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Coronavirus Files: Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic plan, contagious variant to overtake U.S., Los Angeles County hit hard

Coronavirus Files: Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic plan, contagious variant to overtake U.S., Los Angeles County hit hard

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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


Health Divide: In LA, Latino and Black communities bear brunt of illness and death

In hard-hit Los Angeles County, Latino and Black communities continue to bear the brunt of COVID-19 illnesses and death. “These groups have been disproportionately hard hit since the beginning of the pandemic, but the gap had eased during the summer,” writes the Los Angeles Times. “That progress has disappeared and members of those communities are now dying at rates far worse than at any previous point in the COVID-19 crisis.” The daily death rate among Latino residents in L.A. County has risen from 3 1/2 per 100,000 in early November to 28 deaths per 100,000 now — an 800% increase, according to L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer. The mortality rate has also jumped significantly among Black residents, from one daily death per 100,000 to 15. Reporters Rong-Gong Lin II and Luke Money explore why lockdowns alone are not enough to protect the county’s most vulnerable communities.  

Biden reveals ambitious vaccine roadmap, $1.9 trillion pandemic plan

"President-elect Joe Biden on Friday outlined a plan to administer Covid-19 vaccines to the US population that includes opening up eligibility to get more people vaccinated, creating more vaccination sites and taking measures to increase the supply and distribution of the vaccines," writes Kate Sullivan of CNN. Biden strongly criticized the Trump Administration's handling of the vaccine rollout, promising to help states get more groups beyond health care workers vaccinated, and to launch a public education campaign aimed at those still hesitant to get vaccinated. Biden also plans to send vaccines to federally qualified health care centers in disadvantaged communities, and set up mass vaccination hubs in community centers, churches, and sports stadiums to better reach communities of color, Politico reports.
One day earlier, Biden outlined his $1.9 trillion emergency coronavirus plan, featuring a national vaccination program, $2,000 stimulus checks for struggling families and individuals, and other protections for small businesses and communities. “The Biden plan directs roughly $400 billion to fighting the public health crisis, including through a national vaccination program, scaling up testing and contact tracing and providing paid sick leave to contain the virus’s spread, senior Biden administration officials told reporters ahead of the speech,” writes Rachel Siegel for The Washington Post. The sprawling plan also allocates funds for emergency paid leave, school reopening, expanded unemployment benefits, eviction protection, and more.  
Health policy experts are already predicting a slow start to Biden’s ambitious goal of administering 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine in the first 100 days of his administration. Prominent epidemiologist and COVID-19 task force member Michael Osterholm and other experts suggest that while the goal may prove attainable eventually, the vaccine rollout’s slow and rocky start is likely to continue: “The first days of that 100 days may be substantially slower than it will be towards the end,” he said in this story by STAT’s Nicholas Florko. Some of the challenges: “States have still not received billions of dollars in supplemental funding appropriated by Congress, hospitals and state health departments are warning of staffing shortages, and vaccination appointment scheduling systems across the country are crashing daily.” Last-minute changes by the Trump administration further complicate the effort. Those changes include expanding vaccine eligibility to everyone over age 65 and prioritizing the distribution of shots to states that move quickest. While some of these moves align with Biden’s proposed plan, state and local health officials in parts of the country have already been overwhelmed by the expanded demand for vaccines.
CDC says more contagious COVID-19 variant soon to overtake the States
Heightening the need for a coordinated, national vaccine push, the CDC predicted Friday that a highly contagious COVID-19 variant first seen in the U.K. is likely to become the dominant strain in the United States by March. “In every scenario explored by the CDC, the U.K. strain, which British researchers estimate is roughly 50% more transmissible than the more common coronavirus strain, will account for a majority of cases in the United States by some point in March,” writes Joel Achenbach for The Washington Post. While the new variant does not appear to lead to more severe disease, the CDC emphasized that more spread leads to more cases, which inevitably will cause an increase in deaths. “More spread, more cases, more deaths,” the agency bluntly warned.
“Epidemiologists stress the country still has a chance to contain the variants before they become widespread, but only if public health authorities can keep ahead of them,” writes Andrew Joseph of STAT. “It would require an expansion of testing and genomic sequencing to identify where the variants are starting to spread, and prioritizing contact tracing and quarantining programs to sever chains of transmission. Americans would need to redouble their efforts to wear masks, physical distance, and avoid gatherings.”
Early speculation about the U.K. variant raised fears that children spread this strain more, but detailed contact tracing from Public Health England disproved the theory. While the variant appears to be about 50% more contagious among children, children under 10 are still only about half as likely as adults to spread the variant to others. And children are still not as susceptible as adults to severe disease, as seen with other variants. Apoorva Mandavilli of The New York Times offers this look at what the U.S. can learn from how school systems in Europe have responded to the new variant.  
Moderna says vaccine confers at least one year of immunity
Moderna said at the JP Morgan Health Care Conference last week that immunity for its COVID-19 vaccine is likely to last at least a year after vaccination, Reuters reports. The company noted that regular vaccines may be required to boost the immune system after the year-long period has passed. Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel also echoed earlier statements from Pfizer that the core components of its vaccine make it easily adaptable to new variants. 
Meanwhile, the company is struggling to find enough adolescents to volunteer for its COVID-19 vaccine trial, which could delay federal vaccine authorization for this age group. “More than 2 million minors were diagnosed with COVID-19 in 2020, and many more probably contracted the disease but were never diagnosed,” writes Karen Weintraub of USA Today. While teens are less likely to suffer serious cases of the disease, many have seen their academic and social lives upended by the pandemic. And they can also infect those around them. 
From the Center for Health Journalism
Covering Coronavirus: How a Pro Covers Vaccines
Missed last week's free webinar featuring reporter Lisa Krieger of The San Jose Mercury News? Krieger shared tips on how to better cover our nation’s complex and unprecedented COVID-19 vaccination campaign, while providing an up-to-date overview of the vaccine pipeline, allocation and distribution strategies, and projections for the 2021 timetable. Click here for a recording of the event and Krieger's slides.
2021 California Fellowship
Apply now for our 2021 California Fellowship! Fellows receive funding for ambitious projects, plus mentorship, interactive workshops and engaging discussions by health policy experts, community health practitioners and journalists. Deadline to apply: March 1.
What we're reading
  • The Future of Coronavirus? An Annoying Childhood Infection, The New York Times
  • We Can't Afford to Wait for COVID-19 Vaccines to be Rolled Out. Here's What We Can Do to Curb the Virus Now, TIME
  • Still Going to the Grocery Store? With New Variant Spread, It's Probably Time to Stop, Vox
  • J&J's One-Shot COVID Vaccine is Safe and Generates Promising Immune Response in Early Trial, CNBC

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