Author Archives: 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 the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico, The Washington Post and other outlets.

Antibiotic resistance: How to cover this ongoing health story beyond the COVID-19 pandemic

Image courtesy of Photos for Class.

The problem of superbugs was brewing before the pandemic and has only worsened in the past two years in some parts of the country. In 2019, the CDC said about 35,000 people a year in the U.S. die from a drug-resistant infection, up from 2013 when the agency estimated about 21,000 were dying annually from a superbug. (This is the latest national data available from the CDC.)

“We’ve seen a rise in broad-spectrum antibacterial use nationwide during this pandemic,” said Shruti Gohil, M.D., M.P.H., associate medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine. And “there has also been a rise in multidrug-resistant organism infections, specifically” in hospitals.

If you’re looking for important health stories that will endure post-COVID-19, get up to speed on covering antibiotic resistance. Let’s start with some background information and explore the latest data.

A deep dive into antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance is a natural phenomenon. When a patient sick with a bacteria or fungus is given an antibiotic, the drug kills most of the pathogens — enough for a patient to develop an immune response to get better. But a few pathogens may survive, and those ‘superbugs’ then multiply and spread in the environment. Older patients and those with compromised immune systems are among the most vulnerable to these resistant bacteria.

In the fourth quarter of 2020, hospitals reported a 41% increase in infection events caused by bacteriemia, a type of bloodstream, and often drug-resistant pathogen, according to the CDC. The rise in infection event was likely related to the large increase in COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals that needed ventilators and catheters and other equipment to keep them alive, but also create opportunities for bacteria to enter the body.

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Reporting on COVID-19 and obesity

Photo by Jody Halsted via Flickr.

The childhood obesity epidemic was one of the biggest public health stories before the pandemic and remains an important topic for journalists looking for new COVID-19 angles to explore.

The CDC recently reported an increase in children living with high body mass index (the definition used for obesity which measures weight divided by height), a worrisome trend because those with obesity have been among the people with the highest risk for hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

“The COVID pandemic and the obesity pandemic in so many ways have exacerbated one another,” Jamie Bussel, M.P.H., senior program manager at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and co-author of an October 2021 report on pediatric obesity, said during a webinar about the report.

During the pandemic, the rate of body mass index doubled for kids ages 2 to 19, and those experiencing obesity before the pandemic experienced the largest increases, according to the CDC. Also, the National Survey of Children’s Health revealed that 16.2% of kids between the ages of 10 and 17 meet the definition of obese, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In a study of COVID-19 patients age 18 and younger, kids with obesity were at a three-times higher risk of hospitalization and a one and a half-times higher risk of severe illness (intensive care unit admission, invasive mechanical ventilation, or death) when hospitalized, according to the CDC. Continue reading

How one investigative reporter took a local approach to covering COVID-19

Jerry Mitchell

Many journalists are searching for new ways to report on the impact of COVID-19. One approach is to mine public data showing health problems that existed in a community prior to the pandemic. Then, tell the stories about how those who were in poor health before March 2020 have been affected over the past 18 months.

One reporter who successfully followed the above approach is investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell, founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Journalism. He co-authored a series of stories looking at the connection between diabetes and COVID deaths. The series put a spotlight on how those in poverty, and especially those with diabetes, were among those at risk of dying from COVID. Mitchell hopes the series will wake Americans up to the danger of diabetes, not just in terms of the risk it poses for mortality from COVID, but also in terms of vulnerability to health threats in the future.

Mitchell recently shared with AHCJ what he learned while reporting on the series, how his organization approached the pandemic and offered advice to journalists on how to bone up on data reporting. (The following conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.)

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How to cover the 2021-2022 flu season

Photo courtesy of the CDC

As it does every fall, the CDC is urging Americans to get their annual flu shot. Last year, flu was rare because Americans stayed home and wore masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This lack of flu from 2020 to 2021 (flu season generally occurs between October and May) could mean a potentially severe season this coming winter, CDC director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., M.P.H, said.

“When there is an active flu season one year to another, then we have…some protective immunity from the season prior,” Walensky said at the Oct. 7 flu season media briefing co-hosted by the CDC and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) and several health providers. “We do not have a lot of protective immunity from last season and because of that, we are worried” about the most vulnerable populations including children, pregnant people and those 65 and older.

Last year, public health officials warned of a “twindemic” of both COVID-19 and the flu, but the worst of their fears did not materialize. Public health experts believe behavior restrictions implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (i.e., social distancing, mask-wearing and online learning in schools) also prevented the spread of the flu. This year, with many of the COVID-19 restrictions lifted, the public health community is bracing for a surge.

Public health officials are concerned that possibly because of vaccine fatigue, 44% of Americans were either unsure or didn’t plan to get vaccinated against the flu, and 25% of them are at high risk from flu complications, according to this NFID survey.

“Frankly, we are alarmed by the large number of people who said they won’t get vaccinated,” said William Schaffner, M.D., NFID’s medical director and professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

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How to report on COVID-19 vaccines for kids: an update and expert contacts

Photo by CDC via Unsplash

Last week Pfizer and BioNTech announced promising safety and effectiveness data for use of its COVID-19 vaccine in children ages 5 to 11, setting a potential path for ending the pandemic.

“It won’t be a silver bullet, but [vaccines for kids] will be a step in the right direction,” Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, wrote in her newsletter called “Your Local Epidemiologist.”

On Sept. 20, the companies said a trial of 2,268 children ages 5 to 11, showed a “robust” neutralizing antibody response, using a 2-dose regimen, administered 3 weeks apart. The dose of the vaccine was lower (10 micrograms) than what is given to those 12 and older (30 micrograms) because it produced fewer side effects and still resulted in a strong immune response. Continue reading