Category Archives: COVID-19

FDA Commissioner Califf sounds the alarm on health misinformation

Photo by Paola RodriguezRobert Califf, M.D., M.A.C.C., speaking with an attendee at Health Journalism 2022.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Robert Califf, M.D., M.A.C.C., isn’t easy to rattle.

During a Q&A on Friday, April 29, at Health Journalism 2022 in Austin, he told journalists that after “surviving a harrowing confirmation process” he’s feeling confident about the FDA’s ability to tackle all of the challenges before it, including food safety, children’s COVID vaccines, teen vaping, among others.

Though the agency has been hit with criticism from lawmakers, industry and the public, he’s taking it in stride.

“I’m 70 years old. I’m relatively impervious to critique. What are they going to do to me now?” he said during the session moderated by AHCJ’s core topic leader on patient safety Kerry Dooley Young.

But the issue that keeps him up at night, he said, is the proliferation of false and misleading health information, particularly online — and the distrust in institutions, data and expertise that it has wrought.

“I believe that misinformation is now our leading cause of death,” he said, naming ongoing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, the number of people taking Ivermectin and the prevalence of vaping as examples of the problem. “Historically, the FDA has been relatively quiet and puts out definitive information through guidance or labels or regulatory actions … that would be transmitted to consumers and patients through trusted intermediaries. But the world has changed at this point.”

All this, he argued, had fueled the drop in life expectancy in the U.S. compared to other wealthy nations, and he urged reporters to avoid clickbait, lean into fact checking, make sure the headline matches the copy and take other steps to responsibly convey news about COVID-19 and other pressing health concerns.

“People are distracted and misled by the medical information Tower of Babel,” he said. “But journalists like yourselves play an important role here and your work has a tremendous impact on public trust.”

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Why the US nursing home system is ‘in desperate need of an overhaul’

A recent comprehensive and detailed report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine called for a revamping of how we care for, finance, and manage nursing homes in the United States, and an overhauling of how employees are hired and trained.

The 600-page report, released on April 6, identified seven major areas requiring transformation to provide high-quality care to all nursing home residents. Strengthening the nursing home workforce, improving emergency preparedness, and increasing the transparency and accountability of nursing homes’ finances, operations and ownership are key goals among the report’s comprehensive recommendations. Efforts will require true collaboration between state and federal authorities, providers, payers and advocates, according to the report’s authors.

The report provides an opportunity for journalists to hold CMS, state officials and owners more accountable for how care is delivered and received for some 1.3 million people in more than 15,000 nursing homes throughout the United States.

“The way in which the United States finances, delivers, and regulates care in nursing home settings is ineffective, inefficient, fragmented and unsustainable,” said Betty Ferrell, Ph.D., director of nursing research and education and professor at City of Hope Medical Center and chair of the Committee on the Quality of Care in Nursing homes, during an online presentation of the committee’s conclusions. (The committee’s work is sponsored in part by the John A. Hartford Foundation, which also sponsors AHCJ’s aging core topic area).

“The committee has delivered a blueprint to build a system of care that honors those who call the nursing home their home and the dedicated staff who care for them,” Ferrell wrote in the report.

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Former CDC leaders say agency needs more funding and better communication to restore trust

Former directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gathered for an online debate last week to discuss ways to retool the nation’s largest public health agency and regain the public’s trust.

Two years after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, only 44% of Americans say they trust the CDC for information about COVID-19, down significantly from April 2020 when 69% of Americans said they trusted the agency, according to this NBC News poll.  

There is a myriad of reasons why trust in the agency has eroded, including the botched rollout of COVID-19 testing at the very beginning of the pandemic, increased political polarization that has deepened distrust of federal institutions and scientists, lack of timely COVID-19 data and challenges within the agency in communicating public health guidance about the pandemic.

“Worldwide, people have lost faith in institutions,” William Roper, M.D., M.P.H., CDC director from 1990 to 1993, said during the April 5 webinar hosted by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “CDC is unfortunately a part of that.”

He added that the ongoing challenge for CDC is to do a better job of explaining the uncertainty of the scientific process, which, if detailed more clearly, could help restore the public’s trust.

“I’m not criticizing any decisions recently made or done or whatever,” he said. “But I think it’s important that each time CDC or any other health official makes a pronouncement, to say with humility…. ‘This is what we know today. And this is our best advice given what we know today. We may know [something different] tomorrow, and if it is different from what we know today, we will change our advice tomorrow.’”

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Resources for reporting on COVID-19’s origins

The Qingping market in Guangzhou, China. (Photo by Tr1xx via Flickr.)

Since the early months of 2020, scientific debate has raged over the origin of COVID-19 and whether it emerged from the Wuhan seafood market (with a zoonotic transmission from animals to humans) or started as a breach from a Wuhan biosecurity lab or elsewhere. The debate over the origin spilled over to politics as China clamped down on the public release of scientific information about the pandemic’s origin since March 2020.

So, what is currently known about the origin of this virus?

For most of the past two years, China’s failure to cooperate with the Word Health Organization (WHO) and other countries on the pandemic’s origin hunt has seeded conspiracy theories — including that the Chinese government caused the pandemic or that the virus escaped from a biosecurity lab in the United States. 

In August 2021, the U.S. director of national intelligence published a declassified report with a clear summary of the debate about the virus’s origins. The report said there was broad agreement that the first cluster of cases emerged in Wuhan in December 2019; the virus wasn’t a biological weapon or genetically engineered and the government didn’t know about the virus before the pandemic emerged. 

However, the U.S. intelligence community was divided on whether the virus emerged from an animal or accidentally from a lab, with about half of analysts saying it was likely zoonotic and connected to the Wuhan market but had “low confidence” in this assessment. Others said they had confidence in the accidental lab leak theory, or there wasn’t enough evidence to have confidence in either theory.

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Poynter researcher offers tips for COVID-19 reporting and verifying  data

Caryn Baird

Like many of you, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past two years searching the internet and social media for COVID-19 experts for data and patient stories. After what felt like hours and hours of going down rabbit holes and getting nowhere, I thought, there must be more efficient ways to search for information.

That is why I highly recommend checking out this March 5 webinar sponsored by the Houston Chapter of the Society of Professional JournalistsCaryn Baird, a researcher for the Poynter Institute and PolitiFact, walks reporters through techniques to refine internet searches, organize website bookmarks, ferret out misinformation and verify the accuracy of information like photographs found during internet searches.

“It’s daunting how much is out there,” Baird said during the webinar. “So, practice [searches] beforehand. You don’t know what your next story might be, so it’s good to stay fresh …. You don’t want to be on deadline finding that one person who took that one film at that high school in Colorado.”

Here are some of Baird’s techniques that I found most useful:

  • How to find a COVID-19 expert’s email: Add an email finder to your browser. If you are reading a story and want to quickly find the professional email address of the author and experts quoted in the article, an email extension will help you find them quickly (i.e., you can use this for Google chrome, and this for Firefox)
  • Historical context for COVID-19 and previous infectious disease outbreaks: If you are looking for broadcast stories from the early pandemic, use the Wayback machineto see how the pandemic was reported in March 2020 or look at CNN’s early COVID-19 coverage. If you are searching for print coverage from 1878 to 2008, Google has archived nearly every newspaper article. These stories are available for free.

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