August 12, 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.

Even while Americans are less likely to see their own doctor or dentist during the COVID pandemic, we are taking our pets to get checkups more often. The New York Times found this jewel of a story:

Patients may be reluctant to return to the human health system in part because they’ve lost coverage, or have less income, and are worried about the possibility of a surprise bill.

Demand for veterinary services is typically cyclical: Pet owners spend more on medical care for dogs and cats when the economy is strong and they have more disposable income.

This economic downturn is different. Volume and revenue are up at animal hospitals and primary care offices. VetSuccess, which tracks financial data from 2,800 clinics, estimates that revenue last month was up 18% over last July.

The American Animal Hospital Association said the increase in traffic goes beyond the general practitioner’s office. Emergency vet offices said they are getting overflow from general practice clinics that have told pet owners that they are booked up for weeks.

Most practices are experiencing a major uptick in business. But the boom in general practices is cascading — onto emergency practices.

Many ERs are finding they’re seeing cases that general practices would normally handle, but haven’t been able to because they were either closed or limited in the kind of care they could provide.

Max Rinaldi, DVM, medical director at AAHA-accredited Emergency Veterinary Hospital in Springfield, Oregon, calls their caseload “unprecedented. I’ve been doing this for eight years and I’ve never seen it like this.” He estimates their caseload is up 40% over this time last year, and he credits the boom in overflow to general practices: “As they become more stretched, things that aren’t necessarily huge emergencies, but still need to be seen within a reasonable period of time, end up coming to our door.”

With local hospitals booked out several weeks in advance, Rinaldi says, “We’re seeing a lot more of the routine stuff.” A lot of which consists of dermatology cases, hot spots, flea infestations, and general dentistry.

The Times’ story quotes pet insurance provider Trupanion as saying “second-quarter revenue was up 28% over last year. It has 14% more cat and dog members than it did at the start of the year.”

The story also said that Trupanion noticed some trends in the names people are giving their new pets, including Corona, Rona and Covid.

There has been a big increase in parvo cases among dogs during the pandemic

Let me get this in the first sentence of this note: There is no connection between a new outbreak of the canine parvovirus and COVID-19 except that they are unfolding at the same time.

The American Animal Hospital Association website noted:

BluePearl, which operates 90 specialty and emergency pet hospitals in 21 states, recently announced an “alarming” 70% increase in the number of canine parvovirus cases presenting in their emergency rooms during the pandemic compared to the same time periods in the past five years.

Canine parvovirus infection — or parvo — is a highly contagious and potentially fatal viral illness that affects dogs. The virus manifests itself in two different forms, intestinal (the most common) and cardiac.

BluePearl said most of the cases are among puppies ages 6 weeks to 6 months — which provides a clue about what might be going on.

James Barr, DVM, DACVECC, chief medical officer of BluePearl, notes that during the pandemic, many people turned to animals for companionship, which led to increased demand for adoptions. Eager to spend quality time with their pups, many people have been wiling away the hours with their new friends. However, Barr explains, “stay-at-home orders prompted a trend in people spending more time outdoors, which could have increased environmental exposure.”

In addition, with wellness care temporarily going by the wayside at most hospitals, many people were forced to postpone vaccinating their new puppies, including for parvo. According to Barr, “Other possible causes for the uptick include disruptions in the timing of or prevention of puppies receiving full vaccine series, resulting in incomplete immunity.” That might include puppies being adopted out of shelters before they were ready to satisfy increased demand. Barr also cites financial hardships such as job loss as a potential factor, “preventing or delaying owners from seeking routine vaccinations.”

Veterinarians said it could be that a larger number of people who have never had pets are adopting puppies without understanding the importance of parvo vaccines. “At this time, our data shows that more than 95% of the infections are in dogs under a year old,” Barr said.

The Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine advised:

Veterinarians usually administer the CPV vaccine as part of a combination shot which includes, among others, the distemper, canine adenovirus, and parainfluenza vaccines. These shots are given every 3 to 4 weeks from the time a puppy is 6 weeks old until he is at least 16 weeks of age. A booster vaccination is recommended one year later, and then at one at three-year intervals thereafter.

Neck gaiters are not masks

Here in Florida, we use neck gaiters to protect us from the sun. I have been seeing a lot of baseball players and coaches wearing them rather than putting on COVID-19 masks.

But new research found the thin, stretchy gaiters “may be worse than not wearing a mask at all.” Science Advances, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published a study from Duke University researcher Dr. Martin Fischer and colleagues that said:

We noticed that speaking through some masks (particularly the neck fleece) seemed to disperse the largest droplets into a multitude of smaller droplets which explains the apparent increase in droplet count relative to no mask in that case. Considering that smaller particles are airborne longer than large droplets (larger droplets sink faster), the use of such a mask might be counterproductive.

The study also took a look at those masks that have valves on them to keep the mask from steaming up glasses.

Furthermore, the performance of the valved N95 mask is likely affected by the exhalation valve, which opens for strong outwards airflow. While the valve does not compromise the protection of the wearer, it can decrease protection of persons surrounding the wearer. In comparison, the performance of the fitted, non-valved N95 mask was far superior.

About that Russian vaccine …

Kirill Dmitriev is head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which is paying for the Russian research that claims to have found a COVID-19 vaccine. Right after Russia announced Tuesday it had a safe and effective vaccine, it also announced 20 countries have ordered a billion doses.

A few things to keep in mind while remaining skeptical of this vaccine:

  • Whoever develops a useful vaccine will make a ton of money. “The platform used for the vaccine was developed by Russian scientists over two decades and had formed the basis for several vaccines in the past, including those against Ebola,” Reuters reported. “Authorities hope it will allow the Russian economy, which has been battered by fallout from the virus, to return to full capacity.”
  • The Russian vaccine has been tested on 76 people. Phase three trials involve tens of thousands of people. The Russian vaccine is about to enter phase three trials. Other vaccine candidates are also in phase three trials to prove two things: that they are effective and that they are safe. In the meantime, Russia said on Tuesday that the newly approved vaccine will be distributed this month to teachers and health care workers.
  • Sort of like the space race of the 1950s and ’60s, the race to produce a COVID-19 vaccine is an issue of national pride and scientific superiority. The U.S. is rushing toward a vaccine but so are China and lots of others. Right now there are about 165 vaccines under development worldwide and 30 are in various stages of human testing. Eight vaccines are currently in phase three trials. In other words, the Russian vaccine joins many others in that level of testing, but the difference is the Russians say they are planning to distribute their drug before it passes a phase three test.
  • Recently, the U.S. and United Kingdom accused Russia of hacking into U.S. research centers.
  • As much as a useful vaccine would be great news for whoever develops it, a harmful or ineffective vaccine might cause a public blowback when a safe and effective vaccine emerges. Already a fifth of Americans say they do not plan to take a vaccine and Brits are even more vaccine averse.

Why reopening schools should put more emphasis on ventilation

An essay in StatNews by epidemiologist Alexandra Feathers made a great point that is worth your reading — and then posing questions to your local school officials.

The essay pointed out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance to schools that plan to reopen has a lot to say about social distancing and cleaning hard surfaces. But the guidelines have precious little to say about ventilation.

Of the eight bullet points in its “staff safety” section, four address surface transmission. The three bullet points dedicated to respiratory droplets warn people to stay 6 feet away from each other, cough into their elbows, and wear a mask.

The current CDC guidance about ventilation is as follows, “Ensure ventilation systems operate properly and increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible, for example by opening windows and doors.” But if opening windows or doors increases the risk of asthma, or falling out the window, the guidelines go on to advise that they should be closed. That is all the guidance has to say. It does not mention air filtration, or the fact that we have pretty good data to suggest that without addressing air filtration and circulation, the 6-feet rule does not prevent transmission indoors.

But study after study has shown that keeping more than 6 feet away from an infected person may not matter if you are in a closed space, like a classroom, that recirculates air laced with the virus. 36 scientists authored an article for the journal Environmental International that said we should seriously consider upgrading air filtration systems to include the use of HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters that can capture substances the size of SARS-CoV-2.

As Feathers pointed out, “The CDC currently recommends their use for this purpose in hospitals” and a group of ear, nose and throat doctors made the case for installing them in doctors’ offices.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, or ASHRAE, said air filtration systems can reduce how much of the coronavirus is indoors.

National Public Radio explored ventilation as a key issue for making schools COVID-safe:

Joshua Santarpia, a microbiologist who studies biological aerosols at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, says that schools should assess their ventilation systems to see if they can be modified to optimize airflow in each classroom. “The more air changes, the better,” he says.

Newer school buildings with modern systems typically are set up to recirculate indoor air because this saves energy, says Peter Fehl, president of building management systems for Honeywell. But by adjusting those settings, it’s possible to get “seven or eight times more fresh air,” says Fehl.

In addition, schools can replace their system’s HEPA filters — which remove most very fine particles — more frequently, probably once a month, Fehl says.

But many schools have older systems that don’t have the option of increasing fresh air.

But wait, there’s more. Discover Magazine included an eye-opening piece that quotes Theresa Pistochini, the engineering manager at the Western Cooling Efficiency Center at the University of California, Davis:

She and her team inspected the recently-updated HVAC systems in 104 classrooms across the state and found that 51% were installed incorrectly or had faulty filters or fans. Per industry recommendations, state regulations say that every second, seven liters of air need to flow through the room per student. The team calculated that the average classroom only moved about three quarters of the air it should. “We were really surprised we saw the prevalence of problems that we did,” Pistochini says.

One question journalists could ask is who inspects and regulates air filtration systems for schools. You may find that schools do the work themselves, so ask if they have qualified workers who understand filtration issues. A second suggestion might be to explore whether it is practical to add “plug-in” filtration systems for older buildings with old air handling infrastructure. convinced the CEO of an air filtration company to try a cheap idea: Take a $10 store-bought air filter and stick it on a $20 box fan. The result: It may be better than nothing for a classroom that cannot open windows.

Make sure you browse this very well-done explainer from The New York Times about how subway cars filter COVID-19 and how a mask affects the spread of the virus in a train car.

When will I get my stuff delivered by drone?

Jonathan Rupprecht is an attorney who has, for years, been a leading voice in advocating for drones and drone pilots. He has just assembled a summary of what is holding up the commercial use of drones to deliver packages to your front door.

If there was ever an argument for using drones, it might be made best during a pandemic.

The major issue is not mechanical. There are drones that are big enough and strong enough to deliver all sorts of payloads. The bigger issues are regulatory in nature. It does not help that we now have a patchwork of local, state and federal regulations that make it exceedingly difficult for a national company to do business.

Rupprecht pointed us toward the possible:

The idea of drone deliveries, in general, is not only just delivering potato chips but also for more legitimate humanitarian purposes. A great example of this is the company Matternet, which partnered with UNICEF to do drone delivery in Malawi with the end goal of developing low-cost delivery of blood samples from children to be tested so medical drugs can be given to them when needed and in time. John Hopkins University has been doing blood drone delivery tests and published their findings in a medical journal. Zipline has also done many humanitarian missions in Africa — they can save money, time, and lives.

Now, imagine you have millions of doses of a COVID-19 vaccine that you wanted to get to a remote population.

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 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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