COVID In Prisons, How Sperm Swim. July 31, 2020, Part 2

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As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread, it’s become clear certain populations are particularly at risk—including those serving sentences in prisons and jails. The virus has torn through correctional and detention centers across the U.S., with more than 78,000 incarcerated people testing positive for COVID-19 as of July 28, according to the Marshall Project’s data report.

“Prisons are just the worst possible environment if we are trying to reduce infectious disease,” Zinzi Bailey told SciFri earlier this week on the phone. She is a social epidemiologist at the University of Miami and a principal investigator of the COVID Prison Project, which tracks and analyzes coronavirus data in U.S. correctional facilities. “A lot of people would argue that the conditions are inhumane.” Disease outbreaks have swept through prisons in the past, often due to poor living conditions and limited access to proper health care, Bailey explains. Hepatitis, tuberculosis, and HIV are just a few of the diseases that have historically hit inmates hard.

Now, the incarcerated, correctional officers, and staff members are battling COVID-19. Detention centers are notoriously overcrowded, making it easy for the virus to spread. The cramped, dormitory-style living conditions, shared spaces, and infrequent sanitation can contribute to increased risk of exposure and infection. In Ohio, for example, the prison system is at 130% capacity, making it “basically impossible” to socially distance inmates, Paige Pfleger, health reporter at WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, told SciFri on the phone last week.

Yet incarcerated people living in these conditions have little to no access to protection. Some have resorted to making face coverings out of shirts and boxer shorts. At the beginning of the pandemic, some correctional officers in Arizona prisons were not allowed to wear masks.

“Correctional officers were originally told that if they did wear masks, it would scare inmates—that they’re going to think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a really serious virus,’” says Jimmy Jenkins, senior field correspondent and criminal justice reporter at KJZZ in Phoenix, Arizona. “I got letters from all these inmates saying they were scared of dying.”

Access to testing among the incarcerated population has also varied state to state. Ohio conducted mass tests in some of the facilities in April, but have been unable to retest in order to track community spread, says Pfleger. In Arizona, inmates are reporting that “only the sickest of the sick are actually getting tested,” says Jenkins.

Coronavirus outbreaks in prisons often spill over into the rest of the community. Contract workers and correctional officers coming in and out of detention facilities can cause further spread of the virus. This is concerning, particularly in Black, Latino, and Native American communities with an already increased risk of contracting the disease.

“We believe that there’s going to be a connection between the communities of color that are around prisons, and the prisons themselves,” says John Eason, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who spoke to Science Friday over the phone earlier in the week. In an ongoing study with the Dane County Criminal Justice Council, “we’re going to be able to parse that out to see the role of corrections officers.” He suspects they may find officers are “basically incubators—or vectors between communities and the prisons that they work in.”

The inmates are like “guinea pigs,” says Zinzi Bailey. “It’s like an experiment, and we are letting it run its course in these prisons,” she says—but one without an ethical review. “What is being made clear through this pandemic is the United States’ reliance on incarceration makes us more vulnerable to pandemics like this.”

Paige Pfleger and Jimmy Jenkins tell us more about how their states are responding to coronavirus outbreaks in prisons. Then, social epidemiologist Zinzi Bailey provides a closer look at the trends in American prisons—and what COVID-19 is revealing about public health in these systems.

We didn’t always understand the basic science of where babies come from. Theories abounded, but until the 19th century, there was little understanding of how exactly pregnancy occurred, or even how much each parent actually contributed to the reproductive process.

In 1677, a Dutch scientist named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek peered into a microscope and observed, for the first time in recorded history, the side-to-side swimming of tiny sperm cells. He wrote they looked like “an eel swimming in water.” At the time, van Leeuwenhoek thought those cells were tiny worms—maybe even parasites. It took several hundred more years before scientists understood even the crude theory of reproduction as most of us are taught: That a sperm and an egg cell combine inside the fallopian tubes.

But, as it turns out, even the movement of sperm first described by van Leeuwenhoek—and corroborated ever since in two-dimensional, overhead microscope views—might be wrong. A team of scientists writing in the journal Science Advances this week report finally viewing sperm movement in three dimensions. With the help of 3D microscopy and high-speed photography, they describe a “wonky,” lopsided swimming motion that would keep sperm swimming in circles—if they didn’t also have a corkscrew-like spin that let them move forward “like playful otters.”

Hermes Gadelha, a senior lecturer in mathematical and data modeling at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, talks to John Dankosky about the complexity and beauty of these swimming cells, and why understanding their movement better could lead to breakthroughs in infertility treatment—or even other kinds of medicine.

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