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The Coronavirus Files: The People Behind the Numbers

The Coronavirus Files: The People Behind the Numbers

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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: Covering Coronavirus: The Mystery Syndrome Afflicting Kids

It’s been called a parent’s worst nightmare. An alarming new inflammatory condition connected to COVID-19 has struck a small but growing number of children across the country. The mysterious condition known as “pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome” is marked by widespread inflammation throughout the body, and can trigger potentially life-threatening heart problems. While most children have tested positive for coronavirus or antibodies, doctors are still racing to untangle the links to COVID-19. In this week’s Center for Health Journalism webinar, we’ll hear from a top pediatric infectious disease expert and a Pulitzer-winning health and science reporter about how this mysterious illness impacts children and how reporters can add depth and context to this troubling story for their audiences and communities as the pandemic continues to unfold. Sign up here to attend the June 17 webinar at 10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET.

The Health Divide & The Road to Recovery

If COVID-19 was killing everyone at the same rate it kills white people, we would have seen about 26% fewer deaths in Los Angeles County, writes Rong-Gong Lin II for The Los Angeles Times. As stunning as that figure is, it should not be surprising when you factor in how health disparities endanger minorities even in normal times, he writes. For black people, for example, as Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told him, “It starts at the beginning of life, when black babies are three to four times more likely to die before they reach their first birthday, and at the very end of life, when black residents die, on average, six to 10 years younger than all others.” The numbers get even worse when you look at those living in areas of high poverty, another disadvantage that disproportionately impacts minorities.
For every 100,000 white residents in L.A. County, there have been 15 COVID-19 deaths, writes Lin. For Latino residents, that number rises to 29 per every 100,000. For black residents, 30.
 Estimates from health experts suggest that, in L.A. County, the disproportionate impacts of coronavirus have so far fueled 485 excess deaths among Latinos, 143 excess deaths among blacks, 125 excess deaths among Asian Americans and 981 excess deaths among people living in poverty.
Tackling Health Disparities
In Chicago, where case counts are highest in Latino communities and where “black residents continue to die at a rate two to three times higher than the city's white residents,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot has partnered with community groups to create a Racial Equity Rapid Response Team, Cheryl Corley reports for National Public Radio. The REERT is meant to tackle “everything from adequate nutrition to jobs to health care,” writes Corley. They’ve passed out free masks, set up a pop-up food pantry, helped make testing more widely available, delivered thousands of postcards with facts about COVID-19 and worked to translate COVID information into other languages.
"We are dying, because we don't have the same resources or access to information,” one source told Corley. The comment reflects a plea echoing around the nation for more help to be sent to minority communities hit hardest by the pandemic.
Surviving is Just Step One
On the surface, the COVID story is a data story. How many total cases? How much does the count grow each day? How many dead? But, of course, like any health issue, this is truly a story of human beings — loved ones lost, communities damaged and lives lived in fear.
A Washington Post story poignantly reminds us of the human stories behind the numbers zeroing in on Hugo Sosa, a first responder and EMS Captain for whom the pandemic represents a second close brush with death. He triaged casualties a block from the North Tower on Sept. 11, 2001, then ran for his life when it fell, writes Post reporter Lenny Bernstein.
Bernstein reminds us that surviving COVID-19 can just be the beginning of what can be a long and uncertain recovery and that many others may need extended medical care. After narrowly escaping death from COVID-19 —44 days in intensive care and 19 on a ventilator — Sosa is still recovering in a rehabilitation center in New York. During his long battle against coronavirus, Sosa, the son of Ecuadorian immigrants, suffered a stroke. While once he calculated drug doses in his head, Sosa is relearning to walk and count change. He’s also mourning the loss of his mother-in-law, who died quickly when the whole family fell ill with COVID-19. Sosa blames himself for her death.
Finding Remdesivir
To date only one drug has shown promise in combating COVID-19. Although its effect so far seems modest, patients and doctors are desperate to obtain it. But doses of Remdesivir are extremely limited, leaving doctors and health officials facing the difficult question of who should have it. It’s a question complicated by a haphazard and opaque rollout by the federal government.
For STAT, Eric Boodman brings us the story of how one hospital team decided to handle their federal allotment and how their interactions with a desperate man hundreds of miles away led them to develop a Remdesivir distribution plan eventually adopted for the entire state of Tennessee.
Asymptomatic Spread Does Happen, WHO Clarifies
A misstatement by a World Health Organization official ignited a heated debate this week over whether individuals without symptoms can spread coronavirus and what that means for our public health response. If people without symptoms couldn’t spread the disease, it would change a good deal of rationale around social distancing — any two people without symptoms would theoretically be safe to spend time together. But that’s not the case. People without symptoms can spread coronavirus, the organization clarified Tuesday after their original misstatement threw public discussion around the issue into chaos.
“Studies and models have suggested many of those infected never show symptoms,” write William Wan and Miriam Bergert for The Washington Post. “It remains an open question whether they are a large force driving transmission.”
  • Scientists around the world have proposed dozens of vaccine candidates for coronavirus. But which ones are most promising and how long will they take to develop? This new vaccine tracker from The New York Times can help you stay up to date.
  • Across the country states are reopening without a clear prediction of how drastically this might affect virus spread. Check out ProPublica’s COVID count trajectory map to quickly see how case counts are changing in every state week by week.
  • An ongoing challenge to covering coronavirus is dealing with incomplete data. For The Center for Health Journalism, Kathleen McGrory explains how The Tampa Bay Times created their own estimate for death counts in Florida, an approach other reporters can borrow for their own states.
And don't miss...
  • “Tear-Gassing Protesters During An Infectious Outbreak ‘A Recipe For Disaster.’” Kaiser Health News
  • “Study: Hydroxychloroquine had no benefit for hospitalized Covid-19 patients, possibly closing door to use of drug.” STAT
  • “COVID-19 Can Last for Several Months.” The Atlantic

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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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