December 7, 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.

You know that the earliest COVID-19 vaccines will require two doses. But what happens if a patient takes one shot, doesn’t like the sore arm or a brief flu-like reaction and decides to skip the second shot? 

CBS MoneyWatch says a few really bad things could happen. If enough people skip a second vaccine, the virus could mutate and find a way to become vaccine resistant. Penn State University biologist David Kennedy is urging drugmakers to be vigilant in watching for mutations, especially if second-shot no-shows become common. MoneyWatch reports:

The problem, according to Kennedy: If someone who has had only a single dose is exposed to the virus, their immune system might not be able to kill it off. That could allow the virus to develop a response to the limited immunity provided by that one dose.

“In imperfect vaccines, that’s where we see resistance pop-up,” Kennedy said. “The more individuals who have one dose of these vaccines, the more concerned I would be.”

When you get your first COVID-19 shot, you will also get an index card with your vaccine information on it. It will be important for you to remember who made your vaccine. The card will also include a lot number, which will be useful if there are any problems with any of the vaccines.

(Department of Defense)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s playbook on how the vaccine program will roll out includes precious little about reminding people to get their second dose. It may turn out that providers will send out emails or even robocalls, like your doctor and dentist send you now to remind you of an appointment.

But, MoneyWatch says, money may be the answer to giving providers an incentive to get you back for the second dose.

The government is also paying providers significantly more — $28 compared with $17 — to administer a second dose than for a first, a financial incentive for providers to successfully convince patients to complete their treatment. That’s on top of the roughly $40 cost per dose of the vaccine, which the government is also covering.

In addition, the CDC says it has a vaccine tracking system that will have the ability to send email and text reminders. That system, though, was built for patients to report side effects, not to remind them about appointments.

A number of experts have suggested that paying individuals to get vaccinated might encourage compliance. In late November, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid issued a brief note saying it would allow providers to pay out cash rewards or other incentives directly to patients if they get a COVID-19 vaccination. But the government hasn’t provided any additional funding for these incentives.

We do have some experience with two-dose vaccines. For example, about 80% of people who get the two-dose shingles vaccine come back for a second, meaning a fifth of patients don’t. And like the COVID-19 vaccine, the shingles shot makes some people feel pretty awful for a short time. A. Mark Fendrick, a medical school professor at the University of Michigan, guesses that maybe 30% of people who get the COVID-19 vaccine won’t be back for the second shot.

We have a history of no-shows when it comes to medical appointments. The rule of thumb is about a third of patients are no-shows to medical appointments and half of patients don’t fill prescriptions.

Join me Dec. 14 for a free webinar with the heads of the American Medical Association, the National Medical Association and a top expert on vaccines, in which they will answer questions from journalists. It will very likely be the first day of COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S. and you are free to record this session and use it in your reporting on that important day. Register now.

Gun sales are soaring

I wondered why Smith & Wesson stock was spiking when the stock market closed on Friday evening. The gunmaker just reported quarterly earnings and said sales have more than doubled from a year ago as demand for firearms continued to surge to record levels.

(MarketWatch)

MarketWatch provides these details:

Chief Executive Mark Smith said the “second consecutive record-breaking quarter” came as federal background checks, which he said are considered the best available proxy for consumer firearm demand, were 57.5% above levels seen in the same period a year ago.

For the first 11 months of 2020, there have been 19.2 million background checks for gun purchases, the most for an 11-month period since the Federal Bureau of Investigation started recording data in 1998, Smith said.

Student loan repayments have been delayed another month

People with outstanding student loans have another month of breathing room before they have to start making payments again. The deadline was the end of this month, but Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has delayed it until the end of January.

What will happen to millions of freelancers and self-employed Americans without a new stimulus

Maybe Congress will pass a new stimulus bill soon and maybe it won’t. A deal seems to be near. Some of the people who are sweating this the most are 7.3 million freelancers and contract workers who, on Jan. 1, will lose their emergency aid, which averages more than a thousand dollars a month. These workers are not otherwise eligible for unemployment benefits.

The name of the program that expires Dec. 31 is the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, often referred to as PUA.

Without a stimulus, 10 million Americans face the loss of pandemic unemployment benefits

Let’s dive a little deeper into all of the ways that people could be losing their unemployment benefits in the coming weeks. On Dec. 26, a number of federal pandemic-related unemployment insurance (or UI) programs expire.

Here are some acronyms that you will be seeing and hearing in the next couple of weeks:

EB is extended benefits, which “trigger off,” meaning they automatically end. These benefits have already “triggered off” in 20 states, but still remain in most of the country. The benefits can turn off when states reach economic thresholds. The trigger is when a state’s unemployment is above 5% and is at least 120% of the average in the prior two years.

PUA is Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (which I mentioned above) that goes to freelancers and others who are not covered by state unemployment programs.

PEUC is the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which provides 13 weeks of additional unemployment benefits to qualified individuals whose regular unemployment benefits were exhausted.

Brookings summarizes the situation as we find it today and explains some of the situations that you will be hearing more frequently as the deadline to reach a new stimulus nears.

States are less likely to take actions to keep EB in place because of cost: after December 31, the 100 percent federal funding of EB enacted in the CARES Act will expire, and the federal share will revert to 50 percent. Indeed, several states are set to sunset EB after December 31.

Approximately 9.5 million will lose unemployment compensation on December 26 due to PUA’s expiration.

Approximately 500,000 will lose unemployment compensation on December 26 due to PEUC’s expiration because they live in a state where EB has triggered off.

Approximately 870,000 will lose unemployment compensation once they exhaust regular UI benefits because they live in a state where EB has triggered off.

Approximately 680,000 will lose unemployment compensation once they exhaust EB; and

Approximately 2.2 million will be in danger of losing unemployment compensation once they exhaust regular benefits because they live in a state where EB is triggered on for now but is likely to trigger off within several weeks.

All told, at the end of December, approximately 10 million workers will lose unemployment compensation immediately on December 26 and about 3.8 million additional workers will be in danger of losing their benefits within weeks.

Some states, not many, will prioritize jails and prisons for vaccines

You know by now that the CDC is recommending that states funnel the first vaccines to health care workers and people in long-term nursing home care. But who is next in line?

Most states appear to be leaning toward “essential workers” and people who have health issues that put them at a higher risk than others. But a push is on to urge states to move workers and prisoners in jails and prisons toward the front of the vaccine lines. The Marshall Project, which more than anybody I know closely tracks the COVID-19 outbreak in lockups, reports:

According to more than 40 draft proposals analyzed by the Covid Prison Project and The Marshall Project, in at least six states, incarcerated people will be among the “phase one” recipients of the vaccine, along with medical personnel and essential workers. In many more states, they are slated to receive the vaccine during phase two, as a member of so-called “critical populations.”

(Last week) Colorado Gov. Jared Polis pushed back against the recommendations of his state’s own distribution plan: “There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners … before it goes to the people who haven’t committed any crime.” Polis, a Democrat who has championed a number of criminal justice reforms, chuckled as he said the word “prisoners,” according to the Denver Post.

That’s an attitude that has frustrated experts. Saad B. Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, called it “immoral” to promote any plan that isn’t laser-focused on mitigating the risk of infection and the risk of bad public health outcomes.

“It’s not our job and shouldn’t be our job to say who is more quote-unquote valued by the society or not,” Omer said.

On the federal level, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press, officials at the Bureau of Prisons said doses that are sent to federal prisons “will be reserved for staff.” AP says 10 times more prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 than prison workers (18,467 inmates and 1,736 Bureau of Prisons staff members). At least 141 federal prisoners and two staff members have died from COVID-19.

Now that every state has turned their plans over to the CDC, this is the kind of very specific question journalists could ask: “Given that more than a quarter of a million people in prison have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 1,500 have died, what priority will this state give to vaccinating those populations and the people who work with them?”

In January, we will explore this issue of COVID-19 in jails and prisons as just one of our eight sessions in our covering jails and police reform virtual seminar series. One of the leading journalists covering this issue, Jamiles Lartey, will be a guest faculty for this seminar. Apply here and join us. Tuition is covered by a grant from The MacArthur Foundation. In the last three years, we have taught more than 450 journalists from 45 states as part of this project. And now we push on to our fourth year.

Investigating a local outbreak

I point you to the good work of my colleagues over at the Tampa Bay Times, who investigated the step-by-step unfolding of a COVID-19 outbreak at a nursing home/assisted living facility only a 10-minute drive from where I live. The facility was short on personal protective equipment and failed to communicate with families. The result was horrific.

By the end of April, more than half of the 95 residents at Seminole Pavilion had tested positive. They died in waves, at hospitals and hospices across the county, many with no family or friends by their side. Staring down the isolation and uncertainty, some gave up, stopped taking medications and called family members, one by one, to say goodbye.

There are some lawsuits pending and the courts will sort out culpability, if there is any. I point you to this work because we are asking nursing home workers to take on enormous risk and responsibility. Are we equipping them to do that? Are we paying them to do that?

About 40% of the COVID-19 deaths have been among senior care residents. And here in Pinellas County, Florida, two out of three coronavirus deaths are connected to nursing homes and assisted living centers. Seniors and their families are terrified of this virus.

This kind of retrospective digging is useful. Find out what works and praise it. Find out what is broken and fix it.

Funeral home directors say they are strained

Candy Boyd, owner of Boyd Funeral Home, speaks to family members at an interment for Lydia Nunez, who died from COVID-19, at the Rose Hills Cemetery Tuesday, July 21, 2020, in Whittier, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

CNN heard from one funeral home director in Texas who said the demand is exhausting. There are reports of a crematorium that broke down because of overuse and a funeral home turning broom closets into storage areas.

A Rockford, Illinois, funeral director said he has never seen anything like the crush of phone calls from grieving families he gets now. Honquest Funeral Home owner Tim Honquest told WIFR, “The bodies … they remain in refrigeration, and of course our refrigerator is a 12-person walk in cooler, and it was extremely full.”

It is the same in Topeka, Grand Rapids and Bayou La Batre, Alabama.

Interestingly, because of COVID-19, more people appear to be arranging graveside services and cremations, which are less expensive (and less profitable for funeral homes) but which present a small risk of spreading COVID-19 compared to traditional indoor funeral services.

Universities are scrounging for money to keep going

A closed sign hangs on the door to the student center on the campus of the University of Colorado in April as a statewide stay-at-home order remains in effect in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

The top administrators at East Carolina University are putting themselves on furlough to try to make up for budget problems.

The University of Colorado at Boulder says it will permanently cut the number of tenure-track faculty and turn instead to “instructors” (who cost less, of course). The campus incurred “unexpected costs and revenue losses of about $69 million in the spring when we had to close the campus, and the 2021 fiscal year budget includes an additional ~$96.6 million revenue reduction (about 10.4%) from the previous year.” A third of the tenured professors there are over age 65 and the school is trying to get a bunch of them to retire.

Schools are trying to figure out how to get students back on campus in January and some faculty are having none of it. Some faculty at the University of North Carolina wrote an open letter to their bosses saying the school should stay 100% remote learning for another semester.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine offered some advice to universities last week on how they can convince college students to wear masks and not throw superspreader frat parties. The academy said warning college students that bad things will happen if they congregate does not work because college students weigh rewards more than risks. So, the academy says, schools should try these instead:

Take advantage of young adults’ increased desire for social acceptance and responsibility. The report recommends messages about the campus community working together to prevent outbreaks, and how common good behavior is. (“More than X percent of students on our campus say they wear masks every day.”)

People of any age respond better when they hear they have agency and don’t feel fatalistic about the health problem they’re trying to avoid. The report suggests asking student leaders to come up with safer, socially distant activities for their peers. Bonus: Young adults are often more creative and flexible in solving problems than older adults are.

Research suggests that repeating misinformation, even in debunking campaigns, can actually reinforce false beliefs. Spread correct messages instead.

On that theme, pediatrician Aaron E. Carroll wrote a New York Times opinion piece that resonated with me. He said when we shame people for not wearing masks and for taking holiday trips, it can be part of a cascading series of events that lead to not getting tested and, when they do test positive, not telling others they may have been exposed. This passage seems especially useful for journalists to consider:

… drawing attention to aberrant unwanted behavior risks “normalizing” it. Although very few parents refuse to immunize their children (only about 1 percent get no vaccines at all), widespread condemnation of the so-called anti-vaxxers makes it seem as if they are a significant movement. The same is true of the anti-lockdown protesters: They were small in number — indeed, most Americans were perfectly willing to comply with shelter-in-place policies — but the disproportionate news coverage of them made it seem otherwise.

Why are fewer high school students filling out FAFSA for college?

For those of us who have shepherded kids through college applications, you know the importance of the FAFSA forms. These are the Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms that students have to fill out to be eligible for federal financial aid but also all kinds of other aid. The old saying was if you can smell the Thanksgiving turkey and you have not sent in your FAFSA and college applications for the fall semester, you are behind schedule.

Well, FAFSA applications right now are about 16% below a year ago.

What the heck does that mean?

The data shows that students who attend schools that have the lowest-income students have seen the biggest drop in FAFSA applications. Forbes summarizes it:

It could mean fewer students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, are planning to go to college next year.

College enrollment has already dropped amid the pandemic. Fall 2020 freshman enrollment is down 13% across the country, with community colleges seeing the biggest drop of all institution types (-18.9%), according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. At community colleges, Native American, Black and Hispanic student enrollment has dropped the most (by 29.3%, 28.4% and 27.5%).

Lower enrollment in community colleges is worrying because attendees are more likely to come from low-income backgrounds and getting a postsecondary credential has been shown to lead to higher earnings and more stable work overtime.

Journalists, this is worth your attention because students could miss out on financial help — like Pell grants, work study and federal student loans — unless they fill out a FAFSA. Some grants are first-come-first-serve so delaying could cost money.

Experts say students who think they cannot afford college should not avoid filling out a FAFSA. Once they are accepted by a school they can always negotiate for more grants.

Journalists, you need this from Byron Pitts

Last week, the Radio and Television Digital News Association honored two of our best journalists, “PBS NewsHour’s” Yamiche Alcindor and ABC “Nightline” anchor Byron Pitts, with prestigious awards. Yamiche, who is a White House correspondent, has often found herself covering stories about the intersection of race and politics as well as fatal police encounters. She was also recently named the National Association of Black Journalists’ Journalist of the Year.

(RTDNA)

I want to point you to Byron Pitts’ virtual acceptance video. It is 10 minutes that includes everything I love about this guy. He folds journalism, faith, inclusion, diversity, aspiration, inspiration and his mother all into one speech. I hope educators will share it with students and bosses will play it for newsrooms. Trust me, journalists, you need this.

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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