa acts as an arbiter for kids’ inevitable fights.

Plan ahead, try different things, and buy some stamps

One size doesn’t fit all. Families should use multiple mediums over the course of the holidays to connect with each other, says Lisa Brown, a director of the trauma program and Risk and Resilience Research Lab at Palo Alto University. “I would not encourage family members to try to check the box and have a single Zoom,” says Brown, who studies the mental-health consequences of catastrophic events on older adults. “We have to choose multiple forms of connecting over the holiday season over a long period of time versus a one-and-done Zoom call.”

But like everything else in the pandemic, successfully finding ways to create sustained connection over time takes a little extra effort these days, especially when it involves introducing new technology remotely.

It’s important to keep in mind that different generations are going to feel more comfortable having meaningful conversations on different mediums. “The medium for older adults is not Zoom and it’s not texting,” says Brown—it’s physical mail. 

In other words, this is the year to send a holiday card or letter to your older relatives and friends. Bake some holiday treats that will keep in the mail. If you celebrate Christmas, consider an Advent calendar. Brown also suggests creating a chain letter that grows as it’s sent: each recipient can add a line to a story or drawing you create together. 

Troubleshoot problems early 

There are other complications when trying to use technology to connect across generations. Navigating the internet can be especially frustrating for some older adults without help or the proper infrastructure. And having a new technology introduced right before a holiday gathering can be stressful. 

Even when connections are fostered virtually, waiting until the morning of Thanksgiving to reconnect might be too late. Older relatives will have to be comfortable not only with how the games work but also with the idea of acting not as “Mom” or “Grandma” but just another character in the kids’ virtual world.

Bear in mind, too, that some older adults will live in facilities where well-meaning technology-powered gifts might turn into frustrating disappointments. Brown gave the example of her own intention to buy her dad in a Florida retirement community a digital picture frame that could display photos from her home—until she called the IT person for the facility and discovered that the building’s thick, hurricane-proof walls meant the Wi-Fi-powered frame would never work there. 

Be aware that nostalgia can trigger both happy memories and sadness 

As the holiday season goes on, maybe you’re considering more structured video-chat activities like carol singing. It’s not a bad idea. But nostalgia could have some unintended consequences this year in particular. Nearly 260,000 Americans have died in the coronavirus pandemic, and tens of millions more have caught the virus. Some families are grieving the dead, while others may be adjusting to the crisis’s long-term effects. Meanwhile, this year has intensified loneliness, interrupted connections, and increased economic hardships. Re-creating holiday traditions virtually could bring comfort for some. But for others, those activities will trigger painful memories of when things were better. 

“When you engage the senses, they trigger memories,” Brown says. “Typically older adults harken back to teenage years, their 20s, but for everybody it triggers times back to our youth. Be aware of the fact that it’s a blade that cuts both ways.” Music is a particularly powerful trigger in general, she notes. Christmas carols can draw out good memories, or remind someone of the people who are no longer here. 

“We know already about how the holidays can be particularly triggering for people if you’re already feeling lonely or wistful, if you’ve lost a loved one or a close friend,” she says. For those in whom the holidays already trigger painful memories or loneliness, “covid has turned the volume up. Those who were a 6 are now an 8.” 

As you’re planning the right way to connect on Thanksgiving, or through the holidays, just be aware of that. Re-creating virtual versions of happy memories from the holidays of the Before Times could lead people to dwell on how lonely they are right now. 

And be mindful of putting too much pressure on people, too. Virtual meetings, even social ones, are harder to turn down than invitations for real-life gatherings—after all, where else would you be? And once you’re in them, they require active participation for the duration. There’s no walk after Thanksgiving dinner when the entire day is on a virtual schedule, after all. 

If you must Zoom

First things first: Get the technical glitches and hiccups out of the way. No one wants to spend a precious chunk of an allotted Zoom call figuring out why your aunt and uncle can’t connect. If possible or needed, a pre-Zoom meeting checkup with the less technically inclined members of your group can be useful.

Then, think about how to make the conversation flow. Once on Zoom—or whatever video-chatting platform you are using—try to move beyond the usual “How are you?” and “How’s the weather?” space fillers and do a group activity. 

“Ask them for a recipe. Ask them to teach you a new skill,” says Brown. “It can make people feel purposeful.” But don’t try to do too much in a single call and turn the whole thing into an interrogation of your great-aunt’s entire life, she cautions. 

Set up a question or two up for each household to answer that evokes more than a yes or no answer. Ask older family members about their memories of the holiday when they were younger, or younger ones about a hobby they are passionate about. Steer clear of topics you avoid in real life (Politics in 2020? Nope), and be sensitive to people who are alone, struggling, or experiencing a particularly difficult year.

And finally: Holidays always involve a great degree of tradition and expectation. But this is the year to be adaptable: instead of defaulting to a virtual re-creation of your family’s normal Thanksgiving dinner, maybe try asking what others might find fulfilling or fun. 

And if your calendar has already filled up with Thanksgiving family Zooms, this is also the time to remember that it’s okay to log off and have some time to yourself. It is the holidays, after all.

The Zoom-fatigued person’s guide to connecting virtually on Thanksgiving 2020/11/24 19:57

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