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Coronavirus Files: Virus rages among migrant children; Hispanics behind in vaccinations

Coronavirus Files: Virus rages among migrant children; Hispanics behind in vaccinations

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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


Upcoming webinar: The long COVID nightmare

Join us April 7 for an update on what we’ve learned about long COVID since the condition first grabbed headlines last year, and a discussion of how to tell informed and compelling stories about it. More details below.


Migrant camps overflow with children, and virus

When reporters and camera crews entered a Border Patrol waystation on March 30, they found more than 4,000 people — including many unaccompanied minors — crammed into a facility meant for 250. The crowding creates a perfect hotbed for disease transmission, and Border Patrol does not test kids for COVID-19 unless they’re showing symptoms. (The CDC says as many as 50%of infections in children may be asymptomatic.)
Homeland Security secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas said border agents are working to transfer unaccompanied children as quickly as possible — first to government shelters and then to family members or sponsors. “A Border Patrol facility is no place for a child,” he said in a statement. The Biden administration has set up several temporary shelters for young migrants in San Diego and Texas, but these are hardly spacious, notes Tyler Olson at Fox News. “They’re sleeping head to foot,” said U.S. Rep. Van Taylor, Republican of Texas. More than 250 minors have tested positive for COVID-19 in Texas shelters, and more than 80 teens were COVID-positive in San Diego, according to federal officials.
It's spring, and variants are surging
Here we go again: Case rates across the nation are ticking upwards, with Michigan still the epicenter of the current outbreak. With the highly infectious B.1.1.7 variant circulating across the country, the rise was “almost inevitable,” writes Zeynep Tufekci at The Atlantic. B.1.1.7, aka the U.K. variant, has been found in 49 states and now makes up about one-third of cases, according to the CDC. Variants of concern from California, B.1.427 and B.1.429, account for another 12.4% of cases, while B.1.351 (South Africa) and P.1 (Brazil) are much rarer for now.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, going off script at a White House briefing, described feeling “impending doom” as she pleaded with Americans to keep up social distancing, masking and other protective measures for just a bit longer. Biostatistician Nicholas Reich told Karen Weintraub at USA Today that just a few more weeks of caution could stem the surge.
If you’re feeling déjà vu from last spring and fall, you’re not alone, but this time it’s different, because along with variants we also have vaccines. President Joe Biden said that 90% of adults will be eligible for their shot by April 19, and he’s planning to distribute more vaccines to pharmacies and new mass vaccination sites to accelerate the effort, Joyce Frieden reports at MedPage Today. “If we act quickly,” Tufekci writes, “this surge could be merely a blip.”
Immunization lagging in Hispanics
People of Hispanic descent are “especially underrepresented” in the U.S. vaccine line, according to a New York Times analysis. For example, in New Mexico, Hispanic people make up 49% of the population, but only 38% of those vaccinated. The article points to lack of information and digital access as key factors. “People didn’t even know that there was a vaccine when we talked to them,” Gilda Pedraza, director of the Latino Community Fund in Atlanta, told the Times.
Those aren’t the only challenges: Essential workers may not be able to take time off to get a shot or recover from its side effects. And despite the government’s reassurances that vaccination won’t influence immigration status, many people remain wary. Public health experts say health care providers can help by providing information, but Hispanic people are less likely to have access to a trusted physician, or insurance.
The situation does seem to be improving slightly, with the gap narrowing in many states since the start of March, the Times reports. Federal efforts to provide vaccines at community health centers have helped; Hispanic people, who represent 18% of the U.S. population, make up more than one-quarter of folks vaccinated at those sites.
Vaccines: Good news from Pfizer, but J&J's turn in the hot seat
Vaccines made of mRNA — those from Pfizer and Moderna — had a good week. A CDC report found that they were 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 infections among nearly 4,000 essential workers. Buoyed by strong results like these, the CDC announced that vaccinated people can safely travel two weeks after their last shot, without testing or quarantining.
The CDC researchers have not yet considered the variants infecting the participants, but should have a better picture within a month. Pfizer, in an update on its own trial results, reported the vaccine was effective in South Africa, where the B.1.351 variant is circulating. However, that finding is based on a small number of infections in the region, notes, Carl O’Donnell at Reuters. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases just launched a study of college students, with the Moderna vaccine, to look more closely at whether vaccinated individuals can transmit the virus, reports Shannon Firth at MedPage Today.
Pfizer offered more good news: protection induced by its vaccine lasts for at least six months, and it works in children as young as 12. The company will ask the FDA to expand its emergency authorization to include ages 12 to 15, and CEO Albert Bourla hopes those children will be eligible for vaccination before fall, reports Lauren Mascarenhas at CNN. Vaccination in kids will be crucial to further driving down case numbers and keeping variants from emerging, note physician Jeremy Samuel Faust and virologist Angela L. Rasmussen in a New York Times op-ed.
Not all vaccine news was so rosy last week. Johnson & Johnson had a setback, when workers at a plant in Baltimore accidentally mixed ingredients with those from AstraZeneca’s vaccine. Up to 15 million doses were contaminated, report Sharon LaFranier and Noah Weiland, who broke the story at The New York Times. This plant, run by Emergent BioSolutions, has had problems before, according to an AP investigation that found citations for insufficient training, cracked vials and contaminants like mold. None of the botched vaccine left the facility, so doses in use now remain safe. Johnson & Johnson will take over the production line, and the AstraZeneca vaccine will now be made elsewhere, to avoid future mix-ups. Johnson & Johnson says it still plans to deliver the 24 million doses it’s promised the U.S. by the end of April. The manufacturing mishap shouldn’t interfere with President Biden’s plan to make all U.S. adults eligible for vaccination by the end of May, reports AP: “A federal official said Wednesday evening that the administration’s goal can be met without additional J&J doses.”
From the Center for Health Journalism
Covering Coronavirus: The Long COVID Nightmare
For a growing group of Americans, life has never been the same since testing positive for coronavirus. Long after the first wave of infection, patients report a host of debilitating and persistent symptoms — from extreme fatigue, heart problems and shortness of breath to brain fog, depression and even psychotic episodes. The suffering isn’t limited to the most severe cases of COVID-19 either: One pre-print study found that a third of “long COVID” patients were asymptomatic until longer-term problems surfaced. With more than 30 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S., there is growing urgency for researchers and doctors to unravel the causes and potential new treatments for those living with the misery of long COVID.
April 7, 10:30-11:30 PT. Register here.
2021 National Fellowship
Applications are now being accepted for the Center for Health Journalism's 2021 National Fellowship, which will provide 20 competitively selected journalists from around the country with five days of free training (via Zoom) on health disparities and challenges facing vulnerable children, youth and families, along with reporting and engagement grants of $2,000-$12,000 and five months of expert mentoring. Dates: July 19-23; deadline to apply: May 14, 2021.
What we're reading
  • “Pandemic masks ongoing child abuse crisis as cases plummet,” by Sally Ho and Camille Fassett, AP
  • “Open season for vaccines presents advantages, new challenges for equal access,” by Catherine Ho and Meghan Bobrowsky, San Francisco Chronicle
  • “Birx shares her chilling conclusion as America arrives at a moment of introspection on the coronavirus,” by Maeve Reston, CNN
  • “WHO report into COVID pandemic origins zeroes in on animal markets, no labs,” by Amy Maxmen, Nature
  • “COVID vaccine hesitancy drops among all Americans, new survey shows,” by Emmarie Huetteman, Kaiser Health News
  • “I got the placebo in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine trial. Here’s my full journey.” By Leana S. Wen, The Washington Post


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