Sources and updates, April 24

  • COVID-19 and public transportation: This week’s biggest COVID-19 news story was, without a doubt, a Florida judge striking down the U.S.’s mask mandate for public transportation (including airplanes, trains, buses, and terminals for all these transit methods). The federal justice department is appealing the decision, as the CDC has determined that masks are still necessary in these settings—at least, while the BA.2 surge is at large. Two good articles to read on this topic: Your Local Epidemiologist’s explanation of coronavirus transmission risk on planes, and Slate’s rundown of what this judge’s ruling could mean for future infectious disease outbreaks.
  • Hospitalizations of young children during Omicron: A major study released in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) this week describes hospitalization rates among children ages five to 11, focusing on the Omicron wave in December through February. Findings include: about nine in ten of the children hospitalized during this period were unvaccinated, and hospitalization rates were twice in high in unvaccinated children compared to vaccinated children, demonstrating the importance of vaccination in the five to 11 age group.
  • COVID-19 death rates by race and ethnicity: Another notable study published in MMWR this week: CDC researchers used provisional mortality data (based on death certificates) to study COVID-19 death rates among different racial and ethnic groups, comparing 2020 and 2021. Death rates for Hispanic, Black, and Native Americans were closer to the rates for white Americans in 2021 than they had been in 2020, the report found; this is likely tied to lower vaccination rates and, consequently, higher death rates in conservative and rural areas. For any reporters seeking to investigate these patterns in their regions, the Documenting COVID-19 project’s CDC mortality data repository includes county-level death data from the same source as this MMWR report.
  • New CMS data on hospital and nursing home ownership: Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have been under increased scrutiny during the pandemic, as COVID-19 revealed major flaws in facilities’ ability to care for vulnerable seniors, A series of new datasets from the Centers of Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) aims to enable more scrutiny: the datasets include changes of ownership for skilled nursing facilities and for hospitals. CMS plans to update these datasets on a quarterly basis, according to a press release about the new data.
  • New funding for patient-led Long COVID research: The Patient-Led Research Collaborative (PLRC), a group of Long COVID patients that have produced leading research on their condition, announced this week that they’ve received $3 million in funding. This funding comes from Balvi, a fund for high-impact COVID-19 projects established by Ethereum co-creator Vitalik Buterin. PLRC announced that $2 million will go to start a pool of Long COVID research grants—to be awarded directly by patients—while the remaining $1 million will fund a series of PLRC-led studies. I look forward to reporting on the results of this research! (Also, related: this week, I updated the source list of Long COVID patients and experts willing to talk to reporters, which I compiled with Fiona Lowenstein.)
  • FDA authorizes breathalyzer for COVID-19: The latest new COVID-19 test is a breathalyzer: this machine, developed by Texas-based diagnostics company InspectIR,  analyzes chemicals in a person’s breath to quickly detect compounds signifying a coronavirus infection. This test can deliver results in just three minutes—even faster than an antigen test—but it needs to be performed in a medical setting; InspectIR is working on a version that could be hand-held, like breathalyzers for alcohol. Impressive as the technology is, this data reporter is asking: how will those test results get reported to public health agencies?

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