June 8, 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.

As I was reading a statement from AstraZeneca, a big pharmaceutical company, about its hopes to be the one to distribute billions of doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to the world, the company mentioned a sticking point — a big one that could derail the whole effort. A glass shortage.

AstraZeneca said it is laying plans to be able to ship 2 billion doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, once it is created and approved.

2 billion doses.

Of course, there is not yet a vaccine that seems like a sure hit. Even if there was, having a vaccine does not mean it will reach you soon enough to protect you when you need it.

But look at what has the head of AstraZeneca worried.

“The challenge is not so much to make the vaccine itself, it’s to fill vials,” said Pascal Soriot, CEO of AstraZeneca, on a conference call hosted by an industry trade group last week. “There’s not enough vials in the world.”

BioPharmaDive, a drug industry insider website, took us inside the problem:

Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer at (Johnson and Johnson), was blunt.

“Getting to five or 10 vaccines per vial is probably going to be essential to be able to cope with the volume,” he said Thursday. “The capacity is not there to do it in the billions.”

Rick Bright, the former director of the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency, claimed in a recent whistleblower complaint that it could take two years to make enough vials for U.S. vaccine needs.

Bright alleged he had warned the Trump administration to prepare for a vial shortage, but “to no avail.”

Vial manufacturers, such as Corning, can scale up their production but, like others, they were caught off guard by the pandemic’s spread.

Injectable drugs generally come in one-dose bottles. You have seen them at your doctor’s office. The shortage may mean that the drug companies will have to use a new size of bottle that has five or ten doses.

Business Insider explained:

Vaccine vials are shaped from specialized glass — suppliers like ThermoFisher Scientific and Schott trademark their glassware — and tend to house between 2 ml and 100 ml of liquid. They measure, on average, 45 mm tall by 11.5 mm wide.

They have to withstand cold temperatures and survive the wear and tear of being transported around the world.

The process of bottling vaccines is known in the industry as “fill-and-finish,” and is invariably the main reason for vaccine delays.

It’s an arduous process, where machines siphon fluid into millions of vials and syringes before each one is hand-checked for quality.

And to produce nearly 8 billion doses of a vaccine — one for each person in the world — is no mean feat, especially when there may not be enough vials for everyone.

So, a glass shortage could stand in the way of people getting vaccinated. It seems like now would be a good time for the government to start addressing that, like it did when there was a shortage of respirators and masks. We know this is a problem, and we hope that we are going to need hundreds of millions of glass containers very soon.

Politico looked at the issue:

The nation is already grappling with a shortage of the specialized glass used to make the vials that will store any vaccine. Producing and distributing hundreds of millions of vaccine doses will also require huge quantities of stoppers — which are made by just a handful of companies — as well as needles and refrigeration units. Low stocks of any one of these components could slow future vaccination efforts, much as shortfalls of key chemicals delayed widespread coronavirus testing.

A massive manufacturing effort is already gearing up to produce hundreds of millions of doses of promising vaccines now in late-stage trials, as scientists and the government gamble that at least one of the shots will prove safe and effective. The effort could rival the urgent national campaign to vaccinate children against polio in the 1950s.

What is the COVID-19 connection with a glass shortage?

Collection volumes for glass are way down. It turns out that when beer and wine bottles do not come in from restaurants and bars, for example, that matters. And there was already a global glass shortage prior to the pandemic.

Waste 360, a solid waste and recycling insider website, said:

O-I Glass, a large manufacturer of glass containers, observed that supplies of recycled glass were down 20% in April in Philadelphia. And the situation in the New York-Jersey region was even worse, with supplies down 62%.

Will there be enough needles and syringes?

Not long ago, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned that there might not be enough needles and syringes to vaccinate everybody, either.

BioWorld reported:

Robert Kadlec, head of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), as well as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) supply chain groups and warned the officials of the limited inventory of critical vaccine supplies and “rumblings” that other countries were already buying up what was available. He recommended that the U.S. halt the export of needles and syringes, place orders for the supplies and ramp up production.

In the New York hot spot, demand has more than doubled for certain syringes, according to an industry newsletter.

Unemployment underreported: The BLS admits a mistake involving 4.9 million people

As I plowed through the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, trying to figure out how everybody — and I mean everybody — was so wrong in estimating the May unemployment rate, I noticed a notation deep at the end of the report.

However, there was also a large number of workers who were classified as employed but absent from work. As was the case in March and April, household survey interviewers were instructed to classify employed persons absent from work due to coronavirus-related business closures as unemployed on temporary layoff. However, it is apparent that not all such workers were so classified. BLS and the Census Bureau are investigating why this misclassification error continues to occur and are taking additional steps to address the issue.

I followed up with a BLS press spokesperson, Stacey Standish, who told me that it is possible that the March, April and May figures are all artificially low. The March unemployment figure may have been misstated by .9%, March’s real unemployment figure could have been 4.8% higher than the government reported and last month’s unemployment rate, reported with great fanfare on Friday, could actually have been a full 3% higher than the government reported, all because of a coding error that was not discovered until recently, the BLS says.

It is possible, the government said, “The resulting unemployment rate for May would be 16.1% (not seasonally adjusted), compared with the official estimate of 13.0% (not seasonally adjusted).”

The Washington Post summed it up this way:

In short, some people who should have been classified as unemployed were instead classified as employed but “absent” from work for “other reasons.”

This “other reason” category is normally used for people on vacation, serving jury duty or taking leave to care for a child or relative. But in this unusual pandemic circumstance, the “other reason” category got applied to some people sitting at home and waiting to be called back.

The same thing happened in April, which would have added nearly another five percentage points to the 14.7% unemployment rate, the agency said. The unemployment rate comes from a survey where people are asked a) if they are working and b) if they are not working, why not? People basically told the surveyors they were just “absent” from work.

It is important to note that while the actual unemployment rate may be artificially low, the trend from month to month would be the same because this same coding error has been going on for three months.

Standish told me that the BLS will not reissue the May figures because it is standard practice to make notations about the data and accept it as it is.

What are the elements that go into unemployment figures?

You might think that unemployment figures would just be a measure of what percentage of workers who want a job but can’t find one. But there are so many nuances:

  • What do you mean by “tried to find work?” How hard did you try? Did you apply for jobs? Are you being realistic when you are “looking for a job” or are you only looking for a job as a right-fielder for the Yankees?
  • What do you mean by employed? Does it have to be full-time employment? What if it is a side gig on or off the tax rolls?

We have been using 1940’s definitions for the answers to those questions, which may in itself be an issue. But based on the government’s definitions, if you got paid to work, you are employed. If you have actively — key word — looked for work in the last month, you are defined as “unemployed.”

You can quickly spot a problem. In a pandemic, if you are sitting at home not even looking for work because you are living in a stay-at-home order, you would not meet the definition. If you have been unemployed so long that you gave up looking, then you would not show up either.

BLS rules say: “People who have a job but were not at work for other reasons may be classified as employed or unemployed depending on the reason they missed work. For example, people who missed work due to vacation, parental leave, or bad weather are classified as employed. People who were temporarily laid off and expecting recall (and available to return to their job if recalled) are classified among the unemployed on temporary layoff.”

The BLS also said: “The household survey reference period is generally the calendar week (Sunday–Saturday) that contains the 12th of the month, in this case May 10 through May 16. In the household survey, individuals are classified as employed, unemployed, or not in the labor force based on their answers to a series of questions about their activities during the survey reference week.”

The reference week in May is key because some states started to reopen that week. Some reopened later, not many, and some were earlier. It would be interesting to ask if the states were aware of when the BLS sample is taken. If states had waited even a week later to reopen, the May figures might have looked quite different. Kentucky, Massachusetts and Louisiana, for example, reopened retail mostly after the sample. Missouri, Oklahoma and South Carolina reopened before the sample.

The point is that today, their rates may be similar, but when the openings were rippling across the country, they might have looked very different week to week.

Here is how the BLS classifies the answers you give to it:

  • Workers who are paid by their employer for all or any part of the pay period, including the 12th of the month, are counted as employed, even if they were not actually at their jobs.
  • Workers who are temporarily or permanently absent from their jobs and who are not being paid are not counted as employed, even if they continue to receive benefits.

So are unemployment rates real?

There are lots of factors to consider. As you look at the unemployment rate for March, April, May and for June, as well, keep in mind that the numbers are estimates. They are based on interviews with people who may not know if they are truly unemployed and out of a job or temporarily jobless and about to be called back to work. And, given what transpired in May, it is possible that a fair number of people were jobless or employed one day and employed or jobless the next day

The key takeaways:

  • When jobless figures are bad, political opponents use them to crush whoever is in office, while whoever is in office questions their validity or whether they capture the whole picture.
  • When unemployment stats are good, whoever is in office gets to take a victory lap and claim the numbers must be right — after all, they are good.
  • They are always an estimate, as any poll is an estimate. And with people moving in and out of employment by the millions right now it is a quickly moving target that is fraught with assumptions. It will serve us well if you look for trends rather than relying on any single data point.
  • About the best you can say about jobless figures right now is that they are high and they went down some last month. We do not know precisely how high they are or how much they dropped.

Do people act differently when you wear a mask?

Isn’t it interesting how not being able to see a person’s face changes your reaction to that person? 

A researcher found that we tend to stay further away from mask-wearing people than we do people who do not wear masks. Of course, that is counterintuitive in a COVID-19 world, but it is what he found.

I wonder if different designs, colors and even styles of masks change the way people see each other? Does a cheerful color make me look more approachable? Will we adopt “power masks” the way men used to talk about “power ties?” Will candidates wear masks that reflect red and blue political leanings the way they sometimes wear red and blue ties during debates?

How color-coordinated will people want to be once we are back in the office and masks become a part of everyday dress for a while?

For old guys like me, I suspect we will be just as creative with mask colors as we are with our sports coats. I have two hanging on my office door and two draped over my office chair. They are all solid blue and look exactly alike. I am pretty sure I have a brown one somewhere. Pretty sure.

If you have to hug, here is how to do it more safely

Fatherly, a website for dads, offered advice on how to hug more safely. (Notice I did not say “safely.”)

Americans are misusing cleaning products

This Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report was a bit lost in the busy news of Friday and the weekend. Now, keep in mind, it is a tiny little study, but it’s interesting — and your local poison center will have local data for you. The CDC found Americans continue, despite your reporting, to misuse cleaning and disinfectant products:

4% of those surveyed, 20 people, admitted they’d drank or gargled household agents including bleach. A staggering 18% of participants confessed they’d applied cleaning agents to their skin. Nearly 10% inhaled fumes from potentially toxic household disinfectants.

Are face shields more effective than masks?

The answer to the headline question is that we don’t know. But there may be a lot to say in support of face shields. Self magazine talked with experts who said that the concerns that face shields don’t cover your mouth and nose may be outweighed by shields’ ability to block large, virus-containing droplets.

The story said:

Research on face shields is limited but promising. In a 2014 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene study, researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health placed a face shield on a breathing robot and had another robot 18 inches away “cough out” flu virus. The shield prevented the breathing robot from inhaling 96% of the virus within five minutes. In additional tests, the shield’s effectiveness varied based on the size of droplets expelled, but the overall indication was that shields can protect their wearers from other people’s germs.

No studies have yet addressed whether face shields protect other people from your germs, however, and this makes some scientists wary. “We don’t have the research to say that they will offer protection for those around you, should you be sick,” Saskia Popescu, Ph.D., an infection prevention epidemiologist at George Mason University, tells Self.

Shields also have an advantage over masks in that shields protect the eyes, not just the nose and mouth. And, the story said:

Shields are also increasingly available. Apple, Nike, Ford, and John Deere have been making face shields for various kinds of essential employees, many volunteer organizations are printing them, and Amazon recently announced it would soon be selling face shields at cost.

50 years of police data: How to handle a protest

My friend Jamiles Lartey at The Marshall Project co-authored a report that examined 50 years of data about how police respond to protests and what we should learn from the data. The story said when police show up in riot gear before there is a disturbance, when they fire off tear gas and when they use force, things go badly.

The thoughtful Marshall Project story looks back decades to see what we might learn, starting with protests in 1967 and, more recently, examining police tactics in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

The story also examined what were called “negotiated management” strategies in the past, where police met with protest organizers before the events to discuss. But that requires a lot of trust and constant conversations long before demonstrations start.

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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