August 17, 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 latest COVID-19 transmission map from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is striking. Nebraska and pockets of North Dakota still have lower or moderate COVID-19 transmission. Most of the rest of the country is bright red.

(CDC)

The lambda variant may be fizzling

It is too early to breathe easy, but there is a small bit of encouraging data about the lambda variant, one of the newest variants of COVID-19. It seems that lambda is playing out, even while the delta variant is exploding.

This strain was first noticed in Peru and there have been a small number of cases detected in the U.S. so far.

The black line below represents actual detected cases and the pink space is a possible range of undetected or unreported cases. But, if the data can be trusted, the global trend is encouraging.

(Outbreak.info)

This variant has shown up in 27 other countries far more prevalently than in the U.S. There is still a lot we need to learn about how well our current vaccines protect against it. Any news that it might not be coming in full force would be good news.

CalMatters reports on a handful of cases in California and adds:

Lambda sparked headlines this summer after the WHO noted its rapid spread in South American countries, including Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil. It’s since been detected in 29 countries, according to the WHO, including Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

While WHO considers lambda a “variant of interest,” the CDC and California’s public health agency have not followed suit.

In late July, Houston Methodist Hospital reported its first lambda case. Japan last week announced its first case, from a woman who arrived from Peru on July 20.

More recently, two highly publicized laboratory studies from Japan and Chile – both in preprint and not yet peer-reviewed — have suggested that lambda may be more infectious and less susceptible to current vaccines than the original coronavirus. The Japanese researchers suggested that WHO’s current “variant of interest” designation for lambda may underplay its potential threat.

More than 1 million Americans have already gotten a third COVID vaccine dose

An information sign of COVID-19 vaccines is seen outside of CVS store in Chicago, Ill., Friday, Aug. 13, 2021. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave final approval Friday to start administering booster shots to Pfizer and Moderna vaccine recipients hours after a key panel unanimously voted to endorse third doses for immunocompromised Americans. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Reuters reports:

A surplus of vaccines in the United States, along with a decentralized healthcare system, has made it easier for people to show up at pharmacies and vaccination centers for extra doses. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that over 1.2 million Americans have already received at least one extra dose following their initial inoculation.

A CVS Health Corp spokesperson said the company’s policy is to turn away patients who have been fully vaccinated at one of its pharmacies, or who disclose that they have been fully vaccinated elsewhere. A Walgreens spokesperson said its pharmacies ask patients if they have been vaccinated during the appointment process and have alerts in place to check.

On Monday, Pfizer sent its first slug of data to the Food and Drug Administration to request approval for a third dose for everyone, not just the immunocompromised population. CNBC reports:

In a phase one trial, a booster dose of the vaccine generated “significantly higher neutralizing antibodies” against the original coronavirus strain as well as the beta and delta variants, the companies said in a press release. Participants in the trial received a third shot of the two-dose vaccine about eight to nine months after receiving their second shot, they said.

“The data we’ve seen to date suggest a third dose of our vaccine elicits antibody levels that significantly exceed those seen after the two-dose primary schedule,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement. “We are pleased to submit these data to the FDA as we continue working together to address the evolving challenges of this pandemic.”

Hospitals are desperate to avoid delaying ‘elective surgeries’ that are not so elective

During this fourth COVID-19 surge, hospitals are doing anything they can to avoid delaying all elective surgeries, as they have done before, partly because such surgeries are profit centers but also because they may be more urgent than they sound. Stat points out:

Last year, this designation included almost all operations, including heart and cancer surgeries. Experts agree this initially made sense in the face of personal protective equipment shortages and limited hospital beds. Now that hospitals are better prepared and no longer facing these shortages, many are being more selective about what gets canceled.

The shift happened because delaying certain procedures may have detrimental consequences. One such surgery is a heart procedure called transcatheter aortic valve replacement. One study from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York found that deferring this treatment led to 10% of patients experiencing a cardiac event during the first month, and 35% experienced one in the next three months.

Doctors say that when they delayed so-called elective surgeries, patients came in for operations at least 10% sicker or frailer. Delayed exams like breast exams or colonoscopies mean that undetected cancer has more time to grow and spread. Stat points to some other startling data:

According to a report from the British Heart Foundation, there were 5,800 excess deaths from heart and circulatory conditions in 2020 in the U.K., and it concluded that Covid-driven delays in cardiology care, such as echocardiograms, procedures to fit and implant pacemakers, and heart valve surgeries, potentially contributed to this number.”

Family sues for records to try to prove link between death of family member and unmasked coworker

Patch reports a fascinating story about a Massachusetts family that is trying to find a way to hold an unvaccinated and infected coworker accountable for the death of their family’s loved one:

The family of a Falmouth father who died from complications of COVID-19 last year is suing the state for records that could link his death to an infected, unmasked coworker.

Brian Dailey served as the facility director at the Pocasset Mental Health Center before he died from complications of COVID-19 on December 31, 2020.

His former wife, Christine Dailey, of Plymouth, is filing the lawsuit in connection with a worker’s compensation claim she has filed on behalf of the couple’s two young sons, according to the complaint filed Friday in Plymouth Superior Court in Brockton.

I suspect the difficulty in a case like this will be to prove that the worker was, in fact, infected at work and could not have been infected elsewhere.  After all, look at this new study that shows about one-third of COVID-19 cases show no symptoms. The study is based on data from 350 researchers. The data is surprising in part because the number is much higher than previously believed.

Where did 1 million kindergarteners go during the COVID shutdown?

Lots of children were flat-out not enrolled in school during the 2020-21 school year and some of the least accounted-for are the youngest children in economically distressed communities. As schools reopen, will these children reappear? If they do, will they need a lot of help to catch up with classmates?

Researchers at Stanford University just released a new study that says:

Most public schools in the U.S. chose remote-only instruction and enrollment fell dramatically (i.e., a loss of roughly 1.1 million K-12 students)

One effect could be that parents chose to red-shirt their kids into kindergarten, meaning they held them back a year rather than use remote learning in 2020. That could make incoming kindergarten classes much larger this year.

The National Center for Education Statistics just released this data map and said, “Public school enrollment decreased by 13 percent for prekindergarten and kindergarten and by 3 percent for grades 1–8. Public school enrollment increased by 0.4 percent for grades 9–12.”

(NCES)

NCES says:

  • The largest decreases were in Mississippi and Vermont (5 percent each), followed by Washington, New Mexico, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Maine (each between 4 and 5 percent).
  • Eighteen states had decreases of 3 percent or more; 29 states had decreases between 1 and 3 percent; and
  • The District of Columbia, South Dakota, and Utah had changes of less than 1 percent.

Dive deep into this story with The New York Times, which worked with Stanford to produce more understanding of the disenrollment of young children in 2020.

Golf is making a pandemic comeback

A customer shops golf clubs at golf retail store in Schaumburg, Ill., Thursday, July 15, 2021. According to the National Golf Federation, an estimated 3 million new golfers nation wide hit the course for the very first time during the pandemic in 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Yahoo Finance takes notice of how golf is making a roaring comeback in the pandemic. Golf equipment companies are reporting record earnings and golf courses say people have the time to play right now.

Golf requires two things that some consumers found abundant during the pandemic — disposable income and idle time. The sport’s earned reputation is shaped by there being only a select group of people with ample access to both. But during the pandemic, millions of consumers suddenly found themselves thrown into both categories.

The latest data from the National Golf Foundation shows that rounds played through June are up 23% year-to-date, and running 19% above the 2017-2019 average.

Rounds at public courses are also outpacing growth in rounds at private clubs, with public rounds played up 26% this year against a 13% increase in private loops. Data that confirms what your humble public-playing author finds out each weekend: you can’t get a tee time anywhere these days.

Herd immunity? It probably won’t happen now.

If there was ever a chance that we could vaccinate enough people to reach herd immunity, we probably squandered that opportunity, experts say. The virus keeps changing fast enough now that we cannot get in front of it.

One of the lead researchers for the AstraZeneca vaccine told British lawmakers that the notion of herd immunity may have been mythical all along since we didn’t understand the nature of the variants that had not yet arrived. And when we first talked about herd immunity, we did not know that vaccinated people could pass the virus along to others.

The concept of herd immunity turned on the idea that if enough people got vaccinated or had some level of protection (likely because they had been infected and have “natural” antibodies as a result), it might be more difficult for the virus to spread to the people who cannot take vaccines.

The concept is not always unreachable. Through mass vaccinations that were widely accepted, herd immunity suppressed polio, tuberculosis and measles.

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

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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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