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Coronavirus Files: Viral mutations and an absent CDC

Coronavirus Files: Viral mutations and an absent CDC

Picture of Lindzi  Wessel

The Center for Health Journalism has begun offering a special newsletter geared to journalists as they report on one of the biggest and most complex stories of our times. Each Monday, while the pandemic runs its course, The Coronavirus Files will provide tips and resources and highlight exemplary work to help you with your work. The Center for Health Journalism’s Coronavirus Files Monday newsletter is curated and reported by science writer Lindzi Wessel. Have a suggestion or a request? Write us at editor@centerforhealthjournalism.org.

Subscribe to our twice weekly newsletter.

Sign up for this Wednesday’s Webinar: Covering Coronavirus: Can We Pass the Test? Testing for COVID-19 has been described as essential for easing restrictions and reopening the country. But experts widely agree that the U.S. has nowhere near the number of test kits and lab capacity we need. Meanwhile, huge questions remain about the reliability of antibody tests that have flooded the market with no FDA oversight. In this webinar, we’ll hear from a leading infectious disease expert and top reporter on whether or not we can test our way out of this crisis — and what that means for near-term efforts to reopen states and jumpstart the economy. For more information and to sign up for the 10-11 a.m. PT/1-2 p.m. ET webinar, go here.

Apply to our National Fellowship: The USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism is reframing our annual National Fellowship to focus on our traditional themes — the health, welfare and well-being of vulnerable children, youth, families and communities — as seen through a COVID-19 lens. We’ll be taking a close look at the racial, ethnic and geographic disparities that are emerging as more data come in. We’re offering five days of informative and stimulating discussions, plus reporting and engagement grants of $2,000-$12,000 and six months of expert mentoring. The fellowship will be held online July 20-24, 2020 (plus four monthly virtual sessions of 2-3 hours each). Deadline to apply is May 26, 2020. Don’t miss out!

 Virus Mutations & An Absent CDC

The Health Divide: Latinos Hit Hard

Across the country, Latinos are testing positive for coronavirus at alarmingly high rates, write Miriam Jordan and Richard A. Oppel Jr. for The New York Times.

“In Iowa, Latinos account for more than 20 percent of coronavirus cases though they are only 6 percent of the population. Latinos in Washington State make up 13 percent of the population but 31 percent of cases. In Florida, they are just over a quarter of the population but account for two of every five virus cases where ethnicity is known.”

Lack of access to health care, close-quarter housing and service jobs requiring public interaction are all factors that may be contributing to COVID-19’s outsized impact on Latinos. In a recent study conducted in San Francisco’s Mission District, almost everyone who tested positive was Latino — even though Latinos make up only 44% of the community. Those unable to work from home made up 90% of cases, and 89% of people testing positive earned less than $50,000 a year, writes Catherine Ho for The San Francisco Chronicle. In addition to the disproportionate threat from the disease, Latinos are almost twice as likely as whites to have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, according to a survey conducted by The Washington Post.

Tips from the Front Lines: Follow the Data

Data is a huge part of the coronavirus story. We rely on constantly changing numbers to tell us how the virus is spreading and to understand what might come next. And when data is missing, well, that’s a story too.

This week Kaiser Health News data editor Elizabeth Lucas appeared as a guest in the Center for Health Journalism’s “Covering Coronavirus” webinar series to discuss how we can seek out publicly available data to inform and enrich our pandemic coverage. Lucas shared tips for finding health data in your community, understanding the limits of those datasets, and getting creative when the precise figures you want aren’t available. She urges reporters to understand the origins of the data they pull for their stories and to present it carefully to avoid misleading readers. Remember, for example, that the number of confirmed positive cases is only a proxy for the bigger question of how many people have COVID-19, she says. And when comparing case counts from two locations, it’s best to present the numbers relative to the population — how many per 100,000, for example — of each area, rather than absolute figures.

“No data is any good without the appropriate context,” Lucas says. “It’s really incumbent upon us to use that data responsibly and communicate with our readers and listeners and viewers responsibly.”

But don’t let that intimidate you. In her presentationLucas discusses the kinds of questions you can ask to make sure you know the limitations of the data you’re using and how to present it in a clear way for readers. She also points to recent “story recipes” designed to walk reporters through some simple data projects you can do in your own newsroom.

No Evidence to Suggest the Virus is Mutating into a More Dangerous Form

Mutations are “the genetic equivalent of typos,” writes Ed Yong for The Atlantic. “In comic books and other science fiction, mutations are always dramatic and consequential. In the real world, they’re a normal and usually mundane part of virology. Viruses naturally and gradually accumulate mutations as they spread.”

Confusion about this “mundane” phenomenon has led to quite a lot of panic this week thanks to a new preprint study suggesting that a SARS-CoV-2 mutation has created a more contagious strain of the virus. But scientists not involved in the preprint say there’s no solid evidence to suggest that has occurred

Yong helps clarify the issue by sorting mutations by whether they are “meaningful” or not. Flu, for example, mutates every year in a meaningful way and that’s partially why we need new yearly flu vaccines, he writes. But most viral mutations are not meaningful. “Think about dog breeds as equivalents of strains,” he writes. “A corgi is clearly different from a Great Dane, but a black-haired corgi is functionally the same as a brown-haired one, and wouldn’t count as a separate breed.”

It’s possible that SARS-CoV-2 could mutate to become even more contagious. But so far we have no reason to believe that’s happening. A lot more research is needed before we can say what strains of the virus even exist and whether some are more dangerous than others. But that’s not a priority right now because it doesn’t change the public health response, Yong writes.

Do Try This at Home: The Many Faces of Health Care

You’ve surely seen plenty of stories celebrating the health care professionals risking their lives to deliver front-line care to sick patients. But coverage of these workers can and should go beyond classic tales of heroism. For one thing, health care workers come in many forms — not just doctors and nurses. And stories of front-line workers lacking adequate support and protections must also be told.

In an article for The New York TimesNicole Hong looks beyond nurses and doctors to consider the members of an “often-invisible army of nonmedical workers in hospitals, many of whom have fallen ill or died with little public recognition of their roles.” Hospital transporters, supply managers, chefs and security guards are all among those sickened or killed while keeping hospitals functioning during the pandemic. In another window into the working lives of hospital employees, Rick Jervis of USA Today featured an emergency room physician and wellness specialist trying to provide emotional support to his colleagues as they struggle with the psychological toll of facing the coronavirus crisis day after day. And ProPublica has turned to community engagement tools to seek out stories of health workers facing inadequate protections, abuse of power and other threats as the crisis drags on.

In Our Time of Need, Where is the CDC?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prides itself with being the premiere public health institution in the world. But as the nation continues reeling from the relentless advance of the coronavirus pandemic, journalists, health experts and former CDC officials alike are demanding an explanation for the agency's repeated failures — and perceived absence — in the face of the crisis. 

“The CDC has long been the steady, trusted source for high-quality national data and evidence-based guidance. But not this time, when its voice is needed the most,” wrote Harvard Global Health Institute faculty director Ashish K. Jha in an opinion piece for STAT. “Ask how many COVID-19 tests have been done, and the [CDC] doesn’t have an answer. Want a daily update on how many people are getting hospitalized for COVID-19? The CDC isn’t tracking it. Want to know if social distancing is making a difference? The CDC doesn’t know.”

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot that does ring true and is being echoed by officials who used to work for the CDC,” says veteran health and investigative journalist Alison Young, referring to concerns expressed by Jha. Now head of the Missouri School of Journalism’s Washington Program, Young spent years covering the CDC for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and then USA TodayYoung shared her perspectives on the current state of the CDC in a Q&A with the Center for Health JournalismSee our full conversation here.

Resources

In her Center for Health Journalism webinar appearance, Elizabeth Lucas shared a list of useful data resources for reporters covering the pandemic. We’ve listed three below. The rest can be found here.

  • Nursing homes have been hit particularly hard by coronavirus. If you need data on nursing home cases in your area, check out this database from The Washington Post, which “contains the names of Medicare-certified nursing homes that have had at least one reported case of the coronavirus among patients or staff.”
  • Need to know the social distancing rules for a particular place? Here's a list of all statewide policies.

According to the CDC, social vulnerability refers to a number of factors that “may weaken a community’s ability to prevent human suffering and financial loss in a disaster.” The CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index ranks and maps this vulnerability across the country using “15 social factors, including poverty, lack of vehicle access, and crowded housing.”

And Don't Miss... 

  • “After Recovery From the Coronavirus, Most People Carry Antibodies.” The New York Times
  •  “Many States Are Reporting Race Data For Only Some COVID-19 Cases And Deaths.” FiveThirtyEight
  • “Watch: How Does Gilead’s Experimental Drug Remdesivir Work Against the Coronavirus?” STAT
  •  “‘It’s One Thing to Survive the Infection, but What’s Next?’ Some COVID-19 Patients Need Rehab to Walk, Talk and Problem Solve.” The Chicago Tribune

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