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Coronavirus Files: Renters fall behind; skipped shots, testing at home

Coronavirus Files: Renters fall behind; skipped shots, testing at home

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 editor@centerforhealthjournalism.org.

Renters struggle to access aid

Housing insecurity has huge impacts on health, particularly for people of color. About one in seven renters are behind on their payments, according to census data from March, and it’s closer to one in five for Hispanic, Latino, and Black renters, as well as those making less than $25,000 per year. Yet federal plans to distribute $46.5 billion in emergency rent aid have floundered in the face of massive practical hurdles to administering the payments, reports Jason DeParle for The New York Times. “Giving away money is actually quite hard,” said Jen Loving, leader of a housing group in Santa Clara, California. “All the money in the world isn’t going to matter if it doesn’t get to the people who need it.”
 
Renters are currently protected from eviction by a CDC order, but the policy stands on thin legal and scientific ground, notes Drew Costley in the Los Angeles Times. The health argument is that blocking evictions keeps people out of group housing and off the streets, where they might spread the coronavirus. There isn’t a ton of research on the topic, but the studies that exist do suggest evictions could increase COVID-19 transmission and deaths, as well as contribute to health inequities among renters of color. But legal challenges question the CDC’s authority to influence evictions. The eviction ban is scheduled to expire in June.
 
At-home COVID-tests finally take off
 
COVID-19 testing is beginning to move from the clinic to the home. As Alice Park lays out at TIME, there are now four FDA-authorized home tests, allowing you to get results within minutes. “These tests are society’s way of being able to see the enemy around us,” Harvard epidemiologist Dr. Michael Mina told Park. At a press conference, he predicted a “massive switch” in testing going forward.
 
At-home tests are different from the gold-standard PCR tests used in clinics because they look for coronavirus proteins rather than its genetic material. And they may not be as accurate, which limits their utility to track community spread in the eyes of some experts, Park writes. The CDC and National Institutes of Health are testing whether widespread at-home testing does indeed reduce viral spread.
 
The ability to not just diagnose but also treat COVID-19 at home would be a boon. Last week, Pfizer’s CEO expressed confidence that its COVID-19 medication you can swallow would be available by years’ end. However, testing is still in the earliest stages, so that’s far from guaranteed. Other companies are also pursuing COVID-19 pills; Marilynn Marchione neatly summarizes the therapeutics situation at AP.
 
Millions miss second shots
 
Getting that second dose of COVID-19 vaccine, three or four weeks after the first for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, respectively, is proving unappealing or difficult for millions of Americans. According to CDC records — which the agency admits may be incomplete — almost 8% of people who got their first shot missed their second.
 
On one hand, that’s great news, because it means the vast majority of vaccine recipients followed the recommended schedule, notes Elizabeth Weise in USA TODAY. But the second shot makes immunity stronger and longer-lasting, like “the cherry on top of the ice cream,” said Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University. The reasons people skip their second shot, according to Rebecca Robbins in The New York Times, include fear of side effects or belief that one shot offers enough protection. But there have also been instances when vaccine providers ran out of vaccines, and some people face difficulties with transportation or getting time off work. The latter issues are especially prevalent in marginalized groups. (The single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine still seems to hold appeal for many despite a rare side effect of blood clots, according to The Washington Post.)
 
What does this mean for the longed-for herd immunity? It could push back the pandemic’s end date, according to Alexandria Hein at Fox News. But even single doses can make a big difference to the wider community. In the U.K., where health authorities have prioritized first doses of Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines and allow up to 12 weeks between shots, cases have steadily declined. Preliminary data released in March suggested people who received a single shot were significantly protected, and might also be less likely to transmit the virus to others.
 
The U.S. has steadfastly stuck to the two-dose schedule used in clinical trials, but for that second dose, late is better than never.
 
New guidelines on masks, summer activities
 
For those reluctant to start or complete a vaccine course, President Biden and the CDC dangled a new carrot last week: Get vaccinated, and you can take your mask off in uncrowded, outdoor settings. It’s a move some have been clamoring for, given the exceedingly low risk of transmission outside. And requiring masks in all situations wasn’t necessarily the best way to get people to wear them indoors, where it really counts. As Harvard epidemiologist Julia Marcus put it to The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, “We don’t recommend condom use when people are enjoying themselves alone to get them to wear condoms with their sexual partners.” But Zeynep Tufekci, also at The Atlantic, criticized the CDC’s new color-coded masking chart, calling the guidelines “too timid and too complicated.”
 
Whether you show your face or not, this summer is shaping up to be far more normal than the last. The CDC released guidelines for summer camps, suggesting outdoor activities, small cohorts and other measures can prevent outbreaks. Disneyland is open. A European vacation may also be an option; Americans who complete vaccination will be allowed into the European Union. Cruises, too, may resume by midsummer, so long as most of the guests and crew are vaccinated. (The CDC still cautions Americans against travel to a number of nations.)
 
That said, vaccine verification remains a deeply fraught issue, and Dr. Georges Benjamin of the American Public Health Association told the Center for Health Journalism that it’s too early to hand out vaccine passports when so many people in underserved groups are still having a hard time getting shots.
 
From the Center for Health Journalism
 
Apply now for 2021 National Fellowship
 
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 (July 19-23) 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.
 
May 7 deadline to apply for domestic violence grants
 
Journalists who attended the Center's two-day Symposium on Domestic Violence are eligible to apply for reporting grants of $2,000-$10,000 to report an ambitious project on intimate partner violence. The deadline to apply is May 7, and we recommend a conversation in advance with one of our consultants. Click for more details!
 
What we're reading
  • “Inequality’s deadly toll,” by Amy Maxmen, Nature
  • “We don’t really know if vaccines have been distributed equitably,” by Shefali Luthra, The 19th
  • “‘Long haul’ COVID-19 sufferers take a page from AIDS/HIV activism to be heard,” by Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times
  • “For physically disabled parents, COVID’s trials are amplified,” by Izz Scott LaMagdeleine, Undark
  • “One vaccine to rule them all,” by James Hamblin, The Atlantic

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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.

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