Tip Sheets

COVID-19: Background and sources for your reporting

By Bara Vaida

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

Background (Updated May 31, 2021) 

On March 11, 2020 the World Health Organization declared COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, a pandemic. See more about coronaviruses here

As of May 31: an estimated 33.3 million people in the U.S. were reported infected with SARS-CoV-2, and more than 594,500have died from complications related to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic , according to data from the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center, which developed one of the earliest and most respected tracking services. 

Globally, more than 170.5 million have been infected and 3.54 million have died, making this the world’s deadliest pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed in the range of 17 to 50 million people globally over two years. 

Devex, a global development media platform, created this timeline of how the pandemic has unfolded since December 2019 when the virus was discovered in China. The Johns Hopkins site releases a daily one-minute video summarizing the most critical data the public needs to know each day about the pandemic. 

As of the end of May, there were 3 big stories related to the pandemic. One, the number of COVID-19 cases had dropped to the lowest number since the beginning of the pandemic, as nearly 135 million Americans were fully vaccinated against the virus. The national number of COVID-19 tests that came back positive had dropped below 3 percent, indicating that the pandemic, for now, is under control. [The WHO says that when test positive rates fall below 5 percent, community transmission is under control.] See the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention post here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/covidview/index.html 

The second big story is a renewed questioning into the origin of SARS-CoV-2. On May 26, President Biden ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to examine the possibility that the virus accidentally leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, reversing the White House’s previous position relying on the WHO to uncover how the pandemic started. Up until recently, most scientists believed that the likely origin was zoonotic, meaning that the pathogen jumped from an unknown animal to humans, as have most deadly pathogens throughout history. See this story in the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/05/30/scientist-covid-19-lab-leak-investigation/ 

The third big story is the continuing explosion of COVID-19 cases and deaths in India, where there were 28.8 million confirmed infectionsand 329,100 deaths. The surge in cases in India suggestssuggests a more infectious variant of the virus is sweeping the country. {see this story in NPR: https://www.npr.org/2021/05/06/994376812/a-new-variant-may-be-the-cause-of-indias-covid-19-surge],  

Key mortality and transmission data  

The mortality figure from COVID-19 has evolved through the pandemic and ranges, depending upon age, sex and the country where the virus is circulating. As of the end of May, 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 9.3% in Mexico to 0.9% in Turkey, according to Johns Hopkins University, with the U.S. rate at 1.8% as of May 31, 2021, unchanged from March 2021. 

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 December 2020 study published in the European Journal of Epidemioloy. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/346774025_Assessing_the_age_specificity_of_infection_fatality_rates_for_COVID-19_systematic_review_meta-analysis_and_public_policy_implications 

It is now clear that people without symptoms can give COVID-19 to others. Based on data received as of March 19, 2021, the CDC estimates that the number of people who were infected with COVID-19 but didn't have symptoms, is about 30%. When they were infected, about 75 percent were infectious and able to transmit the virus to others About 50 percent of people who are infected transmit the virus to others before they show symptoms, according to the CDC. 

See this Yale Medicine story on what we now know about COVID-19 and what we still don’t know, as of May 2021: https://www.yalemedicine.org/news/2019-novel-coronavirus 

Demographic data 

  • In the U.S., the CDC publishes demographic data analyzing case and mortality figures in the U.S. As of mid-May, death rates remain highest in those older than 65. Data for race and ethnic groups was available for 62 percent of cases and for 82 percent of deaths, obscuring the picture of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact. 

  • Still, there is enough data to offer a window into the disproportionate impact: Hispanic/Latinos represented 28.8 percent of cases, though they represent 18.45 percent of the population, those Native American/Alaska Native represent 1.0 percent of the cases and .74 percent of the population. The gap in the Black/Non-Hispanic community has closed significantly. The demographic represented 11.3 percent of COVID-19 cases and are 12.54 percent of the population. 

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. 

Vaccine Rollout 

Currently, Public health officials are involved in the biggest vaccination effort in the country’s history and have delivered enough vaccines for every adult in the US. As of May, 2021, 366.3 million doses had been delivered across the U.S. and 294.9 million had been administered and 135.1 million been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.. The vaccine roll out appears to be staying ahead of transmission of variants of the virus, as new cases of COVID-19 had begun falling, reaching the lowest point since early days of the pandemic in 2020. 

For other ways to track delivery and doses, see this tracker [https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/covid-vaccine-tracker-global-distribution/] updated daily by Bloomberg News. 

Different news organizations have different numbers, so check carefully to see if the data being used by the organization is shots delivered, shots administered or the number that are fully vaccinated. 

U.S. public health officials now say they are at the point where there is more supply of vaccines than takers. The coming months will involve hard work in getting to those still not vaccinated, either because they don’t have access, are hesitant or refuse to be vaccinated. See this Washington Post story. 

Among the biggest stories of the pandemic is the unprecedented speed of the development of COVID-19 vaccines [https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03626-1] and their rollout globally. See this tip sheet [https://healthjournalism.org/blog/2021/03/reporting-on-global-urgency-for-covid-19-vaccine-rollout/] if you are writing about the global vaccination efforts. In the U.S., there are three vaccines [https://www.healthinaging.org/tools-and-tips/tip-sheet-key-facts-about-covid-19-vaccine] that have received regulatory approval. 

See this AHCJ story on story ideas for covering vaccine rollout and vaccine hesitancy: https://healthjournalism.org/blog/2021/03/story-ideas-for-covering-covid19-vaccine-hesitancy/ 

Another big story is the global roll out of vaccines. The explosion of new cases in India is highlighting that the world’s wealthiest countries have hoarded vaccine doses. The number of vaccine doses is slowly increasing to middle and lower-income countries and the U.S. has pledged to send millions of doses to India to help them curb the surge in new cases. Until the globe is vaccinated, COVID-19 will continue to be a dangerous pathogen for everyone. 

See this AHCJ tip sheet on covering the global roll out of the COVID-19 vaccine: https://healthjournalism.org/resources-tips-details.php?id=1137#.YLVEFuspB-U 

For more updated news and data for tracking the COVID-19 story: 

Since the beginning, pandemic news has changed almost daily and Twitter, more than ever, has become a 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 38 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

Additional tip sheets and resources:  

If you are looking for diverse resources, see this AHCJ tip sheet on how to find a diverse set of experts for your stories. https://healthjournalism.org/blog/2021/05/finding-diverse-sources-for-your-covid-19-reporting/ 

White House COVID-19 Response Team: Three times a week, health leaders from the Health and Human Services, the CDC, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and others in the Biden administration, brief reporters on the status of public health efforts to end the pandemic. To get an invitation to the online briefings, media should send an email to the White House Press Office here: PRESS@WHO.eop.gov 

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. 

More experts and organizations 

  • AHCJ’s list of infectious disease experts 

  • CIDRAP COVID-19 ResourceCenter” 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. 


  • 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

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.