Panel highlights lack of data, obesity as among under-covered pandemic stories

Bara Vaida

About Bara Vaida

Bara Vaida (@barav) is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Her work has appeared in outlets that include the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico and The Washington Post.

webcastKentucky, Nebraska, Nevada and North Dakota are the only four states in the U.S. that (as of May 13) have provided zero disaggregated data on the racial and ethnic impact of COVID-19 on its residents, even as there is a growing body of evidence nationwide demonstrating the pandemic is having a disproportionate effect on communities of color.

This lack of transparency in key parts of the country is among several under-covered stories for reporters to pursue in their communities, according to panelists who offered advice on covering disparities and COVID-19 at an AHCJ webcast on May 13.

“For reporters who don’t have their heads in the sand, this (moment) is a good opportunity to really broaden your” reporting on how much differences in birth affects “our ability to succeed and have life, liberty and happiness,” said Matthew Kauffman, a journalist who is leading a data initiative tracking racial and ethnic information for Solutions Journalism Network.

Kauffman, a former investigative data journalist with the Hartford Courant, has created a database where reporters can find information on COVID-19 cases and deaths, disaggregated by race and ethnicity in 46 states and 110 cities and counties. While the list of localities providing the information is growing, there remain huge gaps. Reporting is inconsistent between states and localities, and the data represents only a small percentage of the actual case information reported by public health officials, he noted.

“Early on in this process, it became clear that some places were doing a decent job tracking cases and some were doing a really lousy job,” he said. “If governments are going to respond to (disparities) and lessen the gap, we need to understand the problem, (but) if we don’t have the information, that makes it difficult to respond to them.”

Matthew Kauffman

Matthew Kauffman

Dawn Fallik

Dawn Fallik

Fatima-Cody-Stanford

Fatima Cody Stanford

Getting the data is only the starting point for ideas. Kauffman urged reporters to find the actual people behind these numbers.

Freelance investigative journalist Dawn Fallik has been doing just that. She recently reported for Science News on how much the disease of obesity (defined as someone with a body mass index of more than 30) may be a key factor in COVID-19 mortality rates. This is an under-reported issue, in part because there has been very little data, she said, though the body of research on obesity and COVID-19 is growing.

While smoking and pollution in China and aging populations in Italy played an important role in understanding COVID-19 risk factors, an April 2020 study from New York University’s Langone School of Medicine found that obesity may be American’s “Achilles’ heel,” Fallik reported. About 42 percent of Americans have a BMI of 30 or higher, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – meaning a large number of Americans are at higher risk for COVID-19.

Early in the pandemic, “I was looking at what hadn’t been tracked and what is not in the data … and I kept seeing (on social media) this statement by multiple doctors, saying if ventilators become scarce here (in the U.S.), it will be about BMI, not age,” said Fallik. Those statements tipped her off to pay close attention to the obesity angle of the COVID-19 story.

To find people living with the disease of obesity who are willing to be interviewed, Fallik has been reaching out to people on social media.

“I am on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and I have no shame about sliding into direct messages and saying to people, ‘you make an interesting point,’ would you talk to me for a story?’ About half of them respond,” said Fallik, in offering advice on how to find people for stories.

She cautioned reporters to be careful about their use of language and photos, and be prepared to receive nasty emails attacking individuals for being obese.

Obesity is one of several chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, that are risk factors for poor outcomes for those with COVID-19, and are also frequently found in communities of color and in low-income populations, according to the CDC.

Obesity isn’t well-understood by many in the medical community as a disease. Still, those with higher BMIs have been shown to have higher inflammation levels and may be why they are more vulnerable to COVID-19, according to Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity-physician scientist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Reporters should consider looking “at issues like structural racism,” she said, adding that, “The Jackson Heart Study found people who experienced racism have higher levels of inflammation and higher levels of obesity … and so there is an interplay in terms of what (people) are feeling socially, and with their genetics and other risk factors for COVID-19.”

Stanford welcomes calls from reporters to talk about the pervasive racial inequities with COVID-19 and understanding the disease of obesity.

To hear more from all three speakers, watch the recording of the webcast here.

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