May 14, 2021

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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 can safely go without masks both indoors and outdoors, with some exceptions.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said her agency is reacting to a falling number of new COVID-19 cases and the fact that young people can now be vaccinated.

But most American adults are still not fully vaccinated. Dr. Anthony Fauci said that unvaccinated people should still wear masks. Those people, he said, are risking their own health but do not pose much of a danger to others.

President Joe Biden said simply, “Get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do.” He said vaccinated people “have earned the right” to take their masks off. And he added that it is time to treat each others “with kindness and respect” whether they are wearing masks or not.

But there is a lot still to be settled:

Businesses, churches and schools will have to decide what their individual policies will be about mask usage. They will also have to rethink whether they can move up their plans to bring people back into the workplace. Offices that spaced workers out and scheduled half the staff to be in the office at any given time will have something new to think through.

Businesses, schools and public venues that increased their sanitation protocols will have to decide whether to continue. It has become, for some, an expensive and labor-intensive practice. The CDC did not address that issue but did say recently that we should be more concerned with airborne viruses than surface contamination.

Can and will employers or venues ask people if they have been vaccinated? Can employers require vaccinations? 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has indicated in recent guidance that it is generally permissible for employers to ask employees about their COVID-19 vaccination status as long as the employer is not asking for additional medical information. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act limits whether an employer could, for example, require a test to prove you are COVID-free.

Any mandatory medical test of employees must be “job-related and consistent with business necessity,” the ADA says. The EEOC says, “Under the circumstances existing currently, the ADA allows an employer to bar an employee from physical presence in the workplace if he refuses to have his temperature taken or refuses to answer questions about whether he has COVID-19, has symptoms associated with COVID-19, or has been tested for COVID-19.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has given employers the right to require the influenza vaccine.

In short, the EEOC guidance is that if you ask whether a person has been vaccinated, be very careful about asking follow-up questions that might sound like you are probing for medical information. If you ask about vaccination and the answer is “no,” the response should be limited to “then please wear a mask.”

Legal experts who work in the area of employment law advise, “You need to ask yourself, first, why do I want to know information regarding why my employees have been vaccinated or not? What are you going to do with this information? Having a need and plan for this information will help ensure you have a business justification for why this information is necessary. If you don’t have a plan or a need, you may determine that knowing this information is not really necessary after all.”

If they do not ask whether an unmasked person is vaccinated, will businesses, employers and venues like churches and concerts be satisfied that employees, customers and parishioners are telling the truth about being vaccinated simply by not wearing a mask? Will it be reasonable to believe a person is implying that they are vaccinated if they are not wearing a mask?

Will we require unvaccinated children and young teens to continue wearing masks until they complete their vaccinations? Remember that the youngest children are not yet eligible for vaccinations. So, it is probable that schools and even summer camps will keep mask mandates in place until the young people are vaccinated.

Will guidelines change for mass transportation? The new guidelines do not lift mask requirements for airplanes, buses, trains, boats and cruise ships.

You might be wondering why those are exempted. Remember that the CDC does not have the authority to tell you to wear a mask unless you are on or in a venue that is federally regulated (like a plane or a ship). This is a federal rule, not a recommendation, and it says, “Persons must wear masks over the mouth and nose when traveling on conveyances into and within the United States. Persons must also wear masks at transportation hubs as defined in this order.”

There is little doubt that this order, too, will change quickly. Maybe right away.

How will people who have been vaccinated but are still cautious and prefer to continue to wear a mask be treated by others? I can imagine that, starting today, people might assume you are unvaccinated if you are wearing a mask in the grocery store or at work. Will it be socially acceptable to wear masks just out of general concern?

Will this move stimulate vaccinations, or will it be a “get out of jail free” card for people who have resisted until now? Only 35.4% of Americans are fully vaccinated today. But 60% have gotten one shot.

What will happen to the mask makers who will be stuck with hundreds of millions of masks? Earlier this week, a couple of dozen mask companies sent a letter to President Biden saying China had flooded the U.S. market. Medscape says:

When masks were in short supply last year, prices surged. But prices have now crashed, and hospital administrators and others are shopping for the best prices in a market crowded with new offerings.

A box of 50 surgical masks which sold for more than $50 a year ago can be found for $5 now.

How will these new guidelines affect the way that journalists do their work? Will you go back to doing in-person interviews rather than Zoom? Will you go back to touching microphones and going into offices and homes quickly or will it take a while to ease back to pre-pandemic practices? It could be that Zoom interviews have now become more of a norm to save time and travel.

Will handshaking and hugging make a comeback? I don’t know about you, but I am totally over this fist-bumping and elbowing thing. A year ago, the BBC pointed out that handshaking is a signal of trust:

In her book Don’t Look, Don’t Touch, behavioral scientist Val Curtis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says that one possible reason that handshakes and kisses on cheeks endure as greetings is because they signal that the other person is trusted enough to risk sharing germs with — hence the history of the practices going in and out of style depending on public health concerns.

The BBC says following the pandemic of 1918, the American Journal of Nursing recommended that Americans adopt the Chinese custom at the time of shaking one’s own hands when greeting a friend.

In April 2020, when the pandemic was a dark hole, Dr.Fauci said, “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you.” He added, “Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease; it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country.”

Lastly, how will these changes affect social life and the dating scene?

What are the new guidelines exactly?

The CDC’s surprise move follows the publication of three studies that showed the vaccines are every bit as effective as everyone hoped they would be.

One of the studies that pushed the CDC’s decision is a May 6 Israeli study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that said the vaccine is 97% effective against symptomatic COVID-19. The study said the vaccines are 86% effective against asymptomatic infection based on the experiences of 5,000 health care workers.

Dr. Walensky said yes, there have been “breakthrough” cases of fully vaccinated people still testing positive for COVID-19, but out of 117 million fully vaccinated people, the number of breakthrough cases is small (we do not know how small exactly). The CDC says in those breakthrough cases, illness has not been nearly as serious as in people who were unvaccinated.

The CDC says people who are immune-compromised should talk with their physician before getting rid of their masks. That group includes cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy, for example.

The CDC’s new guidelines say:

If you’ve been fully vaccinated:

  • You can resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic.
  • You can resume activities without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.
  • If you travel in the United States, you do not need to get tested before or after travel or self-quarantine after travel.
  • You need to pay close attention to the situation at your international destination before traveling outside the United States.
  • You do NOT need to get tested before leaving the United States unless your destination requires it.
  • You still need to show a negative test result or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 before boarding an international flight to the United States.
  • You should still get tested 3-5 days after international travel.
  • You do NOT need to self-quarantine after arriving in the United States.
  • If you’ve been around someone who has COVID-19, you do not need to stay away from others or get tested unless you have symptoms.
  • However, if you live or work in a correctional or detention facility or a homeless shelter and are around someone who has COVID-19, you should still get tested, even if you don’t have symptoms.

The new CDC guidelines come with the warning that if there is a spike in new cases, this guidance may change.

The guidance is not binding on state or local governments. Governors in three states — New York, New Jersey, and Virginia  — said they would consider the CDC’s guidance but that they would make their own decisions. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statement saying “the indoor mask mandate remains in effect while state health officials review the specific CDC recommendations.” Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser added:

Washington Governor Jay Inslee appeared maskless at a news conference and said, “This is a really good reason to get vaccinated. That shot is a ticket to freedom from masks.”

Walgreens, CVS, Macy’s, Home Depot, Kroger and Starbucks all said that, for now, they will still require customers and employees to wear masks while they review their policies.

New data: One-fourth of children infected with COVID-19 show symptoms

Julian Boyce, 14, gets a hug from his mother, Satrina Boyce, after he received his first Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination dose in New York, Thursday, May 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham looked at data from 12,306 children in the U.S. who had confirmed COVID-19 infections and found that few of those kids showed symptoms.

The researchers found “only 25.1% of children had at least one of the typical symptoms” associated with COVID-19. Among those who did show symptoms, the most common were:

  • 18.8% exhibited non-specific symptoms (fever and loss of taste or smell)
  • 16.5% of the children suffered from breathing problems including coughing
  • 14% suffered from nausea, diarrhea and abdominal pain
  • 8% had rashes or other skin symptoms
  • 4.8% complained of headaches

Children and adolescents account for nearly 13% of all COVID-19 cases in the United States.

A record number of open jobs

There are a “record number of open jobs,” even as 10 million Americans are looking for work.

With CDC’s new guidance, and as businesses open full-throttle without social distancing for vaccinated workers and customers, that number is sure to rise.

Those competing facts are difficult to resolve. The Bureau of Labor Statistics just published the data (the Labor Department has been keeping this data for a couple of decades):

(Bureau of Labor Statistics)

BLS added this explanation:

On the last business day of March, the job openings level reached a series high of 8.1 million (+597,000).

The job openings rate increased to 5.3 percent.

Job openings increased in a number of industries with the largest increases in accommodation and food services (+185,000), state and local government education (+155,000); and arts, entertainment, and recreation (+81,000).

The number of job openings decreased in health care and social assistance (-218,000).

But fit that next to the chart of how many jobs are being filled:


The charts, taken together, seem to be saying that employers want to hire people but that workers will only take jobs under certain conditions.

Fast Company says if you look at the listings on employment websites Monster, Indeed and CareerBuilder, you’ll find the most jobs are in some specific areas:

Logistics and transportation: it’s probably no surprise that jobs related to moving goods and materials are in high demand. Heavy and tractor-trailer truck driver job listings were among the top jobs listed on Monster and CareerBuilder. There was also a need for light truck, delivery, and warehouse personnel. Demand for logistics specialists shot up nearly 120% year over year in March on Indeed. Transportation and warehousing were among the top 10 industries adding the most jobs last month.

Sales, marketing and customer service: They need people to sell what they make or do. Wholesale and manufacturing sales reps were in the top six most in-demand jobs on Monster. The administrative and support services sector remains number one in job growth at CareerBuilder, and business-to-business (B2B) sales reps were near the top of the “hot jobs” list in that sector. Retailers working to re-open have also boosted demand for retail salespeople.

Technology: Software and application developers are in high demand. Information security engineers and technology specialists are also in high demand on CareerBuilder.

Healthcare: Healthcare facilities are now seeking employees, especially registered nurses, which were among the top in-demand jobs cited by CareerBuilder and Monster.

Pets adopted during the pandemic are now being returned

Shirley Paiva holds her new dog, Chiara, that she and her husband chose from the animal city shelter in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

A year ago, people were emptying animal shelters. Now, as we go back to work, people are finding they can’t care for the critters they adopted.

But if you compare the number of animals taken into shelters to 2020, you would be comparing this year to a year that was not normal.

USA Today reports:

Aron Jones, executive director of Moms and Mutts Colorado Rescue, told USA TODAY her organization, “couldn’t rescue enough dogs to meet the demand” when the pandemic began. Now the amount of returns has doubled what they normally do in a year, with many of the animals being around 1-year-old.

Even though shelters across the United States are experiencing a huge return of dogs, it doesn’t appear to be a national trend. While owner surrenders were up 82.6% compared to 2020, they are down by 12.5% vs. 2019, according to Best Friends Animal Society.

The BBC talked with a shelter worker about how much stress the animals who are being returned go through.

The Tampa Bay Times offered some advice to those of us who have been at home with our pets nonstop and will soon be leaving for the office:

Even for those who don’t give up their animals, one side effect of people returning to work is that their pets may suffer separation anxiety, which can sometimes lead to destructive behavior.

Veterinarians advise that establishing a routine now can help ease the transition. To make it easier on your pet, start by taking “time-outs” with short departures and then work your way up to a full eight-hour day.

We’ll be back Monday with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? 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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