December 4, 2020

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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is formally recommending that 21 million health care workers and 3 million older adults living in long-term care facilities (plus the people caring for them) be first in line for COVID-19 vaccinations, which could begin within weeks.

But at least three of the committee members worry that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that are pending U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval have not been tested enough on frail older adults. The three members said they asked the government to aggressively push a safety monitoring system after nursing home patients are vaccinated to watch for any negative reaction to the vaccine.

The ACIP members heard testimony that there were 243,000 known cases of health care workers who have been infected with the coronavirus and 858 who have died. At long-term care facilities, the CDC noted 730,000 COVID-19 cases among staff and residents and 100,240 deaths. Nursing home patients account for about 40% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths.

The committee did not consider a third major contributor to COVID-19 cases, prisons and jails, as a priority for vaccinations. The Marshall Project says prisons and jails have counted 197,000 COVID-19 cases  — among both prisoners and staff — and 1,400 deaths.

The ACIP has been wrestling with a central, strategic issue that may play out differently around the country. One vaccination strategy is to protect the most vulnerable populations, which would put people in nursing homes, health care workers and people with other health issues (including smokers and people with morbid obesity) at the top of the list. Another strategy would be to stop the spread of the virus first, which would put people in places like jails, prisons, nursing homes and homeless shelters and essential workers — like taxi and Uber drivers and store clerks who come in contact with lots of people every day — higher on the priority list.

The ACIP’s recommendation is that the “health care worker” designation includes people who have direct patient contact, and people who work with infectious materials, such as lab work, and also hospital food services and medical aides. Committee members were especially concerned that lower-wage health care workers be given priority consideration because COVID-19 rates are higher among lower-wage workers than higher-paid health care workers.

After health care workers and people living in long-term facilities, the next priority, referred to as Group 1B, will be “essential workers,” which would still have to be defined but would likely include police and other emergency workers, as well as people who work in essential services like utility companies, grocery stores and so on.

The third priority group (Group 1C) will be people with other health issues that place them at higher risk.

The fourth priority (Group 1D) will be 53 million Americans who are 65 years old and older but not suffering from other serious health issues.

Because the vaccines are expected to cause some reaction, including flu-like symptoms, the CDC committee says hospitals and nursing homes should stagger vaccines so not everybody is suffering from the aftereffects at the same time. It is advice that other businesses will also have to consider — especially schools and police forces, where if a considerable number of people had to miss a day of work after an inoculation it would be a big problem.

ACIP members heard testimony that when the FDA approves a vaccine, around 40 million doses will be available, which will vaccinate about 20 million people, since the vaccines require two shots for each patient. Another 5 to 10 million more doses will be produced each week after that. The CDC believes that amount will be enough to vaccinate a “high percentage” of health care workers within a few weeks.

75% of the health care workforce is women. The committee notes that COVID-19 could be more dangerous for pregnant women, but so far, the drug companies testing the new vaccines have not provided data on how those vaccines affect pregnancies.

The ACIP recommendation now goes to the CDC. States need this priority list because governors are supposed to submit their vaccination plans by Friday.

Essentially, the states needed to know where to tell drugmakers to send the first vaccine vials. States will still make decisions about who gets first priority and will have leeway to decide which health care workers and which older adults fall within the first tier of vaccine recipients. While states generally follow CDC priority guidelines for vaccines, there may still be a patchwork of decisions across the country, not a federally imposed structured priority list that every state follows. It is not unusual for states to set vaccine rules, for example in deciding what vaccines are needed to enter schools. But, generally, states don’t stray much from federal guidelines.

Some upcoming challenges will include how vaccines will be allocated if, for example, supplies get tight and there is not enough to vaccinate both health care workers and the residents of long-term care facilities. ACIP committee members asked who would get priority. There was no clear answer. And how will nursing homes keep track of people who got their first shot while living in the facility but who then move out before the second shot? The answer was, essentially, “We will just have to figure it out.”

Nursing homes will be talking a lot soon. Journalists may be able to help them learn about something called “Emergency Use Authorization” forms, also known as EAUs. These will be forms that somebody will have to sign for older adults living in nursing homes to get vaccinated if the patients themselves cannot make that decision. Facilities will want to move quickly once the vaccines become available, so there will be a big push to get those EUAs signed. I know it doesn’t sound very dramatic, but this is exactly the kind of minutia that will make or break this vaccination effort.

A key message for you to be repeating for now is that the general public won’t be walking into a local pharmacy and getting a COVID-19 shot like you can get a flu shot now. For about a month, the vaccines will go to hospitals and nursing homes, then to the other priority groups. But, eventually, you will get the vaccines at clinics, pharmacies and other usual places.

It is also important to remember that this committee’s vote does not approve a vaccine. That committee meets Dec. 10 to consider the data from Pfizer’s phase 3 trials.

BIG UPDATE: Dec. 14 vaccines webinar for local reporters

Last week I promised I would put you in touch with some top-level experts who will help you report the COVID-19 vaccine story. I have an update. I want local journalists to join me in a webinar on Dec. 14 at 2 p.m. Eastern. You will hear from:

  • Dr. Susan R. Bailey, president of the American Medical Association. Dr. Bailey will help journalists to understand their critical role in reporting on the national vaccine program and will help explain the logistics of how it will roll out over the coming months. This will be among the most complex vaccination efforts ever undertaken.
  • Paul A. Offit, a vaccine expert working with the National Institutes of Health on COVID-19 vaccines. Dr. Offit is a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases and an expert on vaccines, immunology and virology. He is the co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine that has been credited with saving hundreds of lives every day. Dr. Offit will help journalists understand how vaccines work, what risks are involved and how the mRNA vaccine is so different from previous vaccines.
  • Dr. Leon McDougle, president of the National Medical Association, the oldest and largest professional association representing physicians and patients of African descent. Dr. McDougle is an expert in racial disparities in health care and will help journalists understand the challenges of reaching racial minorities with the COVID-19 vaccine.

My goal is to give local journalists access to experts who usually only make it to networks and national news organizations. You have permission to record this session and use it in your reporting. You will be able to submit questions and we will ask as many of them as possible.

This webinar will be happening just as the first vaccines are likely to be administered. Your readers/viewers/listeners will have a ton of questions about logistics, risks and availability.

You should enroll now. We expect a big audience and want to be prepared for how big the audience will be. Thanks to our partnership with the AMA, this seminar is free, and if you have some coins to kick in to support Poynter’s work, that’s good, too. But most importantly, be with us on Dec. 14.

There’s new hope for a stimulus bill

A bipartisan group of senators breathed new life into the hope that Congress will pass a stimulus bill this month. The $908 billion proposal would include $300 per week in federal unemployment payments and some funds for transit systems, schools, local governments and small businesses. It also would provide limited liability protection to businesses from workers or customers who get infected at those businesses. That issue has been and still is one of the most contentious in figuring out a new stimulus bill that President Donald Trump would sign.

Teachers are not OK

In-person school students walk to school bus with a teacher after school in Wheeling, Ill., Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

One by one, cities and states are announcing their plans for the next semester, and those plans are leaning toward putting students in the classrooms. The argument is that struggling students are losing even more ground and virtual learning is not working for them.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said this week that “closing schools is probably the biggest public health blunder in modern American history.”

But Education Week’s survey of 1,600 public educators shows educator morale has hit its lowest point since the pandemic started, and the number of job applications for school positions is declining.

(EdWeek)

Half of the educators and administrators in the survey say job applications for teaching jobs are down, despite high unemployment rates.

Some students only get an hour or two of actual teaching per day.

(EdWeek)

One in five educators told EdWeek that students in their reach receive less than two hours of live, synchronous learning each day. Older students tend to get more live, synchronous learning time. 27% of high school teachers and principals say their students get six or more hours daily of live, synchronous instruction on days they’re not at school, compared with 22% of middle school educators and 9% of elementary school principals and teachers.

There is a serious question about whether students can continue learning in long stretches online.

Are teachers really leaving?

EdWeek is throwing shade on the dire predictions that public school teachers will leave their jobs over COVID-19 concerns. EdWeek reports:

But an Education Week analysis shows that the predicted wave of leavers has not materialized across the nation.

As the start of the 2020-21 school year approached and many districts began rolling out plans to bring students back to campus, teachers across the country wrestled with the difficult decision of whether to leave their jobs to protect their health and that of their loved ones or stay in the classroom. Surveys showed that 1 in 5 teachers said they were unlikely to return to in-person instruction in the fall, and that the same percentage said they were more likely to quit at the end of last school year than they were before the pandemic.

Stoking the fears were some troubling statistics: About 18 percent of public school teachers are age 55 or older, putting them at heightened risk for serious illness due to COVID-19. And an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that about 1.5 million teachers — nearly 1 in 4 — have health conditions that increase their risk for COVID-19 complications.

EdWeek’s analysis is admittedly incomplete because some datasets combine teachers with administrators and even college educators. But look at a few examples that do cast some doubt on these dire predictions:

(EdWeek)

(EdWeek)

EdWeek points out that the average age of educators has been declining over the last decade and that means they are, as a group, less likely to suffer serious health complications from the coronavirus and also less likely to quit their jobs over related concerns.

This data in no way minimizes the real concerns that teachers have about reopening schools and the struggle to effectively teach virtually.

Look at this passage from The New York Times after dozens of conversations with teachers, which should be a prompt for you to listen, too:

In more than a dozen interviews, educators described the immense challenges, and exhaustion, they have faced trying to provide normal schooling for students in pandemic conditions that are anything but normal. Some recounted whiplash experiences of having their schools abruptly open and close, sometimes more than once, because of virus risks or quarantine-driven staff shortages, requiring them to repeatedly switch back and forth between in-person and online teaching.

Others described the stress of having to lead back-to-back group video lessons for remote learners, even as they continued to teach students in person in their classrooms. Some educators said their workloads had doubled.

“I have NEVER been this exhausted,” Sarah Gross, a veteran high school English teacher in New Jersey who is doing hybrid teaching this fall, said in a recent Twitter thread. She added, “This is not sustainable.”

Public schools are losing students

Private school enrollment is up (not everywhere, but fairly strongly in the South) while public schools are shedding students in the pandemic.

You can see the stories from coast to coast. Here is a sample list:

  • School funding is at risk from declining public school enrollment (KVUE, Austin)
  • In Massachusetts, public school enrollment dropped by nearly 4% this fall, losing more than 37,000 students. (The Boston Globe)
  • New York public schools lost 31,000 students compared with last year. (Chalkbeat)
  • School enrollment drops in Missouri (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
  • In California, the Los Angeles Unified School District and Orange County were down by 11,000 and 8,000 students, respectively, in October (NPR)
  • Enrollment declines in Pima County, Arizona (Green Valley News)
  • Wisconsin public school enrollment dropped by 3% (Wisconsin Public Radio)
  • North Carolina schools recorded 70,000 fewer students (WTVD TV Raleigh)

White House holiday parties are still on

Cross Hall and the Blue Room are decorated during the 2020 Christmas preview at the White House, Monday, Nov. 30, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The White House is still planning a bunch of holiday parties, including a Congressional Ball, even while everyone who knows anything about the pandemic is discouraging such gatherings. We do not know how many people were infected at the Rose Garden superspreader event (because the White House stopped the investigation) but a dozen indoor parties have the potential to set a new bar. Let’s hope the catering staff is getting hazardous duty pay.

The way we live now: Why chess sets are flying off the shelves

Etsy CEO Josh Silverman says online searches for chess sets are up 35% week over week, maybe because of our “nest at home” needs these days. But there may be another reason for the new interest in chess: a Netflix series:

NPR reports:

Sales of chess sets have skyrocketed, says Mary Higbe, director of marketing at Goliath Games. The company sells six different kinds of chess sets, including those familiar red-boxed Pressman sets you’ve probably seen in the toy aisle at Walmart.

“Our October sales for chess were up 178% over the same period last year,” Higbe says. That’s a big increase. But something else unexpected happened at the end of the month. Now, she says, “our chess sales are up 1,048%.”

Every so often a game comes along that captures the popular imagination. In November 2020, that game is chess. The reason? A Netflix period drama that debuted in late October.

Chess set sales have risen since the launch of the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit.” The show is the No. 1 program in at least a dozen countries right now. The title refers to a series of chess moves that players have used for ages. The series tells the story of Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy, first told in the best-selling book by Walter Tevis. She overcame a troubled childhood to rise high in a male-dominated pastime.

NPR explained:

eBay registered a 215% increase in chess set and accessory sales since The Queen’s Gambit hit Netflix, with shoppers seeking out wooden chess sets nine times more than plastic, electronic or glass ones, according to an eBay spokesperson.

Toy analyst Gerrick Johnson now warns that demand will outstrip supply. “Six months ago, a year ago, these retailers weren’t saying, let’s load up on chess sets,” he notes. “Good luck finding a chess set this holiday!”

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. 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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