December 18, 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 Food and Drug Administration advisory committee that reviews vaccine efficacy and safety evidence is recommending that the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approve Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine for people 18 years old and older.

That is slightly different than the committee’s recommendation a week ago that the Pfizer vaccine is safe and effective for 16- and 17-year-olds as well.

Just as with last week’s approval of Pfizer’s vaccine, the FDA and CDC are expected to act quickly to get the second vaccine in the distribution pipeline. The Pfizer vaccine requires a second dose after three weeks, while the Moderna vaccine requires a second dose after four. The Moderna drug also does not have to be shipped and stored at the extreme cold temperatures needed for the Pfizer vaccine. That might make the Moderna drug easier to transport to rural and remote areas.

During the Moderna hearing on Thursday, the drug company spoke to a few issues that have bubbled up on social media. One online rumor that has gained traction says that the mRNA vaccines could “integrate into DNA and change people’s genomes.” Moderna chief scientific officer Melissa J. Moore says it is not possible for mRNA to do such a thing. The hearing also produced a conversation about some sparse but mildly concerning allergic side effects that a couple of people have had to this vaccine. Moderna pointed out that its drug contains no preservatives, the ingredient most commonly linked to allergic reactions.

Last weekend, the FDA issued a mild surprise when it approved the vaccine for pregnant and nursing women as long as they receive input from their physicians. The FDA is likely to issue the same guidance to women about the Moderna vaccine.

An unexplained delay in vaccine delivery

The vaccine may not reach health care workers and people in long-term care as quickly as everyone hoped because a big winter storm is slamming the East Coast. Also on Thursday, there was a kerfuffle over some delayed deliveries of the Pfizer vaccine.

A number of states — including Florida, Iowa, Washington, Michigan and Oregon — say the CDC notified them that they would be getting fewer doses than they expected. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee tweeted Thursday that the state’s vaccine allocation will be cut by 40% next week, and that “no explanation was given.”

Pfizer says it is waiting for the government to say where it should ship the drugs:

Pfizer is not having any production issues with our COVID-19 vaccine, and no shipments containing the vaccine are on hold or delayed. This week, we successfully shipped all 2.9 million doses that we were asked to ship by the U.S. Government to the locations specified by them. We have millions more doses sitting in our warehouse but, as of now, we have not received any shipment instructions for additional doses.

CNN reports:

A Health and Human Services spokesperson said reports of jurisdictions’ allocations being reduced “are incorrect,” and that overall states will receive their full supplies, though deliveries may be spread out over a longer time frame.

That hasn’t done much to tamp down concern among state officials, who are already dealing with logistical headaches in distributing millions of doses. Since the Trump administration decided not to mandate how states distribute the vaccine, changes in shipments force states to recalibrate a host of decisions and planning, including who gets the doses first.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said his state just bought 5,000 additional body bags and 60 refrigerated storage units to hold bodies. Southern California hospitals reported 100% full intensive care units. The hospitals will have to move dire cases into beds not normally used for such patients. The state is also setting up field hospitals to take on a new surge of COVID-19 cases.

Can employers require a COVID-19 vaccination?

The short answer is “yes,” your employer can, under some circumstances, require you to get a vaccine.

You can imagine businesses like restaurants or cab companies who might use “all of our employees have been vaccinated against COVID-19” as a way to assure customers. The New York Bar Association even urged the state of New York to consider mandatory vaccines if people don’t volunteer in large enough numbers to provide so-called “herd immunity.” The New York Bar said that the state might need to enact an emergency health powers act to make it all legal, but there is little doubt that it could be done legally.

The U.S. Supreme Court set the stage for states to be able to force people to take vaccines more than 100 years ago in a case called Jacobson v Massachusetts, which upheld the authority of states to pass compulsory vaccination laws. The Court decided that personal freedom sometimes can take the back seat to “the common welfare.” That case involved a pastor named Henning Jacobson who sued the state of Massachusetts for requiring schoolchildren to take the smallpox vaccine. The 7-2 decision has been cited repeatedly over the decades in cases that range from adding fluoride to drinking water to right to die lawsuits and abortion cases.

The American Journal of Public Health summarized the case:

In 1902, the Cambridge, Mass, Board of Health passed a resolution that required all citizens who had not been vaccinated during the previous 5 years to undergo the procedure or pay a fine of $5. The board did so in accordance with a state law that empowered localities to enforce general compulsory vaccination when deemed necessary for the public safety. Henning Jacobson’s refusal both to be vaccinated and to pay the fine instigated a series of legal actions in the Massachusetts court system. After failing to convince the state’s Supreme Judicial Court that the law was oppressive, Jacobson appealed to the US Supreme Court.

Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote the majority opinion saying that the right to require vaccinations falls with a state’s “police powers” to protect public health and that states could include fines for people who do not obey the health laws.

Justice Harlan wrote:

The liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis organized society could not exist with safety to its members. Society based on the rule that each one is a law unto himself would soon be confronted with disorder and anarchy.

Justice Harlan said we are all part of a “social compact” that ties each of us to each other in a covenant. Indeed, this spring, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said employers could require employees to take COVID-19 tests, so that may be a foundation that would allow for mandated vaccines, too. 

A Chicago Tribune article points out that public employees, especially those covered by collective bargaining agreements, might have more ability to resist vaccine mandates than people who are employed by private businesses. There are always exceptions to the mandates.

Hospitals have even been reluctant to mandate vaccines for workers.

The question is whether the 100-year-old ruling issued in the days of smallpox, scarlet fever, polio and cholera should apply today. In recent decades, we have moved more toward persuasion than compulsion. The change in tactics partly arose because the leading causes of death were no longer infectious diseases but instead cancer and heart disease.

The New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin says he has spoken with a number of business executives who say they plan to recommend that employees take the vaccine, but that they are not likely to require it.

Mandatory vaccines may become less of an issue if it takes months for so many people to even have access to the drug. By then, we will have months of experience with the vaccine and, if there are no complications, more people may step up voluntarily.

The new phrase you will hate: ‘localizing your pay’

In this photo taken Monday, Dec. 18, 2017, a mural of a tree grove covers a wall inside a campus building at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Remember when the Great Recession hit and, when companies started laying people off, they invented the phrase “rightsizing?” Here is the 2020 version of a phrase you are not going to like. 

Bloomberg Businessweek tells the story of people who are working virtually and moving to the suburbs and so companies are cutting their pay. They’re calling it “localizing pay.”

Big companies sometimes pay people more in places where housing is expensive (think coastal cities on both sides of the country). According to Business Insider, companies such as VMware and Facebook will be cutting pay for workers who leave the Bay Area or Silicon Valley.

Bloomberg points out, “Many companies and large organizations, including the federal government, pay differently in different places, because the costs of living and labor can vary widely.”

Bloomberg explored how one company, Redfin, calculated what to pay employees who chose to do their work outside of Seattle, where Redfin’s home office is located:

Extremely expensive areas (the San Francisco and San Jose metro areas) would continue to command the highest salaries and equity awards. Recruiting and retaining people in two of the most costly housing markets in the country would be impossible without paying top dollar.

Expensive areas such as Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Portland, and Washington, D.C., as well as their suburbs, would hew to the same levels Redfin had been paying employees in Seattle.

After that, there was a big group of mid-tier areas. Anyone who moved from an expensive place to one of these would get a 10% to 15% reduction in cash compensation (salary, plus bonus), as well as 10% to 20% less in stock. These included Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Miami, and Philadelphia, as well as Frisco, Texas, just outside Dallas, where Redfin has an office.

The company also threw in a few cities in the Pacific Northwest, including Olympia and Bellingham in Washington, and Bend.

Everything that didn’t get called out — which included vacation spots such as Aspen, Colo., Rust Belt towns like Detroit and Rochester, and some major metro areas like Atlanta — ended up in a vast (and vaguely insulting) bucket called “Rest of the U.S.” Employees who moved to these places would expect a 20% reduction in cash compensation and a 25% cut to equity awards, even though a few of these locales were bound to have higher costs than Seattle.

CNBC reports:

Social media site, Reddit (one of) a slew of tech companies to take a decisive stance on the issue, announc(ed) that it would not cut the pay of its 600 U.S. employees regardless of where in the country they choose to live.

The call contrasts with those from Facebook and Twitter, which have said they will cut the pay of employees who choose to relocate away from their head offices in the pricey San Francisco Bay Area. Payments platform Stripe said it will offer employees $20,000 to help with moving costs but will then cut pay by 10%. Meanwhile, Software maker VMWare said it could reduce relocating staff salaries by up to 18%.

Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg told Facebook’s 48,000 employees that he expects upwards of 50% of the company will be working remotely within 10 years, and he added that those who choose to move to other places in the U.S. or elsewhere will be paid based on where they live.

“We’ll localize everybody’s comp on Jan. 1,” Zuckerberg said.

One survey of 2,800 “working professionals” found that a third would be willing to take a pay cut if they could work from home all they wanted.  Another survey showed even more tech workers would take a pay cut to work wherever they want. But still, the majority (56%) said they would not take a pay cut.

Package delivery gridlock

A sign in the window of a FedEx office reads, “Now Hiring,” Monday, Oct. 26, 2020 in New York. Carriers like FedEx and UPS ramped up their holiday hiring while asking store clients to move their shipping volume on lighter days in their network. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Everybody saw this coming and it happened anyway. All of the online shopping we have done has overloaded the delivery companies so now retailers are hoping the U.S. Postal Service can come through for them.

The two weeks before Dec. 21 are considered to be “peak” mailing and shipping weeks.

Poll says voters did not get enough local election coverage

A new Knight/Gallup poll says Americans do not blame local news for misinformation after the election, but at the same time think local news did not cover local political races enough in the fall election.

  • Americans are far less likely to believe local news creates divisions within the country or contributed to election misinformation in 2020 than to believe social media and cable news did.
  • The public did not feel well-informed about local elections in 2020. Even those who pay a lot of attention to local news were much less confident they had the information needed to make informed choices for state and local offices than for federal offices.

(Gallup/Knight Foundation)

I read this finding a couple of ways. Just about everybody knew where and how to vote and that is no small thing in a pandemic filled with politically inspired misinformation. But the more local the race, the less people said they knew about the candidates. The majority of respondents said they had some level of uncertainty about who to elect to their local government positions which, arguably, is among the most important jobs of local media.

  • Americans intensely followed local news in March — at the beginning of the pandemic — but since then their interest waned, and they focused much more on national news. (This finding might be especially interesting to local news sources that “go light” on national and global news. Sometimes the public wants the bigger picture, too.)

(Gallup/Knight Foundation)

Golf gains ground in COVID-19

When everything in life that competes with leisure time goes quiet, people find the time to do things they enjoy. It turns out that the pandemic has increased interest in golfing, which has struggled in recent years. Maybe we were just too busy.

CBS News reports:

Unlike sports like football, soccer and basketball, hitting the links allows for plenty of social distancing, while mask-wearing is a snap given golf’s leisurely pace. It can even be played alone, making golf an ideal pandemic pastime for those who can afford it.

In September, golfers played 12 million more rounds in the U.S. compared to a year ago, a 26% jump, according to Golf Datatech, a market research firm. That’s a welcome boost for a sport whose popularity has been on the wane in recent years.

It is not just golf courses seeing more traffic. All of the associated equipment sales are profiting, too.

Renewed interest in golf is driving a jump in equipment sales. In August, consumers spent a record $331 million on clubs, balls, gloves and other gear — that was up 32% over the year-ago period and topped the previous sales record for that month in 2006, according to Golf Datatech.

For the first 10 months of 2020, golf equipment sales were up nearly 30% compared to the same period last year, Matt Powell, an analyst with market research firm NPD Group, told CBS MoneyWatch. Training tools, such as hitting screens, swing aids and putting matts are up 75% as enthusiasts practice their technique away from the golf course.

Plan ahead for spring seeds

Seeds are displayed at a garden center Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Nitro, W. Va. Customers looking to start their home gardens during the coronavirus pandemic gobbled up seeds at garden centers and created huge backlogs on company websites. (AP Photo/John Raby)

This final item is especially for those of you buried under a couple of feet of snow today.

I remember living in places where the ground froze and leaves fell and seed catalogs helped get through the winter months. (I live in Florida now, so, you know.)

I bring this up because, as you will recall, once the pandemic hit and people had more time at home and grocery stores ran low on some stuff, people started buying seeds. Just days after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic had arrived, seed sales tripled.

The New York Times says now is the time to get going on your 2021 seed orders:

“When many of us came back to the office Monday, we were astonished to see how many orders had come in,” said Joshua D’errico, marketing coordinator for Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which has 47 years of sales history for comparison. “We thought it was a blip, but it wasn’t.”

The good news, seed companies say, is that there is no anticipated shortage of seeds for 2021. It turns out that the 2020 shortage was more a matter of not being able to pack enough seeds to meet the unexpected demand than a shortage of seeds themselves. That, plus the fact the surge in demand came at the end of the big seed selling season, not before it.

The Times’ Margaret Roach will guide you through the seed-shopping fun.  This will help you get through the months ahead.

We’ll be back Monday 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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