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Coronavirus Files: Rent comes due; Novavax works but delta variant surges as states reopen

Coronavirus Files: Rent comes due; Novavax works but delta variant surges as states reopen

Picture of Amber Dance

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 editor@centerforhealthjournalism.org.

 

Eviction moratorium set to expire

Come June 30, evictions of underpaying tenants will once again be allowed as a controversial CDC ban, in place since last September, expires. The change could be disastrous for the millions of Americans behind on rent, reports Chris Arnold at NPR. Nearly $50 billion in assistance is available — or is supposed to be — but the effort has been hampered by complicated applications and maximum limits that are too low for some renters to fulfill their payments. “The government effort to distribute billions of dollars to prevent evictions is looking pretty ugly,” Arnold reports. Many states have given out less than 5% of their allotted assistance money, notes Annie Nova at CNBC.
 
Some states and cities have extended eviction bans beyond the end of June, Nova reports, but others are less willing to help. “Renters in large Republican-leaning states are likely to be hit the hardest,” writes sociologist Peter Hepburn of the Rutgers University Eviction Lab in The New York Times’ opinion pages. Ken Sweet and Michael Casey at AP report that according to new research, the crisis in housing “risks widening the gap between Black, Latino and white households.” Renters are more likely to be low-income or members of minority populations. And those with one eviction on their record will likely struggle to find another landlord willing to give them a chance.
 
Restrictions lift as virus simmers
 
 
Masks are dropping and social distances are shrinking across the nation as large states drop many pandemic limits. “It appears the nearly the entire country will be open with few restrictions by the Fourth of July,” reports The New York Times. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo crowed, “We deserve it because it has been a long, long road.”
 
The positive change comes as the United States hits a death toll of more than 600,000, and just over one-third of adults remain unvaccinated. “COVID-19 has not been vanquished — and may never be,” warns the Los Angeles Times editorial board, reminding readers of disastrous reopening attempts last summer. “The excitement about getting back to normal (somewhat) ought to be seasoned with the humility and caution notably lacking a year ago.”
 
Delta variant poised to dominate
 
One factor complicating the U.S.’s summer hopes is the delta variant, which currently accounts for about 10% of American cases. The CDC declared delta a “variant of concern” last week. “It’s essentially taking over,” said NIH’s Dr. Anthony Fauci. Delta appears to be a nastier strain than the alpha variant currently predominating in the U.S., with more severe, cold-like symptoms and a higher transmission rate. The delta variant has already forced the United Kingdom to delay its reopening for another month. Vaccines work pretty well against delta, but epidemiologist Michael Osterholm warns the variant could cause devastating surges in areas with low vaccination rates. The Atlantic’s Katherine J. Wu says, “It’s more dangerous to be unvaccinated now than it was to be unvaccinated this time a year ago.”
 
Novavax scores while CureVac falters
 
Novavax, a small Maryland company that has never brought a vaccine to market since its founding in 1987, finally hit it out of the park with its COVID-19 vaccine, as announced last week. A two-shot course was about 90% effective, ranking Novavax’s vaccine alongside those made by Pfizer and Moderna. But there are some key differences. For one, since Novavax’s trial occurred later in the pandemic, the vaccine achieved that success rate while virus variants were already prevalent. For another, side effects were milder than for the vaccines already authorized in the U.S. — headache, fatigue and muscle pain were among the most common. That could make the vaccine more appealing to low-wage workers unwilling or unable to risk missing shifts after immunization.
 
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are based on a molecule called mRNA, which instructs the body’s own cells to produce the virus’ spike protein, thus training the immune system to recognize it. But not all mRNA vaccines are created equal. Another mRNA vaccine, from Germany’s CureVac, only managed 47% efficacy in preliminary results announced last week; the company blamed variants.
 
Novavax’s formula, instead, contains the actual coronavirus spike protein — a more time-tested technique in vaccine development. They cook up that spike protein in vats of insect cells, an approach that also been used for other vaccines. In Novavax’s case, it’s cells from moths, which are given the genetic code to produce the spike protein. The company purifies the spike proteins — so there are no moth bits in the final vaccine — and assembles them into tiny nanoparticles. To this, it adds a derivative of the Chilean soapbark tree. That tree makes a molecule that helps wake up the immune system; such helper molecules are common in vaccines, and related compounds from this particular tree are also used to create a foamy head in root beer and Slurpees.
 
What good is another COVID-19 vaccine when the U.S. already has more shots than takers? Novavax will not seek FDA emergency authorization immediately, and some speculate it will instead wait to apply for full, non-emergency approval. Development and testing of the vaccine was delayed by manufacturing and regulatory challenges, and the company might not deliver the 110 million doses the U.S. ordered until 2022. Novavax’s shot may initially be most useful in other nations, but it could find use here later as a booster shot, reports Carl Zimmer at The New York Times.
 
Yes, your boss can require vaccination
 
When Houston Methodist Hospital required all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, 117 employees cried foul and sued, arguing the vaccines were experimental and dangerous. A judge dismissed the case last week. The ruling wasn’t a huge surprise, reports Corky Siemaszko at NBC News; hospitals could already require workers to take other vaccines, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission confirmed employers could mandate vaccination in May. Despite the legal precedent, Siemaszko reports, few companies are likely to follow in Houston Methodist’s footsteps. “They’re taking a more carrot than stick approach,” said Andrew Challenger, vice president of an executive and career transition coaching firm in Chicago. Employees who are vaccinated may, for example, be offered perks such as extra vacation days or the freedom to unmask at work.
 
What we're reading
  • “It wasn’t just anyone who collected the bodies of the hospital’s COVID victims. It was Karl,” by Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • “Infection and repression,” by The Editors, Columbia Journalism Review
  • “Vaccine maker earned record profits but delivered disappointment in return,” by Sharon La Franiere, Chris Hamby and Rebecca R. Ruiz, The New York Times
  • “Anti-vax groups rack up victories against COVID-19 push,” by Lauren Gardner, Politico
  • “COVID-19 exposed the faults in America’s elder care system. This is our best shot to fix them,” by Abigail Abrams, TIME
  • “600,000 dead: With normal life in reach, COVID’s late-stage victims lament what could have been,” by Marc Fisher, Fenit Nirappil, Annie Gowen and Lori Rozsa, The Washington Post
  • “The World Health Organization broke its own rules to spend millions on BCG consultants,” by Julia Belluz, Vox
  • “The Atlantic’s Ed Yong on winning a Pulitzer Prize: ‘I wish that the stories I wrote had never been necessary,’” by Tom Jones, Poynter

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