Tag Archives: COVID-19

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. She has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Tara Haelle is medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through jargon 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.”

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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.

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Report: Pop-up clinics, other outreach, boosted vaccination of severely mentally ill

About Katti Gray

Katti Gray (@kattigray) is AHCJ's core topic leader for behavioral and mental health. A former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow, Gray is providing resources to help AHCJ members expand their coverage of mental health amid ongoing efforts to de-stigmatize mental illness and to place mental health care on par with all health care.

Photo by Alachua County via Flickr

Although people with schizophrenia, severe bipolar disorder and other serious psychiatric disorders worldwide have been less likely to get vaccinated against COVID-19, people with mental illness in one Georgia county got vaccinated at a higher rate than people without mental illness, according to a September 2021 survey conducted by the Washington D.C.-based Treatment Advocacy Center and Clubhouse International.

The latter, which does advocacy and programming for the mentally ill in 30 countries, marked that achievement in Floyd County, Ga. by persuading public health officials to do pop-up clinics at Clubhouse headquarters, said Lisa Dailey, executive director of The Treatment Advocacy Center. What Clubhouse accomplished in Floyd County — where 61% to 80% of Clubhouse members but 10.1% of all county residents were vaccinated as of mid-June 2021 — exemplifies what can happen when health officials and advocates for the mentally ill coalesce. 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.

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

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 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