August 20, 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.

Epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina points out that we really should not be surprised that we need a COVID-19 booster. That is really the norm for other vaccinations:

In order to attend kindergarten, kids need five D-TAP shots, four polio shots, two MMR shots, three Hep A shots, and two chickenpox shots. HPV needs a booster after a year. Tetanus needs a booster after 10 years.

Peter Jay Hotez, an epidemiologist you may see on cable TV often, makes an interesting point about why we need a booster shot. In effect, he says, we backed ourselves into this position by giving the first two doses so close together. Ideally, vaccines should be given farther apart to give the body time to produce antibodies, but so many people were dying so fast that the CDC and FDA determined we had to give people full-throttled protection as quickly as possible, even if it meant that a third shot several months later.

Dr. Hotez produced a graphic for his Twitter page that explains how the immune response works after each dose.

Keep in mind that even this graphic is a rough approximation of how the vaccines work. For example, the immunity response does not go to “zero” as the graphic might imply. It does wane, however and the third shot is supposed to kick the immune system into overdrive to protect you.

The UK and Canada both spaced the first two doses farther apart than the United States did.

What side effects will there be from a booster?

I don’t know about you, but for my wife and me, the second shot made us both feel crummy, whereas the first dose didn’t bother us much at all — which raises the question, will a third shot make us feel worse than the second one?  The CDC says so far, people who have gotten boosters say it produces about the same side effects as the second one: mild soreness and discomfort for a day or two.

The Observer reports:

Among more than 4,500 people who received a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine between July 30 and August 1, about 88 percent reported feeling “similar or better” than how they felt after the second shot, according to the study, conducted by Israel’s largest health provider, Clalit.

  • About 31 percent reported side effects such as pain or swelling in the area of the injection site.

  • About 20 people, or 0.4 percent, said they suffered from difficulty breathing.

  • About 15% of people had other symptoms like tiredness, muscle aches or fever.

  • And 1 percent said they sought out medical care due to one or more side effects, according to the findings, which were released on Sunday.

Clalit says it needs more time to study the side-effects and that it is possible that people who suffered the most severe side effects did not respond to the survey. So it’s safe to say that we need to know more about what to expect before the first boosters start being delivered to the general public in a little more than a month.

What we can learn from Israel’s new COVID-19 restrictions on small children

Israel, as you know, has been ahead of the U.S. in vaccinating and in some ways, researching the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus. So it makes sense that we would keep an eye on what they are doing, knowing that could be coming our way.

The BBC reports that “Israel is now requiring anyone over the age of 3 to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test before entering many indoor spaces, as it tackles a sharp rise in infections.” The spaces include restaurants, libraries and gyms but not shops and malls.  The BBC says:

The country’s Covid-19 tzar said it was ‘at war’ with the virus despite its world-leading vaccination programme.

“Our morbidity is rising day by day,” Salman Zarka told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, according to the Jerusalem Post.

The next two weeks leading up to the Jewish New Year festival of Rosh Hashanah on 6 September would be “critical,” he warned.

If things did not improve, “we will get to a lockdown like the first and second ones, where we do not go farther than 100 meters from our houses.”

80 years of research shows us ‘what makes people happy.’ Hint: It is disappearing

A deep Harvard study found that “close relationships” are the key to what makes people . The bad news is those very relationships with friends and family and community are declining, especially in a pandemic.  In fact, our relationships are a stronger determinant of happiness than our genes, the study says.

This study has been tracking 268 Harvard students for 80 years. Only 19 of the subjects are still alive. One of the original subjects was a fellow named John F. Kennedy. Another became a journalist, Ben Bradlee.

Here is one of the topline observations:

“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”

Fast Company also conducted some research that found:

Partly these low levels of belonging may be explained by shifting cultural norms. Church membership is at historically low levels, local newspapers have closed across the country, people are more likely to live away from where they grew up, and 14% of respondents said they find the greatest sense of belonging at work. But these long-term trends were clearly exacerbated by the pandemic; many friendships atrophied, and now more than half of Americans report feeling lonely, a rise of 13% since 2018.

WHO official says U.S. booster shot plan is a ‘mockery’

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti is the WHO regional director for Africa. She posted a blistering statement about countries, including the U.S., which are making plans for booster shots.

With so many teachers out on quarantine, schools lower substitute qualifications

Some school systems — including some like here in Florida where I am — have hundreds of teachers out on quarantine. That’s creating a pressing demand for substitutes.

School system paying parents to drive their kids to school

The Washington Post has the odd story of a school bus driver shortage that is so severe that the school system is paying parents to drive kids to school. One school system is shelling out $700 for each family. The Post says:

Pittsburgh Public Schools, which needs more than 400 drivers, is delaying the return to classrooms by two weeks.

Administrators say a nationwide shortage of bus drivers is among their most pressing concerns this fall, particularly as many schools reopen for in-person learning for the first time in over a year. Many districts say they have twice as many vacancies as usual because of fundamental shifts in the economy, including a rise in online shopping that has led trucking companies and carriers like UPS and FedEx to add tens of thousands of commercial drivers to their ranks to keep up with ballooning demand.

Washoe County School District in Nevada is offering $2,000 bonuses to new bus drivers, while Montgomery County Public Schools is enlisting mechanics, supervisors and other employees to pick up routes as it races to hire 100 new drivers before school opens at the end of the month.

“There’s always a fair amount of turnover, but it’s worse this year because we got behind the curve during covid,” said Todd Watkins, director of transportation for the Maryland school district. “We offer great benefits, but there can be disadvantages to this job: You work a split shift so you don’t get eight hours a day. You don’t have good summer employment. So there are a fair amount of people who think the grass is greener someplace else.”

UN tells world leaders to send video, not virus

The United Nations is urging world leaders from 150 countries to send the video of their speeches to the General Assembly rather than coming to New York and risk spreading coronavirus. The event is scheduled for Sept. 21-27 and at the moment, 127 world leaders including President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron of France, and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro all plan to attend in person. Thirty-eight leaders have already committed to sending videos.

How pandemics influence architecture

The Washington Post put together a cool story on how public health has influenced home and business design. Subway tiles and powder rooms were born from the 1918 epidemic. Homeowners found alternatives to drapes and carpets in favor of coverings that could be easily cleaned. Designers say the stay-at-home challenges we all have endured are also changing what we expect from our homes and workspaces. For example, the story explores concepts called “family bathrooms” and “quarantine rooms.”

61% of Americans paid zero income tax in 2020

The Tax Policy Center says more than half of Americans paid no federal income tax last year thanks to high unemployment, large stimulus checks and generous tax credit programs. Even this year, about 57% will pay not federal income tax the report says. The study adds:

Congress significantly increased the size and scope of the Child Tax Credit (CTC) in 2021, as well as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit CDCTC). All of these are refundable credits that may have wiped out federal income tax liability for millions of families or even made it possible for them to receive credits that exceed their tax liability.

Effectively no households making less than about $28,000 will pay federal income tax this year, nor will three-quarters of those making between $28,000 and $55,000. Among middle-income households, about 43 percent will pay no federal income tax.

The study points out, “nearly everyone paid some other taxes, including state and local sales taxes, excise taxes, property taxes, or state income taxes.”

Charities feel the strain of triple emergencies: COVID-19, Haiti, Afghanistan

The Chronicle of Philanthropy is, as you can image, a leading news service for charities and says the dizzying events of the last week create new challenges for already stressed non-profits.

Some groups hesitate to even launch fundraising efforts for Afghanistan, fearful that raising an organization’s profile might make its workers on the ground a target for Taliban reprisals. “Our primary focus right now is just ensuring that our team members are safe,” said Adrienne Karecki, chief development and marketing officer at Mercy Corps, which has been working in Afghanistan since 1986.

In the Haiti relief effort, money is being raised against a backdrop of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last month and resulting political chaos. There’s also a potential hangover from the humanitarian aid work that followed Haiti’s massive 2010 earthquake and that later came under sharp criticism for allegedly wasting donated money.

If the fundraising climate wasn’t already complex, these twin disasters struck days apart and are vying for the attention of donors who already have been tapped to give to relief efforts related to the Covid-19 pandemic, wildfires, floods, and other refugee crises. “There are an enormous number of competing demands, and these come on top of an enormous number of competing demands from last year,” said Patricia McIlreavy, president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

With the resurgence of COVID-19, some charities that depend on big-dollar donor events in late summer or fall are rethinking how they will hold critically important fundraisers for a second year.  Many charities survived 2020 thanks to the federal stimulus loans/grants. But without those loans in their future, charities are wondering how they will survive while responding to a wide range of emergencies including caring for migrants, running food pantries, helping kids go back to school and helping people who are homeless as shelters struggle through a second pandemic winter season.

In 2022, Social Security recipients could see biggest raise in a decade

While the COVID-era economy struggles to find some new normal, inflation is still eating away at your wallet. Seniors and others who draw Social Security benefits may not follow the Consumer Price Index figures month to month, but that is key to how much the monthly checks increase every year. The cost of living raises for Social Security are actually a reflection of a slightly different version of the CPI called the CPI-W, which stands for Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers.

And if the current trend holds through the end of this year, the 2022 cost of living raise could be the highest it has been in years for Social Security beneficiaries.

The Senior Citizens League estimates that the 2022 raise could be as high as 6.2%.  Compare that to recent history.

CNBC reported:

“With one third of the data needed to calculate the COLA already in, it increasingly appears that the COLA for 2022 will be the highest paid since 1983 when it was 7.4%,” said Mary Johnson, Social Security policy analyst at The Senior Citizens League.

In 2021, the Social Security COLA was 1.3%. For the average retirement benefit, that amounted to $20 more per month for a total of $1,543.

Still, a more generous 6.2% raise for next year may not exactly be cause for celebration. The reason: rising inflation, which is pushing prices higher.

Gasoline, for example, has risen 41.8% over the past 12 months, and is helping to push the COLA estimate up, according to The Senior Citizens League.

We’ll be back next week 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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