Be careful not to overstate what the limited remdesivir trials have shown

Plus, why apartment owners are suddenly offering incentives, what the pandemic is doing to home sales, and a look at the most at-risk housing markets.

April 30, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing about journalism and coronavirus, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

UPDATE: This edition of Covering COVID-19 was published April 30. On May 1, the Food and Drug Administration gave emergency approval to the antiviral drug remdesivir for COVID-19 patients.  

The FDA called its action an “emergency use authorization,” which means it may only be used for those who have been diagnosed with “severe disease.” The FDA said “severe disease” is defined as patients with low blood oxygen levels or needing oxygen therapy or more intensive breathing support, such as a mechanical ventilator.  

Even with this declaration, the FDA noted “there is limited information known about the safety and effectiveness of using remdesivir.”

Before you get too excited about remdesivir

Dr. Anthony Fauci ignited excitement Wednesday when he said the drug remdesivir showed good results and could set a new standard of care for people who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Two studies generated Wednesday’s excitement. One involved about 1,000 sick patients. Another, by the drug manufacturer itself, involved 397 patients. But a third study, also released Wednesday, found remdesivir was nothing to shout about.

The larger study, by the National Institutes of Health, found the patients who took remdesivir recovered faster than those who did not. Those who took the drug recovered in 11 days on average, while those who didn’t took 15 days to recover. The study also found that those who took the drug were slightly less likely to die. 8% of those who took the drug died versus 11.6% of those who did not take it. 68 sites around the world, including 47 in the U.S., took part in this study.

That sounds promising, but be careful not to overstate what Fauci and the NIH said and what the limited trials have found so far. Remdesivir is not a cure. It is not an inoculation. It does not prevent COVID-19. A lot of people who have taken it have died. Remdesivir is not yet licensed or approved anywhere globally and has not yet been demonstrated to be safe or effective for the treatment of COVID-19. And even after taking remdesivir, about 8% of ill patients died, versus 11.6% of those who did not take the drug. I would ask you to reread this paragraph.

Remdesivir is not a new drug. It was tested on Ebola patients without success. China already tested it on COVID-19 patients and did not find it to help much. In fact, researchers stopped the Chinese trial (the findings of which were also published Wednesday) because of the many adverse patient reactions, and because the results were not showing much difference between the recoveries of patients who were and were not taking the drug.

Remdesivir comes from Gilead Sciences. The trial compared the use of the drug in a five-day versus a 10-day regimen. That is important because the trial, so far, found that a five-day treatment had similar results to the 10-day treatment. That means, in a pandemic,  if doctors cut the dosage in half, twice as many patients can be treated with the same number of doses.

The limited study also suggested that the earlier a patient is treated with remdesivir, the quicker the recovery might be.

As you might expect, Wall Street was excited by the meager benefits and rewarded Gilead stockholders with a healthy boost.

(Screenshot, Google)

The company said, “Gilead plans to submit the full data for publication in a peer-reviewed journal in the coming weeks.”

There are lots of lessons here for journalists. You can’t call your doctor and get the drug because it is not approved. It is a long way from an inoculation or a cure. It reaffirms that in medicine, we usually see tiny steps toward answers and not big breakthroughs where a chemist screams “eureka” and all is suddenly well.

In short, stay tuned, stay home and wash your hands.

The pandemic slowdown is forcing apartment owners to offer incentives

One of the most visible reflections of the health of the apartment rental business is to watch whether apartment owners feel a need to offer incentives. Since the pandemic hit the U.S., incentives have become more common.

Around the country, I am seeing complexes offering one month rent-free, and the incentives are not just for the renters. Complexes are also offering incentives to brokers and realtors who can guide renters to close a contract.

COVID-19 cools home sales

Homebuilders are offering incentives now, too. In Tampa, for example, builders are offering free pools.

A new Gallup poll showed Americans take a dim view of buying houses right now.

(Courtesy: Gallup)

The National Association of Realtors found that sales of newly built single-family homes decreased by 15.4% in March. Existing home sales dropped by 8.5% but, still, prices rose last month. NAR said more houses are on the market now and, as the inventory of homes for sales increases, the price of houses should drop in the months ahead.

Gallup’s polling showed the public generally thinks housing prices will drop.

(Courtesy: Gallup)

Gallup added some context:

Americans have consistently been more likely to say it is a good than a bad time to buy a house. Their responses to this question likely take into account the health of the housing market but also their belief that real estate is a good investment.

In 2003, as home prices were rapidly increasing, a record high 81% thought it was a good time to buy a house. Three years later, when values peaked, opinions on home buying hit a then-low, and stayed low after the housing bubble burst and led to the Great Recession.

Once the recession ended, Americans’ opinions brightened, with 74% in 2014 saying it was a good time to purchase a home. But as home prices continued to climb, surpassing 2007 peak levels, the percentage who thought it was a good time to buy a home began to fall, dropping to 61% last year before the steeper decline this year.

The most ‘at risk’ housing markets

Atom Data Solutions, which analyzes national property data, said it studied property ownership in every county around the U.S. and found the most vulnerable housing markets are in Florida and New Jersey.

The vulnerabilities come in a few ways: Owners there owe more than their houses are worth, housing prices are unusually high compared to the rest of the country and many homeowners were having trouble making payments before the COVID-19 crisis. Based on all of that, the report said:

“… housing markets in 14 of New Jersey’s 21 counties are among the 50 most vulnerable in the country to the economic impact of the coronavirus. The top 50 also include four in New York, three in Connecticut and 10 from Florida, but only one in California, none in other West Coast states and only one in the Southwest.”

Zeroing in on specific counties, the survey refers to top 50 most vulnerable counties in the country:

Other southern counties that are in the top 50 are spread across Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana and Virginia.

Among the counties analyzed, only two in the West and five in the Midwest (all in Illinois) rank among the top 50 most at risk from problems connected to the Coronavirus outbreak. The two western counties are Shasta County, California, in the Redding metropolitan statistical area and Navajo County, Arizona, northeast of Phoenix. The midwestern counties are McHenry County, Illinois; Kane County, Illinois; Will County, Illinois and Lake County, Illinois, all in the Chicago metro area; and Tazewell County, Illinois, in the Peoria metro area.

Texas has 10 of the 50 least vulnerable counties from among the 483 included in the report, followed by Wisconsin with seven and Colorado with five. The 10 counties in Texas include three in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area (Dallas, Collin and Tarrant counties) and two in the Midland-Odessa area (Ector and Midland counties).

Office buildings are offering incentives, too

When we can finally go back to our offices, will we? Office buildings have a lot to worry about in the short term and long term.

Mortgage Professional America, a website that caters to lenders, noted:

While many offices sit empty as stay-at-home orders remain in place across the globe, companies are being forced to consider what the workplace will look like when the pandemic is over. In a time of uncertainty, less organizations are going to feel comfortable signing a 3- or 5-year lease for office-space, much less a 10-year traditional lease.

“Flexibility is really going to be an important factor once we start emerging from this uncertainty, whether it’s two days from now or two weeks from now, it’s going to be at the top of everyone’s mind,” said Jonathan Wasserstrum, chief executive officer and co-founder of SquareFoot, a commercial real estate tech company.

CNBC found office planning experts who said the future may include companies allowing, say, half of the workforce to come to the office at any one time while the other half works from home. Workspaces will have to be separated, and you may see touchless elevators and one-way foot traffic control at the office.

A Kansas City hotel opened rooms and other spaces for people who can’t go to their offices and need quiet and connected work areas.

Half of malls are ‘at risk’

This is a follow-up to a post I wrote earlier this week. CNBC reported Wednesday, “More than 50% of all the malls anchored by department stores in America could close permanently by the end of 2021, a new report by Green Street Advisors predicts.”

Doctors get naked to catch the public’s attention

Doctors are using the clickbait nature of their protest to make the public pay attention to the need for protective gear. Their website is not as racy as it might sound.

(Screenshot, Facebook)

Hold my beer while I write this column

A new survey of 3,000 American workers published by treatment provider American Addiction Centers reported that “about a third of people in the United States who are working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic are also drinking on the job. About 36% of men and 26% of women said they drink during work hours.”

The number seems a tad high to me, but take-home booze sales are way up, which might not mean much on its own, since home is the only place you can drink and stay within safety guidelines. The University of Southern California news service quoted a USC professor:

“As social distancing and self-isolation turns from weeks to months, we’ll see more online partying, more Zoom parties and more alcohol consumption, so we’re going to hear about more problems related to alcohol abuse,” said Daryl Davies, professor of clinical pharmacology at the USC School of Pharmacy and director of the Alcohol and Brain Research Laboratory at USC.

Economic dislocation, job loss and fear of death by disease are triggers for substance use, which heightens the risk of other issues like suicide and domestic violence, Davies said. Meanwhile, stay-at-home orders now in effect for COVID-19 limit access to support systems such as friends, neighbors, therapists, church, family and recovery groups.

“Connecting to support networks will be important so drinking doesn’t push people back into that dark space,” Davies said.

There is another view from USC professor Adam Leventhal, who said it is possible that people who usually drink in social situations, and can’t do that now, are drinking less.

The World Health Organization published a deep dive advisory on alcohol consumption during the pandemic.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse found that younger adults have increased their alcohol consumption during stay-at-home weeks. The National Post reported, “One-quarter of Canadians aged 35 to 54, and one-fifth aged 18 to 34 say they have increased their alcohol consumption, while 10% over 54 report more frequent drinking.”

But when you look at the total population, the percentages that increased and decreased their drinking came out close to a wash.

(Courtesy: The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction)

The way we work now

I have enjoyed how many posts come from journalists who spend their Saturdays concocting ways to improve their audio and video. I have marveled at journalists who have built “teleprompters” out of iPads and mirrors. I have seen radio reporters who built blanket-covered fortresses that were once desks and shower stalls but now serve as sound booths. Adapt and conquer.

(Screenshot, Facebook)

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.