December 10, 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.

Consider this item to be a preemptive strike on what I suspect will happen after people start getting their COVID-19 vaccines.

Let me use a case from Texas as an example and then, to underscore my point, I will turn to some data that a much-talked-about U.S. Food and Drug Administration committee will use today as it determines whether to recommend the vaccine for distribution.

A Texan named Patricia from Austin was a participant in the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trials. Not long after she got her shot, a horrific sore developed on her foot. Soon after, another sore developed on her other foot. She went to the doctor, who told her there could be a range of causes, and that one of those might be a reaction to a medication (the clinical phrase for such a thing is a “fixed drug eruption”).

Patricia’s foot became an internet meme when a family member launched a GoFundMe account to help pay for doctor bills. They set up the account along with the backstory I just told you and a picture of the ailing foot. 116 donors kicked in $5,420. Her story was shared almost 12,000 times. An anti-COVID-19 vaccine rumor was coming to bloom.

In an unusual move for a drug trial, Pfizer opened the books to see whether Patricia got the vaccine or the saline shot with no vaccine. She got the placebo. Whatever caused her foot sores, it was not the COVID-19 shot.

But by then, a full-blown conspiracy was rolling. The BBC looked into it:

The story spread quickly. After an anti-vaccine influencer posted it, it was picked up in several places, including an apocalypse-themed evangelical Christian site that promotes conspiracy theories about vaccines, the Covid-19 pandemic and the US election.

The site posted a version of Patricia’s story along with passages from the Bible describing her feet as having “crusting holes that look a whole lot like the ‘grievous sores’ described in (the book of) Revelation.”

From there it spread to religion-themed and anti-vaccine Facebook groups around the world. Links to the story and the photo of Patricia’s feet went viral in Romanian, Polish and Portuguese.

Patricia has kept her followers updated on her recovery. She reported this week that her podiatrist agreed that her foot issues were not related to the drug trial. Her GoFundMe account has been straightforward in providing details of the ordeal, even offering refunds to donors who want it.

I thought of this case when I read Pfizer’s detailed report that the FDA special committee will use today to consider whether to recommend the vaccine for public distribution. Here’s why.

The Pfizer trial involved 36,621 people. The trial included people with all sorts of health issues, including autoimmune conditions, diabetes and stabilized heart conditions. I can imagine that vaccine opponents and conspiracy nuts will point to the Pfizer data that shows six people who were involved in the vaccine trial died during the course of the study. And that is true, they did die. Four of those who died were given the placebo and two were given the vaccine. But remember, that represents .01% of the trial participants.

Pfizer says both of the participants who got the vaccine and died were older than age 55. The data that the FDA will consider today says (see page 41):

One experienced a cardiac arrest 62 days after vaccination #2 and died 3 days later, and the other died from arteriosclerosis 3 days after vaccination #1. The placebo recipients died from myocardial infarction, hemorrhagic stroke or unknown causes; three of the four deaths (who received placebos) occurred in the older group (>55 years of age). All deaths represent events that occur in the general population of the age groups where they occurred, at a similar rate.

In other words, when you involve that many people and follow them for that long, you can expect that there will be mortalities. But the fact that they died of different causes and at a rate that is normal in the general population raises no particular concerns about the vaccine.

At the same time, some participants had other medical issues during the course of the drug trials. For example, 12 participants suffered from appendicitis. Eight of the 12 got the actual vaccine and four got the placebo. Pfizer reported (see page 41):

The cases were considered unrelated to vaccination by the study investigators and occurred no more frequently than expected in the given age groups. FDA agrees that there is no clear basis upon which to suspect that this imbalance represents a vaccine-related risk.

And remember, with a vaccine that is more than 90% effective, there will be people who get it and still get COVID-19. It happened in the drug trials, where “four participants had severe COVID-19 disease at least 7 days” after the second dose.

All of this is to point to the concept of correlation versus causation. Just because two things happen at the same time does not mean one thing caused the other. People will get the shot and have heart attacks or be diagnosed with cancer or become pregnant. Before you jump on the story and report alarming claims that will detour people from taking the vaccine, be thoughtful, cautious and factual.

Allergic reactions in Britain

90 year old Margaret Keenan, the first patient in the UK to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, administered by nurse May Parsons at University Hospital, Coventry, England, Tuesday Dec. 8, 2020. (Jacob King/Pool via AP)

A couple of days into administering COVID-19 vaccines, British health officials say they are seeing that people who have a history of serious allergic reactions may have a reaction to the Pfizer shots and should not take the vaccination. That is based on two people who had reactions. The Associated Press reports:

Britain’s Medical and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency has said people should not receive the shot if they have had a significant allergic reaction to a vaccine, medicine or food, such as those who have been told to carry an adrenaline shot — such as an EpiPen or other similar devices — or others who have had potentially fatal allergic reactions. The medical regulator also said vaccinations should be carried out only in facilities that have resuscitation equipment.

Such advice isn’t uncommon; several vaccines already on the market carry warnings about allergic reactions, and doctors know to watch for them when people who’ve had reactions to drugs or vaccines in the past are given new products.

The Department of Defense’s vaccine plans

The Federal News Network says the Department of Defense will get 44,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is approved, and the military’s top priority will be for front-line health care workers.

From there, the DOD will enter phase 2, which will vaccinate high-risk beneficiaries and then phase 3, which will focus on the healthy population. Rank and file soldiers, sailors and airmen/airwomen will wait to be vaccinated.

“The very, very top priority and initial phase is going to be healthcare workers,” said Defense Health Agency Director Lt. Gen. Ronald Place. “Inpatient workers most close to the patients will be the first, then the early emergency responders, public security, and then down in terms of outpatient so forth.”

A small portion of critical national security workers may also get a vaccine. Those include cyber operators and troops in charge of nuclear weapons.

Only about 8% or 9% of DoD’s healthcare population will be able to get the first shot of the vaccination during the pilot.

Since the vaccine is emergency use, all shots will be completely voluntary.

“We’re recommending that everyone take the vaccine when it becomes available, protect yourselves, your families, your shipmates, your wingmen, your battle buddies and your communities,” he said. “Some people may experience small, adverse effects like arm soreness, fatigue, even a fever. The department will be fully transparent about any adverse effects that are reported and share this information with the CDC.”

The DOD says it might administer “a few” shots to public officials as a way of convincing the public to take the vaccine. To date, nearly 130,000 people related to the DOD have been infected with COVID-19. About 86,000 of them are service members.

The U.S. bases getting the vaccine will be:

  • Walter Reed in Maryland
  • Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii
  • Navy Medical Center Portsmouth in North Carolina
  • Army Medical Center Womack-Bragg in North Carolina
  • Naval Branch Health Clinic Jacksonville in Florida
  • Indiana’s National Guard Center
  • New York’s National Guard Center
  • Naval Hospital Pensacola-Keesler in Florida
  • Army Medical Center Darnall in Texas
  • Willford Hall Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas
  • Coast Guard Base Alameda in California
  • Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton in California

The smallest area will get nearly 1,000 vaccines, while larger areas will get about 6,000.

Investigating COVID-19 contracts

Hundreds of millions of vaccines and supplies are about to be flying around the country. The federal government has awarded more than 14,000 contracts involving close to $28 billion. You can investigate those contracts here thanks to ProPublica.


Employer 401K contributions disappear/reappear during COVID

It appears that employers that are doing well are restarting frozen 401k matching plans while those in the financial ditch are using COVID-19 as a reason to stop 401k matching completely.

The Secure Retirement Institute is out with a new study that found one in 10 plan sponsors (employers) have eliminated their matching during the economic downturn of 2020. It is one of several recent reports confirming the 10% figure.

Financial services company Ascensus surveyed 116,500 employers and found 11.8% of them stopped or decreased their retirement plan matching contributions this year. A survey of 816 companies by insurance company Willis Towers Watson found 12% have suspended retirement plan matching contributions, with another 23% either planning to or considering suspending their match.

But The Wall Street Journal reports that employers who turned off their 401k contribution matches are, increasingly, turning the matches back on.

The emergency relief law that allows people to tap into their 401k plans without the normal tax penalties expires in a few weeks.

Youth sports have mostly avoided COVID-19. Except hockey.

Public health investigators are trying to figure out what it is about youth hockey that is producing a fair number of COVID-19 cases when other youth sports have avoided widespread outbreaks. One notion is that there is something about the humidity and temperature that keeps the virus hanging around. The New York Times points out:

The hockey-related cases have been especially striking, epidemiologists have said, because clubs followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention limits on gathering size and had numerous social distancing measures in place. In retrospect, one mistake by some clubs was that until recently masks had been required on ice for only the two players doing the initial faceoff for the puck — although many players wore clear face shields, which theoretically should have a similar effect.

Lots of COVID-19 puppy scams

Winston, a five-month-old puppy, runs during its first time at a dog park, Tuesday, June 9, 2020, at the Haulover Park dog park in Miami Beach. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Have you seen the stories about the uptick in puppy scams? The Better Business Bureau says:

The biggest increase in online shopping fraud is pet scams, more than triple compared to previous years.

Pet scams now comprise 24% of online scams reported to BBB Scam Tracker (up from 17% in 2019).

Pet scams are now the riskiest scam, according to the BBB Risk Index.

Of those targeted for a pet scam, 70% end up losing money.

The typical dollar amount lost to a pet scam is $700, one of the highest for all categories of scams.

Pet scams are not only the riskiest scams, they are also one of the most heart-breaking.

The Better Business Bureau has a scam tracker map. Searching for “puppy” and limiting the search to 2020 yields an amazing number of fraud complaints. BBB says cases are way up thanks to COVID-19 keeping people home and wanting to adopt a companion.

“puppy” fraud complaints in 2020 (BBB ScamTracker )

BBB warns:

Soon after cities and states began to impose tighter restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19, BBB Scam Tracker saw a spike in pet fraud reports, with nearly 4,000 reports received in 2020 from the U.S. and Canada. Data from BBB Scam Tracker shows more reports about fraudulent pet websites in April than in the first three months of the year combined. The COVID-19 bump is continuing into the holiday season, with consumers reporting 337 complaints to BBB about puppy scams in November 2020, a dramatic increase from 77 for the same month in 2019.

The median loss reported to Scam Tracker in 2020 is $750. Those aged 35 to 55 accounted for half of BBB reports in 2020.

Law enforcement and consumer advocates now say a person searching online for a new pet is extremely likely to encounter a scam listing or website.

The pandemic has given scammers a new tool in their arsenal. Scam Tracker reports show that many fraudsters are telling would-be pet owners they cannot meet the animals before sending money., which tracks and exposes these scams, recommends using another tool popularized by COVID-19 — video conferencing — to meet the animal and owner virtually before buying as a way of reducing scam vulnerability.


The BBB puts the 2020 pet scams in some context:

At the current pace, pet scams reported to BBB will be nearly five times as many as in 2017, when BBB published its first in-depth investigative study on pet scams. The projected dollar loss from these scams is expected to top $3 million, more than six times the total losses reported in 2017. According to the Canadian Antifraud Centre (CAFC), complaints about pet frauds reported to them have also increased by a third since 2017.

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,…
Al Tompkins

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