Reston, USA - April 9, 2020: Social distancing sign at cashier check-out aisle inside Trader Joe's grocery shop store during coronavirus with woman employee in mask.

Passing the Buck: What the CDC Guidance on Masks Gets Wrong About Public Health

By Carmel Shachar

As Americans shed their masks in response to recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, the most vulnerable among us face an unfair choice: either to enforce public health hygiene or forgo being in public spaces entirely.

The new guidance, which states that fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing masks or socially distancing, is too nuanced for a country in which a significant percentage of adults continue to refuse vaccination and there are no mechanisms to enforce masking or social distancing for the unvaccinated.

Ultimately, this shift in policy unfairly burdens small businesses and individuals to be the guardians of public health, when it should be our community leaders responsible for enforcing public health norms.

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Key Takeaways from Petrie-Flom Center Discussion on Vaccine Passports

As mask mandates fall to the wayside, COVID-19 digital health passes, often called vaccine passports, hold promise as a tool to verify whether individuals may enter a space without a face covering.

Vaccine passports, however, also pose a number of ethical and legal challenges. Panelists discussed these concerns during an April 28 webinar hosted by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics titled, “Vaccine Passports: A Path to the New Normal?”

This article highlights key points made during the conversation.

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Fake Vaccine Cards and the Challenges of Decentralized Health Data

By Carmel Shachar and Chloe Reichel

Soon the U.S. will have vaccinated all adults who are not vaccine hesitant. Our next key challenges will be reopening workplaces, restaurants, schools, and other public areas, as well as encouraging vaccine uptake among those who are hesitant or resistant to the vaccine.

Vaccine passports or certifications could be a tool used to address both of those challenges.

But our approach to health care data management may undermine this next stage of the pandemic response.

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Person smoking cigarette.

Should Smokers be Prioritized for COVID Vaccine?

Cross-posted from Harvard Law Today, where it originally appeared on February 2, 2021. 

By Jeff Neal

Should smoking be among the pre-existing health risks that qualify people for priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine? In a Zoom interview with Harvard Law Today, public health expert Carmel Shachar J.D./M.P.H. ’10 says the answer is yes. 

CDC guidelines, which most states are following as they launch mass vaccination programs, say people with certain underlying medical conditions that put them at greater risk for hospitalization or death if they contract COVID-19 (also known as co-morbidities) should receive access to the vaccine before the general population. In Massachusetts, these individuals will be eligible to receive the vaccine in Group 4 of Phase 2 of the state’s vaccination rollout plan. But many have been surprised to see smoking listed among the qualifying conditions, alongside cancer and heart disease.

Shachar, the executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, says that smoking is often the result of structural and biological factors that make it more prevalent in historically marginalized communities, and that denying priority access for smokers would reinforce existing inequities. More practically, she says, “every time a person gets vaccinated, it’s good for the community.” 

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Medicine doctor and stethoscope in hand touching icon medical network connection with modern virtual screen interface, medical technology network concept

Data Talking to Machines: The Intersection of Deep Phenotyping and Artificial Intelligence

By Carmel Shachar

As digital phenotyping technology is developed and deployed, clinical teams will need to carefully consider when it is appropriate to leverage artificial intelligence or machine learning, versus when a more human touch is needed.

Digital phenotyping seeks to utilize the rivers of data we generate to better diagnose and treat medical conditions, especially mental health ones, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The amount of data potentially available, however, is at once both digital phenotyping’s greatest strength and a significant challenge.

For example, the average smartphone user spends 2.25 hours a day using the 60-90 apps that he or she has installed on their phone. Setting aside all other data streams, such as medical scans, how should clinicians sort through the data generated by smartphone use to arrive at something meaningful? When dealing with this quantity of data generated by each patient or research subject, how does the care team ensure that they do not miss important predictors of health?

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Person receiving vaccine.

What You Should Know About the COVID-19 Vaccine

Cross-posted from Harvard Law Today, where it originally appeared on December 3, 2020. 

By Jeff Neal

The race to approve and distribute a vaccine for COVID-19 got a huge shot in the arm this week.

On Tuesday, the United Kingdom approved a vaccine developed by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. On the same day in the United States, a panel of experts advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a first-stage plan for distributing the vaccine to some of the most at-risk Americans. Separately, another advisory committee is set to meet twice in the coming weeks to evaluate for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the safety and efficacy of both the Pfizer vaccine and a similar one produced by Moderna.

To better understand the impact of these developments, Harvard Law Today recently spoke with public health expert Carmel Shachar J.D./M.P.H. ’10, the executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, about the vaccine, who is likely to get it first, and whether employers and states can require people to get vaccinated.

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Young male doctor in telehealth concept

Call for Abstracts: Looking Forward to a Post-Pandemic Landscape

By Carmel Shachar and Katie Kraschel

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted virtually every facet of day-to-day life.

This disruption has forced us to examine baseline choices and assumptions about how to deliver health care, participate in public discourse, provide access to education, and support the workforce. This “great revision” will continue in several iterative stages: an immediate response to the crisis, a modulation as the pandemic continues, and a resolution into a “new normal.”

The Petrie-Flom Center and the Solomon Center for Health Law Policy are interested in tracking when crisis settles into the new normal and articulating how public policy and law should respond to that evolution.

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