Is this the messiest phase of the pandemic in America?

In June, the World Health Organization recommended continued mask-wearing as a defense against the spread of COVID-19, even among people who are fully vaccinated—advice that differed from that of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 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, often emphasizing 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 (as reflected in a slew of Independence Day analogies) was often introspective and distinctively American—a reflection of relatively low case rates and high vaccine availability in the US, as coverage in countries lacking one or both of those benefits, like the United Kingdom, 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 it should, and some areas have reimposed 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.” 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.

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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 is lacking, making it harder for reporters to properly contextualize anecdotal examples. The CDC once tracked all such infections, but in May, it narrowed its focus to breakthroughs that precede hospitalization or death—a move that the agency said would ​​“help maximize the quality of the data collected on cases of greatest clinical and public health importance,” but which has also, undoubtedly, exacerbated uncertainty as to the scope of the problem, depriving the public of a centralized data source and leaving reporters and experts to instead pick over leaked CDC estimates and local tallies that aren’t standardized. As Apoorva Mandavilli, a science reporter at the New York Times, pointed out yesterday on the paper’s Daily podcast, while most breakthrough infections are not individually serious, they can play a role in overall viral spread. Which brings the story right back ’round to the unvaccinated.

Breakthrough infections aren’t our only data blind spot at the moment. Recently, a number of states, including Nebraska and Florida, stopped reporting daily tallies of cases, hospitalizations, 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,” Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times. “And then on Friday, all of a sudden, like, boom, you get this surprise number.” Nationally, daily COVID 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 labor-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 virus, 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 said yesterday on The Daily. “Delta 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 bedeviled 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.

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Again, the state of the 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 press to cover. Perhaps more than at any other point in the pandemic, reporters are having to strike an increasingly fine tonal balance between the good and the bad, and 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 hasn’t stopped challenging us yet.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • A different type of mandate: As cases have risen among unvaccinated people, experts and commentators have increasingly debated the appropriateness of imposing vaccine mandates in certain settings. Yesterday 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 Biden administration has, up to now, resisted the notion of federal mandates; Psaki said yesterday 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.”
  • More Psaki: The White House press secretary also spoke yesterday with Peter Hamby, on Snapchat. At one point, Hamby asked Psaki about the Biden administration’s attitude toward Fox News. (The president has publicly called out Facebook for helping spread vaccine misinformation, but has not similarly castigated Fox for its role, which some commentators see as a mistake.) “Our view at this moment is we don’t have to approve everything they do editorially or everything their personalities say and do, but it is still a platform for us to communicate with the public,” Psaki said. “The other piece of it is getting in a fight with Fox News at this point in time for the administration isn’t particularly constructive coming off of an administration that completely destroyed trust in media.”
  • A change of perspective: In December, Phil Valentine, a sixty-one-year-old conservative radio host in Tennessee, said that while he wasn’t an anti-vaxxer, he had concerns about getting the shot: he described his odds of getting COVID as “pretty low,” and his odds of dying from it at “way less than one percent.” 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-vaxer’ 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.”
  • Long COVID: The Biden administration also announced that it is working to ensure that sufferers of long COVID have appropriate access to “rights and resources” under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which became law thirty one years ago yesterday. 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, “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,” Stephens writes. “The waves of illness have not let up. I’m not alone.”

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.