December 3, 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.

Today I am going to dive into some details about vaccination plans, including how the first vaccines will be allotted and what problems are already arising. This will soon become a largely local and state story as your state decides where vaccines go first and then how your readers/viewers/listeners will get vaccines. 

Your important job is about to become vital in this unprecedented vaccination campaign. So, stay with me as I plow through some details.

Here is a reminder to register today for our Dec. 14 webinar with the leaders of the American Medical Association, National Medical Association and an expert on vaccines. Our goal is to help local reporters get answers on the very day vaccines may be shipped to your state. The session will be on the record and you are free to record it and use it in your reporting. We will get to as many of your questions as we can. 

What we know about how 110 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines will be delivered in the next 60 days

Gen. Gustave Perna, chief operations officer for Operation Warp Speed, laid out a detailed plan for delivering the first COVID-19 vaccines. He said by the end of the day tomorrow, states should have sent his team their “microplans” about where Pfizer will send the first doses of its vaccine once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the drug under an Emergency Use Authorization.

Perna says Operation Warp Speed will send the first Pfizer vaccines to 64 jurisdictions, including states, territories and major metro areas. Then, 21 days later, the feds will send the second doses to those same places. The same thing will happen when the Moderna vaccine is approved, with the second doses going out 28 days after the first.

Perna says his teams have been making dry runs to practice the system that Operation Warp Speed will use to deliver the drugs.

After issuing the initial batch, called the “safety stock,” officials will monitor providers to ensure they’re following the guidelines, he says. Once there is confidence that the process is being followed correctly, more vaccines will be made available to them. The Department of Defense says:

Pfizer is implementing a very aggressive approach to figuring out how to get their product out to the administration sites, (Perna) said. They’re rehearsing and are running through the actual process of registering products through a jurisdiction. Then they are delivering the product and walking through the administration sites to open boxes and dispense the vaccines. Through this process, they’re capturing lessons learned and putting those in training product back sheets, as well as creating training videos.

Perna says Operation Warp Speed intends to ship the first 6.4 million doses of vaccines to the states and biggest cities within 24 hours after the FDA authorizes a vaccine. Department of Health and Human Services officials said recently that the number of vaccines each state receives will be based on a formula that considers the state’s adult population and the number of at-risk people there. Initially, however, with the vaccines going to health care workers and long-term care residents, the drug allocations will reflect those needs.

To give you an idea of how many doses states can expect Dec. 15, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the state will get enough vaccines to inoculate 170,000 New Yorkers. That is for a state with 8.3 million people. An official with the Virginia Department of Health says the state doesn’t expect to receive enough vaccines initially to cover all the state’s health care workers, so the state will have to create priority lists.

Washington, D.C., is pleading with the feds to rethink their allocations. DCist reports:

The District is currently set to receive just short of 8,000 doses during the initial vaccine shipment, according to the city’s top health official, LaQuandra Nesbitt. That amount would cover only about one-tenth of the city’s highest-priority group — the 80,000 healthcare workers employed in D.C. The allocation numbers are only estimates right now; they have not been finalized.

At a Monday press conference, Nesbitt said her team is pushing back against the federal government’s coronavirus task force, Operation Warp Speed, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decision to allocate vaccines based on population numbers. About 75% of healthcare workers in the District are residents of Maryland and Virginia.

If your hospitals are near state borders, you may be in a similar situation; your state population may not reflect the large number of out-of-staters who are health care workers in your state.

In the next 24 hours, states will tell Operation Warp Speed where to ship the special coolers that Pfizer’s vaccines require. Each cooler will contain 1,000 doses. Perna says his team will be monitoring how the local sites are distributing the vaccines so that hospitals and other vaccine storage sites do not get overwhelmed. Only those places that have the ability to store vaccines at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit will receive the shipments. Then the drugs will be distributed from those locations.

We are starting to get information about how vaccines will be distributed beyond the first rounds of shots for health care workers. The Washington Post reports:

After the initial rollout, staff at smaller clinics will have their crack at the vaccine, said Ryan Kelly, executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association. When distribution expands beyond health-care workers, the onus will shift from hospitals and other organizations largely inoculating their own staff to a wider range of sites, from sports arenas to school parking lots, for community immunization.

The vaccines will be administered for free. But, of course, we all will pay for them, and local governments say they do not yet have enough money to pay for their expenses.

As the Kaiser Family Foundation points out:

A critical challenge facing vaccine distribution efforts will be funding. To date, only $200 million has been distributed to state, territorial, and local jurisdictions for vaccine preparedness, though it is estimated that at least $6-8 billion is needed. President-elect Biden has said his administration would seek to invest $25 billion in manufacturing and distribution, which would require Congressional action.

What the White House coronavirus task force is telling governors about COVID-19 but not telling you

Travelers walk through Terminal 3 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. Friday’s total of new cases is the next-to-lowest daily number in the past 12 days, but Illinois state officials are bracing for another surge after many people around the country traveled for Thanksgiving and celebrated with family and friends. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The White House coronavirus task force sends a briefing to every governor every week. About half of the states keep the reports to themselves.

This is part of what the latest report told governors: “The COVID risk to all Americans is at a historic high. … If state and local policies do not reflect the seriousness of the current situation, all public health officials must alert the state population directly.”

The task force uses language that is way more forceful and dire than you are hearing from just about anybody else, except for maybe intensive care unit nurses and doctors. Read these passages from the task force’s just-issued report to governors:

It must be made clear that if you are over 65 or have significant health conditions, you should not enter any indoor public spaces where anyone is unmasked due to the immediate risk to your health; you should have groceries and medications delivered.

If you are under 40, you need to assume you became infected during the Thanksgiving period if you gathered beyond your immediate household. Most likely, you will not have symptoms; however, you are dangerous to others and you must isolate away from anyone at increased risk for severe disease and get tested immediately. If you are over 65 or have significant medical conditions and you gathered outside of your immediate household, you are at a significant risk for serious COVID infection; if you develop any symptoms, you must be tested immediately as the majority of therapeutics work best early in infection.

The weekly report to states mentions that the much more aggressive responses from European countries have slowed the second wave of the pandemic.

(White House coronavirus task force)

And even though it is the opposite of what the White House’s task force recommends, the White House is hosting multiple holiday parties.

Once again, we thank Liz Whyte at the Center for Public Integrity for snagging and posting as many of these state-specific reports as she can get her hands on. Not every state turns them over, but some post them as soon as they arrive. (Thank you, Oklahoma.)

The state-by-state reports also detect rising concerns about a new shortage of protective gowns, gloves and masks. Not every state has this problem, but look at these graphics showing the situations in Texas and Tennessee:

Personal protective equipment supplies at Texas hospitals for the week of Nov. 22 (White House coronavirus task force)

About half of Tennessee hospitals have only a two-week supply of personal protective equipment as of Nov. 22. Notice the dwindling supply of gloves. (White House coronavirus task force)

Go to this link and scroll down to see your state’s report. But please, even though you can get the report here, if your state is not releasing this weekly report, contact them every week and ask for it. This is essential public health information and there is no reason for it to be secret.

The CDC says some COVID-19 patients may reduce quarantine/isolation time

A sign on Interstate 81 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Monday, November 30, 2020, informs drivers of the state’s travel order that people visiting or returning to the state have a negative COVID-19 test quarantine for 14 days. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

Just when the White House coronavirus task force is telling governors that we need a much stronger response to the rising pandemic, the CDC is changing its recommendations for how long infected people should stay quarantined/isolated.

The new guidelines announced Wednesday say individuals who have had close contact with an infected person can end their quarantine after seven days if they receive a negative test, or after 10 days without a test.

Once again, it is up to state and local health officials to decide whether to follow this CDC advisory.

The new guidance is based on some research that suggests viruses like this one do more of their “shedding,” which you might call spreading, in the first 10 days. But it is not a guarantee that 10 days is the magic cutoff. The main thing is to quarantine for at least a week after COVID-19 symptoms appear because that is when the most “shedding” occurs.

The Star Tribune explains:

The latest research showed a 1% risk that people without symptoms would spread the virus if they exited quarantines at only 10 days, or 5% if they exited at seven days with a negative test result, said Dr. John Brooks, chief medical officer for the CDC’s COVID response.

Those time frames seemed to offer the greatest relief at a tolerable risk level, compared with a 14-day quarantine that results in almost zero risk of spreading the virus, he said.

“Ten days is where that risk got into a sweet spot we liked, at about 1%,” he said. “That’s a very acceptable risk, I think, for many people.”

Some European countries have already made this change in an effort to get people back to work.

This is a good time to remind ourselves that quarantine and isolation are not the same. Quarantine keeps someone who might have been exposed to the virus away from others. Isolation keeps someone who is infected with the virus away from others, even in their home.

PPP loan lists are about to become public

Back in July, the Small Business Administration released the names of businesses and charities that got Paycheck Protection Program loans of more than $150,000. Soon, maybe tomorrow or Monday, the SBA may release the recipients of those who received less than $150,000. The new list will account for about 87% of all loan recipients.

News organizations argued for the release of all of the PPP loan recipients, especially before any new stimulus bill is passed. The Center for Public Integrity says the release should include “names of businesses, their addresses, and the amount of money the SBA loaned to them, among other data.” CPI reports:

District Judge James Boasberg rejected the SBA’s arguments that the information was “proprietary,” “confidential” and an invasion of the borrowers’ privacy. He found that disclosure of the loan amounts does not reliably reveal the borrowers’ monthly payroll, as SBA had maintained.

While Boasberg recognized that the borrowers have a “narrow” and “limited” privacy interest at stake, he wrote, “In these circumstances, the weighty public interest in disclosure easily overcomes the far narrower privacy interest of borrowers who collectively received billions of taxpayer dollars in loans.” He noted that disclosure could shed light on possible inequities in who received the loans and on potential fraud by borrowers.

The Pew Research Center estimates around 2,800 newspaper companies received PPP loans and most of them will be on that list of recipients who received less than $150,000.

(Pew Research Center)

Pew reminds us:

The largest PPP loans — those for $5 million or more — mainly went to bigger regional newspaper companies, such as Seattle Times Co., Newsday LLC and Times Publishing Co. (publisher of the Tampa Bay Times).

What is Section 230 and why does President Trump want it changed?

President Donald Trump is threatening to veto the pending Department of Defense budget bill unless Congress changes something called Section 230, a sore spot for the president who is using this last gasp leverage to attempt to change it.

Section 230 is a part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. It says:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” (47 U.S.C. § 230).

That means that hosts that republish what others say online cannot be held legally liable for what was said. Twitter and Facebook, for example, are not considered to be “publishers,” as newspapers and broadcast stations are. The social media companies say it is not feasible to expect they could review everything that is posted before it goes online. Section 230 does not protect copyright violations or criminal acts. It also does not protect whoever posts a comment or claim from being held liable in court.

News organizations see Section 230 as the protection they need to allow people to post comments on their websites or social media pages without moderating those comments. If news organizations lost Section 230 protection, you might see them become much less likely to allow unmoderated comments.

The president and some of his supporters in Congress argue that when a social media site blocks a post, as Twitter and Facebook have done, they are straying into the role of being a “publisher.” The courts have not agreed, so far, but there is some space for argument when a publisher edits content or adds commentary.

President Trump tweeted:

Section 230, which is a liability shielding gift from the U.S. to ‘Big Tech’ (the only companies in America that have it — corporate welfare!), is a serious threat to our National Security and Election Integrity.

He added:

… very dangerous & unfair Section 230 is not completely terminated as part of the (National Defense Authorization Act), I will be forced to unequivocally VETO the Bill when sent to the very beautiful Resolute desk.

In September, the Department of Justice proposed language to change Section 230. “For too long Section 230 has provided a shield for online platforms to operate with impunity,” said Attorney General William Barr.

But what does President-elect Joe Biden say? In January, he told The New York Times that he also wants Section 230 revoked. He told the Times’ editorial board that Facebook, for example, should not be allowed to publish false information and remain legally exempt:

The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms.

It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy. You guys still have editors. I’m sitting with them. Not a joke. There is no editorial impact at all on Facebook. None. None whatsoever. It’s irresponsible. It’s totally irresponsible.

He should be submitted to civil liability and his company to civil liability, just like you would be here at The New York Times.

The Guardian reports:

Ironically, the repeal of section 230 protections would probably lead social media platforms to take more, not less, action over Trump’s posts, as it would hold them legally liable for any falsehoods he posts. Experts say the effects would be comparable to what was seen with the passage of Fosta/Sesta, legislation that held platforms responsible for sexual service advertisements posted on their sites. The passage of those bills led to the removal of Craigslist personal ads and upended content policies on sites like Tumblr.

Privacy advocates have long called for the protection of section 230, saying it is integral to internet freedom. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit civil liberties group, called section 230 “the most important law protecting internet speech”.

The Internet Society, another non-profit organization advocating for internet access, warned that poorly informed policy decisions on section 230 could bring “dire consequences” for what we are able to do online.

Congress could make an end-run around the president’s budget threats. It could pass a “continuing resolution” that keeps defense funding at current levels — but it would also keep new purchases and plans on hold, so would be a problem.

This fight is just beginning. As if you needed just a little more drama in 2020.

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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