October 13, 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.

One of the leading American coronavirus drug trials hit the brakes Monday night after one patient in the trial suffered “an unexplained illness.” It marks the second time that a leading vaccine trial in Phase 3 testing has been paused.

Under normal circumstances, a delay like this would not be much news, but in the intensive spotlight of the pandemic where the president of the United States is promising a vaccine “very soon,” every bump along the way raises concerns. Johnson & Johnson said Monday night:

Adverse events — illnesses, accidents, etc. — even those that are serious, are an expected part of any clinical study, especially large studies. Based on our strong commitment to safety, all clinical studies conducted by the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson have prespecified guidelines. These ensure our studies may be paused if an unexpected serious adverse event (SAE) that might be related to a vaccine or study drug is reported, so there can be a careful review of all of the medical information before deciding whether to restart the study.

We must respect this participant’s privacy. We’re also learning more about this participant’s illness, and it’s important to have all the facts before we share additional information.

The Johnson & Johnson drug is one of 11 vaccines currently in Phase 3 clinical trials around the world. During this phase, researchers give doses of the vaccine to thousands of volunteers to see if it protects against the virus — and to see if it produces any unwanted side effects. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration told drug companies that to be approved, the vaccine would have to protect at least half of the people who get the vaccine.

Another of the leading U.S. drug companies, AstraZeneca, paused its coronavirus vaccine trial last month when a British volunteer developed a neurological problem. The trial restated in some European countries but remains on hold in the U.S. pending an FDA investigation.

Putting these trials on hold is problematic partly because COVID-19 requires a two-shot dose. At the moment, volunteers who got the first shot are awaiting a second dose and do not know if they will ever get it. The protocols for the trial said the second dose was to be administered 28 days after the first with a couple of days on either side of the target date.

But if the trial delay makes that impossible, the whole study is not lost. The Phase 3 trial involves 30,000 volunteers spread out over a range of dates, and even those people who only got one dose will still produce useful data.

Divorce in the age of COVID-19

WTOP in Washington, D.C., says divorces in the district are surging and there appears to be a link to the pandemic. WTOP’s story said:

Making a marriage work is challenging enough when things are going well. But when you add COVID-19 into the mix, it becomes much harder. For many couples, it was too much.

“It brought a lot of issues that may have been swept under the rug to the surface,” said divorce attorney Michelle C. Thomas, founder of M.C. Thomas and Associates Law Firm.

“Being locked in the house together will do that,” the D.C.-based lawyer said.

According to Thomas, recent national statistics have shown a 30% increase in divorce filings since the courts reopened. But in her office, the numbers seem higher.

“There was a 70% increase in the volume of calls,” she said.

“As soon as court opened people were calling saying, ‘I need a divorce now, today, not tomorrow, not next week. I need to get in and see you immediately.’”

But getting a divorce in a pandemic can be difficult. Even though the courts are open, there is a backlog throughout D.C., Maryland and Virginia. So, it may take much longer than one would like.

The New York Post found:

Divorce rates have spiked in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic as couples have been stuck at home for months.

The number of people looking for divorces was 34% higher from March through June compared to 2019, according to new data collected (by) Legal Templates, a company that provides legal documents.

My suggestion is that you take a careful look at your local numbers. In Austin, for example, the divorce figures are down from “normal.” It could be a lot of people are researching their divorce options, but we will see if that results in actual divorce cases.

Threats against election supervisors

It is one thing for critics of absentee or mail-in ballots to attack the system, but the attacks are getting personal and election supervisors say they are getting regular death threats.

The head of the Kentucky Board of Elections says death threats have become “part of the job.”

CNBC’s new evening news program with Shepard Smith talked with some of these elections officials, including one in Nevada who was threatened by a guy who said he sealed his absentee ballot with coronavirus-laced spit. By the way, that ballot was not counted, and police tracked the guy down because, you know, his name was on the ballot.

Elections supervisors are training workers on how to handle disruptions. The Orlando Sentinel reported:

“Anybody that hasn’t been living under a rock knows that there’s going to be so much more contention at the polls (this year),” said Lake Supervisor of Elections Alan Hays. “Knowing what I’ve seen about what is happening in some cities across this country, I would be derelict in my duty if I didn’t protect my workers and voters.”

In Evansville, Indiana, an activist sent out a bunch of deceptive absentee ballot applications that resulted in a flood of calls to the county elections office. ProPublica reported:

“We have received many calls at the election office irate with our staff, and (they) think it’s our fault that this is happening,” County Clerk Carla Hayden told the Election Board in a May meeting. “They’ve been cursed at. They’ve been hung up on — all kinds of things, which is really unfortunate because they’re working very, very hard and helping extra hours. And some of it has to do with trying to fix this error that someone else made.”

Oregon’s state election director, Steve Trout, said he has been harassed on the phone and social media by people wrongly accusing him of, among other things, changing voters’ party affiliations without consent.

“The threatening calls and emails are an annoyance that take time away from our important election duties and do not help improve elections in any way,” Trout said in an email. “They also reduce our ability to assist voters with real questions and issues.”

Elections administrators say that morale is the lowest they have ever seen. In early July, Amy Cohen, the director of the National Association of State Election Directors, acknowledged the pressure in a tweet from NASED’s account, saying, “We knew 2020 would be hard for election officials, but it’s been more challenging than ever imagined.”

ProPublica surveyed election supervisors around the country and found at least 209 have recently resigned or retired citing burnout, stress or health concerns.

By the way, the threats do not all come from locals. ProPublica says:

Especially frustrating to election administrations is that many of these angry calls come from outsiders who vote in other jurisdictions. On Georgia’s primary day, June 9, a state election call center received more than 1,000 calls by noon. About one-fourth were not from Georgia numbers, and these calls lasted several seconds longer on average than those from in-state numbers.

An analysis of calls to Kentucky’s elections board ahead of the primary shows the same pattern. Nearly one-third came from out-of-state numbers, and those took an average of about three minutes, almost 20 seconds longer than in-state calls. Plus, residents of other states, including Oregon, Colorado and California, emailed dozens of complaints to the board about what they viewed as voter suppression tactics.

The Great Canning Lid Shortage of 2020

Jars of fruit preserves (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)

How’s this for an opening line to a story? This comes from NPR:

Looking for canning lids? There are none. Shelves are empty of canning supplies. It’s reminiscent of the Great Canning Lid Shortage of 1975 when there were congressional hearings into the crisis.

NPR’s Martha Ann Overland reports that it was back in the 1970s when President Gerald Ford urged Americans to plant gardens and grow their own food. Americans responded by canning way more stuff than anybody anticipated, perhaps like what is happening now with people harvesting their gardens that were planted at the beginning of the pandemic — when food supplies ran short and they found themselves with time at home to garden. Overland reports:

Jars can be used year after year, but lids cannot. They have a sealing compound in them that only reliably works once. Otherwise, you risk getting a nasty case of botulism. Back in 1975, angry homemakers demanded answers from their lawmakers. They phoned and wrote their congressmen and President Ford. Hearings were held to investigate whether lid makers were colluding to jack up prices. The vice president of the Ball Corporation, the company that made the Ball canning jars, was called to testify. A federal investigation determined no collusion. A tin shortage the previous year and hoarders were to blame, and manufacturers hadn’t predicted the surge in home canning, just like today.

The NPR story says the demand for jar lids is so high that there are web scammers at work claiming to be Ball Corporation and selling lids that desperate home canners order and never get. If members of Congress didn’t have so much on their minds with an election, a confirmation and a pandemic, no doubt there would be congressional hearings on the jar lid shortage of 2020.

What would adding Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court mean for U.S. health care?

Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett is sworn in during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

The Kaiser Family Foundation takes a deep and detailed look at how a reconfigured U.S. Supreme Court might affect your insurance coverage and health care policy more generally.

Right off, a new justice may be sworn in just in time to hear “California v. Texas,” a case that may decide no less than whether the Affordable Health Care Act will stand. Oral arguments are scheduled for Nov. 10, 2020. Kaiser offers a briefing of what the case is about and why it is so important. If the Supreme Court struck down the ACA, Kaiser explains, millions of Americans would be affected:

A host of ACA provisions could be eliminated, including protections for people with pre-existing conditions, subsidies to make individual health insurance more affordable, expanded eligibility for Medicaid, coverage of young adults up to age 26 under their parents’ insurance policies, coverage of preventive care with no patient cost-sharing, closing of the doughnut hole under Medicare’s drug benefit, and a series of tax increases to fund these initiatives.

Kaiser lists four areas that litigants hope the Supreme Court will take up and a Justice Barrett would influence:

Abortion: The Court may decide to consider one or more cases that could overturn the precedent of Roe v. Wade, alter the standard to evaluate whether abortion regulations are constitutional, or decide that abortion providers cannot sue to challenge abortion regulations.

Title X: The Court is likely to want to resolve conflicting appeals court decisions about whether the Trump Administration Title X Federal Family Planning regulations that prohibit federal funding to clinics that offer or refer for abortion are permissible under federal law.

Medicaid enrollees’ free choice of provider: The Court will decide whether to hear a case about whether Medicaid enrollees can sue to challenge a state’s refusal to allow Planned Parenthood to offer Medicaid services if that provider also separately offers abortion services (which are not covered by Medicaid). Federal appeals courts are split on this issue. The case has implications for enrollees’ ability to bring lawsuits challenging state violations of federal Medicaid law as well as enrollees’ free access to providers.

Medicaid work requirements: The Court will decide whether to hear cases about whether the HHS Secretary can approve Section 1115 waivers that condition Medicaid eligibility on meeting work and reporting requirements, which have led to over 18,000 people losing coverage in Arkansas.

On top of all of that, other cases may be heading to the Supreme Court soon, including cases involving health care for immigrants and to what extent hospitals have to be transparent about how much they charge for services.

The number of uninsured children is back up to pre-Affordable Care Act levels

A new study by the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute finds that the rate of children who are not covered by health care is the highest it has been in a decade. The study says the steady rise in uninsured children during the Trump administration has erased the gains made by the Affordable Care Act.

Today, the study says, about 726,000 more children are not covered than when Trump took office. It says Florida and Texas saw the biggest increases, but more than half of the states lost ground.

How is your state’s contact tracing working?

My Poynter colleagues over at PolitiFact took a deep dive into contact tracing and they found — no surprise here — it is not working very well. PolitiFact reported:

There’s no national tally of contact tracers, and available estimates are largely based on news reports and states’ data. The latest data from Test and Trace, an organization that grades states on their testing and tracing, counts about 50,000 tracers among all states and Washington, D.C.

The exact number may vary from place to place and month to month. The National Association of County and City Health Officials estimated in April that the pandemic would require 30 contact tracers per 100,000 people, or 98,460 in total across the country.

According to Test and Trace, only six states — New York, North Dakota, Massachusetts, South Dakota, Nebraska and Utah — and Washington, D.C., have hit that per capita benchmark as of Oct. 8. Many places could use more contact tracers, experts said.

This map from Test and Trace shows the states that are doing pretty well with keeping positive cases lined up with the number of contact tracers needed to stay on top of where cases are spreading. The blue-colored states are doing well, red-colored states are not.

Requiring students to get flu vaccines

Over and over, health officials have warned us that we are heading headlong into a “twindemic,” where COVID-19 overlaps with the annual flu season.

The University of Kentucky says it is requiring students to get a flu vaccination by Nov. 1. The school is only “encouraging” staff and faculty to get the vaccine.

In Boston, protesters took to the streets and now are planning a class-action lawsuit against Gov. Charlie Baker’s flu shot mandate for Massachusetts students. That order requires vaccines for students at all levels — with a handful of exceptions for medical and religious reasons, homeschooled children and college students who attend class virtually.

During the pandemic, the ocean got quieter

In this Aug. 7, 2017 file photo, a humpback whale breeches off Half Moon Bay, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Here is a lovely story of how less boat traffic this summer made the sea quieter than when ships and boats are motoring around. NPR’s Lauren Sommer listened to the whales of Alaska and found their songs to be much clearer than usual.

An analysis from Cornell University found the loudest sounds underwater in Glacier Bay in May 2020 were less than half as loud as those in May 2018. So, Gabriele and her team are eagerly listening to humpback calls to see how they might change.

“The pandemic has created this unexpected opportunity for science, kind of a once in a lifetime chance to look at whale communication behavior in its natural, undisturbed form,” Gabriele says.

During the pandemic, wildlife poachers found opportunity

When fewer humans, and especially fewer tourists are roaming around nature, poachers are finding the pandemic gives them a bigger opportunity to do with fewer people around to spot them. In addition, wildlife protection groups say the drop in ecotourism is severely cutting the money that protects wild areas and the animals that live there.

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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