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Coronavirus Files: Hospital closures hit hard; lab-leak theory gains credence

Coronavirus Files: Hospital closures hit hard; lab-leak theory gains credence

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Since Apri 2020, 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
6/9 Webinar: The vaccine tipping point
Now that vaccine supplies are starting to outpace demand in much of the country, we’ll explore who remains unvaccinated and efforts aimed at hard-to-reach groups. More info below. Register here.
Hospital closures worsen disparities during pandemic
Rural Black communities have been at extra risk from COVID-19 as 19 rural hospitals, a record high, shuttered in 2020, writes Olivia Goldhill at STAT. No nearby hospital means delays in COVID-19 testing and in care. STAT finds that COVID-19 death rates were higher in counties where hospitals closed. For instance, with the Georgia hospital serving Randolph and Terrell counties out of commission for much of the year, the region suffered an exceedingly high death rate of 50 people per 100,000 residents — nearly triple the state’s overall rate. “At every step in the pipeline, hospitals with a larger footprint in the African American community are more likely to shut,” said health policy expert Mark Holmes of the University of North Carolina. Moreover, many closures happened in the southern and southeastern United States where a history of racism makes Black patients more hesitant to trust hospitals outside their communities. Federal relief funds saved many hospitals last year, but still more may close as those monies dry up.
It's been a week for the lab-leak theory
President Joe Biden called on intelligence agencies to further investigate the origins of the novel coronavirus in response to renewed interest lately in the possibility it emerged from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The current coronavirus originated in an animal, most likely a bat. The biggest unanswered question is the route it took from that animal to people. It may have passed through some other animal, as happened with the SARS virus in 2002 and the MERS virus in 2012. But more and more scientists and journalists are finding it hard to dismiss the possibility that the virus instead could have accidentally escaped the lab, which was working on coronaviruses. There’s no smoking gun for either theory, but a Washington Post timeline outlines enough circumstantial evidence to make disease detectives and investigative journalists revisit the issue:
Meanwhile, scientists have yet to identify the animal host that transmitted the COVID-19 virus to humans, while they were able to find such a host within less than a year after the start of the SARS and MERS outbreaks. And such lab leaks are not without precedent. For example, back in 2004, virologists working with the original SARS virus at a lab in Beijing were reportedly infected and later hospitalized. The virus spread from them to seven others; the mother of one lab worker died.
The U.S. intelligence community is reportedly split on which origin theory is more likely, and Dr. Anthony Fauci now says he’s “not convinced” the virus reached humans through a natural path. Intelligence officials still have evidence to examine, The New York Times reported, and will be using computational analyses to sift through it.
These shifting perspectives have led some journalists to question whether the media blew it by discounting the lab-leak theory too quickly in 2020. “The idea was widely disparaged as a conspiracy theory by multiple outlets last year,” writes Niall Strange for The Hill, “almost surely because its loudest promoter was then-President Trump.” The media also came down hard on statements made by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas in February 2020, writes journalist Matthew Yglesias on his blog. The senator raised the possibility the virus came from a lab, prompting The New York Times to report, “The conspiracy theory lacks evidence and has been dismissed by scientists” at the time. But now, many scientists have called for further investigation, and prominent journalists such as former New York Times science writers Nicholas Wade and Donald G. McNeil Jr. say the lab-leak idea is credible. “It’s a good reminder,” writes David Leonhardt for The New York Times: “The world is a complicated place, where almost nobody is always right or always wrong.”
The scientific question of viral origins may be impossible to answer. Yet if there’s more evidence to be obtained, that matters. This is the third coronavirus to cause human outbreaks this century, and there’s a good chance it won’t be the last; scientists and public health officials need all the information they can get to prepare for next time. If it came from the lab, Leonhardt notes, then virologists everywhere may need to reconsider their safety protocols to prevent future catastrophes. And, he adds, there could be political ramifications: a confirmed leak “would put pressure on China to bear the burden of vaccinating the world.” But deepening a political rift with China could also disrupt ongoing efforts to battle the current pandemic and thwart future ones, warns Amy Maxmen at Nature.
Do vaccines need a boost?
While many people are still due for their first COVID-19 vaccination, experts are already wondering if further immunizations will be needed down the line. Fauci and Pfizer’s CEO think the answer is yes, and boosters are already undergoing testing; other experts believe no. A new study offers a clue: People who have had COVID-19 carry antibody-making cells likely to last a lifetime, writes Ewen Callaway in Nature. “The implications are that vaccines will have the same durable effect,” said immunologist Menno van Zelm from Monash University. However, emerging variants make it likely that booster shots, in the form of updated vaccines, will still be necessary, said the study’s author, immunologist Ali Ellebedy of Washington University in St. Louis.
However, a few study subjects didn’t have these long-lasting memory cells, reports Apoorva Mandavilli at The New York Times. Ellebedy said that’s why it’s important for people who had COVID-19 to also get vaccinated. There are also likely to be differences in the immune system’s memory between those who had a COVID-19 infection plus vaccination, and those who had vaccination alone, Mandavilli writes. Thus, people who were vaccinated after infection may be better protected, while those who only got the vaccine might eventually need a booster.
From the Center for Health Journalism
DEADLINE EXTENDED TO JUNE 1 for our 2021 National Fellowship
Did the press of news get in the way of applying? We're giving you some extra time to apply for $2k-$10k in reporting grants, up to $2k in community engagement grants, a week of intensive training via Zoom and five months of peer-to-peer mentoring while you work on an ambitious reporting projects. Click here for details. 
6/9 Webinar: The vaccine tipping point
As vaccine supply overtakes demand, governments and employers are devising out-of-the-box incentives to get more people immunized against COVID-19. In this webinar, we’ll explore who remains unvaccinated and efforts aimed at hard-to-reach groups. Along the way, we’ll share story ideas for covering the next phase of the fight against the pandemic in local communities across the country. June 9, 10 a.m. PT. Sign up here!
What we're reading
  • “The unseen COVID-19 risk for unvaccinated people,” by Dan Keating and Leslie Shapiro, The Washington Post
  • “The pandemic disrupted many Bay Area lives. For those with dementia, it was catastrophic,” by Sarah Ravani, San Francisco Chronicle
  • “As COVID dissipates in the U.S., cold and flu viruses may return with a vengeance,” by Helen Branswell, STAT
  • “Children with COVID inflammatory syndrome may overcome their most serious symptoms,” by Pam Belluck, The New York Times

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