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Coronavirus Files: Falling trust in federal agencies

Coronavirus Files: Falling trust in federal agencies

Picture of Lindzi  Wessel

Since April, The Center for Health Journalism has been publishing 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 coverage. This week, 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

From the Center for Health Journalism: The Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine 

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Delivering a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 by this winter would count as one the most ambitious scientific feats in history. With a handful of vaccines now in the midst of large-scale clinical trials, a growing number of experts say it’s an achievable goal. But many potential roadblocks could stymie “Operation Warp Speed,” with leading vaccine candidates relying on innovative but unproven technologies. And enormous manufacturing and distribution challenges remain, as well as difficult questions of who gets vaccinated first. In this webinar, we’ll take a broad look at where we stand, take a deeper look at how these vaccines actually work, and discuss key challenges and story lines to track as we enter a critical phase in the race for a vaccine against the coronavirusSign up here for the September 16, 2020 webinar at 10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET.
The Health Divide: COVID-19 Risk Could Be Higher in Polluted Neighborhoods 
Why do some communities see more severe COVID-19 cases than others? Part of the answer could be air pollution, according to a new study published in the Journal of Environmental Research Letters and conducted by ProPublica and researchers at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “The analysis examined air pollution and coronavirus deaths in the roughly 3,100 U.S. counties and found a close correlation between levels of hazardous pollutants and the per-capita death rate from COVID-19,” Lylla Younes and Sara Sneath write for ProPublica
West Baton Rouge Parish is a small Louisiana community that has more air pollution thought to damage the respiratory system than 99% of all counties across the country. The parish has also suffered an unusually high per-capita COVID-19 death rate. States away, the South Bronx in New York City, is another community that suffers poor air quality and disproportionately high COVID-19 death rates.  
While researchers are still working to understand how air pollution might exacerbate COVID-19 cases, one hypothesis is that “air pollutants could prevent the body’s immune system from being able to tell the difference between a harmless allergen and a dangerous particle, like a virus,” Younes and Sneath write. 
Previous research has found that people of color in the U.S. tend to live in more polluted areas than white residents, another factor that might contribute to the pandemic's disproportionate impact on minorities. 
Trust Breakdown Threatens Vaccine Efforts 
On Thursday, eight directors of the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory centers and offices took the unusual step of publishing an article asserting their commitment to science, public health and “making decisions guided by the best evidence.” The article, which appeared in USA Today, comes amid growing public fear that political pressures could push FDA officials to approve a COVID-19 vaccine before the completion of adequate safety testing. That fear has been exacerbated by statements by President Donald Trump that seem to indicate his administration is pushing for a vaccine before election day and apparent pressure from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get hospitals ready to distribute vaccines by late October. “The current pace of phase 3 clinical trials,” however, “means that the FDA might not have enough evidence of safety and efficacy to grant full approval to a COVID-19 vaccine before November,” writes Umair Irfan for Vox
The FDA wasn’t the only one to publicize a vow to honor public safety this week. A similar assurance came from nine leading pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies working on COVID-19 vaccines. In a joint statement, the companies promised to “always make the safety and well-being of vaccinated individuals our top priority” and only seek approval for vaccines “after demonstrating safety and efficacy through a Phase 3 clinical study that is designed and conducted to meet requirements of expert regulatory authorities.” The unconventional pledge prompted two medical experts to pen an opinion piece describing the statement as a sign that “hell has frozen over.” 
“How can Americans tell when the FDA has become so politically impaired that it cannot serve its mission to protect the public?” J. Russell Teagarden and Arthur L. Caplan ask in their STAT Op-Ed. “One measure is when pharmaceutical manufacturers become the voice of caution and prudence about when new vaccines should be released to the public.”
Kaiser Family Foundation poll found public confidence in the CDC has dropped 16 points since April and that 62 percent of Americans are concerned that “political pressure from the Trump administration will lead the FDA to rush to approve a coronavirus vaccine without making sure that it is safe and effective.” The new polling adds to previous concerns that communities of color, who stand to benefit the most from a COVID-19 vaccine, may also have high rates of vaccine mistrust due, in part, to a history of discriminatory medical practices and structural racism built into health-care settings.
Pandemic Reporters Talk Shop
No one wrote a playbook for pandemic journalism. Reporters around the world were simply thrust into the role without warning. Now, though, many journalists have been on the pandemic beat for six months or more and have started to look back and offer reflections.
Last week, star COVID-19 reporters Roxanne KhamsiDruv Khuller and Apoorva Mandavilli joined Shannon Palus of Slate to talk about how coverage of the pandemic has changed since its beginning and how they’ve shifted their approach to their work. The group discussed the importance of journalistic contributions from around the world, the shift in public understanding of immunology and disease related science and the increased emphasis placed on science coverage in mainstream outlets. And the trio emphasized the importance of finding a balance between tackling important new stories — a calling they all agreed has given them purpose throughout the outbreak — and leaving themselves space to address their own, personal struggles with the pandemic. 
“I underestimated how much this pandemic would involve fortifying my mental health rather than fortifying my toilet paper stockpile,” Khamsi told Palus.
And Don't Miss...
  • “I tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies — what now?” Knowable
  • “Trump health appointees reportedly interfered with CDC COVID-19 reports.” Axios
  • “America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral.” The Atlantic
  • “Hospitals, Nursing Homes Fail to Separate COVID Patients, Putting Others at Risk.” Kaiser Health News
  • “Colorado public schools turn to outdoor instruction during COVID-19.” Chalkbeat Colorado

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