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Coronavirus Files: Public health takes a beating at the ballot box

Coronavirus Files: Public health takes a beating at the ballot box

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 CHJ content editor Ryan White and community editor Chinyere Amobi. Have a suggestion or a request? Write us at


Public health takes a beating at the ballot

While it’s been a bruising year for those who think scientific expertise should guide our approach to public health, last week delivered a particularly jolting blow. “The 2020 election results were a disaster for public health,” writes Washington correspondent Nicholas Florko for STAT, who adds that “more than 67 million Americans already seem to have sided with Trump on public health.” Trump’s pandemic response appears to have played a surprisingly small role for a large part of the electorate. “In preliminary exit polls, just 14% of Republican voters surveyed said the coronavirus pandemic was the deciding factor in who they voted for, despite the fact that the virus has killed more than 233,000 Americans and is spreading unabated across the nation,” writes Florko, who talked to a number of scientists and public health experts for clues on where the field goes from here. “Most insisted there were straightforward, albeit challenging, ways to win over the people who have, until now, disavowed public health measures and who seemed to have voted against a more stringent public health response on Tuesday. But at least one expert said the cause was hopeless.” Read the full piece for early ideas on the future of public health — and the perils of giving up. As Yale’s Gregg Gonsalves told Florko: “If scientists shut up, there’s no countervailing weight to the crackpot theories and charlatanism.”

A White House welcome mat for scientists?

In a dramatic shift from President Trump, President-elect Joe Biden has stressed that scientists would get a full hearing in his administration. “I would listen to the scientists,” he has said. (Trump tellingly saw it as an attack line at a campaign rally: “He’ll listen to the scientists.”) But we got fresh details on which scientists Biden would listen to when Politico’s Alice Miranda Ollstein, Theodoric Meyer and Alex Thompson gave us an early peak last week at the names flagged for Biden’s coronavirus task force. “The task force would include former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, New York University’s Dr. Celine Gounder, Yale’s Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, former Obama White House aide Dr. Zeke Emanuel and former Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita, who is now an executive vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation,” the outlet reported. Emanuel, an architect of the ACA and the brother of former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, told Politico that the Biden administration envisions “sub-groups of officials who work on testing, vaccine distribution, therapeutics, guidance for schools to open, and coordination with the states, so everyone is singing from the same hymnal.” But a stronger federal response on everything from contact tracing to rebooting the CDC will require coordination with key agencies, and the start of that work could be delayed as long as the election outcome remains contested by Trump.

Face mask déjà vu

We’ve seen this story before: N95 masks are in short supply in health care facilities throughout the country. The Wall Street Journal’s Austen Hufford reports that the latest surge in cases and hospitalizations is fast eroding states’ stockpiles. “Many health-care facilities continue to ration and reuse masks, even as manufacturers have raised production, and some state health departments said they expect supplies to tighten further,” Hufford writes. One Michigan health system reports a supply of only a few weeks, while 90% of hospitals in New Mexico are reusing masks, according to the Journal. This all comes despite massive increases in mask manufacturing: 3M Co. is on track to produce 100 million masks a month in the U.S., quadrupling its pre-pandemic output, while Honeywell is producing another 20 million a month. Other manufacturers have ramped up, too. Yet the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases mean it’s still not enough. As ProPublica deputy managing editor Charlie Ornstein tweeted, “Stories like these make me sad to no end. And mad. Why are we repeating the past six months?”

The Health Divide

Can COVID-19 vaccine overcome medical racism?
People of color in the United States have experienced higher rates of illness and death from COVID-19, in part because they’re less likely to be able to work from home and more likely to have one or more of the comorbidities that make the virus deadlier. Because of this, some experts believe people of color should be first in line for a COVID-19 vaccine. But a history of racism and abuse from the medical community and government is complicating efforts to recruit diverse trials. “In other words, the people who might need the vaccine the most might also have the most reason to be suspicious of it — and yet, if they refuse it, might be the most likely to suffer the worst effects of the disease,” writes Maryn McKenna of Wired. From the massacre of Native Americans from colonial smallpox to the Tuskegee experiment on Black Americans to immigrants afraid to use health care for fear of being barred citizenship, McKenna explores the United States government’s long history of medical abuse against people of color, and what the health community will have to overcome to get these groups to embrace a COVID-19 vaccine.
New COVID-19 fees surprise patients
Health care providers, dental offices, and assisted living facilities around the country are feeling the financial squeeze of the pandemic, as revenue dwindles and extra costs for protective gear and sanitizing equipment add up. Now, some providers are passing these costs directly onto patients, often bypassing insurance coverage. “Surprise ‘Covid’ and ‘PPE’ fees have turned up across the country, in bills examined by The New York Times,” write Sarah Kliff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg. With charges ranging from a couple of dollars to nearly $1,000, some state attorneys general believe these bills “can take advantage of vulnerable consumers or violate health insurance contracts and consumer protection laws,” the Times investigation found.
Your brain is tricking you during the pandemic
People are having a hard time dealing with the uncertainty and probabilities of living during a pandemic, and this may be undermining how we process information and gauge risk. “The problem, experts who study the way we think say, is that the unprecedented nature of the pandemic makes us vulnerable to subtle biases that undermine how we process information and assess risk,” write Marshall Allen and Meg Marco of ProPublica. Read on to learn about how optimism bias, social norms and poor messaging are influencing how Americans behave during the pandemic. “We know how to protect ourselves — washing our hands, wearing masks and staying socially distant — but many people still take unnecessary risks, even at the highest levels of government.”
New webinar from the Center for Health Journalism
11/12 Covering Coronavirus Webinar: Can Our Broken Safety Net Be Fixed?
Health officials have warned for decades that the U.S. woefully underinvests in public health and safety net programs. As a result, the country has paid the price for deep vulnerabilities during a pandemic that has now claimed more than 230,000 lives. Join us on Thursday, November 12 at 10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET for a free webinar, we’ll take a broad look at the gaping holes in the public health safety net revealed by COVID-19, while asking what kinds of policy fixes can patch them moving forward. Sign-up here!
Join our team!
The USC Center for Health Journalism is looking for a freelance journalist to curate and produce our Coronavirus Files weekly newsletter on COVID-19 science & medicine news. Apply now if that's you, or spread the word to your colleagues!
And Don't Miss...
  • Doctors Begin to Crack Covid’s Mysterious Long-Term Effects, WSJ
  • Spread of mutated coronavirus in Danish mink ‘hits all the scary buttons,’ but fears may be overblown, STAT
  • T Cell Immune response to COVID lasts at least six months, The Economist
  • 'Is this worth my life?': Traveling health workers decry COVID care conditions, Kaiser Health News
  • Nasal spray prevents COVID infection in ferrets, study finds, The New York Times

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The pandemic has thrown into brutal relief the extent to which the U.S. health care system produces worse outcomes for patients of color. And yet there has been scant focus on one of the biggest drivers of structural racism in health care: How doctors and hospitals are paid. In this webinar, we’ll highlight the ways in which the health care system’s focus on money and good grades is shortchanging the health of communities of color. Sign-up here!

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