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The Coronavirus Files: Money Matters, School Reopenings, At-Home Tests

The Coronavirus Files: Money Matters, School Reopenings, At-Home Tests

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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 science writer Amber Dance, PhD. Have a suggestion or a request? Write us at editor@centerforhealthjournalism.org.

 

Vaccinations follow the money

The best protection against COVID-19 may not come from the mask on your face, but your household income and your home address. STAT’s Olivia Goldhill reports that vaccination rates are far higher in affluent areas in many states. In California, living in an area with lots of hospitals and clinics, like San Francisco, also means a better chance at vaccination compared to residing in a rural, poorer community, writes Alicia Victoria Lozano at NBC News. With Black and Latino people more likely to live in poorer neighborhoods, these disparities compound racial inequities, too.
 
Caitlin Antonios, a 2021 Impact Fund grantee, has found that California community clinics serving low-income and Hispanic patients struggled to acquire the vaccine, as hospitals were prioritized. But some help is on the way: the federal government will distribute 1 million additional doses among 250 clinics in underserved areas, and plans to open five new vaccination centers aimed at communities of color.
 
A turning point for schools?
 
Richer neighborhoods are also quicker to re-open schools, reports the Los Angeles Times, while students of color are most at risk of falling behind. Several cities are negotiating plans to get kids and teachers back to school, or reopening some classrooms already.
 
A growing body of science indicates that schools and daycares aren’t the hotbeds of viral transmission that we feared they were last spring. CDC director Rochelle Walensky has even said reopening can happen before teachers get vaccinated. (Scores of experts polled by The New York Times agreed.) On Friday, the CDC released new guidelines for reopening, which recommend in-person elementary instruction at any level of community COVID-19 circulation, and in-person middle and high school at all but the highest levels.
 
The agency suggested middle and high schools could be open at any outbreak level if they tests students and staff weekly, but that would be a financial burden for many districts. And many old school buildings — often in poor or nonwhite districts — lack proper ventilation, a point barely addressed in the new guidance. The nearly $130 billion that President Biden’s relief plan earmarks for schools, if passed, could help schools, as Matt Barnum lays out at Chalkbeat. Much of the money would be targeted at high-poverty districts, and schools would have broad leeway in how they spend a large portion of it, so purchasing protective equipment or upgrading facilities could be possible.
 
At-home tests on the horizon
 
The Biden administration is also placing orders for rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests, so you could check your status before going to a baseball game or barbecue. The nation can expect 61 million such tests by summer’s end. While we hope a large portion of the country’s population will be vaccinated by then, testing will still have a role to play, surgeon and writer Atul Gawande tells Kathleen McLaughlin at STAT. Critics are calling the plan too little, too late, not to mention “too expensive and complicated,” writes McLaughlin.
 
Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina has said people should be able to test themselves twice a week, and tells McLaughlin that the tests may have the same equity issues as clinical testing, schooling and vaccination. The first such test to gain FDA approval, from Ellume, costs $30 a pop, which would price many Americans out.
 
And the value of these tests remains debatable, reports Giorgia Guglielmi at Nature. They register viral proteins, instead of genetic material, and only come back positive if those protein levels are pretty high. In other words, someone with a low-level infection might get a negative result and a false sense of security. Mina, however, argues widespread testing could still be effective in controlling viral spread at the population level.
 
What's the endgame?
 
Cases are going down, and by April, Anthony Fauci expects “open season” on vaccines, with everyone 16 and older eligible. But variants could fuel another surge this spring. The Washington Post rolled out some neat infographics to show how slower vaccination could leave the door open for new variants to take over.
 
Herd immunity — perhaps somewhere between 60% and 90% of the population immune, no one knows exactly — has long been the goalpost, but we may never get there, writes Sarah Zhang in The Atlantic. Standing in the way, Zhang says, are current and future variants, the likelihood that vaccines won’t completely block transmission, and the 13% of Americans who say they definitely won’t get vaccinated. Jamie Ducharme at Time suggests we’ll learn to live with the virus. But vaccines can still curb hospitalizations and deaths. The pandemic “is going to be a little bit longer than it would have been without those variants arising,” epidemiologist Aubree Gordon tells Science News. “But pandemics always end eventually.”
 
From the Center for Health Journalism
 
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
 
  • “Could a Single Vaccine Work Against All Coronaviruses?” by Carl Zimmer, The New York Times
  • “Her COVID-19 treatment cost more than $1 million. Who’s going to pay for it?” by Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • “Possible Early Covid-19 Cases in China Emerge During WHO Mission,” by Drew Hinshaw, Jeremy Page & Betsy McKay, The Wall Street Journal
  • “NYC Nursing Home Gave Dozens of Veterans Experimental COVID-19 Treatments. Some Families Had No Idea,” by Dean Russell, The City
  • “Inside the Worst-Hit County in the Worst-Hit State in the Worst-Hit Country,” by Atul Gawande, The New Yorker
 
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