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Coronavirus Files: President Biden announces COVID-19 strategy

Coronavirus Files: President Biden announces COVID-19 strategy

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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: States stumble in ensuring health equity in vaccine distribution

In Texas and across the nation local leaders are struggling to ensure equity in their vaccine rollouts as communities of color continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic. “In Dallas, as in other major Texas cities, distribution sites are more commonly located in white neighborhoods, and early data showed the North Texas county had distributed most of its shots to residents of whiter, wealthier neighborhoods,” write Emma Platoff and Juan Pablo Garnham for The Texas Tribune. To combat this, Dallas County Commissioners Court voted last week to prioritize vaccines for residents in the county’s most vulnerable ZIP codes, largely Black and Brown communities. The backlash was swift, leading the county to reverse course after state officials called the plan “not acceptable” and threatened to slash the county’s vaccine allocation. 
 
ICE detention centers have been hit hard by coronavirus outbreaks. Krystal Chavez and her family eagerly awaited the return of her father, Cipriano Chavez-Alvarez, whose life sentence for a non-violent drug conviction was cut short due to his high risk of serious COVID-19 disease while incarcerated. That hope was extinguished when the US government transferred Chavez-Alvarez to an ICE facility instead, in preparation for deporting him to Mexico. Chavez-Alvarez contracted the virus and died within two weeks. “Like jails and prisons across the U.S., ICE detention centers have become hotbeds of infection, with the agency reporting more than 8,800 coronavirus cases among immigrants in its custody since the start of the pandemic,” writes Camilo Montoya-Galvez of CBS News. “Eight detainees, including Chavez-Alvarez, have died of coronavirus complications, according to ICE data.” An ICE spokesperson told Montoya-Galvez that the agency does not yet have a timeline for vaccinating detainees, with decisions ultimately left to states.  
 
President Biden announces COVID-19 strategy
 
 
President Joe Biden has named management consultant and investor Jeff Zients as his coronavirus czar. “The role of Zients will be to revamp the entire pandemic response, a task that is likely to test his management skills as he tries to coordinate federal, state and local organizations,” writes Kiran Stacy and Hannah Kuchler for the Los Angeles Times. Known by former Obama staffers as “Mr. Fix-It,” Zients was previously tasked with managing the problem-plagued HealthCare.gov rollout. Some critics balked at awarding a position so critical to the pandemic to a non-scientist. “Zients will coordinate the Biden administration's COVID-19 team to carry out the president-elect's plans to vaccinate 100 million people in 100 days, boost testing and get Americans to diligently wear masks -- lofty goals that will fall on Zients' shoulders,” writes Cheyenne Haslett of ABC News.
 
President Biden announced 10 executive orders last Thursday to accelerate his administration’s COVID-19 response. The orders include:
 
  • Invoking the Defense Production Act to accelerate manufacturing of critical pandemic resources
  • Requiring the Department of Education and Health and Human Services to develop a national strategy for the safe reopening of schools, childcare, and higher education institutions
  • Establishing a COVID-19 Pandemic Testing Board to expand testing and access
  • Stronger workplace protections and unemployment extension for those who refuse to work in environments unsafe due to the pandemic
  • Establishing a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force to address disparities in cases and deaths.
 
“The White House billed the strategy as a ‘nationwide’ approach to combat the virus after former President Donald Trump left states in charge of things including administering vaccines and purchasing protective equipment for health care workers,” writes Joey Garrison of USA Today. Biden referred to masking as a “patriotic act” that was more important than vaccines, with the latter taking a longer time to have an effect on disease spread. Many of the priorities within these executive orders rely on the passage of the President’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package introduced earlier this month. 
 
During the press conference Biden also promised that the American people will hear directly from scientists and public health experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, who were muzzled during the last administration. Fauci described it as a “liberating feeling.” The nation’s leading infectious disease doctor told CNN that the Trump administration’s lack of candor with reporters and the public likely cost lives throughout the pandemic.
 
COVID-19 mutations spur worries about vaccine efficacy
 
 
While experts believe current vaccines should be effective against new variants of the coronavirus, two small studies posted last week raise two concerning possibilities: “People who had survived mild infections with the coronavirus may still be vulnerable to infection with a new variant; and more worryingly, the vaccines may be less effective against the variants,” writes Apoorva Mandavilli of The New York Times. The studies suggest that people who are vaccinated may still be able to become mildly or asymptomatically infected with new coronavirus variations, and pass them on to others. Scientists had hoped the existing vaccines could slow the virus down for years, decreasing the chance for more mutations. “Now some researchers fear the unchecked spread has given the virus nearly unfettered opportunities to reinvent itself, and may have hastened the appearance of escape mutations,” writes Mandavilli. 
 
The latest surge currently overtaking Manaus, Brazil provides a worrying look at the potential impact of such variants on an unvaccinated populace. As hospitals run out of oxygen and patients suffocate in their beds, researchers are struggling to understand why a city that seemingly reached herd immunity during its first wave of coronavirus infections last spring is again seeing a deadly surge. Scientists have detected a new variant of the coronavirus called P1 that has been circulating in Brazil as early as December. Its mutations can make the virus more contagious and perhaps better able to evade the immune system. “Mutations in these new variants could make it easier for some people to get COVID-19 a second time,” virologist Ravi Gupta at the University of Cambridge told NPR. "We know that you can get reinfected even with the same version of the virus," he says. Experts believe that vaccinations could still lessen the impact of the second surge. 
 
Pfizer shifts US vaccine allotment due to "surprise" doses
 
 
In a move that has unsettled some health officials, Pfizer will now ship fewer vaccine vials to the US to account for “extra” doses that can be extracted from vials. Pharmacists first made the auspicious discovery that they could use “low dead volume” syringes to squeeze out a sixth dose from vials that were only supposed to contain five. The drug company now plans to count these surprise doses towards its current commitment to the US of 200 million vaccine doses by the end of July. “And yet, pharmacists at some vaccination sites say they are still struggling to reliably extract the extra doses, which require the use of a specialty syringe,” write Noah Weilanad, Katie Thomas, and Sharon LaFraniere of The New York Times. Health officials initially welcomed the idea of potentially stretching 120 million doses out of the Pfizer contract, to combat vaccine scarcity and the rising death toll. "Pharmacists around the country are still reporting that they don’t have the right supplies to reliably extract extra doses," Erin Fox, a senior pharmacy director at the University of Utah told The New York Times.
 
Trump exit coincides with grim COVID-19 milestone
 
 
The United States recorded 400,000 COVID-19 deaths on the former President Donald J. Trump’s last full day in office. More than 100,000 of those deaths occurred in the last five weeks of the administration. Kaiser Health News contributor Will Stone speaks with Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of epidemiology at the University of California-San Francisco, about how the U.S. sped towards this milestone. Her home state of California, lauded for following the science on COVID-19, has seen devastating case counts and losses, particularly in Southern California. “It’s important to understand virology. It’s important to understand epidemiology. But ultimately, what we’ve learned is that human behavior and psychology is a major force in this pandemic,” Bibbins-Domingo told Stone.
 
“The coronavirus pandemic revealed a ‘clash of cultures’ between the White House pressing for faster progress on vaccines and treatments and the Food and Drug Administration’s efforts to stick to the science,” outgoing Commissioner Stephen Hahn told reporter Sarah Owermohle of POLITICO. From the administration’s much publicized push for emergency authorization of malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 to the breathless sprint towards a vaccine, FDA officials often found themselves in very public and distracting sparring matches while COVID-19 cases surged across the country. 
 
In a hard-hitting piece in Vanity Fair, investigative journalist Katherine Eban also explores how the Trump administration drowned the FDA in “junk science” and a “tsunami of randoms” during the agency’s “most consequential year of existence.”
 
From the Center for Health Journalism
 
 
Covering Coronavirus: Biden's First 100 Days
 
In our next webinar on February 3, at 12 p.m. PT / 3 p.m. ET, we’ll analyze Biden’s COVID-19 strategy in the first 100 days — and the huge obstacles the new federal effort must confront. We’ll also look at how Biden plans to address the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic, with a focus on women and vulnerable families. Sign-up here!
 
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
  • Patients Fend for Themselves to Access Highly Touted Covid Antibody Treatments, Kaiser Health News
  • Rogue Antibodies could be Driving Severe COVID-19, Nature
  • I Tried to Start a Pandemic Pod for my 5-year-old. Here’s How it Went Wrong, Los Angeles Times
  • Two Masks are the New Masks, The New York Times
  • COVID-19 Vaccine Guidance for Those Who are Lactating is Based on Faulty Assumptions, Experts Say, STAT

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