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Coronavirus Files: Racism, Not Race is a Risk Factor for COVID-19

Coronavirus Files: Racism, Not Race is a Risk Factor for COVID-19

Picture of Alex Matthews

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. This week, the Center for Health Journalism’s Coronavirus Files Monday newsletter is curated and reported by science writer Alex Matthews. Have a suggestion or a request? Write us at editor@centerforhealthjournalism.org.

The Health Divide, Russia's Vaccine & Kids Testing Positive

Racism, Not Race is A COVID-19 Risk Factor
 
The coronavirus pandemic is likely to cause the biggest jump in mortality of white Americans since World War TwoBut even so, black people’s mortality rate in 2020 would likely surpass white peoples’ — even if they were immune to the coronavirusGus Wezerek writes for the New York Times.
 
That’s because of a long history of “systematic neglect of Black Americans’ health,” Wezerek writes. Throughout the nation’s history, for example, Black Americans have been kept out of less dense and better resourced neighborhoods, where disease is less likely to spread. For decades, Blacks had to contend with white-only hospitals and medical schools and laws or local agreements that kept Blacks from moving to some predominantly white neighborhoods. Still, only 55 percent of white Americans were aware of inequalities in Black and white health in a 2011 survey, versus 89 percent of Black Americans.
 
To this day, years of discrimination mean Black families are more likely than whites to live in overcrowded housing, live near environmental hazards, have limited access to health care and have jobs that make quarantining difficult or impossible — factors that put them at more risk for COVID-19 and other diseases. Even before the pandemic, in 2018, “if Black people had died at the same age-adjusted rate as white people…they would have avoided 65,000 premature, excess deaths,” writes Wezerek. “That’s the equivalent of three coach buses filled with Black people crashing and killing them all every day of the year.”
 
Russia’s Coronavirus Vaccine Dangerously Rushed, Experts Say
 
For months people around the globe have been following progress towards a COVID-19 vaccine and, on Tuesday, Russia announced approval of the world’s first, saying that the nation may gradually begin mass vaccination by the fall. But far from celebrated, the news was met by alarm and condemnation by scientists around the world who say Russia’s vaccine — which, according to available documentation, has been tested in only 76 people — is not ready for prime time, writes Ewen Callaway for Nature.
 
“The technical feat of developing a COVID-19 vaccine is not very complicated,” Peter Hotez, the Dean of Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine, tells Callaway. In fact, the Russian vaccine, developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, is not dissimilar to candidates developed in the US and China. So what’s the hold-up?
 
The problem is that none of these candidates, including Gamaleya's vaccine have yet completed Phase III trials, Callaway explains. While earlier phases of clinical trials help establish dosage, preliminary efficacy, and identify some basic side effects and safety concerns, the length and scope of phase III trials allow scientists to identify long-term reactions to vaccines or ensure that there are not adverse effects that could exacerbate coronavirus or make the population more vulnerable to other diseases. In the US, for example, phase I and II trials may include just a few hundred volunteers and last a few months, but phase III trials include thousands of volunteers and can last years.
 
Researchers are worried that the rushed decision could do more harm than good and fuel distrust against future, more carefully tested coronavirus vaccines.
 
As Schools Restart, Tens of Thousands of Kids Test Positive
 
Nearly 100,000 children tested positive for the coronavirus in the last two weeks of July, according to an American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association report of state-level data. Each state presents its data differently, and some, like Texas and New York are incomplete. Still, the report found that 340,000 children, at least, had been infected since March, making up 9% of total US infections. Those numbers refute a misconception that children cannot get the virus — one perpetuated by President Donald Trump when he said during a Fox & Friends interview last week that “children are almost, I would almost say definitely, but almost immune from this disease”.
 
It’s true that most children do not fall critically ill when infected, reports Cory Turner for NPR’s Morning Edition, but for some 2%, the disease was severe enough to land them in the hospital. And, “what's less clear is how effectively children would spread the virus in a classroom setting, not only to friends and classmates but to teachers and school staff,” Turner says.
 
Now, with the start of the school year already upon us, this context is crucial to understanding complex questions around school reopenings.  Already some schools that have brought students back to campus have seen quarantines of exposed students, teachers and staff, Turner reports.
 
Behind ICU Doors
 
 
In 2018, Domingo Flores donated his kidney to Ana Flores, his high school sweetheart, wife, and the mother of his three children. When they were both admitted to the hospital for COVID-related pneumonia on June 29, physicians worried that Ana’s donor kidney might fail. By the time Domingo was released from the hospital, Ana remained unconscious and on a ventilator.
 
The Flores’ story is just one of five featured in Sheri FinkEmily Rhine and Erin Schaff’s New York Times multimedia feature on Houston Methodist’s sickest coronavirus patients. The team earned patients and families’ permission to tell a more intimate, human-driven story of this pandemic’s unequal toll. It’s estimated that Houston’s Latino population is 45% of the city’s residents. But Latinos make up 61% of Houston Methodist’s ICU patients. Three of the five subjects featured likely contracted the disease in working-class jobs.
 
“On the news they’re always like, ‘People are partying, people aren’t taking it seriously,’” Lluvialy Faz, a Latina nurse working on the unit, told the reporting team. But most of the patients she sees are “working people, family people.”
 
The videos and photos of intimate moments allow you to step into the shoes of the workers fighting to keep these patients alive and the families who are powerless watching their loved ones decline over video chats. There’s the powerful image of a gloved and masked Javier Sanchez, praying that his brother Ivan pulls through so he can apologize for a fight they had before Ivan fell ill. Another photo captures the smile of Rosa Hernandez, a 72-year-old grandma, who one physician described as an “example for all of us” because of her steady recovery and the positive attitude she maintained throughout.
 
“My heart is fragile,” a mother, whose two children are hospitalized in different locations, says in a video interview. Her voice cracks as she describes the pain of being unable to visit them. And family photos capture the heart-breaking story of Hector Rodriguez Montes, a husband and father who may have contracted coronavirus when he came to the hospital for cancer treatment. Last Monday, doctors told his wife, Nancy Bravo, that he probably would not make it.
 
Tracking Risk to Frontline Workers
 
We all know that health care workers have been lost to the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s hard to say just how many have died across the country and who is most vulnerable. Now, Kaiser Health News and the Guardian have unveiled a new interactive database designed to address this information gap. The reporting partnership, dubbed Lost on the Frontlines, “aims to count, verify and memorialize every US health care worker who dies during the pandemic.” So far the team — made up of more than 50 reporters and journalism students — has identified more than 900 health care workers who have died serving patients.
 
 “Some of these deaths were preventable,” the team writes. “Poor preparation, government missteps and an overburdened health care system increased that risk. Inadequate access to testing, a nationwide shortage of protective gear and resistance to social distancing and mask-wearing have forced more patients into overburdened hospitals and driven up the death toll.”
 
Once deaths are identified, the team works to independently verify each one. Out of the 167 verified so far, most are people of color, about a third were reported to have inadequate PPE and about a third were born outside the country.
 
KHN senior correspondent Christina Jewett took a deeper dive into that issue in her coverage of a Harvard study that found a similar trend. The survey of data from the US and UK this spring found that health care workers of color were nearly two times as likely to contract COVID than their white counterparts.
 
This project might be the most comprehensive effort to track this information in the country. According to the team, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has counted just 587 deaths, but “conceded this is an undercount.”
 
And Don't Miss...
  • "Health providers' scramble for staff and supplies reveals sharp disparities." Politico
  • "'Vaccine nationalism' stands in the way of an end to the Covid-19 crisis." The Guardian
  • "COVID Data Failures Create Pressure for Public Health System Overhaul." California Healthline
  • "How China Controlled the Coronavirus." The New Yorker

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