More than 40,000 National Guard members will miss out on benefits by one day

Plus, military members are reenlisting, more cold water on hot vaccine results, bikes are selling fast (and might start being stolen fast), and more.

May 21, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

This story could use your attention. It just seems so unfair. Maybe it is a coincidence. Or maybe it is intentional.

On June 24, tens of thousands of members of the National Guard deployed to help with COVID-19 testing will finish their 89-day deployments. That is one day short of 90 days, which would qualify them for early retirement and education benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Politico explained this matter:

More than 40,000 Guard members are currently serving under federal orders known as Title 32, which grants them federal pay and benefits but puts them under local command, in 44 states, three territories and the District of Columbia — the largest domestic deployment since Hurricane Katrina.

Tens of thousands of them have been working full-time since early March on a wide range of sensitive and dangerous tasks, such as decontaminating nursing homes and setting up field hospitals, along with performing tests for the virus. They’ve provided a crucial backup for understaffed and underfunded state public health agencies trying to contain the pandemic.

Politico explained why it is so important for these National Guard members to get the 90-day credit:

Guard members must serve for 20 years to qualify for a pension at age 60. But for every 90 days serving during a federal emergency, Guard members can move up that retirement by three months. Ninety days of service also qualifies members for 40% off the tuition at a public college or university.

Because the National Guard members have to self-quarantine for two weeks before returning to civilian life to ensure they don’t spread the virus after serving on the front lines, states could lose their services in early June.

Military Times said if the National Guard member is deployed again, say for a hurricane or other disaster duty in this fiscal year (which ends Sept. 30), that deployment would be added to the COVID-19 response days.

Make no mistake, these National Guard members have risked their health to serve. Military Times said, “As of this weekend, more than 1,100 guardsmen had been diagnosed with coronavirus, many of whom were deployed for pandemic response missions.”

In uncertain times, members of the military stay put

The Associated Press reported that military reenlistments are way up, which we have seen before during uncertain economic times.

As of last week, the Army had already exceeded its retention goal of 50,000 soldiers for the fiscal year ending in September, reenlisting more than 52,000 so far. And the other services have also met or are closer than planned to their target numbers. The influx of people reenlisting will offset any shortfalls in recruiting, which has been hampered by the outbreak. And that will help the services meet their total required troop levels for the end of the year.

Not surprisingly, given the tumult of the airline industry, the Air Force said it is also seeing a lot of pilots stay put in their military careers rather than transitioning to the private sector.

The Army wisely opened a new program that allows soldiers who were planning to leave to put the decision off for up to 11 months, so they could consider the state of the economy. The AP reported 745 soldiers signed up for the program by early last week. The Marines have a similar program that allows service members to delay a decision for a few months.

Now the whiplash over ‘encouraging results’ of COVID-19 vaccine trials

For the second time in a week, we have hopeful news, maybe overly hopeful, that a drug company has produced a possible vaccine that will enter phase one trials in the fall. Johnson and Johnson said if all goes well, it might have an emergency vaccine early next year.

It is interesting timing that this encouraging news comes in the same news cycle as news that Johnson and Johnson announced it would stop making talc-based baby powder.

And still, let’s all hope that a vaccine is in the works that could set us all on a track toward inoculation.

We started the week with drug company Moderna saying it had seen promising early results in its first round of testing a new COVID-19 vaccine. Journalists trumpeted the news, the stock market responded with a collective “hurrah” and the company’s stock rose 20 points. That evening, Moderna said it would be offering more than a billion additional dollars’ worth of stock soon.

But, as StatNews pointed out:

Several vaccine experts asked by STAT concluded that, based on the information made available by the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company, there’s really no way to know how impressive — or not — the vaccine may be.

While Moderna blitzed the media, it revealed very little information — and most of what it did disclose were words, not data. That’s important: If you ask scientists to read a journal article, they will scour data tables, not corporate statements. With science, numbers speak much louder than words.

I warned you that the trial was tiny, that most drugs that clear the first round of such tests never come to the market and that these encouraging stories may give us false hope that prematurely leads us to let down our guard.

Here we are on Thursday and Moderna has not released its data for the scientific community to analyze.

What I also told you Tuesday is that while so many media reports focused on eight of the drug trial’s participants, we got precious little information about the rest of the participants. StatNews pointed this out, too:

Later, the statement indicated that eight volunteers — four each from the 25-microgram and 100-microgram arms — developed neutralizing antibodies. Of the two types, these are the ones you’d really want to see.

We don’t know results from the other 37 trial participants. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t develop neutralizing antibodies. Testing for neutralizing antibodies is more time-consuming than other antibody tests and must be done in a biosecurity level 3 laboratory. Moderna disclosed the findings from eight subjects because that’s all it had at that point. Still, it’s a reason for caution.

StatNews said to keep two other things in mind:

The company has not yet brought a vaccine to market, but it has a variety of vaccines for infectious diseases in its pipeline.

It doesn’t publish on its work in scientific journals. What is known has been disclosed through press releases.

Experts are starting to take shots at pharmaceutical companies for issuing press releases about early optimistic results.

Dr. William Haseltine, a former Harvard Medical School professor and founder of the university’s cancer and HIV/AIDS research departments, wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post that said, instead of publishing their findings, drug companies are “publishing by press release.” In the op-ed, Haseltine wrote:

Such “publication by press release” seems to be a standard practice lately. The National Institutes of Health announced last month that the drug remdesivir offered a clear benefit to COVID-19 patients with moderate disease, shortening the length of their hospital stay by several days. But did it really? Twenty days after the announcement, the supporting data has still not been published. Without the data, no doctor treating a patient can be sure they are doing the right thing.

Another paper, published the same day, found that remdesivir had no measurable effect on patient survival or the amount of virus detectable in nasopharynx and lung secretions. What then should a practicing physician do? Follow the unsupported advice of a news announcement or a medical report published in a leading scientific journal? This is not an idle question: The NIH announcement triggered a global stampede for limited supplies of the drug.

Haseltine offered some critiques for journalists, too:

The media also bears responsibility. Asking experts to opine on unsubstantiated claims is not useful. Medicine and science are not matters of majority opinion; they are matters of fact supported by transparent data. This is the backbone of scientific progress and our only hope to end this pandemic. We can’t give up on our standards now.

Is there a COVID-19 bike shortage?

Bicycles are selling like crazy right now as we all think through how we will avoid public transportation.

The New York Times reported:

In March, nationwide sales of bicycles, equipment and repair services nearly doubled compared with the same period last year, according to the N.P.D. Group, a market research company. Sales of commuter and fitness bikes in the same month increased 66%, leisure bikes jumped 121%, children’s bikes went up 59% and electric bikes rose 85%.

By the end of April, many stores and distributors had sold out of low-end consumer bikes. Now, the United States is facing a severe bicycle shortage as global supply chains, disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak, scramble to meet the surge in demand.

And look at this passage from the same story:

“I have never seen anything remotely approaching this,” said Ryan Zagata, president of Brooklyn Bicycle Company, where sales have soared by more than 600% this year compared with the same period in 2019. “If you went into a store three weeks ago you could find a bike under $1,000. Right now shelves are bare.”

NPR said the best-selling bikes are not the cheapest ones — bikes falling in the $600 to $1,500 range are selling fast. But one bike shop supplier said retailers reported that if a bike is under $500, it is out the door fast. He added that a lot of people just want to get out of the house, while others will become new bike commuters.

Brooklyn Bicycle Company said its inventory is “virtually non-existent” but a couple of days ago people were buying wrong-sized bikes just to have something “with two wheels and pedals.” The company said it went through a year’s worth of inventory in 45 days and now is awaiting factory shipments.

It is interesting that despite this blip in U.S. sales, global bike sales from big names like Shimano, Giant and Accell are way down for the year. Keep in mind that, in many places, everybody who needs a bike already has one because they use them to get where they are going. China’s bike sales suffered the most in the first quarter because of the pandemic lockdown.

What follows a big demand for bikes? Probably bike thefts.

Here is my prediction based on the above story. In 30 days, we will start seeing reports of increased bike thefts. It seems to me that anytime something suddenly becomes valuable there is an opposite and equal reaction.

Despite the hefty price tag for some bikes, police departments generally make single bike thefts a low priority. A few years ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that one expert could not find a single community in America that had a fulltime employee dedicated to investigating bike thefts.

Bicycling.com reported that a bike is stolen in the U.S. and Canada every 30 seconds. Only 20% of bike thefts even get reported to police, much less recovered. A Seattle group called 529 Garage wants bike owners to register their bikes to make it easier for police or bike shops to reconnect bike owners with their stolen property.

529 Garage said its surveys showed:

(Courtesy: Project 529)

Bike Index is another registry that lets you search for stolen bikes by community.

Rent an apartment to escape for an hour or two?

I admit that this seems a tad indulgent to me, but apparently it is a “thing” for people to rent an empty apartment or house to get away from people for a little while. The New York Times reported on an app called “Globe” that claims to have 100,000 people willing to pay for an escape spot.

According to the company, its biggest current problem is that not enough people are listing homes and apartments they own for strangers to hang out in amid a pandemic. Right now, Globe has 5,500 active hosts and 10,000 guests who have access to the hosts’ listings.

But more than 100,000 people are on a wait list to become guests.

The story said 20,000 people have joined the community in the last couple of months. Some are looking for a quiet workspace and some want to get away from annoying roommates. Others said they needed a quiet, professional-looking place to conduct online meetings without clutter in the background.

If this really was a business venture worth considering, wouldn’t hotels step into this space?

Here’s a different type of street food

Eater San Francisco reported that local governments are offering all sorts of ways for restaurants to open and still space out seating, including allowing restaurants to use streets, sidewalks, parking lots and more as eating areas. Eater reported:

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín says that the plan was inspired by news coverage of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, which announced last month that it would turn its plazas, streets, and squares into “a vast open-air cafe” to allow its bars and restaurants to serve patrons during the coronavirus crisis.

Photos of Vilnius sparked a similar idea in San Jose, where last week Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilwoman Dev Davis proposed “Al Fresco San Jose,” a program in which “businesses — particularly restaurants — could be allowed to take over parking lots, shut down parts of streets and siphon off areas of a public park for open-air services,” the San Jose Mercury News reports. Also last week, San Mateo’s city council “asked staff to come up with the specifics on a plan” to close two streets in the city for restaurant use, according to NBC Bay Area.

In San Francisco, restaurant lobbying group the Golden Gate Restaurant Association has also petitioned legislators to allowing restaurants to take over open spaces around their businesses, including parking spaces and adjacent alleyways “commercial corridors,” but so far, city officials have not proposed any legislation — and some restaurateurs tell Eater SF they’re concerned that San Francisco’s labyrinthine bureaucracy means that results might come slowly, if at all.

Chicago is also considering closing some streets to help restaurants find seating, and Tampa and Cincinnati have already closed some. Some towns in Maine are also embracing the idea.

In addition to allowing more safe seating, closing streets also allows pedestrians to avoid walking on crowded sidewalks. This concept is not unprecedented, of course. Lots of towns close streets for market festivals and New Orleans closes some streets to vehicle traffic every night.

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.