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Coronavirus Files: Soaring Cases & How to Choose a Mask

Coronavirus Files: Soaring Cases & How to Choose a Mask

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

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From the Center for Health Journalism: The Economy or Your Health?

Sign up for this Wednesday’s Webinar: All 50 states are now reopening their economies in phases after an unprecedented lockdown and economic plunge not seen since the Great Depression. Officials have had to weigh the damage to workers and families from the ongoing shutdowns against the risks posed by the potentially deadly virus. Yet as more and more Americans head back to work and play, people are relaxing their vigilance and confirmed COVID-19 infections are soaring past April records. In this webinar, we’ll look at where we stand in the reopening, what policies and practices might reduce health risks, and how journalists can tell urgent stories of workers and families forced to choose between their health and their economic survival. Sign up here for the July 8, 2020 webinar at 10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET.

The Health Divide & Soaring Case Counts

Coronavirus Threatens Detained Immigrants 
Citing threats from the spread of COVID-19, a federal judge ordered last week that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement must soon release all children that have been held in their custody for more than 20 days. “U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee of California issued the scathing order Friday afternoon, saying the Trump administration had failed to provide even the most basic health protections for children and their families amid the pandemic,” writes Vanessa Romo of National Public Radio. The order came just a day after ICE reported 11 coronavirus cases among detainees in a family detention center in Texas. It’s unclear how ICE will handle the release, mandated to occur by July 17, but advocates are urging officials to release parents with their children, so families aren’t separated, Romo writes. 
Rising case counts are sparking alarm in adult detention facilities as well. In an immigrant detention center for men in Farmville, Virginia the case count recently jumped to 49 and inmates described frequent COVID-like symptoms among both detainees and staff at the center, writes Priscilla Alvarez for CNN. Lawyers and advocates for detainees say there’s no reasonable way to ensure safe distancing in closed environments with limited space. “Nationwide, immigration detention facilities holding more than 23,000 detainees continue to reckon with the spread of coronavirus months into the pandemic,” Alvarez writes.
Cases Soar
Last week was a week of morbid records. On Thursday the U.S. recorded around 40,000 new COVID-19 cases in one day, a number that’s continued to climb since. Ten states, including Alabama, Missouri, Montana and Utah also all hit new daily highs. And cases are surging dramatically across the nation’s Sun Belt, particularly in Arizona, South Carolina, Texas, Florida and Georgia. “Many virus statistics in these states now look like straight lines pointing upward,” write Robinson Meyer and Alexis Madrigal for The Atlantic. The U.S. continues to lead the world in reported case counts. 
These numbers, though, are likely a vast underestimate. In a Thursday press call, CDC director, Robert Redfield suggested there may be ten times more infections than we are actually counting. And hospitalizations and the percentage of positive tests show us that the numbers are not simply going up because of expanded testing, write Robinson Meyer and Alexis Madrigal
“A month ago, health-care workers in Arizona had to test about 11 people to find a new COVID-19 case; today, one in five people they test has the virus. In Florida, the number of tests per day has actually fallen in the past week while the number of new cases has spiked,” they write. “The Sun Belt surge, in other words, is not a by-product of increased testing. In the South and West, finding people sick with COVID-19 is simply getting easier.”
In Covering COVID Science, are We Leaving Women Behind?
Women in science are calling out an “extraordinary level of sexism” in the scientific response to COVID-19. In a recent Times Higher Education commentary published by 35 women researchers, the authors point to tanking scientific paper publications from women authors, a sexist distribution of labor—both at work and at home—and a paucity of women’s voices among those leading pandemic responses as alarming signs that the crisis is driving a massive backslide for gender equality in science. Already fragile gender equality efforts—both in university settings and at home—are in many cases being forgotten in the face of the COVID-19 response, the authors argue. 
“What is surprising and demoralizing is seeing the fault lines of sexism that define our unequal footing with men crack into gaping chasms under the pressure of the pandemic,” the authors write. “The worst impacts of the coronavirus will undoubtedly be the loss of lives, the collapse of economies, the disruption of humanitarian aid and the decay of democracies. But we fear that the hard-won progress for women in science will be collateral damage of this crisis.”
High-profile media coverage has exacerbated the problem, writes Teresa Carr for Undark. She points to a prominent New York Times feature from April about the pandemic road ahead, which cited 17 male experts and two women—both were quoted mentioning family. The disparity was perhaps even more noticeable in an April piece highlighting the pandemic’s “rising heroes” in science in Europe. Among the researchers addressing scientific questions, stepping into new leadership roles, and reassuring the public, no heroines were listed. 
“Once you notice the dominance of the (typically White) male expert, it’s hard to un-see it,” writes Carr. “Writing for prominent outlets, journalists have hailed men as scientific heroes of the coronavirus era and defenders of fact. They’ve quoted all — or nearly all — male scientists on epidemiological models, herd immunity, viral spread on surfaces, why some people get sicker than others, and how to prepare for a likely Covid-19 resurgence.”
Neither epidemiology nor medicine are male-dominated fields, and it’s getting increasingly easy to find science experts who are women, Ed Yong wrote in a 2018 Atlantic article about the two years he spent trying to address the gender imbalance in his own stories. Check out his piece for some evergreen suggestions on finding diverse sources.
How to Choose a Mask
Public health guidelines (and mandates in some places) now say we should all be wearing masks around others in order to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Masks protect those around us from tiny droplets that leave our mouth and nose when we breathe, talk, cough and sneeze. While disposable surgical masks do a pretty good job of this, some people are looking for reusable options in order to cut costs and protect the environment. 
Masks should, of course, cover your nose and mouth and have a snug fit. But material also matters, writes Kaleigh Rogers for FiveThirtyEight. Higher quality fabrics, with a tighter weave are better at blocking droplets, and masks with multiple layers also perform well in lab tests. But you’ll be happy to hear that masks should also be breathable. “If breath can’t get through the mask, it will find another way out, allowing respiratory droplets to spread,” Rogers writes. 
Breathability is easy to test, but what about the mask’s material? Try holding it up to bright light, Rogers writes. “If it outlines individual fibers and you can see the light through fabric, it’s probably not as effective,” a source told her. “The less of that you can see, the better the filter.”
The Other COVID Deaths
We know that the U.S. has more than 125,000 coronavirus deaths to date. But that number (likely an underestimate) doesn’t include deaths indirectly caused by the pandemic’s broader impacts on our society and psyches. Fear of contracting coronavirus means emergency room visits are down, as are diagnoses of cancer and reports of heart attack and stroke. Those drops likely mean that patients are opting out of seeking care, which in some cases could put their lives in danger. And losing social programs and other resources have put vulnerable individuals at increased risk — sometimes with dire consequences. 
For Kaiser Health News, Markian Hawryluk brings us the story of Sara Wittner, a 32-year-old battling drug addiction. She had recently gotten her life back under control before the pandemic knocked out her sobriety support system and delayed her access to a monthly injection prescribed to block her cravings for opioids. Without the tools she relied on to stay sober, Wittner relapsed and died from an overdose in April. 
Across the country, municipalities are reporting excess deaths that can’t be explained only by confirmed or suspected COVID deaths, and it could take months or more to confirm if and how these may have been indirectly fueled by the pandemic, writes Hawryluk. An analysis by the Wellbeing Trust estimates “as many as 75,000 people might die from suicide, overdose or alcohol abuse, triggered by the uncertainty and unemployment caused by the pandemic,” she writes. And a recent model from the National Cancer Institute predicts we could see an additional 10,000 cancer deaths over the next decade due to missed diagnoses and care because of today’s crisis.  
“The indirect impact of COVID-19 might last for months, if not years, after the virus stops spreading and the economy improves,” Hawryluk writes.
And Don't Miss...
  • "How the Virus Won." The New York Times
  • "America the Unhealthy: Inequality kills." Knowable Magazine
  • "Poll: A growing number of Americans think the worst of the coronavirus is over, even as cases spike." Vox

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