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Coronavirus Files: Pandemic imperils Black wealth, delta sows mask confusion

Coronavirus Files: Pandemic imperils Black wealth, delta sows mask confusion

Picture of Amber Dance

Since April 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.

Black Americans hit hard by pandemic's financial fallout

COVID-19 lockdowns meant disappearing jobs, dwindling savings and accumulating debt for many Americans, particularly low-income workers, people with less education, women and people of color, writes Angela Antonelli in Forbes. At least one in 10 Americans dipped into retirement savings in 2020, widening the gap between those who are and aren’t prepared for retirement. Francesca Ortegren of the online referral service Clever Real Estate, who recently led an analysis of the pandemic’s financial impact, told Black Enterprise’s Jeffrey McKinney that many Black Americans already has less savings for retirement before the pandemic; taking money from those accounts during the crisis meant they earned less interest, too. 

Meanwhile, McKinney adds, millions of mostly white Americans may now be able to retire early thanks to stellar stock market performance during the pandemic. Many white Americans also refinanced their mortgages at low rates during the pandemic, but fewer Black and Hispanic homeowners did so, diminishing access to another key source of wealth, reports Alexandra Kelley at The Hill.

Delta variant raises concerns, and masks

Life seems to be getting back to normal and 29% of Americans think the pandemic is over, according to a recent Gallup poll, but that rosy picture is shadowed by the fact that just over halfof the nation’s population is fully or partially vaccinated and case rates are rising in half of the nation’s states. The twin causes are low vaccination rates and the delta variant, which has now been found in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Kristina Fiore lays out the delta difference at MedPage Today: According to a study of households in England, where delta rapidly took over, the variant was 64% more transmissible than the alpha variant, which previously dominated both the U.K. and U.S. (Alpha itself is about 50% more transmissible than the original coronavirus.) “It’s not clear if delta causes more severe disease or leads to more deaths,” Fiore writes, but preliminary data from England and Scotland indicate that about twice as many delta-infected people required hospitalization, compared to alpha. Symptoms seem to be a bit different, with headaches, sore throats and runny noses more common than fever, cough, or loss of smell. 

The good news is current vaccines work against delta. Studies of people vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine — both shots — indicate it’s 88% effective against delta, which is only slightly less than against alpha. Lab experiments with blood from vaccinated individuals also suggest the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines work against delta. 

Another effective prevention method is masking, and delta is forcing yet another reckoning over the practice. The World Health Organization now recommends even fully vaccinated people wear masks. That’s because vaccinated individuals — still a minority of the global population — remain susceptible to rare breakthrough infections. Although they themselves may experience no or mild symptoms (sneezing appears to be more common in breakthrough cases), they could still transmit the virus to others who, if unvaccinated, could develop severe disease. “Masking policies are not to protect the vaccinated,” said CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on NBC’s Today. “They’re to protect the unvaccinated.” Nonetheless, the CDC is sticking to its recommendation that vaccinated people need not mask up, though Walensky said authorities may make different decisions in areas where vaccination rates remain low. That’s what has happened in Los Angeles County, where COVID-19 cases soared over winter and just over half of the 10 million residents are fully vaccinated. The county recently issued a recommendation — not a mandate — that all individuals, vaccinated or not, wear masks in public indoor spaces. “With a new virus, there are lots of unknowns,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the Los Angeles Times. “We need to continue to take care of each other.”

Current vaccines work, so why bother with new ones?

Despite the high efficacy of several coronavirus vaccines, researchers are continuing to evaluate the immunity they provide and how best to deploy them. One new study indicates that immunity from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is likely to last for years, without need for booster shots, as long as the viruses don’t mutate too much. Another recent study finds that a mix-and-match approach, in this case of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, is effective. One dose of each produced more anti-virus immune cells than two of the same. That said, study author Dr. Matthew Snape of the University of Oxford told The New York Times he recommends sticking with the standard, unmixed dosing schedules whenever possible: “Your default should be what is proven to work.”

Meanwhile, scientists are still creating other vaccines, reports Carolyn Y. Johnson in The Washington Post. “It’s always a little naïve, or human hubris, to think, ‘We’re done. We don’t need to develop other interventions,’” John R. Mascola, director of the NIH Vaccine Research Center, told Johnson. The possibility of new variants or diminished immunity, and the need to supply the world’s 7.7 billion people with shots, keeps scientists like him busier than ever. Another concern is that the current novel coronavirus is the third coronavirus to cause outbreaks in this century (following SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012), so the emergence of another dangerous coronavirus in the years or decades to come seems a likely bet. A universal coronavirus vaccine — one shot to dodge them all — is a difficult prospect, but some scientists consider it within reach, writes Diana Kwon at The Scientist.

When that next pandemic comes, the experience of this one should provide important lessons, notes Helen Branswell at STAT. Among them: Government money can fast-track vaccines; trying multiple approaches is beneficial; and it’s important to plan the vaccine rollout, too. As Raymond Goodrich, director of the Infectious Disease Research Center at Colorado State, told Johnson: “The end of every pandemic is an opportunity to prepare for the next one.”

From the Center for Health Journalism

Pulitzer Spotlight: Policing in the Era of Big Data

In the age of algorithms and informatics, law enforcement agencies across the country have turned to data-driven programs to help fight crime. But what happens when such programs infringe on civil rights, amplify racial biases or become abusive? In this webinar, 2021 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporters Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi will explain how they unearthed a secretive policing operation in strategies that used data to harass residents and profile schoolchildren. They will discuss strategies that reporters can use to go beyond press releases and sniff out similar programs in their own communities.

WHEN: July 21, 8–9 a.m. PT. Sign up here.

2021 Data Fellowship

The 2021 Center for Health Journalism Data Fellowship (Oct. 25–29) is designed for skilled journalists who want to learn to mine data sources to reveal key insights essential to high-impact journalism. Fellows receive five days of intensive training on data acquisition, cleaning, analysis and visualization, as well as an introduction to important data sets that can serve as the basis for groundbreaking journalism. Fellows receive a $2,000 grant plus six months of guidance from our expert data journalism mentors. Signup deadline September 1Apply here.

What we're reading

  • “ She wanted to stay. Her landlord wanted her out.” By Annie Gowen, The Washington Post
  • “Supreme Court permits federal eviction moratorium to remain in place,” by John Fritze, USA Today
  • “Old people in prison were left to die from COVID. It didn’t have to be that way.” By Lisa Armstrong, Mother Jones
  • “As parents forbid COVID shots, defiant teenagers seek ways to get them,” by Jan Hoffman, The New York Times
  • “The so-called delta plus variant of COVID-19 is dangerous but appears unlikely to be a game-changer,” by Alice Park, TIME
  • “Where are drugs to beat COVID — and the next pandemic?” by Erin Allday, San Francisco Chronicle
  • “We’re not ready for another pandemic,” by Olga Khazan, The Atlantic

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