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Coronavirus Files: Eviction ban whiplash; delta fuels summer surge and uptick in vax rates

Coronavirus Files: Eviction ban whiplash; delta fuels summer surge and uptick in vax rates

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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 editor@centerforhealthjournalism.org.

Renters' limbo continues as eviction ban partially reinstated

In one week, renters went from being protected from evictions by a pandemic moratorium, to wholly unprotected, to possibly protected, depending on where they live. The CDC’s eviction ban expired July 31, leaving about 3.6 million people likely to lose housing and rapidly filling courtrooms by Aug. 2. President Joe Biden asked Congress to extend it in late July; Democrats adjourned without doing so and pressured Biden to take charge. The White House, citing a lack of legal power to do so, begged states and local authorities to take the lead. When all else failed, the CDC reinstated the ban until Oct. 3. By mid-week, landlords were already suing to stop the latest ban. Aaron Blake summed up the Biden administration’s position in The Washington Post: “It might not be legal, but even if it’s not, we’ll get some good done in the meantime.”
 
The new ban is a bit more targeted than previous versions, but it still covers a wide swath of the country and about 90% of the population. Any county with “high” or “substantial” rates of coronavirus transmission — 50 or more cases per 100,000 over a week’s time — falls under the rule. Right now, that applies to most of the South and Western United States. The covered area includes many of the regions where renters are in trouble, as Jemima McEvoy outlines at Forbes; more than one in five renters are behind in payments in Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia, Connecticut and New York.
 
But for some, the last-minute extension is too late, or simply confusing, reports The Washington Post. It’s created a patchwork map where renters can be protected in one county, but not in the county next door. Nonetheless, Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, praised the stopgap measure, telling the Post, “This is a tremendous relief for millions of people who were on the cusp of losing their homes and, with them, their ability to stay safe during the pandemic.”
 
Summer surge creates frustration, fear
 
There’s no denying it: the summer of freedom has turned into a COVID summer that is, by some metrics, worse than last. Case rates are now higher than the peaks of the summer of 2020 or spring of 2021, and climbing. Some of that is due to the more contagious delta variant, which also may be capable of causing more severe illness. Physicians are dubbing the latest wave of patients — mostly unvaccinated — to fill hospitals “younger, sicker, quicker,” reports Roni Caryn Rabin at The New York Times. The virus is hitting the South, where vaccination rates are low, particularly hard. But it’s also causing outbreaks in highly vaccinated regions of Massachusetts and California. What’s different this time around is that thanks to vaccines, and particularly their high rate of uptake among high-risk older individuals, death rates are staying low even as infections proliferate, writes Benjamin Wallace-Wells at The New Yorker.
 
The latest surge has led to frustration and anger, especially towards the unvaccinated. Those feelings are ultimately rooted in fear, writes Megan Molteni at STAT. “It’s scary to admit that somebody else has power over you and you’re at their mercy,” said psychiatrist David Rosmarin of Harvard Medical School. “It’s a lot more comfortable to blame somebody else.” The ever-changing public health guidelines are also causing confusion. Authorities didn’t set realistic expectations early on, writes Molteni, whose sources contend that the pandemic is a “long war” that might not end for years, or even decades.
 
In the near term, Dr. Anthony Fauci predicts an eventual “turnaround” in U.S. case rates that would mimic the falloff seen in the U.K. after that nation’s delta surge. When that will occur is anybody’s guess. At WebMD Health News, Kathleen Doheny polled experts about when the current surge will peak and came up with answers ranging from mid-August to mid-October.
 
Vaccination rates up nationwide
 
The nation has now, belatedly, met Biden’s July 4 goal of 70% vaccination (at least one dose) among adults. Unfortunately, the current case rate makes clear it’s not only too late, but too little. Herd immunity against delta, if even possible, will require immunity rates of 85­% to 90%.
 
The “sobering silver lining” of the current surge is that vaccination rates are ticking up nationwide, report Arielle Mitropoulos and Cheyenne Haslett at ABC News. About 700,000 doses are now being administered per day — up from an average of 500,000 three weeks ago, but far short of the 3 million-plus shots per day back in April. Recent vaccination rates have at least doubled in 14 states that have overall below-average coverage, including Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma, all regions where COVID case rates are high. Unfortunately, since the vaccines take weeks to achieve maximum protection, the effects won’t be apparent until September.
 
Vaccine mandates may also be contributing to the rise in vaccinations, though it’s hard to be sure. New York is the first major city to require proof of vaccination to enter businesses like restaurants and gyms, and Los Angeles is considering a similar move. Full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, now expected by early September, may encourage some holdouts to roll up their sleeves as well as enable more mandates.
 
Delta changes back-to-school risk calculations
 
Parents are fretting as millions of teenagers and students under 12 are set to return to school this fall unvaccinated amid a surge of delta infections and scary — though preliminary and anecdotal — reports that the delta variant might cause worse disease in kids. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, cases among children have risen sharply, with kids making up 19% of U.S. cases at the end of July. “Children infected by the delta variant may develop a more severe form of the disease,” writes Dr. Kent Sepkowitz of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City for CNN. Dr. Mark Kline, physician-in-chief at Children’s Hospital in New Orleans, told CBS, “The children are more ill, they require higher levels of care, and sadly I think we’re going to be seeing more deaths over the coming weeks.” In The Washington Post, Dr. Heather Haq, a pediatric hospitalist at Texas Children’s Hospital, wrote, “I am more worried for children than I have ever been.” But Dr. Helen Chu of the University of Washington told NPR delta is unlikely to lead to many more children needing hospitalization, since children are still much less likely than adults to develop COVID-19 symptoms.
 
This year, schools have more experience in keeping kids safe. Masks can help, but only if kids wear them — and some schools and public officials aren’t interested in requiring face coverings. Julie Swann, a health systems engineer at North Carolina State University, has made some alarming projections about transmission in schools: With no masks or regular testing, 70% of elementary-aged children could catch COVID in three months. But masking and weekly COVID tests could reduce that number to 20% of students infected, the Los Angeles Times reports. “It is clear that our children need to be in school,” Swann writes at The Hill. “Schools need to continue to require masks. For everyone, regardless of vaccination status.”
 
From the Center for Health Journalism
 
8/18 Webinar: State Laws Take Aim at Transgender Youth
More than 100 anti-transgender rights bills were introduced in state legislatures this year. Many focus on children and teens. Join us for our next Health Matters webinar, where we’ll explore the health and well-being of transgender youth as states such as Arkansas and Tennessee seek to limit their rights. Our expert panel will share the latest research, seed story ideas and offer reporting advice. 11 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 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. Learn more here. Application deadline: September 1.
 
What we're reading
  • “Who are the unvaccinated in America? There’s no one answer.” By Julie Bosman, Jan Hoffman, Margot Sanger-Katz and Tim Arango,

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