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Coronavirus Files: Tracking Outbreaks on College Campuses

Coronavirus Files: Tracking Outbreaks on College Campuses

Picture of Sofie Bates

The Center for Health Journalism has begun offering a special newsletter geared to journalists as they report on one of the biggest and most complex stories of our times. Each Monday, while the pandemic runs its course, The Coronavirus Files will provide tips and resources and highlight exemplary work to help you with your work. This week, the Center for Health Journalism’s Coronavirus Files Monday newsletter is curated and reported by science writer Sofie Bates. Have a suggestion or a request? Write us at editor@centerforhealthjournalism.org.

From the Center for Health Journalism: What Comes Next for Policing?

Sign up for this Wednesday’s Webinar
 
There have been growing calls for U.S. cities to rethink how they police their communities in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism against communities of color. The range of proposals is vast, from minor budget trims and calls for more transparency to defunding police departments and reinvesting those funds in a host of community services that can respond during crises and address underlying needs. In this webinar, we’ll explore the various proposals to reform, defund or abolish police department     s, with the broader goal of helping reporters understand and critically evaluate efforts playing out in their own communities. Sign up here for the August 12, 2020 webinar at 10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET.
 
The Health Divide, Considering Ventilation, and Doubt about How Long We Stay Contagious
 
‘Everyone I know has been impacted’: Latinos in Houston Grapple with High Death Counts
 
There are some who've been lucky enough not to have lost any loved ones to COVID-19. But Valery Martinez of Houston has lost five. When interviewed by reporters examining how COVID-19 is affecting Texas’s large Latino population, Martinez could count 45 Latinos she knows who have been sick with the virus in the Houston area.
 
Throughout the country, Latinos are being hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic. In Texas, that disparity is confounded by the state’s decision not to expand health insurance for low-income groups under the Affordable Care Act. Latinos were also disproportionately impacted when Texas became one of the first states to reopen in May, despite rising case counts. In the Houston area, 65% of COVID-19 patients that required hospital care were Latino, even though Latinos make up only 44% of the population in that region.
 
Members of the Latino community are more susceptible to the coronavirus for several reasons, write Perla Trevizo and Mike Hixenbaugh for ProPublica and NBC News. Latinos are disproportionately likely to be essential workers, live in multi-generational houses with lots of people, have complicating health problems or lack health insurance. They’re also more likely to die from the virus, possibly in part because poor health coverage and a lack of flexible sick leave may discourage them from seeking medical care early. Texas now has the highest rate of uninsured people of any state — about two-thirds of whom are Latino. Language barriers and prior bad experiences may also keep Latinos from going to the doctor until it’s too late, they write.
 
Some People Test Positive for Months — No One Can Say if They’re Still Contagious
 
Since test access is still an issue, those who test positive for coronavirus don’t always get re-tested before they emerge from quarantine. But some do. And sometimes those tests keep coming back positive — even weeks or months after the person was first diagnosed. These cases raise questions of how long the virus stays in the body and whether re-testers can spread the virus to others, writes Roxanne Khamsi for Medium’s Elemental.
 
One hypothesis is that the virus stays dormant, possibly conferring immunity without being contagious. That’s how measles works, for example. COVID-19 may also be hiding out in some unexpected part of the body — similar to how the Zika and Ebola viruses persist in the testes long after infection and in rare cases can still be passed on. These are all hypotheses at this point, though, and “scientists are racing to get a better idea of whether viral persistence truly occurs in this pandemic,” writes Khamsi.
 
In her Elemental piece, Khamsi brings us the story of Natalie Forouzad who, unsure if she could infect her family after recovering from COVID-19, stayed alone in her parents’ basement for 48 days waiting for a test to finally come back negative.
 
Clearing the Air About COVID-19 and Ventilation
 
We need to talk about ventilation, writes Zeynep Tufekci for The Atlantic. In the midst of a respiratory pandemic, “we are stuck practicing hygiene theater — constantly deep cleaning everything — while not noticing the air we breathe,” she writes. The reason? Lots of confusion and debate over how the virus spreads.
 
So far, the science seems to indicate that COVID-19 spreads primarily through infectious particles released into the air when someone coughs, sneezes or talks. But experts disagree on the specifics. WHO and CDC guidelines suggest that staying at least six feet apart should protect people from infectious droplets. However, many scientists have suggested that smaller particles could stay suspended in the air for a long time, making enclosed spaces more dangerous than being outdoors.
 
How the virus spreads through the air is critical to how we should protect ourselves. If COVID-19 spreads only through droplets, social distancing and masks should be sufficient. But if the coronavirus is truly an “airborne” virus, hanging around for long periods in stagnant air, ventilation and air filtration become much more important, writes Tufekci. Hundreds of international scientists have signed a letter to the WHO, urging the institution to include precautions against airborne transmissions in their guidelines. The letter argues that, while the science is still up in the air, we should be doing everything possible to stop potential airborne transmission.
 
COVAX and The Fight Against 'Vaccine Nationalist'
 
Most experts agree that, once we have a COVID-19 vaccine, the first doses should go to healthcare workers and high-risk individuals. But that plan will break down at a global scale if countries put their own needs above those of other countries – an idea called ‘vaccine nationalism.’
 
“The United States and Europe are placing advance orders for hundreds of millions of doses of successful vaccines, potentially leaving little for poorer parts of the world,” writes Kai Kupferschmidt for Science. To ensure a vaccine is distributed equitably around the globe, the WHO and other organizations formed the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, or COVAX, Facility. The plan is to invest in 12 different vaccines and distribute doses to a percentage of each country’s population once available.
 
The program could be a lifeline for poorer countries that don’t have the resources to manufacture vaccines themselves or make deals with large pharmaceutical companies. For wealthier countries, it’d be a safety net. If their own vaccine plans don’t come to fruition, they’d still receive doses for about 20% of their population from COVAX.
 
For the program to work, many countries would have to opt in – especially wealthier ones. “But the idea has been put together on the fly, and it’s unclear how many rich countries will join,” writes Kupferschmidt.
 
Over 6,000 COVID-19 Cases are Linked to U.S. College Campuses
 
Most university students are still on summer break following a spring semester conducted mostly online. But even with the new academic year yet to start, at least 6,600 coronavirus cases have been tied to about 270 U.S. colleges across the course of the pandemic, according to a New York Times survey that included all the nation’s four-year public universities and some private institutions. At a time when colleges across the country are deciding if and how to reopen, the numbers show the toll that COVID-19 is already taking on campuses, the New York Times team writes.
 
Some schools have reported outbreaks related to Greek Row housing, campus construction projects, and student athletics. A separate survey of 130 colleges with Division I football teams found over 630 coronavirus infections among students, coaches, and employees returning early for pre-season athletic training.
 
The numbers are alarming. But case reporting is spotty at best, meaning they’re most likely an undercount. “What is clear is that despite months of planning for a safe return to class, and despite drastic changes to campus life, the virus is already spreading widely at universities,” the New York Times team writes. Read their full breakdown of COVID-19 on college campuses or search by school here.
 

And Don’t Miss…

  • “How Many People in the U.S. Are Hospitalized With COVID-19? Who Knows?” ProPublica
  • Health illiteracy is nothing new in America. But the pandemic magnifies how troubling it is. The Washington Post
  • “White House and Congress Clash on Relief Plan as Jobless Aid Expires.” The New York Times

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