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Coronavirus Files: Thanksgiving Looms as Restrictions Multiply; The Vaccines Are Coming; Language Barriers Compound COVID-19 Agony

Coronavirus Files: Thanksgiving Looms as Restrictions Multiply; The Vaccines Are Coming; Language Barriers Compound COVID-19 Agony

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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


Americans plan to loosen belts — and masks — as states tighten rules

Winter looks to be every bit as dire as experts have predicted. With 250,000 dead and an estimated 3.6 million people currently infectious in the U.S. alone, lockdown fatigue has set in.
In an effort to stem the rocketing case rates, states and cities across the nation have implemented a patchwork of restrictions, as shown in these updated New York Times graphics. The CDC has begged citizens not to travel for Thanksgiving, and seven governors (from both sides of the aisle) did the same in The Washington Post. Republican governors in several states have now issued mask mandates. In a detailed analysis, The Times finds that states with the least restrictions are suffering the biggest outbreaks.
According to a recent survey, 38% of U.S. residents intend to gather in groups of 10-plus over the holiday season; nearly 33% won’t be masked at the Thanksgiving table; and 25% won’t be social distancing. For a preview of the post-holiday fallout, look to Canada, which celebrated its Thanksgiving on October 12. Two weeks later, case rates spiked to record-breaking levels, writes Rasha Aridi in
At the Washington Post, data reporter Christopher Ingraham points to numbers, from Georgia Tech’s risk assessment tool, suggesting big holiday feasts could easily morph into superspreader events. Nationwide, he writes, the chance of meeting someone with COVID at a 10-person party was nearly 40% as of Nov. 18; it’s much higher in the upper Midwest but lower in coastal cities.
Vaccine results come fast and furious
With infection rates sky-high, people in clinical trials are likely to become infected too, and that speeds up trial results. In the wake of Moderna’s interim data suggesting 94.5% efficacy for its mRNA vaccine, Pfizer announced results showing 95% efficacy, and filed for FDA authorization on Friday. Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that the University of Oxford, working on a vaccine of a different design, saw a strong immune response in adults across all ages, with no serious side effects. Oxford’s own efficacy numbers may come within weeks.
The FDA’s review of Pfizer data is expected to take about three weeks, followed by an outside panel meeting to review the application on Dec. 10. Moderna is expected to submit its own EUA shortly.
Another hurdle is that no company has ever tried to manufacture and ship an mRNA vaccine at scale before. To illustrate the challenges, the Post’s Carolyn Johnson gives us a peek inside Pfizer’s facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan, tracking a single dose’s journey from ingredients to quality control to injection. To test its distribution plans, Pfizer will pilot its system in four states.
To get the pandemic under control, Anthony Fauci said last week that 75% to 80% of Americans would have to get the shot. But vaccine hesitancy poses yet another challenge: Gallup just released October poll data indicating 42% of Americans wouldn’t take a vaccine, and 37% of the naysayers cited the warp-speed timeline as the reason why.
In an effort to promote transparency and build confidence, the FDA has promised to publicly release all the data behind its reviews. Several states are trying to bolster confidence by leading their own review process, beyond the FDA’s. In a more personal effort, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) announced he’d join a vaccine trial.
In other vaccine news, three studies suggest that immunity, once achieved, may last for a long time. The New York Times’ Apoorva Mandavilli reports on a pre-review study suggesting that people who recovered from COVID-19 infection still had anti-virus immune cells after eight months. And at MedPage Today, Ricki Lewis has the story of a published study suggesting these cells lasted for 100 days, without much decline, in survivors — plus she provides a handy primer on the T cells themselves. Finally, on Medscape, Kate Kelland reports on another pre-review study that suggested British healthcare workers who got COVID-19 once were unlikely to get it again for at least six months.
Hospitalized, with no one to talk to
As ICUs fill again, certain groups are facing especially dire scenarios, including patients who don’t speak English. In the Chicago Tribune, Laura Rodríguez Presa and Alison Bowen dive into the problem created by a lack of interpreters and translated materials. The reporters describe one instance in which a patient mistook the doctors’ message that they wanted to provide a ventilator for the news the person was about to die. The language barrier can leave families at home desperate for information, with the burden often falling to relatives who speak English to translate and disseminate news.
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