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Coronavirus Files: Boosting vaccine equity; AstraZeneca missteps; long COVID and the brain

Coronavirus Files: Boosting vaccine equity; AstraZeneca missteps; long COVID and the brain

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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.
 
Biden, CDC tackle vaccine inequities
 
 
The administration will invest almost $10 billion to combat the uneven distribution of vaccines to people of color, low-income individuals and those in underserved areas, reports Isaac Stanley-Becker at The Washington Post. And the CDC has tapped Dr. Demetre Daskalis, a top HIV/AIDS physician and gay activist to oversee its vaccine equity efforts. Dasalkis will coordinate with the White House, states, pharmacies and community health centers, write Stanley-Becker and Lena H. Sun in the Post.
 
Daskalis and colleagues have their work cut out for them. They don’t even have good data on race and ethnicity amongst those who’ve already been vaccinated, but it’s clear that Black and Hispanic people are getting fewer shots. In an email to colleagues, Daskalis drew a clear connection between HIV and COVID-19. “Racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately represented among COVID-19 cases, as well as among HIV diagnoses,” he wrote. The Biden administration’s plan includes more than $6 billion for community health centers, which have administered nearly two-thirds of their vaccine supply to people of color. The government will also start distributing doses directly to kidney dialysis centers, which disproportionately treat racial and ethnic minorities.
 
AstraZeneca mess undermines trust
 
 
AstraZeneca gave vaccine-trackers whiplash last week, first reporting its U.S. trial efficacy was a surprisingly good 79%, then dropping it to 76% after a reprimand from the data safety and monitoring board over a missing month’s worth of data. Once you consider statistical uncertainty, the numbers are essentially identical; the true efficacy is probably somewhere between 68% and 92%, reports Jon Cohen at Science. However you crunch the numbers, it’s an effective vaccine.
 
These kinds of data checks and oversight by independent panels are doing exactly what they’re supposed to, but all the drama around AstraZeneca — including the latest squabble over supply and exports in the European Union — are likely to further erode consumer confidence in the shot, and maybe other vaccines as well. That prompts the question: If American citizens turn down the AstraZeneca option, does it matter? Caitlin Owens at Axios notes the vaccine won’t be authorized for several weeks at least, and by then there should be ample supply of the other three authorized shots. “At most, you’ll get a small percentage of Americans vaccinated with AstraZeneca,” said Brown University public health expert Dr. Ashish Jha.
 
Many other nations, though, will depend on the inexpensive, easily stored AstraZeneca vaccine. And one measure that might reassure people in those countries, notes Maria Cheng at AP, would be a nod from the U.S. FDA. While the company is likely to face a thorough grilling by FDA advisors, authorization is still highly likely, writes Elizabeth Cohen at CNN.
 
Long COVID messes with the mind
 
 
Some people whose bout with COVID-19 doesn’t fully go away have reported bizarre neurological symptoms: Ringing ears. Strange, disgusting smells, or no smell at all. Terrifying hallucinations. A new study from Northwestern University is thought to be the first scientific study to detail the neurological symptoms, reports Nara Shoenberg at the Chicago Tribune. Studying 100 patients who visited a long COVID clinic last year, the researchers found more than half suffered brain fog, headaches, numbness or tingling, and problems with taste and smell. Dizziness, blurred vision and ringing ears also occurred. Long COVID affects one-third of coronavirus cases, according to one estimate.
 
Most study participants were white, reports Pam Belluck at The New York Times, likely reflecting the costs of specialty treatment. It’s possible that people of color have more trouble accessing care, or that physicians dismiss their symptoms, Dr. Allison P. Navis, a specialist in neurological infections, told Belluck. The lower rates of COVID-19 testing among minority groups may also influence their ability to receive treatment for long COVID.
 
The debilitating symptoms sometimes resolve on their own, or after a COVID-19 vaccination, according to anecdotal reports. Scientists are beginning to study the puzzling condition in more depth, with the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease launching a $1.15 billion program, notes Melissa Healy at the Los Angeles Times. While some people think long COVID is a psychological disorder, top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci assured her “this is a real situation.”
 
From the Center for Health Journalism
 
Free Domestic Violence Symposium, Opportunity to Apply for Grants
 
Domestic violence affects tens of millions of Americans every year. Yet media outlets mostly treat incidents as "Cops" items, if they cover them at all, as opposed to treating domestic violence as a public health problem. Our free two-day symposium will help journalists understand the root causes and promising prevention, intervention and treatment approaches. Plus, participants will be able to apply for grants to report California-focused projects. Register here by April 1.
 
We’re seeking a key journalism hire!
 
Are you passionate about helping journalists understand and illuminate the social factors that contribute to health and health disparities at a time when COVID-19 has highlighted the costs of such inequities? Looking to play a big role in shaping journalism today in the United States? The USC Center for Health Journalism seeks an enterprising and experienced journalism leader for our new position of “Manager of Projects.” Apply here.
 
What we're reading
 
  • “What is vaccination equity?” by Isabella Alexander-Nathani, Sapiens
  • “The missing students of the pandemic,” by Eli Saslow, The Washington Post
  • “‘You work your butt off’: Inside the scramble to bring COVID-19 vaccines to homebound Americans,” by Lev Facher, STAT
  • “‘Press 1 for English’: Vaccination sign-ups prove daunting for speakers of other languages,” by Rachana Pradhan, Kaiser Health News
  • “How a pandemic upended the business of death,” by Hadley Barndollar, USA Today
  • “Some people are lying to get vaccinated, and it’s testing their friendships,” by Ashley Fetters, The Washington Post
  • “Rare COVID reactions might hold key to variant-proof vaccines,” by Ewen Callaway, Nature

 

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As public health officials like to say, "COVID-19 isn't done with us." And journalists know that we're not done with COVID-19. Apply now for five days of stimulating discussions on the pandemic's disproportionate impact on people of color -- plus reporting and engagement grants of $2k-$10k and five months of mentoring while you work on an ambitious project.

Are you passionate about helping journalists understand and illuminate the social factors that contribute to health and health disparities at a time when COVID-19 has highlighted the costs of such inequities? Looking to play a big role in shaping journalism today in the United States? The USC Center for Health Journalism seeks an enterprising and experienced journalism leader for our new position of “Manager of Projects.” 

 

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