Category Archives: COVID-19

Sex differences and COVID-19: How journalists can raise awareness

About Erica Tricarico

Managing Editor Erica Tricarico is a graduate of Howard University and the master’s program in journalism at CUNY. Tricarico comes to AHCJ from MJH Life Sciences in Cranbury, N.J., where she managed an editorial team producing content on animal care. Before that, she was a freelance health care reporter for Everyday Health.

AHCJ webcast, 12/1/21.

As widespread as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been, there are differences reporters need to understand — and those sex- and gender-based differences aren’t unique to the way this pandemic has played out. They’re apparent in many other aspects of health.

That was the big takeaway from Wednesday’s AHCJ webcast, hosted by independent journalist Michele Cohen Marill. Panelists were:

  • Louise McCullough, M.D., Ph.D., the Roy M. and Phyllis Gough Huffington distinguished chair of neurology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston and chief of neurology at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center;
  • Sara Ghandehari, M.D., a pulmonologist and director of pulmonary rehabilitation in the Women’s Guild Lung Institute at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles;
  • Psychologist Carolyn M. Mazure, Ph.D., the Norma Weinberg Spungen and Joan Lebson Bildner Professor in Women’s Health Research and director of Women’s Health Research at Yale.

McCullough laid the foundation for the conversation by explaining the difference between sex and gender this way: Sex is biological, while gender is about your perception or society’s perception of your sex.

In terms of the physical impact of COVID-19, men tend to experience more devastating disease and have a higher risk of mortality, while women are more likely to have long-haul symptoms. But there are gender differences when it comes to the impact of the pandemic on mental health, Mazure pointed out, which are related to the kind of work women do within and outside the household.

“If you don’t look for sex differences you won’t find them, but they’re there,” McCullough said.

Panelists agreed that highlighting sex differences in health reporting is crucial. “We cannot allow this to be dropped. We have to raise awareness,” Mazure said.

Continue reading

How to cover Omicron and other COVID variants of concern

About Bara Vaida and Tara Haelle

Bara Vaida is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Tara Haelle is medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon of science and research and helping them translate evidence into accurate information.

Creative rendition of SARS-COV-2 virus particles. (Photo courtesy of the NIH Image Gallery via Flickr)

Much of the post-Thanksgiving media coverage has focused on Omicron, the SARS-CoV-2 virus variant detected circulating in South Africa and labeled a variant of concern (VOC) by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26. The other variants of concern are Delta, Alpha, Beta and Gamma.

WHO added Omicron to the VOC list based on available evidence, including the fact that the variant contains more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, the primary antigen that all WHO’s approved COVID-19 vaccines rely on to evoke an immune response. These mutations are all distinct from the genome of the ancestral (original) virus discovered in Wuhan in late 2019, and many of them already exist in the Delta and Alpha variants.

Some of these mutations have the potential to make the virus more transmissible (like Delta does), cause more severe disease or reduce the effectiveness of vaccines that prevent COVID-19 disease (like Beta does). However, there isn’t enough clinical evidence (real-world evidence from actual infections) to say yet whether the Omicron strain is more transmissible, more pathogenic, or less susceptible to protection from the vaccine.

Journalists should therefore keep in mind that the science of the variant is still evolving and report stories with the caveat that there remain a lot of unknowns, a normal aspect of the scientific process. The public is going to have to wait for more definitive information. Anthony Fauci, M.D., chief medical advisor to President Biden and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told Biden on Nov. 28 that he expects it will be another two weeks until scientists have more definitive answers. That feels like an eternity in COVID-time, and it’s okay to acknowledge that, but it’s also warp speed in real-science time, which is also important to keep in mind and convey to readers.

In the meantime, nothing changes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice for protecting oneself and others from COVID-19: get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask indoors in places with people outside your household, avoid large indoor crowds and get tested if you have symptoms.

“We still have no scientific updates on Omicron’s impact on immunity escape or transmissibility,” wrote Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist with the University of Texas Health Science Center in a blog post.  “If you’re hearing anything right now…it’s purely speculation. Hypotheses are important to discuss, but not the solid evidence we need. Getting answers takes time because good science takes time. I give it a week or two until the evidence starts rolling in.”

Continue reading

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

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.

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.

Continue reading

New research highlights vaccine effectiveness vs. natural immunity in older adults

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic leader on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Photo by National Guard via Flickr.

New research published in the CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) revealed how much more effective COVID-19 vaccines are compared with natural immunity at preventing hospitalizations in people over 65. Data analysis from nine states show that the odds of COVID infection in hospitalized people were nearly 20 times greater among unvaccinated seniors than  fully vaccinated recipients with no previous documented infection. Additionally, the study found hospitalized people under 65 who were unvaccinated were at 5 times greater risk of COVID infection compared with those who received both doses of an mRNA shot.

The study further confirms that vaccine-induced immunity was more protective than infection-induced immunity against laboratory-confirmed COVID-19. Study researchers issued several strong calls for everyone eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as possible, even if they have previously been infected with SARS-CoV-2.  It’s especially important for the older population who are not yet fully vaccinated to do so, said the experts. Although those 65 and older make up about 16% of the total U.S. population, they account for some 75% of COVID deaths.

Continue reading

Reporting on COVID-19 and obesity

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.

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