WHO walked back comments about asymptomatic people ‘very rarely’ spreading COVID-19

Plus, military funeral services resume, religion’s influence increased during the pandemic, there’s a shortage of antidepressants, and more.

June 10, 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.

Ah, the old “walk back the comments you misunderstood” routine never gets old. As I told you in this space yesterday, the World Health Organization said Monday that people who are asymptomatic but test positive for COVID-19 “very rarely” spread the virus to others. That comment flies in the face of everything we have been told for months.

Just 24 hours later, the WHO said no, no, it was a big misunderstanding.

Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s emerging disease and zoonosis unit, told a specially called news conference, “I wasn’t stating a policy of WHO or anything like that.”

“We do know that some people who are asymptomatic, or some people who do not have symptoms,” she continued, “can transmit the virus on.”

So today, if you Google “asymptomatic COVID,” you will get two opposite versions of this story side by side:

(Screenshot, Google)

And even with the walk-back or clarification or whatever this latest WHO statement is, we are left not knowing whether asymptomatic COVID-19 patients have spread 2% of the known cases or up to 45%. Both figures have been mentioned in studies in just the last two weeks.

As I warned yesterday, the WHO’s statement Monday will be fuel for virus deniers to say the whole world has overreacted to the coronavirus. Right on cue, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has openly doubted the severity of the virus, used the WHO’s misstatement to argue that his country should reopen for business.

Military funeral services resume

Here is an update to another story we have discussed in recent weeks. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said beginning right away, military funerals can include committal services and military funeral honors again. Services held from today forward will include military funeral honors and the VA will soon start clearing out the backlog awaiting services.

The Department of Defense said starting in July, it will contact the thousands of families who have had to delay those services during the pandemic.

Religion’s influence increased during the pandemic, but individuals say they are not more religious

Gallup polling found that Americans believe that “religion” is playing a bigger role during the pandemic but there is no evidence that we, as individuals, are more religious because of the health emergency.

While the rise in religious influence is measurable, it is nowhere near as sharp as the increase we saw in December 2001, after the 9/11 attacks. That rise was the biggest in the 60 years that Gallup has been tracking the issue.

(Gallup)

But the current “increasing its influence” figure is double what we recorded last year and the highest since 2006, when 40% said in September of that year the influence of religion was increasing. The all-time low in response to this question, which Gallup first asked in 1957, was 14%, in 1969 and 1970.

Polling has shown that people are no more and no less likely to have “worshipped” recently than before the pandemic. Other polls show that Americans have turned to prayer in significant numbers during the pandemic.

Pew found in a March 19-24 poll that 55% of Americans said they had prayed for “an end to the spread of the coronavirus.”

A Fox News poll conducted March 21-24 found that 70% of Americans reported having prayed within the past week for “health and healing.” By way of comparison, in 2001, 91% of respondents said they had “prayed for peace.” And while 70% said they prayed for health, 88% said they washed their hands a lot more.

Gallup also asked Americans, “How often do you pray to God outside of a religious service?”

  • 58% of all Americans said they are praying “often”
  • 17% pray “sometimes”
  • 9% pray “hardly ever or only in times of crisis”
  • 14% never pray

Gallup asked a similar question in 1990 — 30 years ago — and found 49% said they prayed often.

However, another 28% of those interviewed in 1990 said they prayed sometimes, meaning that the combined category of often/sometimes prayer is about the same today as it was in 1990 (77% then, 75% now).

There’s a shortage of antidepressants

It probably is not surprising that in the midst of all that is going on there is a shortage of antidepressant medications.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration added Zoloft to its official list of medications that are in short supply. The FDA said supplies of generic drugs similar to Zoloft are also running short.

Pfizer, the maker of Zoloft, said it has plenty of supply for normal demand but was not prepared for a big increase in prescriptions.

Drugmakers who produce generic meds say the problems stem from a struggle to obtain the active pharmaceutical ingredient that is the basis for the medication.

The shortages are expected to be resolved in 60 days or less.

Bloomberg reported:

Isolation and anxiety triggered by the coronavirus have heightened demand for mental health services. Zoloft prescriptions climbed 12% year-over-year to 4.9 million in March, the most ever in the U.S., according to data compiled by Bloomberg Intelligence. Prescriptions receded to 4.5 million in April.

Early estimate: Some students may lose up to a year of learning because of the COVID-19 disruption

Keep in mind, this study by researchers at Brown University is a “working paper,” meaning the findings are still in motion. That said, the research projects:

Students are likely to return in fall 2020 with approximately 63-68% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year and with 37-50% of the learning gains in math. However, we estimate that losing ground during the COVID-19 school closures would not be universal, with the top third of students potentially making gains in reading. Thus, in preparing for fall 2020, educators will likely need to consider ways to support students who are academically behind and further differentiate instruction.

A report from consulting group McKinsey and Company said the amount of learning that a student will lose from the end of the in-person teaching in the spring to the fall semester depends a lot on how much access the student has to online learning. There is a disparity in the quality of remote learning students are getting. Students getting no teaching during the COVID-19 interruption are more likely to quit school.

McKinsey charted the projected math scores for standardized testing of sixth-graders based on four scenarios. The forecasts stipulate that high performing students at schools that have sophisticated online learning experience can do quite well. But that is not most schools:

(McKinsey)

And the McKinsey report says minority students will pay the biggest price:

Learning loss will probably be greatest among low-income, black, and Hispanic students. Lower-income students are less likely to have access to high-quality remote learning or to a conducive learning environment, such as a quiet space with minimal distractions, devices they do not need to share, high-speed internet, and parental academic supervision. Data from Curriculum Associates, creators of the i-Ready digital-instruction and assessment software, suggest that only 60% of low-income students are regularly logging into online instruction; 90% of high-income students do. Engagement rates are also lagging behind in schools serving predominantly black and Hispanic students; just 60 to 70% are logging in regularly.

Ideas for journalists:

  • What is your local school system doing this summer to help students keep learning all summer?
  • I keep thinking about all of the college students who don’t have work this summer. Is there some way to pair them with younger kids who need tutoring over the summer?

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