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The Coronavirus Files: Prisons and the future of women in the workforce

The Coronavirus Files: Prisons and the future of women in the workforce

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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. The Coronavirus Files 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

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Sign up for this Wednesday’s Webinar: The Domestic Abuse Crisis

While stay-at-home orders have helped flatten the COVID-19 curve, they present grave new dangers for victims of domestic violence who suddenly find themselves locked down with their abusers. And the pandemic has made it harder than ever for domestic violence organizations to help victims, a challenge compounded by losses in funding and reduced shelter capacity. In this webinar, we will look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a terrifying new reality for domestic violent victims, how organizations and authorities are trying to innovate in response, and how reporters can tackle the story in their community. For more information and to sign up for the webinar, Wednesday at 10-11 a.m. PT / 1-2 p.m. ET, go here.

The Health Divide, Prisons and the Future of Women in the Workforce

Hospitalization Rates Three Times Higher for Black Patients

Demographic data has consistently shown that the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting black and Latino communities particularly hard, with case and death counts disproportionately high relative to their share of the population in many places. Now, a new peer-reviewed analysis of medical records from a large health care organization in Northern California adds to that body of knowledge, finding that black patients were hospitalized three times as often as whites and Latinos in the Sutter Health system. Statistical analyses suggested that the high rate could not be explained by differences in age, income or certain chronic health problems linked to worse COVID-19 outcomes.

“The finding suggests that black patients may have had limited access to medical care or that they postponed seeking help until later in the course of their illness, when the disease was more advanced,” writes Roni Caryn Rabin for The New York Times. Other research suggests that longstanding challenges due to implicit bias may play a role, as Dr. Lisa Cooper noted in our recent webinar on "Covering Coronavirus, the Pandemic's Unequal Toll.”

Explaining ‘Superspreading’

As health experts scramble to understand how the coronavirus spreads, one persistent mystery is why some people seem to spread COVID-19 widely, while some infect few others. Writing for Science MagazineKai Kupferschmidt introduces us to the dispersion factor (denoted by scientists as k), “which describes how much the disease clusters.” Scientists don’t yet know the value of k for SARS-CoV-2, but some estimates suggest it could be very low, meaning that a very small percentage of cases might lead to the majority of infections.

“That could explain some puzzling aspects of this pandemic, including why the virus did not take off around the world sooner after it emerged in China, and why some very early cases elsewhere — such as one in France in late December 2019, reported on 3 May — apparently failed to ignite a wider outbreak,” writes Kupferschmidt.

Superspreading events are likely influenced by setting — research suggests they occur far more frequently indoors. But human behavior might also contribute. Some scientists are beginning to think that shouting or singing might spread the virus farther than slow, gentle breathing. Some people also shed more virus for longer periods than others, which could also contribute to superspreading events.  

What the Coronavirus Crisis Means for Prisoners

As the pandemic rages, human rights advocates continue to worry for a particularly vulnerable group: prisoners. Social distancing is logistically impossible in many prison settings and overcrowding among large populations, poor sanitation and underfunded health services make outbreaks hard to contain, writes Sarah Stillman for The New Yorker.

Worried that people cannot be kept safe in such conditions, advocates have been pushing for mass releases even as their fears come to pass. “Seven of the top 10 case clusters in the nation were in prisons and jails,” she writes. And at the end of March, New York City’s main jail had a coronavirus infection rate seven times higher than the city’s general population. “In April, the American Civil Liberties Union worked with epidemiologists and statisticians to show that, without protective measures in jails and prisons, including rapid reductions in incarcerated populations, the virus could kill an additional hundred thousand Americans,” Stillman writes. In some places, the crisis has led to a grand social experiment, with thousands of prisoners and detainees released and police intentionally making fewer arrests.

Stillman’s piece examines the issue in part through the story of a mom who, in March, was arrested for a string of old, petty crimes and wound up getting sick during an extended stay in jail. The threat from the virus means prisoners like her face a potential death sentence for their small crimes, Stillman writes.

When Contact Tracing Goes Right

Aggressive contact tracing has been credited for controlling the spread of COVID-19 in places like Taiwan and South Korea. A failure to implement the measure swiftly in the United States is one reason the outbreak has been so much worse here. But cities and states across the country are working to ramp up contact tracing capacity now, knowing that once the pandemic starts to die down, quashing new outbreaks will be key to keeping the virus contained.

For The New York TimesSharon Otterman follows the efforts of one small American city that seems to have gotten contact tracing right. According to a health officer of Paterson, New Jersey, the city’s contact tracing team “has been able to successfully investigate and trace about 90% of the more than 5,900 positive virus cases” the city has seen. Otterman not only explores the reasons Paterson has been able to make the program work, but also gives us an inside look at the job of contact tracing and how it creates an intimate window into the lives of the infected and exposed.

Is the Pandemic Edging Women Out of the Workforce?

With schools and daycares closed, millions of parents are on double duty, juggling work and child care at the same time. Much of this load is falling to moms and experts worry that one legacy of the pandemic will be long-term setbacks to women’s careers, writes Amanda Becker for The Washington Post.

“Even before the pandemic, the availability of safe and affordable child care was key to keeping mothers in the workforce,” she writes. “Princeton University-trained economist So Kubota has tied women’s declining workforce participation rates over the past 20 years to the rising cost of child care, showing a 13% decline for mothers with small children.”

“COVID-19 has plunged the child care industry, 90% of which is privately run, into a crisis the likes of which the nation has never seen,” writes Jessica Guynn for USA Today. Widespread child care closures put parents in a bind, as many states push ahead with reopening, leaving parents facing calls to come back to work, with no one to care for their kids.

In the face of new health regulations, parents' fears and the added costs from personal protective equipment and other safety measures, “it’s also unclear how many providers will be able to afford to reopen or at what capacity,” she writes.


  • Last week’s Center for Health Journalism webinar on covering coronavirus dealt with the pandemic’s unequal toll. See the webinar here or check out a helpful roundup of tips from the talk, put together by Kellie Schmitt.
  • Confused about how to cover COVID-19 models? Check out this handy tip sheet written by Denise-Marie Ordway for Journalist’s Resource

And Don't Miss...

  • “Coronavirus Widens Healthcare Divide Between Red States and Blue States.” The Los Angeles Times.
  • “‘An International Example of Bad Judgment’: Local Officials Stunned by Raucous Memorial Day Festivities.” The Washington Post
  • “How We Make Decisions During a Pandemic.” Knowable Magazine

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The pandemic is far from over but crucial COVID-19 protections and benefits are gone. In our next webinar, we'll explore the end of renter protections, unemployment benefits and other emergency relief, and what it means for the nation’s pandemic recovery and the health and well-being of low-income people and their communities. Glean story ideas and crucial context. Sign-up here!

Are you passionate about helping journalists understand and illuminate the social factors that contribute to health and health disparities at a time when COVID-19 has highlighted the costs of such inequities? Looking to play a big role in shaping journalism today in the United States?  Apply now for one of our positions. 


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