Is this the messiest phase of Covid-19 in the US?

30Jul 2021
By Guardian Reporter
Dar es Salaam
The Guardian
Is this the messiest phase of Covid-19 in the US?

IN June, the World Health Organisation recommended continued mask-wearing as a defence against the spread of Covid-19, even among people who are fully vaccinated.

By Jon Allsop

This advice differed from that of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which said in May that fully vaccinated people could ditch their masks in most settings.

In the US, the clashing guidance caused some confusion that rippled through media coverage. On the whole, though, the WHO story got lost in the broader Covid news cycle, which alternated between tentative optimism about the end of the pandemic and tentative concern about the Delta variant.

This often emphasized sharp distinctions between those who were already vaccinated (Nothing to worry about!) and those who weren’t (Get vaccinated!).

As I wrote at the time, the tenor of this coverage was often introspective and distinctively American – a reflection of relatively low case rates and high vaccine availability in the US.

Coverage in countries lacking one or both of those benefits, like the United Kingdom, meanwhile continued to focus on collective risk and protections, including masks.

The US still has a lot of vaccine, but cases are now rising nationally again. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the mask debate is back. The CDC’s guidance hasn’t changed, but many experts think that it should, and some areas have re-imposed mandates.

Much Covid coverage has continued to underscore the divide between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. The focus on vaccine hesitancy has only grown in urgency.

“It’s almost like we need two kinds of newscasts, or two versions of the weather report,” Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, said on Sunday.

“The forecast is pretty sunny for the vaccinated, but it’s quite bleak in some states for the unvaccinated,” he added.

As Stelter also noted, however, the pandemic is still a story of risk calculations, and “those nuances don’t always come through in the media coverage”.

The vaccinated are inevitably affected by such calculations, especially when, as with mask mandates, they are collective.

And, in recent weeks, there has increasingly been media chatter about “breakthrough infections” that have occurred in fully vaccinated people, especially when those people have been famous.

A Covid outbreak among vaccinated New York Yankees players generated a welter of news stories, as did a case at the White House. Reporters peppered Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, with questions about the latter, and asked if she would commit to full transparency should there be more such cases in the future.

As coverage of breakthrough infections has increased, some commentators have argued, with ample justification, that it ought to decrease again.

Such infections are neither common nor unexpected, and they almost always involve mild or asymptomatic illness. By hyping isolated cases, the argument goes, the press risks inducing undue worry among the vaccinated and undue skepticism among the unvaccinated.

A big part of the problem here is that data on breakthroughs are lacking, making it harder for journalists to properly contextualise anecdotal examples.

The CDC once tracked all such infections, but in May it narrowed its focus to breakthroughs that precede hospitalisation or death.

The agency said the move would “help maximise the quality of the data collected on cases of greatest clinical and public health importance”.

But the move has also, undoubtedly, exacerbated uncertainty as to the scope of the problem, depriving the public of a centralised data source and leaving journalists and experts to instead pick over leaked CDC estimates and local tallies that aren’t standardized.

As New York Times science reporter Apoorva Mandavilli has since pointed out, most breakthrough infections are not individually serious but they can play a role in overall viral spread. Which brings the story right back around to those not yet vaccinated.

But breakthrough infections aren’t the only data blind spot in the US at the moment. A number of states, including Nebraska and Florida, recently stopped reporting daily tallies of cases, hospitalisations and deaths – and moved to weekly reporting instead.

As the AP’s Josh Funk writes, Nebraska briefly stopped all of its data reporting after the governor declared an end to the state’s health emergency – only to backtrack.

“Doing this weekly report just leaves you completely in the dark about what’s going on. And then on Friday, all of a sudden, like, boom, you get this surprise number,” Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times.

“Nationally, daily Covid-19 testing rates – which were arguably never high enough to provide a truly accurate picture of the state of the pandemic in the US – have declined substantially from their peak.

Data collection and reporting can be labour-intensive and it’s legitimate, of course, to debate where stretched health bureaucracies should direct their resources for maximum benefit in this new phase of the pandemic.

But, as I’ve written before, from a journalist’s point of view, the more data we have, the more reliable the picture of the world that we can build.

Meanwhile, there’s still a lot we don’t fully understand about the science of the coronavirus, with new variants, in particular, proving confounding.

“It’s a bit maddening, because it felt like we got to a point where we got to know this virus a little bit,” Mandavilli has written.

Mandavilli elaborated: “(The) onset of the Delta variant has really changed that entire calculation. There are just so many more questions than I think we expected to have at this point. And it feels a little bit like an inflection point – another one – where the country could go in either direction.”

I agree. In fact, I’d make the case that this stage of the pandemic is the most complicated and uncertain that America has yet faced. Not the worst, by any means, but perhaps the hardest for people – and the media – to get their heads around.

The problems that bedevilled our early coverage of the pandemic – a lack of scientific certainty and consensus; inadequate data flows – are still problems, in ways new and infuriatingly unchanged.

And the mitigation measures we had to cover back then – while never the beneficiaries of political consensus – were relatively blunt compared to the more subjective and situational risk calculations of this moment, which still very much apply, even as cases rise again.

The vaccines are magnificent, but we still don’t know everything about them. The situation differs substantially by place, and it can be hard to easily compare them. And it’s arguably more urgent than ever that Americans look out on the world, large swathes of which are desperately struggling right now.

Again, the state of the Covid-19 pandemic in the US right now is not uniformly bleak; it is, rather, a mishmash of good news, bad news, and uncertainty.

The situation is better than many imaginable alternatives. But that doesn’t make it any easier for the media to cover.

Perhaps more than at any other point in the pandemic, journalists are having to strike an increasingly fine tonal balance between the good and the bad.

They thus have to communicate an increasingly nuanced and diverse set of truths – exploring uncertainties around the vaccines, for example, without blunting the central, basic truth of their effectiveness and desirability – in an informational climate that is both murky and infested with bad actors. Covid-19 hasn’t stopped challenging us yet.

As cases of the pandemic have risen among unvaccinated people, experts and commentators have increasingly debated the appropriateness of imposing vaccine mandates in certain settings.

Just a day or two ago proved to be something of a watershed in that regard: New York City announced that select municipal workers must be vaccinated by September or else face weekly testing.

California announced similar rules for all state employees and public and private healthcare workers, and the Department of Veterans Affairs demanded vaccination of over a hundred thousand frontline healthcare staff.

The (President Joe) Biden administration has, up to now, resisted the notion of federal mandates. White House press secretary Jennifer Rene Psaki has said that the administration hasn’t yet decided whether to issue further situation-specific vaccine mandates, and acknowledged that Biden “recognizes that he is not always the right voice to every community about the benefits of getting vaccinated”.

Phil Valentine, a 61-year-old conservative radio host in Tennessee, said in December that while he wasn’t an anti-vaxxer, he had concerns about getting the Covid-19 shot.

He described his odds of getting the pandemic as “pretty low,” and his odds of dying from it at “way less than one per cent”.

Valentine is now critically ill with Covid pneumonia. Last week, he put out a statement, through his station, urging his listeners to get vaccinated.

“Phil would like for his listeners to know that while he has never been an ‘anti-vaxxer’ he regrets not being more vehemently ‘pro-vaccine’,” the statement said, adding that Valentine “looks forward to being able to more vigorously advocate that position as soon as he is back on the air, which we all hope will be soon.”

The Biden administration also announced that it is working to ensure that sufferers of long Covid-19 have appropriate access to “rights and resources” under the Americans with Disabilities Act – which became law 31 years ago.

Morgan Stephens, a production assistant at CNN, is among the many people to have suffered from the condition. More than eight months after she was diagnosed with Covid-19, she has written: “The breakdown of my own physical and mental health has given me front-row access to the long Covid-19 crisis in a way I never imagined. The waves of illness have not let up. I’m not alone.”

CJR