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Coronavirus Files: Seniors of color face economic hardship; boosters coming for at-risk groups

Coronavirus Files: Seniors of color face economic hardship; boosters coming for at-risk groups

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.

New webinar: The return of evictions, the end of pandemic aid 

In our next webinar, we’ll explore the end of renter protections, unemployment benefits and other emergency relief. Sept. 29, 11 a.m. PT. More details below.

Pandemic creates financial woes for seniors

Black and Latino seniors were more than twice as likely as whites to report economic hardships during the pandemic, reports Dave Muoio for Fierce Healthcare, according to the 2021 International Health Policy Survey of Older Adults. Overall, 19% of seniors reported they used up most of their savings or lost an income source due to COVID-19. The report highlights how the pandemic’s effects on seniors goes beyond direct health risks, notes Jeanmarie Evelly at City Limits
 
It’s a dark spot amid the otherwise rosy economic news that, thanks to federal aid, 2020 poverty rates weren’t nearly as bad as they could have been, reports Paul Davidson at USA Today. Accounting for household income only, poverty rates rose by nearly a percentage point; but once government aid was included, the poverty rate actually dropped.
 
However, the pandemic also exacerbated an ongoing wealth gap: The top fifth of households took in more than half of the total national income, while the bottom fifth received just over 3%.
 
For seniors, there may be a big cost-of-living bump in Social Security next year, but it would be largely offset by rising costs, higher Medicare premiums and taxes, writes Lorie Konish at CNBC. According to the nonpartisan Senior Citizens League, some members have had to cut down on prescriptions and only eat one meal per day. In response, the League plans to ask Congress for an additional round of stimulus checks, $1,400 just for seniors.
 
FDA advisors back Pfizer booster for high-risk groups
 
An FDA advisory committee made up of 18 non-agency experts on Friday declined to support broad approval of a third shot of Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine, which the Biden administration once hoped to roll out to everyone on Monday. Instead, committee members proposed emergency authorization of booster shots for populations they deemed at risk, including people over age 65; people with risk factors for severe disease such as obesity; and those who risk contracting the disease at work, such as health care workers and teachers.
 
A CDC advisory committee scheduled to meet Wednesday and Thursday may further refine the recommendations.
 
The committee’s unwillingness to back boosters for the entire population aged 16 and older reflects an ongoing debate about their necessity. “There is not currently a consensus in the biomedical community on boosters for the general public,” writes Berkeley Lovelace Jr. at CNBC. On one side of the debate, Pfizer, Moderna and NIH’s Dr. Anthony Fauci say a third shot of mRNA vaccine amps up waning immunity. The research in favor of Pfizer’s booster, summarized here by CNN, includes official documents posted in advance of Friday’s FDA advisory committee meeting. Pfizer says that its vaccine efficacy waned from an initial 96% to 84% more than four months after the second dose. The company also pointed to data from both Israel and the United States that suggest protection continues to diminish in the ensuing months, leading to breakthrough cases, but can be restored with a booster shot. The Israel study found non-boosted individuals were more than 11 times more likely to be infected than those who had boosters (and that nation is already considering a fourth shot). Moderna’s data, detailed here by Alice Park at Time, include interim study results indicating that antibody levels dropped six month after the first two shots, but went back up after a booster. 
 
On the other hand, a host of experts including two departing FDA employees published an article last week in the Lancet saying that boosters for all would be premature. They argued that people who got their initial vaccines are still protected from severe illness, and that available doses would be better used in unvaccinated people around the world. (Long COVID risk, recently pegged to 50% less in vaccinated people, was not discussed.) Other experts have pointed out that the mRNA vaccines prompt long-lasting protective immune responses through the body’s T cells and B cells, despite waning antibodies, as Elie Dolgin discusses in a story on boosters for Nature.
 
On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Fauci called the Lancet article “controversial.” He suggested that it’s possible to both boost Americans and share vaccine with low- and middle-income nations. The U.S. has so far donated 137 million doses out of a planned more than 580 million to other countries; assuming two doses per person, that goal number could cover about 4% of the global population. Announcement of another large donation may come this week, reports The Washington Post.
 
The FDA itself seems to sit on the debate’s sidelines. In its own briefing document for Friday’s meeting, the agency made no clear recommendation but pointed to small study sizes, an uncertain safety profile and the fact that delta’s enhanced transmissibility may have confounded results. It wrote, “There are many potentially relevant studies, but FDA has not independently reviewed or verified the underlying data or their conclusions.”
 
People who got the Johnson & Johnson shot will have to wait longer for guidance on boosters. As scientists deliberate, some Americans are making the decision for themselves, snagging boosters at pharmacies ahead of any regulatory go-ahead. “Frankly, I did not trust the government to act on the science,” one woman told The New York Times’ Jennifer Steinhauer. “I can just read what’s out there and make up my own mind.”
 
Will winter bring a 'twindemic'?
 
There’s another respiratory virus that normally kills tens of thousands of people a year: influenza. After fears of a “twindemic,” last winter’s flu season turned out to be a dud, thanks to a variety of factors: school and workplaces were shuttered; people washed their hands, wore masks and kept their distance from others; and rates of flu vaccination were unusually high. These same public health measures were less effective against COVID-19 because it’s more infectious, may be asymptomatic, and has a longer incubation time between infection and symptoms, meaning people are more likely to be out and about when they’re infectious. Plus, most people have some level of immunity to flu from past infections; not so with COVID. 
 
This year could be different. “The flu is likely to make a comeback to pre-pandemic levels this year as many COVID-19 restrictions such as masks and social distancing have been lifted in many areas,” writes Nancy Schimelpfening at Healthline. Other respiratory viruses such as the common cold and RSV are also surging, she notes. Perhaps, writes Ruth Reader at Fast Company, we’re in for a “multi-demic.”
 
Meanwhile, there could still be a rough road ahead with COVID, writes Michelle Cortez at Fortune. “We very easily could see another surge in the fall and winter,” University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm told her. “This is a coronavirus forest fire that will not stop until it finds all the human wood that it can burn.”
 
Fortunately, some of those diseases are preventable with vaccines, and medical experts say it’s fine to double up on a COVID and flu shot, one in each arm. 
 
From the Center for Health Journalism
 
9/29 Webinar: The end of eviction moratorium and pandemic aid
The pandemic is far from over, but crucial COVID-19 protections and benefits are now gone. We’ll explore what that means for the nation’s pandemic recovery and the health and well-being of low-income people and their communities. Glean story ideas and crucial context. Sign-up here!
 
What we're reading
  • “Why it’s so hard to predict where the COVID-19 pandemic is headed next,” by Gregory Barber, Wired
  • “At the besieged FDA, ‘it never stops!’ as decisions loom on boosters, pediatric shots and more,” by Laurie McGinley and Dan Diamond, The Washington Post
  • “Virus claims Black morticians, leaving holes in communities,” by Adam Geller, AP
  •  “Teens turn to COVID-19 vaccine advocacy as most states prohibit minors from being vaccinated without consent,” by Laura Romero, ABC News

Events and Resources

  • Oct. 26, 9:30 a.m. PT: A panel discussion on “COVID-19, science, and the media: Lessons learned reporting on the pandemic” will be hosted by Harvard’s Petrie-Flom Center for Healthy Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics.
  • The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center has added demographics — race, gender, age and ethnicity — to its tracking of cases, deaths, tests and vaccinations in the United States.
  • SciLine offers a handy tool to create state- and county-level graphics on COVID-19 case and death rates, based on data from The New York Times and free for journalists to use as static images or embedded, updating images.
  • The International Center for Journalists offers a range of COVID-19 resources, including a discussion forum, reporting tips and research, in five languages.

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This year saw a scorcher of a summer, the hottest on record. Worse, it could be the coldest summer we’ll see in our lifetimes. In this webinar, we’ll glean lessons and insights from a yearlong Los Angeles Times investigation into extreme heat. We’ll also identify gaps in state and federal tracking efforts, and outline policy changes that could help. Sign-up here!

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