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Tip Sheets

Coronaviruses: Background and sources for your reporting

By Bara Vaida

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

Background (Updated September 2020)

Prior to December 2019, SARS-CoV2, the coronavirus that causes the illness COVID-19, was unknown to the world.

On January 5, 2020, the World Health Organization issued a press release stating that there was a pneumonia of “unknown-cause” circulating in Wuhan, China, in December. In mid-January, Chinese scientists identified the cause as a coronavirus, and publicly shared the genetic sequence of the virus with scientists around the world.

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses which can cause respiratory illness in humans. Under an electron microscope, the virus exhibits a crown-like halo, or a corona.

Scientists have long identified coronaviruses circulating among animals, such as camels, cats and bats, but only a few have jumped to people – a spread that is defined by epidemiologists as "zoonotic."

Prior to 2020, there were six coronaviruses that were known to be circulating among people, two of which were discovered in the 1960's and two more discovered in the past 2 decades. These four coronaviruses cause about 25% of colds.

Two other known coronaviruses cause severe illness and death. One causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a disease that emerged in 2002, and infected about 8,000 and killed about 800. The mortality rate for this virus was about 11%.

Another coronavirus causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The virus emerged in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has sickened about 2,500 and killed about 860. The mortality rate for MERS has been estimated at about 29%.

The viruses that cause SARS and MERS aren't easily transmissible between people, and public health officials have been able to control their spread. There has been no community spread of SARS since 2003, according to the WHO. SARS is thought to have originated in bats, then jumped to civet cats, and then to humans. MERS is believed to have passed from camels to humans.

The genetic sequence of the coronavirus causing COVID-19 shares some of the same genes as SARS. That is how SARS-CoV-2019 got its name. The ‘2019’ designation was given because the virus is known to have begun circulating at some point late in 2019.

The mortality figure from COVID-19 ranges, depending upon age, sex and the country where the virus is circulating. As of early August, the case fatality rate for COVID-19 globally about 0.1% to 25%, according to the WHO. 

An Aug. 28 meta-review of studies in the US, Europe and five other countries, revealed an infection-to-mortality rate that ranged from 0.4 percent for those under 55, and rising to 15 percent for those 85 and older, according to this pre-print study, led by Andrew Levin, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College.

In the U.S., the CDC, on July 17, 2020, published a report analyzing mortality figures in the U.S. between Feb. 12, 2020, and May 18, 2020, which found mortality rates were drastically higher in those 85 and older with underlying health conditions. The data also demonstrated racial disparities associated with death. Of those that died, 13.8% were Hispanic or Latinx, 21% were black and 40.3% were white, the CDC said. [In the broader population, 12.1% of the population is Hispanic or Latinx and 12.4% of the population is Black, and 76.3% is white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Average case fatality figures are expected to continue to evolve because scientists still don't yet understand how many people have been infected with the virus and have no symptoms but are carriers of the disease. Based on data received at the end of mid-July 2020, the CDC estimates that number of people who are infected with COVID-19, but didn't have symptoms, is about 40%.

On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern and on March 11, declared it a pandemic. The last time it declared a pandemic was the swine flu in 2009.

To help you with is changing story, here is a tip sheet with resources that we have gathered. Please email infectious disease core topic leader Bara Vaida if you think there are resources we have missed. She can be reached at bara@healthjournalism.org.

Updated news and data for tracking virus figures

For ongoing and up-to-date coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak, check out this Twitter list curated by Bara Vaida, AHCJ’s core topic leader on infectious diseases. The list includes 37 people who are regularly and responsibly tweeting about the outbreak and includes virologists and, journalists who have been covering infectious disease topics for years, infectious disease scientists and doctors.

For global data: the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center map is the best option.

For more global data: the World Health Organization’s daily situation reports on the coronavirus.

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

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.

New in August 2020:

New in June and July 2020

  • Proceed With Caution in Covering the Road to COVID-19 Vaccine 

  • More Data Coming Online to Track COVID-19 in Nursing Homes 

  • Ferrets, Monkeys and Mice, oh my! What’s the Best Coronavirus Animal Model? 

  • Problems Found in Initial Federal Data on COVID-19 in Nursing Homes 

  • Book on Cognitive Biases and Logical Fallacies Particularly Relevant During Pandemic 

  • Pandemic Changes or Pauses State Approaches to Health Coverage 

  • Protect Readers’ Time and Bandwidth from Unpublished Trials 

  • Is CMS Putting Older Adults at Risk During the Pandemic? 

  • Survey Findings on Mental Health During Pandemic Potentially Helpful in Reporting 

  • Examining the Toll of Social Distancing on the Health of Seniors 

  • Even in a Pandemic Its Important to Keep Price Transparency in Perspective 

  • Staffing Levels, Not Just Hotspots Can Predict COVID-19 Deaths in Nursing Homes 

  • Resources for Reporting Responsibly on Supplements During the Pandemic 

  • Journalist Offers Advice on Breaking News During the Time of the Pandemic 

  • Time to Track How the Pandemic Is Hurting Health Provider Finances 

  • Professor Helps Journalists Report on Assessing COVID-19 Transmission Risks 

  • Superbug Threat Increased by COVID-19. 

  • AHCJ Backs Public Data About COVID-19 Hospitalizations 

  • In Writing About School Reopenings, Check Case Counts 

AHCJ webcasts (June & July 2020)

New in April and May 2020:

AHCJ webcasts (April & May 2020)

Fact checking

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

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

For fact checking of 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

Additional tip sheets

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.

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

Journalists Resource, Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. This organization is offering journalists numerous updated tip sheets on covering various aspects of the pandemic.

CPJ Safety Advisory: Covering the coronavirus outbreak. The Committee to Protect Journalists has compiled safety information for reporters covering COVID-19. (Updated May 20)

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

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.

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: 
Framing your story: A guide to responsible story presentation
Language guide: Word choices that improve comprehension
The economic impact: Frames and language for reporting on economic hardship

Get ideas from these recent articles:

Stat News Coronavirus coverage

Sign up for the Washington Post’s free daily email “To your Health: coronavirus:”

Sign up for Politico Nightly: Coronavirus Special Edition

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. 

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 healthcare 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

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention newsroom on coronavirus (COVID-19)

U.S Food & Drug Administration: Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

U.S. Health and Human Services' Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response: This office is charged with overseeing public health emergencies, and manages the Strategic National Stockpile of drugs, vaccines and medical products and supplies. For media inquiries click here.

Experts and organizations

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

The American Association for the Advancement of Science created SciLine  to help reporters quickly connect with experts who have been trained to talk to the media, including more than a dozen infectious disease experts.

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.

Leana Wen, M.D., emergency physician, adjunct associate professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University, and former Baltimore City Health Commissioner. Twitter: @DrLeanaWen

Kathleen M. Neuzil, M.D., M.P.H., F.I.D.S.A., professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She is co-director of the lnfectious Disease Consortium for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious, which is supporting research for a vaccine and treatments for COVID-19. Contact info: kneuzil@som.umaryland.edu, 410-706-4946

Association of Public Health Laboratories - (APHL.org) They represent all the public health labs [which means labs that are supported by the CDC and the state] in the country that have been charged with COVID-19 testing.

The Association of State and Territorial Health Officers (ASTHO.org) represents local health officials.

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

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

Big Cities Health Coalition: Media contact: Mark Miller, miller@debeaumont.org, 301-802-6783

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 percent for at least two weeks . A threshold of 5 percent 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.