February 19, 2021

Gasoline prices are about to spike

Even if you did not feel the sting of the winter winds that swept through Texas and Oklahoma, you are about to feel the sting of higher gasoline prices that resulted from the storm. You can probably stand outside a gas station in the days ahead and watch them change the price hour after hour. We may see an increase of 20-30 cents a gallon right away and $3-a gallon gasoline is possible by summer. The winter weather has closed refineries. USA Today reported:

The refinery outages have removed 3.5 million to 4 million, or about 20%, of the nation’s oil refining capacity, according to fuel-saving app GasBuddy and the Oil Price Information Service (OPIS). The refineries shut down due to power outages and shortages of natural gas, which are needed to run the facilities, says Tom Kloza, chief global head of energy analysis at OPIS.

Refineries also don’t work well in subfreezing temperatures, says Patrick DeHaan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy.

Pump prices already have jumped from $2.10 a gallon in late November, DeHaan says. That followed a surge in crude oil prices in the wake of OPEC production cutbacks and anticipation of a spike in global demand by late spring as a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely distributed, DeHaan says. Since late October, West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark crude oil, has climbed from about $35 a barrel to $61.

You can stay on top of oil, gas and gasoline production and prices by watching the Department of Energy alerts.

What if the storm delays your second COVID shot?

The winter storm closed hundreds of vaccine clinics, and winter weather is clogging the vaccine shipping pipeline. Not only are people not getting vaccinated, but a second issue will arise for people who are nearing the outer edge of their 6-week window to get the second dose of the vaccine.

The delay between shots may not be as dire as it might seem. Great Britain, for example, already approved a 12-week interval for the same vaccines that the U.S. uses while recommending a window half as long.

Bloomberg pointed out that health officials were already considering pushing more first doses while delaying second doses to get more people vaccinated:

The debate over the pause between shots — three weeks between Pfizer doses in company studies and four weeks between those of Moderna — has been heated. Supporters of longer intervals say one dose provides at least some protection, while detractors counter that it’s unclear how long that protection lasts or how much is even provided.

A notable exception is AstraZeneca Plc, whose Covid-19 shot has been cleared in the U.K. and dozens of other countries, although not in the U.S. Cambridge, U.K.-based Astra says its studies indicate that a 12-week interval raises efficacy, and the World Health Organization recommended 8 to 12 weeks between doses in authorizing the shot last week.

Both the CDC and the FDA have moderated their stance on the issue. Shortly after Biden took office, the agencies said that waiting up to six weeks between shots is acceptable in special circumstances.

The danger is that drug trials have shown two doses offer more protection than one. And if people only get one dose, they are more likely to get COVID than if they had both shots.

Harassing the power crews

This is a story that you journalists should go experience for yourself. Apparently, Texans are harassing power crews who are trying to restore electricity.

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I call this to your attention, because during the 2020 hurricane season I heard similar stories from electricity linemen who were rebuilding powerlines after a hurricane.

Utility workers said the same thing after Hurricane Sandy.

I suspect this is more common than we know for all sorts of public works employees clearing roads and fixing stuff.

Life expectancy declines for the first time in generations

Before we overreact to this, once we have this pandemic under control, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) estimate for how long a child born today will live will probably go back up. But in the newest estimates, life expectancy for all Americans born in the first half of 2020 was 77.8 years. That is a full one year less than 2019 figures.

  • Life expectancy at birth for males was 75.1 years in the first half of 2020, representing a decline of 1.2 years from 76.3 years in 2019.

  • For females, life expectancy declined to 80.5 years, decreasing 0.9 year from 81.4 years in 2019

  • The difference in life expectancy between the sexes was 5.4 years in the first half of 2020. Between 2000 and 2010, the difference in life expectancy between the sexes narrowed from 5.2 years to its lowest level of 4.8 years and then gradually increasing to 5.1 years in 2019.

  • Another consequence of the decreased life expectancy estimates observed during the first half of 2020 was a worsening of racial and ethnic mortality disparities. For example, the gap in life expectancy at birth between the nonHispanic black and white populations increased by 46% between 2019 and the first half of 2020 (from 4.1 to 6.0 years).

 

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The NCHS does not provide life expectancy data for other races or ethnicities. But the data that it does provide shows that the difference between white and Black populations increased 46% between 2019 and the first half of 2020 (from 4.1 to 6.0 years).

AP reported:

“What is really quite striking in these numbers is that they only reflect the first half of the year … I would expect that these numbers would only get worse,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a health equity researcher and dean at the University of California, San Francisco.

This is the first time the CDC has reported on life expectancy from early, partial records; more death certificates from that period may yet come in. It’s already known that 2020 was the deadliest year in U.S. history, with deaths topping 3 million for the first time.

COVID after vaccination: What are ‘breakthrough’ COVID cases?

This item relates to the one just above it.

The Oregon Health Authority is looking into how at least four people who were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus still got infected. “This is a serious but not surprising development,” OHA director Patrick Allen said.

Oregon Public Broadcasting reported:

These re-infections, called “breakthrough infections,” are infections that occur more than 14 days after receiving the second dose of vaccine.

Given the effectiveness rate of the two vaccines — 95% for both Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s — it’s inevitable that some of the 177,000 vaccinated Oregonians would become reinfected.

It isn’t yet known if these four known reinfection cases involved a newer variant of the coronavirus. The Oregon Health Authority is attempting to get samples from these patients to be tested, a process that could take over a week.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is gathering data on COVID-19 breakthrough cases, but they have yet to make that data public. Oregon is one of the first states to participate in their genomics surveillance program and has sent information about these cases to the CDC.

Many breakthrough cases were reported during the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination trials. Those cases tended to be asymptomatic or mild, and so far, Oregon’s cases fall into either of those two categories.

The bottom line here is to understand that being vaccinated is not 100% assurance that you are invincible to the virus. But when you get the two doses you are more likely to have mild or no symptoms if you do get infected. Until a lot more people are vaccinated, keep using the precautions you should have been using for a year.

Vitamin C and zinc don’t fight COVID

Even my own doctor, who is a careful sort, says that when he starts feeling poorly, out of desperation, he wolfs down vitamin C and zinc. But a new study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Open Network found the two supplements were of no benefit to people isolating at home with COVID-19.

The study involved 214 patients in Ohio and Florida who were infected with COVID. And the study found no difference between the symptoms for those who took the supplements and those who did not.

In fact, the results were so convincing, the researchers stopped the testing early because the outcome was clear.

“Unfortunately, these 2 supplements failed to live up to their hype,” wrote Dr. Erin Michos of John Hopkins and Houston Methodist’s Dr. Miguel Cainzos-Achirica, in an accompanying editorial.

All of this is not to say vitamin C and zinc supplements are worthless. CNN pointed out:

Vitamin C is a recognized antioxidant and plays an essential role in supporting the immune system. Even though it has not been shown to prevent illness, other research has found vitamin C can shorten colds by 8% in adults and 14% in kids.

Using vitamin C after cold symptoms start, however, doesn’t appear to be helpful, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Zinc may help a cell’s ability to fight infection, the study said, “while there is evidence that zinc deficiency increases pro-inflammatory cytokines and decreases the production of antibodies.”

But what does that mean in real life? If taken within 24 hours of the very first signs of a cold, zinc may reduce the length of a cold by only one day, a a review of 13 studies found.

There is a downside, too. Taking over 2,000 milligrams of vitamin C a day can cause heartburn, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and headaches. The average daily recommended amount of vitamin C is 75 milligrams for adult women and 90 milligrams for men.

In a COVID year, a half million more people than normal died

Take the normal number of people who die in the United States and add a half million more and that is how many people died in the U.S. last year. The New York Times did an analysis of CDC mortality data and found:

Deaths nationwide were 20 percent higher than normal from March 15, 2020, to Jan. 30, 2021. Our numbers may be an undercount since recent death statistics are still being updated.

Our analysis examines deaths from all causes — not just confirmed cases of coronavirus — beginning when the virus took hold in the United States last spring. That allows comparisons that do not depend on the accuracy of cause-of-death reporting, and includes deaths related to disruptions caused by the pandemic as well as the virus itself. Epidemiologists refer to fatalities in the gap between the observed and normal numbers of deaths as “excess deaths.”

It is a useful analysis because this report cuts through the debates over whether COVID cases are undercounted or overcounted. The fact is, a lot more people died last year. New York’s a stunning 60% more deaths than normal last year. And other states also saw big increases, according to the Times’ calculations:

(New York Times)

Ebola is back

This is nothing to freak about yet, but it is something to watch. Guinea’s National Security and Health Agency (ANSS) says the West African nation has documented a handful of cases of Ebola including three deaths in the last week. All seven of the people who were infected had attended a funeral together. CNN reminds us:

The world’s largest Ebola outbreak to date started in 2014 in Guinea and continued to 2016, spreading into neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. More than 28,000 people were infected and more than 11,000 of them died.

The Red Cross, the World Health Organization and neighboring countries all say they are mobilizing to try to keep this from becoming a full-blown outbreak. I hope we do not look back on this post months from now the way we look back at COVID news stories from a year ago.

U.S. will admit 125,000 refugees this year, up from 15,000 under Trump

Starting in October, the United States will significantly loosen the number of international refugees. The Biden administration is setting the target at 125,000 which compares to the 15,000-person limit in the last year of the Trump administration. Faith-based groups that help the U.S. government resettle people into America have begun ramping up their operations.

It is an arduous process. Voice of America created a graphic to help people understand the steps that can take years.

The way we work now

You journalists just cannot be stopped. You find a way to get the work done.

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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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