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News in Brief: January 23, 2022

From Chicago’s guaranteed income pilot programs to a pig heart.

By Featured, News 9

A wide-mouthed character tilts its head back and gobbles up a variety of news briefs and debris. Illustration by Jade Sheng.

Illustration by Jade Sheng.

Back in Class

On Friday, SAIC President Elissa Tenny and Dean Martin Berger sent an email outlining the COVID protocols necessary to safely “Make Together.” In a Q & A posted in that communication, Dr. Terri Rebmann, a public health expert who has worked with the school since the summer of 2020, discussed masks and booster mandates. While the CDC recently demoted cloth masks, Dr. Rebmann advised that a tight-fitting mask with multiple layers that can be comfortably worn for hours is the most important criteria for masks, regardless of material.

Sipping and snacking are prohibited in the classroom, a policy that will be reviewed weekly. With masking and distancing, SAIC is likely to continue to see low classroom transmission, as supported by nearly two years of data. 

Between contact tracing, keeping up with changing guidance, and hybrid caregiving, the Wellness Center at SAIC has been especially busy throughout the pandemic. But in a call this week with F, Joseph Behen, Dean of the Wellness Center, said he’s “very optimistic about the upcoming semester.” While 2020 saw personnel cuts across SAIC and AIC, the Wellness Center added and retained staff. Behen admired the “collective approach instituted immediately” at the Wellness Center, and added that, while everyone is tired from the pandemic, the “collective spirit hasn’t waned.”

Two species of guaranteed income programs roll out in Chicago

Chicago Equity and Transformation

On January 15th, thirty returned citizens (formerly incarcerated individuals) from West Garfield Park received their third payment in a pilot program aimed at breaking the entanglement of poverty and incarceration. Chicago Equity and Transformation (EAT), an organization working for the interests of the informal economy, launched the Chicago Future Fund on August 23rd. For 18 months, 30 returned citizens will receive $500 a month. Researchers from the School of Urban Planning at University of Illinois Chicago will measure the effects on mental and physical health, as well as rates of recidivism among participants.

West Garfield Park’s population is 95% Black and has a per capita income of less than $11,000 annually. As the Stanford Social Innovation Review reports, “ The poor are more likely to be incarcerated, because poverty decreases opportunities in the formal economy, increasing participation in the informal economy and the probability of criminal activity as a means of survival.” Richard Wallace, founder of EAT, told Fox 32 Chicago that the money will allow returned citizens to find employment by addressing childcare and transportation needs.

Many returned citizens find themselves barred from all but the least compensated and secure jobs. Besides implementing an income floor, other reforms to break the cycle of poverty and incarceration suggested by the Prison Policy Initiative are increasing incentives for employers to hire those with criminal records, automatically expunging records, and reforming occupational licensing that currently rejects any applicant with a criminal record.

The City of Chicago

Establishing an income floor is of interest to policy makers and activists alike. Research on direct aid over the past decade has shown that individuals and communities that receive cash with no strings attached are better positioned to thrive than those who have to jump through hoops for assistance. 

The city of Chicago is working on rolling out what will become the nation’s largest guaranteed income pilot program.

When Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2022 budget was passed in late October, $35.1 million was earmarked for 5,000 families to receive $500 a month for a year. The families will be randomly selected.To qualify, they have to live below the poverty line and be enrolled at a city college, or have a dependent engaged with the public school system. 

The wellbeing of the selected Chicagoan families will be quantified. Evidence and support has been mounting for guaranteed income programs since 2019 when Stockton, California recorded the positive effects of its first-of-a-kind basic income program. Since then, more than fifty American mayors have voiced support for similar programs. 

In a press conference in early December, Mayor Lightfoot announced that her team is preparing a request for proposals (RFP) to be put out in January. RFPs tend to solicit bids from property developers to remake at-risk sites in the city. So far, no RFP for the income program has appeared on the city’s website, indicating that dollars won’t reach the pockets of selected families until the summer, as Alderperson Gilbert Villegas lamented to WTTW.

Sketchy Medicare premium hike

Medicare consists of four Parts: A, B, C, and D. Part A is free, Part B has a monthly premium, and Parts C and D are costlier and often paid for through pensioners’ insurance. The cost of Part B Medicare jumped from $148.50 in 2021 to $170.10 this year. That 14% price hike is the largest Part B premium increase in the history of Medicare.

The reason for the increase can be traced to the new Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm. Approved by the FDA in June 2021, Aduhelm, produced by Biogen, costs an estimated $56,000 a year. Many costly treatments are provided by Medicare, but unlike Aduhelm, those treatments were approved by the FDA on the basis of efficacy. Aduhelm provides no evidence of decreasing cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients.

The brain of an Alzheimer’s patient is crowded with amyloid beta plaques, aggregates of misfolded proteins. Decreasing the number of amyloid beta plaques, as Aduhelm does, is not sufficient to reduce cognitive decline. The mechanism of cognitive decline is complicated, and successful intervention will require understanding of the entire biochemical network. However, research groups that investigate different aspects of Alzheimer’s are hard-pressed to receive funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH suffers from tunnel vision about how to fund Alzheimer’s research, focusing too many resources on amyloid beta plaques. 

Some speculate that the FDA and companies such as Biogen are too cozy. Indeed, the drug was initially refused approval by the FDA in November 2020. With Aduhelm’s recent approval, two members of the advisory panel to the FDA have resigned over what they characterize as a “sham process.”

Under pressure from Health and Human Services (HHS), the entity that oversees Medicare, Biogen reduced the estimated cost of Aduhelm by approximately half. On Monday, Xavier Becerra, HHS Secretary, instructed Medicare to reassess the Part B premium jump. For retirees on a fixed income, the additional cost is not chump change.

Recipient of first pig-heart transplant still alive; a milestone for medicine

David Bennett is the first person to successfully survive days — and now weeks — with a pig heart. On January 7th, with no hope for a human heart transplant given the severity of his illness, Bennett received the first successful xenotransplantation, or the transfer of a different species’ organ into a human. 

The donor pig was special in multiple ways. Raised in a sterile environment, scientists engineered the pig to lack four of its native genes and gain six human genes. This modified genetic palette reduced the risk of rejection by the human immune system and prevented the pig’s heart from growing too large. 

The feat breaks into promising new territory for xenotransplantation. However, the heart is low-hanging fruit: Responsible for the mechanical process of pumping blood, the heart is unlike other organs that rely on chemical gradients such as the kidney or liver. These may prove more difficult to pluck from other species.

The operation, led by Dr. Bartley Griffith at the University of Maryland, received emergency approval from the FDA by the end of December. I imagine teams of researchers and doctors excitedly discussing the possibility over Christmas ham. Upon waking up from surgery, I wonder if Mr. Bennett ate bacon with breakfast.

Michaela Chan (MFAW 2023) is the News Editor at F Newsmagazine. Hopefully she is drawing a tree.

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