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Coronavirus Files: Biden plans to release all vaccine doses

Coronavirus Files: Biden plans to release all vaccine doses

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Since last 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 community editor Chinyere Amobi. Have a suggestion or a request? Write us at editor@centerforhealthjournalism.org.

Health Divide: Immigrant detainees chose deportation over COVID-19 outbreaks

Last summer, Kevin Euceda, a Honduran migrant, frantically called his pro bono lawyer from the detention center where he’d been held for nearly three years. Euceda asked to be connected to a deportation officer. “In detention centers around the country, more and more people have been asking for the same thing, seeking their own deportation as the novel coronavirus has spread through facilities and sickened more than 8,000 detainees, according to government data,” writes Hannah Drier of The Washington Post. Trump administration policies have led to a record number of detainees being held in detention as the pandemic rages on, including 7,000 people who normally would have been released on bond as their cases were processed. “More than 2,500 detainees, most with no serious criminal history, have given up their cases since March, according to records from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group at Syracuse University.”

 New Biden plan calls for release of all COVID-19 vaccine doses

While the Trump Administration's Operation Warp Speed came through on the scientific front of vaccine development, shattering records and silencing critics who believed a vaccine would come much later, the administration has fallen far behind on its goal of getting the vaccine to the public.
 
“President-elect Joe Biden will aim to release nearly every available dose of the coronavirus vaccine when he takes office, a break with the Trump administration's strategy of holding back half of US vaccine production to ensure second doses are available,” writes Sara Murray of CNN. This could rapidly increase the pace of people getting their first dose of the vaccination, though critics say Biden’s plan runs the risk of running out of doses unless vaccine developers ramp up production. To combat this, the President-elect’s team hopes to use the Defense Production Act to produce vaccine materials and other supplies. 
 
Scientists race to track virus mutations
 
 
On Friday, multiple news outlets published articles about a highly contagious new coronavirus variant specific to the U.S., which were based on statements made by Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Government officials and the CDC later deemed these statements erroneous. Jason McDonald, a spokesman for the CDC, wrote in a statement: “Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are monitoring all emerging variants of the coronavirus, including in 5,700 samples collected in November and December. To date, neither researchers nor analysts at CDC have seen the emergence of a particular variant in the United States."
 
Nevertheless, scientists are racing to track a new, more infectious variant of the coronavirus that is appearing around the world and in a few states. “The mutation, identified in a variant first seen in South Africa and separately seen in another variant in Brazil, changes a part of the virus that your immune system’s antibodies get trained to recognize after you’ve been infected or vaccinated,” writes Andrew Joseph for STAT. This variation could make people’s existing antibodies less effective at neutralizing the virus and could make the virus better able to slip past the immune system. This has generated fears that the mutation could render existing authorized vaccines useless. Experts stress that because these vaccines produce antibodies that target different parts of the virus, they should still be expected to recognize mutations, though perhaps not as well. Read on for more about how researchers think current and future coronavirus mutations might impact existing vaccine effectiveness. 
 
The U.S. may well find itself ill-equipped, should a more contagious mutation of the coronavirus take over, with no large scale, nationwide system for tracking genomes for new mutations. “Scientists say that a national surveillance program would be able to determine just how widespread the new variant is and help contain emerging hot spots, extending the crucial window of time in which vulnerable people across the country could get vaccinated,” writes Carl Zimmer of The New York Times. Researchers warn that if a variant follows the same trajectory in the United States as the B.1.1.7 strain has in Britain, it could become the dominant strain in the next couple months, outcompeting more common, less contagious mutations. 
 
COVID-19 vaccine rollout varies across the country
 
 
“In New York City and many places around the country, the mass vaccination campaign is off to a dispiriting start, with public health experts voicing concerns about how few people have been vaccinated so far, even as coronavirus cases soar and a more contagious variant of the virus has been detected,” writes Joseph Goldstein of The New York Times. More than 22 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been distributed across the country, but only about 7 million Americans have received their first shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Varying rules across states and even at the county level mean that the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is playing out very differently across the country. 
 
In New York City, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s rigid guidelines to prioritize health care workers and residents and staff at nursing homes and group homes may have stalled efforts to distribute the vaccine. As of Friday, 66% of the city’s 489,325 doses remain unused. To address the slow start to the state’s campaign, Cuomo recently widened vaccine eligibility to include those 75 or older.
 
Elsewhere, the slow pace of distribution is causing location-based vaccination variation within risk categories. “More than a dozen states looking to deploy unused coronavirus vaccines are starting to give shots to older members of the general population while others have not, meaning protection for more than 20 million Americans aching to hug their grandchildren may depend on where they live,” writes Reuters
 
California, experiencing one of the country’s worst surge in cases, is expanding its definition of health care workers to include community health care workers, public health field staff members, and people who work in clinics in an effort to avoid wasting vaccine doses.
 
Los Angeles County nearing grim tipping point
 
 
“Stretched to the breaking point by a deluge of COVID-19 patients, Los Angeles County’s four public hospitals are preparing to take the extraordinary step of rationing care, with a team of 'triage officers' set to decide which patients can benefit from continued treatment and which are beyond saving and should be allowed to die,” writes the Los Angeles Times. While top health officials say the county has not yet reached this point, hospital leaders have acknowledged that eventually they won’t have the staffing or critical supplies to provide adequate patient care and may eventually have to rely on triage officers who decide which patients get resources such as ventilators and critical care nurses. Some county hospitals have already began a form of “undeclared rationing,” including diverting ambulances carrying COVID-19 patients away from over-taxed hospitals. 
 
From the Center for Health Journalism
 
 
Join us on Thursday, January 14 at 10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET for a free webinar where we'll provide context on our nation’s complex and unprecedented COVID-19 vaccination campaign, suggest compelling story ideas, and summarize current controversies. Reporter Lisa Krieger of The San Jose Mercury News will share how she stays on top of this fast-moving story, offering practical tips that will bolster your coverage. For more information, and to register, click here.
 
What we're reading
 
 
  • CDC Reports More Allergic Reactions to Covid-19 Vaccines, But Cases Remain Few, STAT
  • The Mutated Virus is a Ticking Time Bomb, The Atlantic
  • Behind West Virginia’s vaccine success story, chaos for local health departments, Mountain State Spotlight
  • Releasing more doses for first vaccines could cause more problems than it solves, Washington Post

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