Coronavirus Files: Vaccine Debates and Dealing with Data

Published on
July 27, 2020

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The Center for Health Journalism has begun offering 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 work. This week, the Center for Health Journalism’s Coronavirus Files Monday newsletter is curated and reported by science writer Sofie Bates. Have a suggestion or a request? Write us at


The Health Divide, Vaccine Debates, and Dealing with Data

It’s Harder to get a COVID-19 Test in Poor, Black or Hispanic communities
Although the U.S. has drastically increased its coronavirus testing capabilities since the nationwide shortage at the onset of the pandemic, it can still be difficult for people to get tested. And it’s much harder in some areas than in others. “Simply put, where Americans live and how much income they earn can still determine the ease with which they get a COVID-19 test,” FiveThirtyEight reportsLower income neighborhoods as well as Black and Hispanic communities are hit the hardest, according to an analysis done by FiveThirtyEightABC News and its partners. Members of these communities often travel further and experience longer wait times to get tested at understaffed and understocked centers. Appointment and insurance requirements are also barriers to testing for many in lower socioeconomic groups.
California has been able to lessen the gap in testing access between white residents and those of color due to increased testing. At the end of April, richer, whiter areas in Los Angeles County had over 60% more coronavirus tests than areas that were poorer or had more people of color. The gap shrunk to around 13-24% by May, after Gov. Gavin Newsom ramped up the state’s testing capacity. Some parts of Southern California are starting to restrict testing to those who show COVID-19 symptoms or are deemed high risk — a move that will primarily affect lower income neighborhoods and communities of color.
Who Will get Vaccines First?
Last week was a big one in the race for a coronavirus vaccine, as several frontrunners announced promising results from early-stage clinical trials. However, a safe, effective, and widely-available vaccine is still far off. At a White House hearing on July 21, large pharmaceutical companies — including several that are working on COVID-19 vaccines — worked to reassure the public that, although they are moving at unusual speeds by taking unusual financial risks and focusing their resources, they won’t be cutting corners to expedite a vaccine or get it prematurely approved by the FDA.
Scientists and public health experts worry about what happens after a vaccine is approved, though. Who will get the first doses of a vaccine? Health care workers will be first in line for a vaccine, but who will follow and in what order is still to be determined Who makes that decision? There are several contenders: the federal Operation Warp Speed program, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, and a panel created by the National Academy of Medicine on July 21. “Amid so many players, public health experts are expressing concern and confusion,” Helen Branswell writes for STAT. Meanwhile, the “health of untold numbers could hang in the balance,” she writes.
Where Data is Missing, these Tips Can Help You Assess the Numbers
Half a year into the pandemic, we’re still forced to rely on patchwork and sometimes haphazard testing and data collection that obscures our understanding of how the virus is spreading. But there are some tips and tricks for knowing what numbers are more informative than others, write Caroline Chen and Ash Ngu write for ProPublica.
Let’s say you want to know if an outbreak is getting worse or lessening in a particular area. While case numbers can give you an idea, they depend on how many tests are done — a figure that is far from uniform across the nation or over time. That’s where case positivity rates come in. If 50% of cases were coming back positive, for example, that would suggest only people very likely to have COVID-19 are getting tested, meaning not enough tests are being done to give you a clear picture of what’s changing. When only about 5% or less are coming back positive, though, “it’s a good indicator that a locality has enough tests available for everyone who wants one, and public health officials have an accurate picture of all the infections,” Ngu and Chen write.
It’s also critical to recognize that the progression of the disease and long hospitalization times mean death rates lag behind case counts. Waiting a few weeks to see if changes in death rates correspond to changes in case numbers can also help you determine how accurate the case counts are. Case counts can also vary quite a bit from day to day, so Ngu and Chen recommend using seven-day averages instead of single-day counts to get a good picture of what’s going on.
 “One of the easiest ways to be wrong when looking at the numbers is to focus on too small of a time frame,” they write. Instead, it’s best to look at weekly averages and longer trends, as well as to track the data state by state rather than with national numbers.
Navigating Back to School Season - And the Risk of Worsening Racial Inequalities
With back to school season almost here, schools across the country are scrambling to decide if and how to reopen. Last week, the Center for Health Journalism hosted a webinar about how those decisions could affect our kidsSchools were caught off guard this spring when classes went from in person to fully remote in a matter of weeks, said Wall Street Journal education reporter Tawnell Hobbs during the webinar. All summer, schools have been scrambling to get ready for the fall term. And, while some districts may be better prepared than they were in the spring, the educational system at large is still ill-equipped for remote learning or bringing students safely back to campus. Joel Cisneros, director of school mental health for schools in Los Angeles, added that his district will be entirely remote, but that the district has also implemented strategies to connect with children and families as well as help them access mental health resources virtually.
Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, pointed out that research shows children under eight years old learn best with hands-on activities in small groups or one-on-one with an adult, though. There’s no online substitute for that, he says. Keeping preschool and kindergarten online will also likely increase inequality between richer, whiter kids who have access to more resources than their Black, Hispanic and low-income peers. To mitigate some of this inequality, Hobbs suggests that districts may prioritize which students return to in-person classes first. For example, students with special needs, students without computer or internet access, and younger students could return to campuses while others continue remotely.
While parents await schools’ decisions, some are taking matters into their own hands by forming ‘pandemic pods.’ The idea is that several families share childcare responsibilities or pool resources to hire a tutor for their kids. It’s an innovative solution to schooling in a pandemic. “But in practice, [the pods] will exacerbate inequities, racial segregation and the opportunity gap within schools,” writes Clara Totenberg Green in an opinion piece for the New York Times. Lower income and minority families — who are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and economic downturn — may not be able to afford tutors or childcare for their children. Children may also be barred from ‘pandemic pods’ if their parents are essential workers and thus more likely to be infected. “Whatever parents ultimately decide, they must understand that every choice they make in their child’s education, even the seemingly benign, has the potential to perpetuate racial inequities,” Green writes.
Find out what your state is planning for the fall term with this list from The Hill. And check out these tips from the Center for Health Journalism about reporting on school reopening during the pandemic.
  • Trying to stay safe while also addressing other basic needs means that we’re constantly calculating risk. But it can be hard to make those assessments. Now some researchers and public health experts are trying to create color-coded graphics to help individuals and municipalities make the best decisions possible. Here’s one from Georgia Tech aimed at helping people assess the danger of attending an event based on its location and size.
  • In a recent survey 59% of Americans report wearing a mask when they leave the house. See where in the country mask wearing is highest — and lowest — with this New York Times map.


And Don’t Miss…

  • “To Navigate Risk In a Pandemic, You Need a Color-Coded Chart.” Wired
  • “Pay every American $1,000 to download a contact tracing application.” Slate 
  • “Trump said more COVID-19 testing ‘creates more cases.’ We did the math.” STAT
  • “The failed dream of the American small business.” Vox 
  • “Can you get COVID-19 again? It’s very unlikely, experts say.” The New York Times