Category Archives: Infectious diseases

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

Tips for reporting on what experts say could be a tough flu season for the elderly

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.

As cases of the Delta variant start to wane, infectious disease specialists have a new concern this fall — flu and pneumonia, especially in vulnerable populations like older adults.

Experts from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) and the CDC expressed concern about a potentially serious flu season at a video press briefing on October 7.  Flu cases during 2020-21 were extremely low— just 2,124 confirmed cases between Sept. 27, 2020, and May 15, 2021— thanks in large part to people working from home, wearing masks, social distancing and practicing good hand hygiene.

But as more communities ease restrictions, the flu could surge this year, impacting many more people. For seniors, whose immune systems are weaker than younger adults, that could mean an increase in hospitalizations, cases of pneumonia, or even deaths.

“The medical and public health community are preparing for a potentially vigorous respiratory virus session in the United States,” said William Schaffner, M.D., NFID medical director, who moderated the briefing. “The best way to prepare is to get your flu vaccine.”

Vaccination is especially important among at-risk populations, including adults 65 and older, and those with certain chronic conditions according to Schaffner.

Currently, the U.S. is on track for similar flu vaccination rates as 2020, about 52% overall, according to CDC director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., M.P.H., who participated in the briefing.  That rate may not be good enough this year to keep case rates low.

A recent NFID survey revealed that even among those who are at high risk for complications, nearly 1 in 4 (23%) were not planning to get vaccinated this season. While most people over age 65 (71%) said they will get a flu shot, 30% of seniors would remain unprotected, leading to potentially serious consequences.

Continue reading

How to cover the 2021-2022 flu season

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 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.

Continue reading

What two journalists learned from covering the race to stop the next pandemic

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.

Harriett Constable and Jacob Kushner (Images courtesy of the Pulitzer Center)

While most of the world is focused on stopping the spread of COVID-19, scientists across the globe are working to stop other potentially deadly viruses from causing another pandemic. The diseases that pose the greatest threat to humanity are all zoonotic.

According to the EcoHealth Alliance, 75% of all emerging diseases are zoonotic, meaning diseases that can spread between species — from animals to humans and vice versa, for example.

Informing the public is the first step to helping to combat the spread of these illnesses, said Harriet Constable, a multimedia producer and director based in London, and Jacob Kushner, an international correspondent.

Alarmed by the data they found about these emerging zoonotic diseases, Constable and Kushner collaborated on a six-part multimedia series, funded by the Pulitzer Center, titled, “Stopping the Next One: Scientists Race to Prevent Human Encroachment on Wildlife From Causing the Next Pandemic.”

Continue reading