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Tip Sheets

Coronaviruses: Background and sources for your reporting

By Bara Vaida

Background | Tracking | Fact checking | Tip sheets | Definitions | Resources | Emergency preparedness | Organizations and experts

Background (Updated Jan. 5, 2021)

It’s been a year since an ophthalmologist in China’s Wuhan Central hospital first shared with doctors (via the WeChat social media platform) that a SARS-like lung infection was circulating in the city. Prior to December 2019, SARS-CoV2 — the coronavirus that causes the illness COVID-19 — was unknown to the world.

The World Health Organization on Jan. 5, 2020 announced that a pneumonia of “unknown-cause” was circulating in Wuhan. By mid-January, Chinese scientists identified the cause as a coronavirus and shared the genetic sequence of the virus with scientists around the world.

On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern and on March 11, declared COVID-19 a pandemic. See more about coronaviruses here.

To show how fast the pandemic is spreading: an estimated 19.8 million people in the U.S. were reported infected with SARS-CoV-2, and 342,743 had died from complications related to COVID-19 in 2020, according to Dec. 31 data from the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center, which developed one of the earliest and most respected tracking services. But as of Jan. 4, those figures had grown to more than 20.6 million infected and 351,872 dead.

Globally, an estimated 82.9 million were infected and 1.8 million died in 2020, Johns Hopkins reported, jumping over the holiday weekend to more than 85.3 million infected and 1.8 million dead as of Jan. 4. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a new, more infectious variant of the virus first identified in the United Kingdom had been found in the U.S. The variant appears to increase the likelihood that more people could become infected in the coming months.

The Guardian created this timeline of how the pandemic has unfolded over the past year. The Johns Hopkins site releases a daily one-minute video summarizing the most critical data the public needs to know about the pandemic.

What’s known so far about mortality rates

The mortality figure from COVID-19 is evolving and ranges, depending upon age, sex and the country where the virus is circulating. As of the end of December, the observed case fatality rate for the countries most affected by the pandemic (the number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths divided by the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases) ranged globally between 8.8% in Mexico to 0.9% in Turkey, according to Johns Hopkins University, with the U.S. rate at 1.7% as of Dec. 30.

A meta-review of 113 studies in the U.S., Europe and five other countries, revealed an infection-to-mortality rate (the number of COVID-19 estimated infections divided by deaths) ranged from 0.002% to 0.01% for those under 25 to 0.% for those under 55. After that, the rate rises to 0.4% by age 55, 1.4% by age 65, to 4.6% at age 75 and to 15% for those 85 and older, according to this preprint study published Dec. 8 in the European Journal of Epidemiology.

Average case fatality figures will continue to evolve because scientists don't yet understand how many people have been infected with the virus but have no symptoms and are carriers. This paper provides an excellent explanation.

Based on data received as of Aug. 8, 2020, the CDC estimates that number of people who are infected with COVID-19 but didn't have symptoms, is about 40%.

Here are some good data sources to track how the coronavirus impacts various racial and ethnic group:

  • In the U.S., the CDC, on Dec. 29, 2020, published demographic data analyzing mortality figures in the U.S. that found death rates were drastically higher in those older than 65. However, the CDC data for race and ethnic groups was only available for 78 percent of deaths, obscuring the picture of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact.

  • A better source for this racial data can be found via.  the COVID Tracking Project’s COVID Racial data tracker here. It’s most recent data show that Black people nationwide are dying at 1.7 times the rate of white people.

To help you cover this changing story here are resources that we have gathered. Email AHCJ infectious disease core topic leader Bara Vaida at bara@healthjournalism.org with additional resources.

Updated news and data for tracking virus figures

As the pandemic news changes almost daily, Twitter has become an even more important place for journalists to find sources and for scientists to connect with one another and the media.

For ongoing and up-to-date coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak, check out this Twitter list curated by Vaida. The list includes 40 people who are regularly and responsibly tweeting about the outbreak and includes virologists, epidemiologists, airborne pathogen specialists, and journalists who have been covering infectious disease topics for years, health policy experts and health care providers.

Another curated Twitter list to check out with trusted sources was put together by Ellie Murray, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Health

For global . data: the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center map and the World Health Organization’s daily situation reports on the coronavirus.

For U.S. data, here are two addition reliable sources of information. Each of these draws from slightly different sources, so you will find differing numbers:

  • The COVID Tracking Project collects information from 50 US states, the District of Columbia, and five other U.S. territories to provide the most comprehensive testing data we can collect for the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Hundreds of journalists, scientists and data-gathering volunteers are managing this tracker attempt to include positive and negative results, pending tests, and total people tested for each state or district currently reporting that data. This project was created by two journalists, Robinson Meyer and Alexis Madrigal.

  • The Kaiser Family Foundation’s COVID-19 state tracker.

Additional tip sheets and resources:

  • 50 Experts to Trust in a Pandemic: Medium’s health and science news site, Elemental published this terrific list of vetted experts for journalists. The site explains the expertise of each scientist/researcher/physician so that ask the right person to comment on a particular aspect of COVID-19.

  • COVID-19 Expanded Resource Center: The Infectious Diseases Society of America is publishing this page with an extensive number of resources, including research journals, registries, lists of clinical trials and clinical guidance to infectious disease physicians, for antibody testing, for special populations and settings, workplace safety, mental health and insurance coverage. The organization also hosts weekly updates for media on COVID-19. Reach out to Camille Ahearn to get on the media briefing press list. cahearn@messagepartnerspr.com

  • The Journalists Resource on COVID-19, at Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, published two new tip sheets in August 2020 on covering the vaccine story. One on safety, distribution and adoption and five tips to help journalists inject audiences with the facts.

  • Journalists Toolbox: The Society of Professional Journalists publishes this continuously updated COVID-19 data and research tip sheet and resources page. 

  • COVID-19 Resources for Reporters: This excellent resource is published by SciLine, a part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which supports journalists’ work.

  • COVID-19 Poynter Resources: The Poynter Institute publishes daily newsletters with story ideas for reporters and tips for journalists on handling stress and for making COVID-19 comprehensible to readers, as well as ideas for accessing additional training and reporting resources.

  • Covering Coronavirus: Resources for Journalism from the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma - English and Chinese-language resources for journalists covering the coronavirus epidemic, including tips on covering disease, interviewing victims and survivors, and working with colleagues exposed to traumatic events.

  • Guide to understanding and reporting on COVID-19 data: The Radio Television Digital News Association published this guide for journalsits on covering positivity rate, infection rate, hospitalizations, recovered cases, fatalities and fatality rate data.

  • American Public Media data reporters Geoff Hing and Will Craft created this comprehensive tip sheet on where you can find data about COVID-19 testing and medical system capacity compiled from sources like NICAR-L list, NewsNerdery Slack, the Data is Plural newsletter, other reporting and browsing public health agency websites.

  • The Open Notebook: Covering the Coronavirus Epidemic Effectively without Spreading Misinformation. Authored by Scientific American editor Laura Helmuth; Editors Roundtable: Managing Pandemic Coverage : top editors discuss the challenges of covering the outbreak

  • COVID-19 Stop the Spread: This National Foundation for Infectious Diseases is offering updated information periodically on COVID-19 as it becomes available.

  • Science Matters: Let's Talk about COVID-19’, from the Abdul Latif Jameel Institute for Disease Emergency Analytics (J-IDEA) at Imperial College London

Reframe: Reporting on coronavirus

AHCJ resources

COVID-19 Core Topic section is the central place on the website to access resources for members, including a glossary, concepts, tip sheets, advice from journalists, data, webcasts and blog posts.

Most-read AHCJ blog posts of 2020

  1. Looking at the evidence on homemade face masks to prevent coronavirus transmission

  2. Keep an eye out for lead-time bias with COVID-19 deaths

  3. How reporting on people’s intent to get a COVID-19 vaccine can harm public health

  4. Use these COVID-19 clinical trial trackers to keep up with research

  5. COVID-19 is hitting older LGBTQ adults especially hard

  6. During COVID-19 pandemonium, be sure to vet your sources for the right expertise

  7. Should freelancers pitch right now? Yes, and here’s what to do

  8. Are older lives less worthy in a pandemic?

  9. Learning the lessons of past pandemics

  10. Where to get more answers about COVID-19

AHCJ Journalism Online Summit on Infectious Disease, November 2020: Go here to replay webcasts of each session.

More experts and organizations

  • AHCJ’s list of infectious disease experts

  • CIDRAP COVID-19 Resource Center” The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota has launched an online resource center providing a wealth of information for public health experts, business preparedness leaders, government officials and the public regarding the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19.

  • ECRI: The Coronavirus Outbreak Preparedness Center has resources for hospitals and health care providers.

  • The Administration for Community Living Coronavirus resource page has a wealth of evidence-based information for older adults with links to state health department websites. It also includes program information for the aging and disability network, including program-specific information, HCBS Waivers, and an emergency planning toolkit. 

  • Council on Foreign Relations: The global public policy think tank has created a page on its site with global health resources for journalists covering the outbreak, analysis and background on the growing threat of the outbreak.

  • American Chemical Society: The nonprofit research organization chartered by Congress, offers a collection of articles on coronaviruses and the chemicals that will be needed for vaccines and therapies to treat it.

  • The Journal for the American Medical Association: JAMA, the journal for one of the nation's leading physician organizations, has created a page for clinicians and the public on up-to-date information and research about the coronavirus.

  • University of Michigan: The university is offering experts to speak to the media on politics, engineering, epidemiology, medical history, medicine, environmental engineering, health policy, business strategy, microbiology and infectious disease to discuss the coronavirus.

  • Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL.org): Represents public health labs (labs supported by the CDC and their state), which have been charged with COVID-19 testing.

  • Association of State and Territorial Health Officer (ASTHO.org): Represents local health officials.

  • Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE.org): Represents public health epidemiologists who are working to stop the spread of COVID-19.

  • National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO.org): Represent public health leaders. Call Theresa Spinner: tspinner@naccho.org or 202-783-5551.

  • Big Cities Health Coalition: Contact Max Mays at mays@bigcitieshealth.org or 913-233-6830.

Fact checking

  • The Poynter Institute has an excellent site on best practices and fact-checking COVID-19 information.

  • Poynter’s sister website, PolitiFact, also has an excellent fact-checking site.

  • For fact checking potential hoaxes: Check this Twitter hashtag and this hashtag. These hashtags are run by 90 fact-checkers from 39 countries under the coordination of the International Fact-Checking Network, which has identified a series of falsehoods with this profile.

  • Another curated Twitter list, to check out with trusted sources. It was put together by Ellie Murray, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Health.

Multimedia

  • The Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg has been hosting a series of COVID-19 webinars with journalists and experts. See the list here.

  • Watch recorded COVID-19 media briefing webcasts with scientists hosted by SciLine here. Topics range from social determinants of health, to mental health to immunity and contact tracing.

  • The Forum at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health has been hosting a series of useful webcasts on the pandemic. See the listing of recorded webcasts here.

  • Journal of the American Medical Association editor Howard Bauchner, M.D., has been hosting informative interviews with top public health experts on COVID-19. 

  • The Infectious Disease Society of America hosts multiple webcasts with infectious disease specialists on COVID-19 and posts all of them here.

Additional journalist resources

  • The National Association of Science Writers created a discussion list for journalists to share questions and seek support. This NASW COVID-19 discussion board aims to create a space for connecting journalists covering the COVID-19 pandemic, no matter the angle or geographic market. Seasoned science and health writers can offer advice on navigating research processes, jargon, and other facets of reporting — while reporters who cover government, business, lifestyle, and other areas can share tips from their beat, such as best practices for interviewing elected officials or on-the-street reporting. To join the list, send an email to nasw-COVID19mods@nasw.org. Include your name, email address and the name of your news organization if you are staff or if you are a freelancer.

  • The Associated Press addresses style questions.

  • Columbia Journalism Review on "How to name a coronavirus"

  • CJR report on "The new coronavirus and racist tropes"

  • Cochrane Library

    The Special Collection on the Coronavirus (COVID-19): evidence relevant to critical care has now published in the Cochrane Library. This Special Collection will be updated to ensure it remains applicable as the situation changes, and as WHO guidance evolves, and will also draw on the knowledge of Cochrane groups in affected regions. If you’d like a copy of one of the reviews, or any other systematic review from the Cochrane Library, to speak with a Cochrane expert, or to be added to the media list to receive information on future reviews, please contact Dawn Peters at dpeters@wiley.com.

  • Case report: the First Case of 2019 Novel Coronavirus in the United States: (Jan. 31, New England Journal of Medicine. A detailed medical report on the first patient to be diagnosed with the virus.

  • The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV)
    Recent articles in JAMA reviewed new technologies for rapid vaccine development for emerging viral diseases, effectiveness of various types of masks for preventing infections in health care settings, global preparedness for healthcare emergencies, and more.

Emergency health preparedness

  • How to find local public health sources for your coverage: Advice for journalists on how to reach emergency and public health officials.

  • Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit led by Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has created an infographic tool to spotlight gaps in global preparedness for outbreaks. The site, called PreventEpidemics.org, provides an individual score to countries using a color code to rank countries by preparedness. Looking at the map provides a good way for journalists to see which country might be the next hot spot for an outbreak. The scoring is calculated by using data from the Joint External Evaluation, an international effort developed by the World Health Organization, to help countries bolster their health systems to prepare for emergencies. Gaps in preparedness include lack of monitoring system that can spot unusual health reports or lack of trained epidemiologists who can be deployed if there is a health threat.

  • Guidance on the release of information concerning deaths, epidemics or emerging diseases
    This set of recommendations emerged from a meeting of public health officials, health care journalists and public health information officers, co-sponsored by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, the National Association of County and City Health Officials and the Association of Health Care Journalists in October 2010.

  • Business and workplace guidance
    The Center for Disease Control and Preventions’ National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health launched a website for businesses to provide guidance in preparation for the potential sustained transmission of COVID-19.

Government organizations

Some definitions for your reporting

Asymptomatic carrier: A healthy person who is infected by a pathogen and showing no symptoms of disease. People can become infected with a pathogen and experience no symptoms. That person then can transmit, or “carry” the pathogen to another person, infecting them. That person may then become sick, even if the original carrier does not.

Containment versus mitigation: During a fast-moving infectious disease outbreak, public health officials respond with tools to stop its spread. First, they try measures aimed at containing the disease, and if that doesn’t succeed, they move to reduce the severity of illness with mitigation efforts. Read more ...

Infection-to-fatality rate (IFR): An epidemiology term that quantifies the chances that a person who contracts an infection from a pathogen, will die from it. Not everyone who is infected by a pathogen will show symptoms of a disease. Not everyone who is infected by a pathogen will die. Knowing the IFR helps scientists determine the danger of a particular pathogen and develop countermeasures to prevent its transmission. With novel pathogens, like with the virus that causes COVID-19, this rate is initially difficult to determine because people who aren’t sick aren’t being tested for infection. As time goes on, and more people are tested for the virus, epidemiologists can determine a more accurate figure for the mortality rate of a pathogen.

Isolation: This policy involves separating people known or suspected to be infected with a contagious disease from those who are not sick to prevent them from transmitting disease to others. The definition of “suspected” is based on whether the person is showing symptoms of a contagious disease or whether they met certain laboratory criteria demonstrating they have likely been infected.

Positivity rate: The percent of COVID-19 tests with positive results over a seven to 14-day period. As part of public health measures aimed at reducing spread of COVID-19, the World Health Organization recommends that communities aim for a positivity rate of less than 5% for at least two weeks . A threshold of 5% or more is as an indication that the spread of COVID-19 is not under control in the community.

Presumptive positive: This is a term used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention related to the diagnostic testing process for a disease. A presumptive positive result is when a patient has tested positive by a state or local public health laboratory to infection by a pathogen but has yet to have been confirmed by the CDC. Public health laboratories are a network of specialized governmental health laboratories that operate at the state and local level across the country. Every state and the District of Columbia has a public health lab and many states have local public labs in metropolitan areas and smaller communities. They are among the keys to public health surveillance and work closely with the CDC and other federal agencies, as well as international health agencies. 

Quarantine: Involves health authority separating and restricting the movement of people who have potentially been exposed to a contagious disease, until it can be determined whether they have become sick or no longer pose a risk to others. For example, those suspected of exposure to Ebola were quarantined up to 21 days. Quarantines may take place in the home, or other locations determined by health authorities. If a person shows no symptoms of the disease within the time when a person is considered contagious, they are considered disease-free and released from quarantine.

Symptomatic case-fatality rate (sCFR): An epidemiology term that quantifies the risk that a person who is infected with a pathogen, and showing signs of illness, will die. Knowing this figure helps scientists determine the danger of a particular pathogen. With a fast moving and novel pathogen, like the virus that causes COVID-19, this figure may be a moving target, because only those with illness are tested. As time goes on, and more people are tested for the virus, epidemiologists can determine a more accurate figure for the mortality rate of a pathogen. That is why journalists may want to caveat the mortality rate figures early in an outbreak with something to the effect of: "a mortality rate, based on the information that scientists have."

Zoonotic: A zoonotic disease refers to a pathogen that has been living within an animal, and then, for an environmental or genetic reason, jumps into the human population where it can cause disease. Two of the best-known zoonotic diseases are influenza and the plague. The flu virus lives in the guts of waterfowl. The flu can spread to humans through a genetic shift that causes people to become ill. The plague is caused by the bacteria, Yersinia pestis. It can live inside fleas, which then bite humans and cause illness. In 1346, rats carrying fleas with Yersinia pestis, traveled through trade routes in western Europe, causing a pandemic known as the Black Death. Around 60% to 75% of all new diseases that affect humans are zoonotic in origin.