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Coronavirus Files: Overdose fatalities rose in 2020, with Black people at high risk

Coronavirus Files: Overdose fatalities rose in 2020, with Black people at high risk

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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

Overdose fatalities rose in 2020, with Black people at high risk

The isolation, anxiety, and stress of the pandemic has pushed the opioid epidemic to a record-breaking death toll. According to the latest CDC data, drug overdose fatalities rose by almost 30% in 2020, to 93,000 deaths. Opioids such as fentanyl are driving the greatest rise in deaths among Black Americans, while methamphetamine overdoses are more common in American Indians and Alaska Natives than other groups, reports Abby Goodnough for The New York Times
While it’s hard to say how much pandemic lockdowns impacted drug use, they were clearly a factor. “The biggest jump in overdose deaths took place in April and May, when fear and stress were rampant, job losses were multiplying and the strictest lockdown measures were in effect,” writes Goodnough. Researchers at Johns Hopkins surveyed current and former drug users and found that during the pandemic, many of them used drugs more often, and did so alone more frequently, too — which means no one can summon help if needed.
While drug use affects all ethnicities, people of color were more likely to suffer the stresses of frontline jobs or financial hardship, and less likely to have access to treatment for substance abuse. Meanwhile, treatment and needle-exchange centers were closed and with so many health-care resources focused on COVID-19, it became difficult to access anti-addiction treatments and naloxone, a drug that can reverse overdose symptoms. “We took our eye off the opioid epidemic,” Tami Mark of the think tank RTI International told The Washington Post. “When we weren’t looking, it got horribly worse.”
Cases on the rise, but vaccines remain politicized
Here we go again: COVID-19 case rates have doubled in the U.S. in recent weeks, a predictable fallout from July 4 celebrations, Dr. Bill Powderly of Washington University told AP. But this time the surge and its tragic consequences are largely affecting the half of Americans not fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. CNN medical analyst Dr. Jonathan Reiner predicted “a surprising amount of death” from hot spots in Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri and Nevada. The federal government has dispatched a surge team to southwest Missouri where the team’s health communication specialist, contact tracers and others will assist with public health measures.
Meanwhile, the anti-vaccine movement has heated up, causing some outlets to reframe vaccine hesitance as outright “hostility” or “obstinance.” A recent Washington Post-ABC poll found that the proportion of people who say they’re not likely to get vaccinated rose between April and June, from 24% to 29%. “Decisions are being made not because of evidence or facts or statistics, but strictly on political lines,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz told The Post. “And now people are going to die.”
Republican governors and lawmakers are working to bar vaccine passports in several states, writes Reid Wilson at The Hill, and Tennessee fired its medical director for immunization programs, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, after she issued guidance on vaccinating teenagers. Lawmakers criticized Fiscus in June for a memo to doctors detailing how a little-used 1987 law allows teens 14 and up to get vaccinated without parental consent, reports Brett Kelman at the Nashville Tennessean. Tennessee’s Department of Health then halted all vaccine outreach to minors, for COVID-19 or other standard childhood vaccines. COVID cases in the state are up more than 300% in the past 2 weeks.
Cases have risen by nearly 200% in Florida, too, but Gov. Ron DeSantis’s latest 2022 gubernatorial campaign merchandise suggests he’s not eager to implement measures to stop the spread, reports Hannah Knowles at The Washington Post. Supporters can now buy T-shirts, hats and drink koozies with slogans including “Don’t Fauci My Florida,” “Keep Florida Free” and a DeSantis quote: “How the hell am I going to be able to drink a beer with a mask on?” DeSantis is seen as a GOP frontrunner in the 2024 presidential election — if Donald Trump does not run again.
Another safety warning for Johnson & Johnson
The FDA issued a caution about a rare neurological condition, Guillain-Barre syndrome, that has occurred in 100 people who received J&J’s vaccine. It’s not certain the vaccine caused the syndrome in these cases; the CDC’s vaccine committee will meet Tuesday to discuss the issue. Guillain-Barre seems to be more common in men aged 50 or older who received the vaccine. The shot already carries a warning about a blood clotting condition more prevalent in younger women. “The second warning for the vaccine could dim its appeal as the only authorized one-shot vaccine against COVID-19, which public health officials hoped would make inoculation more accessible for different parts of the world,” writes Alice Park in TIME.
Guillain-Barre syndrome happens when the body’s immune system attacks its own nerves, causing weakness, tingling and, in severe cases, paralysis. The condition is treatable, and most people recover. Among the 100 people who developed Guillain-Barre after the COVID vaccine, 95 were hospitalized and one died. The syndrome often arises after an infection, and has also been associated with other vaccines. Risk after flu vaccination, for example, is one to two in a million. The risk after the J&J vaccine is even lower that for other vaccines or viruses, reports Adrianna Rodriguez at USA Today. “The risk of getting COVID and developing severe disease or long COVID is so much more than your risk of developing a rare syndrome of the vaccine,” Dr. Len Horovitz of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York told her.
Pfizer's booster still uncertain
Representatives of Pfizer and the government met briefly last Monday to discuss the company’s push for a booster shot. Pfizer has not yet published its data in support of a third shot, but a company press release refers to “high neutralization titers” — science-speak for “lots of effective antibodies” — in subjects who got the extra vaccination. But antibodies aren’t the sole source of immunity. Vaccination also trains immune cells to remember and kill the virus, even if antibodies are no longer flooding the bloodstream. Those immune cells, once trained against the coronavirus, are expected to stick around for months or even years.
Officials want more data before deciding if boosters are needed. Israel, where two-thirds of the population has been at least partially vaccinated, may provide some hints in coming weeks. The nation just started offering boosters to people with compromised immune systems, such as transplant patients. For most people, “the scientific evidence says we don’t need one right now,” writes epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina of the University of Texas on her blog.
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 our next webinar on July 21, 8-9 a.m. PT, 2021 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporters Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi will explain how they unearthed a secretive policing operation 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. 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 how 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
  • “The rationing of a last-resort COVID treatment,” by Sheri Fink, The New York Times
  • “Clues to COVID-19’s origins include anonymous skin sample in Italy,” by Eric Sylvers, Drew Hinshaw and Betsy McKay, The Wall Street Journal
  • “COVID-19’s effects on kids are even stranger than we thought,” by Roxanne Khamsi, The Atlantic
  • “For kids with long COVID, collective help can be hard to find,” by Chelsea Cirruzzo, U.S. News & World Report
  • “Domestic violence shelters are in a state of emergency,” by Caroline Kitchener, The Lily
  • “Outdoor dining reopened restaurants for all—but added to barriers for disabled,” by Brittany Renee Mayes and Maria Aguilar, The Washington Post
  • “Few immigrants in detention have been vaccinated. That needs to change.” By Nicole Narea, Vox
  • “A curious union: Clorox, Cleveland Clinic, and the CDC Foundation,” by Michael Schulson, Undark
  • “A postal worker begged for stronger COVID-19 protections. She ended up spending six weeks in the hospital.” By Maryam Jameel, ProPublica

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