August 19, 2021

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

The Biden administration intends to put some teeth into a federal mandate that people who work in 15,000 nursing homes get vaccinated. Nursing homes that do not enforce the mandate on 1.3 million employees could lose their Medicare and Medicaid funds, which is their lifeblood.

About 80% of nursing home residents are vaccinated now but recent government data showed about 60% of nursing home staff were vaccinated.

(Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services)

You can search the national data to find local stories. Click to see a list of every nursing home with recent resident and staff vaccination rates. There’s also a separate tab for nursing homes with a staff vaccination rate of 75% or more.

(Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services)

You will notice that some states with the highest rates of new COVID-19 cases, including Florida and Louisiana, have the lowest vaccination rates for healthcare workers.

(Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services)

Examining the data beneath the recommendation for a COVID-19 booster

The White House says you need an additional protection against COVID-19, even if you are currently fully vaccinated. The nation’s top health officials said the evidence is growing that while vaccines protect against severe COVID-19, eight months or so after you are vaccinated, the effectiveness drops. Here are the newest developments:

  • If the CDC and FDA agree, the most vulnerable populations, including health care workers, nursing home residents and people with underlying health issues, will be eligible Sept. 20.
  • One of the most concerning studies found vaccine protection for nursing home patients declined from 75% in March to 53% in August. Seniors were the first to be vaccinated, so they would become eligible for the boosters first. But this finding may indicate what we will find in the general population in the months to come, so, as Dr. Anthony Fauci said, this is an effort to get in front of the trend. The data that the CDC depends on comes from Israel, which detected the delta variant before we did in the United States. But a second study from New York, which federal officials cited Wednesday, did not show such a steep drop in protection among seniors.
  • Assuming the CDC and FDA approve, the free one-dose boosters would be offered at thousands of pharmacies and clinics around the country.
  • Among the general population, the newest data showed that the vaccines, over time, still offer significant protection, but there is a “waning effectiveness” that started at 92% before the delta variant to 64%, now that the delta variant is the most widely detected virus in the United States.
  • The effectiveness of the vaccines depends on what you expect from the vaccine. For example, the new studies show the vaccines are about 55% effective in protecting an infection that includes no symptoms, about 80% effective against an infection that includes symptoms and at least 90% effective in preventing an illness that results in a hospitalization.
  • A study from the IVY study group found, “Among 1,129 patients who received 2 doses of a mRNA vaccine, no decline in vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19 hospitalization was observed over 24 weeks. Vaccine effectiveness was 86% 2–12 weeks after vaccination and 84% at 13–24 weeks. Vaccine effectiveness was sustained among groups at risk for severe COVID-19.” In short, the CDC says even though the vaccines lose some of their protection over time, they still effectively protect against severe illness.
  • People who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this spring won’t be eligible for a booster until early 2022, so the government’s advice to those people is to wait until there is more data about how the J&J vaccine is performing over time. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said, “For people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, we anticipate vaccine boosters will likely be needed. The J&J vaccine was not administered in the U.S. until March of 2021, and we expect more data on J&J in the coming weeks. With those data in hand, we will keep the public informed of the timely plan for J&J booster shots.”

From the very beginning of the federal government’s plan to develop and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine, a booster shot has always been part of the conversation. But the CDC has consistently brushed back that conversation, even when the drug companies Pfizer and Moderna both said their data showed a need to offer extra protection shots. Fauci has consistently been more open about the probable need for a booster at some time in the future. In May, for example, he said that before the end of the year, we might need booster vaccines.

Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator, said the good news is that 200 million Americans have now gotten at least one dose of the vaccine.

Tens of thousands of students in quarantine

Hillsborough County, a Florida school system in the Tampa Bay area, now has 10,384 students and hundreds of staff in COVID-19 quarantine one week into the new school year. The school system has documented more than 1,800 positive cases among students and staff.

More than 3,000 students and staff have been quarantined in the New Orleans Public School District.

4,400 students are quarantining in Mississippi.

A thousand students in Nashville are in quarantine today.

In Bowling Green, Kentucky, more than 700 students and staff members there are also in quarantine, according to WBKO TV.

Tennessee may use National Guard to support hospitals

The Tennessee Department of Health issued a statement saying, “We are prepared to deploy additional medical personnel from the Tennessee National Guard to our hospitals in greatest need of assistance.”

Alabama’s ICUs are full

AL.com, one of the leading news websites in Alabama, reports:

“We are in fact in a negative 11,” Dr. Don Williams, president of the Alabama Hospital Association said. “In the Montgomery area, we have eight more patients who are getting ICU care than we have designated ICU beds here. In other parts of the state, we have over 30 patients in hospitals needing ICU care that are not in a designated bed.

“We’ve never been here before. We are truly now in uncharted territory in terms of our ICU bed capacity,” Williamson told WSFA.

Hospitals are using gurneys in hallways or in emergency rooms to treat the patients, Williams said, adding they are still receiving ICU-level care.

Mask mandate on airplanes will continue into January 2022

The Transportation Safety Administration says, “TSA will extend the directives through January 18, 2022. The purpose of TSA’s mask directive is to minimize the spread of COVID-19 on public transportation.”

The website The Points Guy reported:

U.S. airlines were briefed on the planned extension on Tuesday morning, a source, who spoke on background because they were not permitted to discuss the topic with media, confirmed to TPG. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) plan to announce the extension publicly later this week or early next, the source said.

Air travel way down

Air travel hit a 10-month low this week. Partly it is seasonal travel winding down, but airlines say COVID-19 is causing new concerns over fall air travel.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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