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Coronavirus Files: Life Expectancy Drops; Essential Workers Struggle; Kids Getting Sicker; Vaccines vs. Variants

Coronavirus Files: Life Expectancy Drops; Essential Workers Struggle; Kids Getting Sicker; Vaccines vs. Variants

Picture of Amber Dance
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


Life expectancy plummets

U.S. life expectancy suffered the most dramatic drop since World War II in the first half of 2020, falling by one year, according to a new government report. The loss was even higher for people of color: 2.7 years for Black Americans and 1.9 years for Hispanics. In part, that’s due to the higher COVID-19 mortality rate among young people of color, who often have worse access to care and higher rates of chronic conditions. “These are very large disparities, and it reflects that the pandemic affected these two minority groups much more than the majority population,” the report’s author Elizabeth Arias told The Washington Post.


For some context, the opioid crisis lowered life U.S. life expectancy by 0.3 years between 2014 and 2017, while the peak year of the HIV epidemic (1992-93) led to a drop of 0.3 years. Worse, these latest life expectancy statistics are based on only the first half of 2020 — that’s before the summer peak and winter surge.
Once the pandemic slows and ends, life expectancy numbers are expected to bounce back quickly, as they did after the 1918 flu pandemic. But certain discrepancies could linger: For example, family medicine professor Dominic Mack tells The New York Times that the health of Black Americans, already at higher risk for conditions like diabetes, could remain worse because people skipped routine medical care during the pandemic.
Essential workers unprotected
One reason communities of color have been hit so hard by the pandemic stems from their oversized representation in frontline jobs. “Few essential workers have been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than grocery store workers,” writes Ruben Vives in the Los Angeles Times. These staffers still aren’t eligible for vaccines in the majority of states. Cities including Seattle and Long Beach, California, have attempted to mandate extra “hero pay” for grocery employees, but some retailers have balked — even as they post huge profits. Other high-risk groups awaiting vaccinations include workers in agriculture, transportation and the garment industry. Language barriers and lack of digital access can make reaching them harder. Warehouse workers have also been under strain, alleges a New York state lawsuit against Amazon. The state cites “flagrant disregard for health and safety requirements” that “threatened serious illness and grave harm” to workers.
Child care workers — whose salaries average less than $11 per hour and who often work more than 12-hour days — are also left out of vaccine priority groups in at least five states, writes Anna North at Vox, and many in other states are struggling to access vaccines. Vaccination sites that are mobile or sited near child-care centers, or open late, could help. “There has to be a strategy that really acknowledges who these workers are, what their work looks like, and meets them where they are,” said Alexa Frankenberg, director of a California childcare provider union, in the Vox piece.
Children getting sicker, slight vaccine progress
Children are about half as susceptible to COVID-19 as adults, but they sometimes develop a potentially dangerous inflammatory condition called MIS-C a month or so after infection. Black and Latino children make up nearly 70% of afflicted kids, likely due to higher rates of coronavirus in their communities. While still rare, cases seem to be on the rise, reports Pam Belluck at The New York Times. “A higher percentage of them are really critically ill,” physician Roberta DeBiasi told her. (They both spoke to the Center for Health Journalism about MIS-C last year.) It’s not clear why more kids are getting sicker.
Oxford University is taking a step towards protecting children from COVID-19 by enrolling a trial of 300 kids, ages 6 and up, for the vaccine the university developed with AstraZeneca. This early-stage trial should determine if the vaccine is safe and effective in kids. Pfizer and Moderna are both testing their vaccines in teens, and more trials for younger children may start this spring. On Sunday, Anthony Fauci said that high school students might be eligible for vaccination this fall, while younger children will likely have to wait until 2022.
Vaccines vs. South Africa variant
South Africa will be swapping out the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine it ordered for Johnson & Johnson’s because the AstraZeneca shot yielded lackluster results against the local variant (B.1.351). But what does this variant mean for other vaccines, like the mRNA-based ones made by Pfizer and Moderna? For a new study, researchers tested blood serum from people immunized with Pfizer’s vaccine against coronavirus carrying some of the B.1.351 mutations, measuring the ability of antibodies to block viral replication. Against the B.1.351 version, the serum antibodies were about two-thirds weaker than they were against the original virus. Media interpretations varied: NBC News suggested the variant could “significantly reduce vaccine protection.” Leaning positive, CNN said the studies “suggest Pfizer, Moderna vaccines can protect against coronavirus variant.”
I’d offer a glass-half-full take. Though weaker, the antibodies were still able to stop the mutant virus in the lab. There are no real-world data that the variant evades the RNA vaccines, and even less-effective vaccines might still stave off severe disease. Plus, antibodies are only one part of the vaccine response. The other big player is T cells, and a study that not yet been peer-reviewed found that people who received the Pfizer shot had strong T cell responses against the South Africa variant, reports Linda Geddes at The Guardian. “It doesn’t promise you won’t get ill from the new variants,” said study author William James, “but it does suggest there’s something to work from and that your immune system can respond to them.”
From the Center for Health Journalism
2021 California Fellowship
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What we're reading
  • The superspreaders behind top COVID-19 conspiracy theories,” by David Klepper, Farnoush Amiri, and Beatrice Dupuy, AP
  • “Vaccine Delays in Developing Nations Risk Prolonging Pandemic,” by Saeed Shah, Gabriele Steinhausesr, and Feliz Solomon, The Wall Street Journal
  • “The myth of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Covid vaccines: Why false perceptions overlook facts, and could breed resentment,” by Helen Branswell, STAT
  • “Vaccinating Homeless Patients Against COVID-19: ‘All Bets Are Off,’” by Yuki Noguchi, NPR
  • “COVID-19 Cases Are Dropping Fast. Why?” by Derek Thompson, The Atlantic
  • “After Vaccines, Joy, Relief and Game Night,” by Sarah Mervosh, The New York Times
  • “Why a COVID Skeptic Finally Took the Vaccine,” by Mary Harris, Slate


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