August 3, 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 White House’s COVID-19 data director says America has passed a milestone, albeit a month after President Joe Biden’s goal:

(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

People are getting vaccines in secret

A Missouri doctor says she knows of patients who got vaccinated but didn’t want anybody to know. The doctor says some feared blowback from family and friends who oppose the vaccines. A pharmacist in Missouri said some people showed up in disguise, hoping nobody would recognize them as they got vaccinated. It is impossible to know if this is a big deal or something that rarely happens but, either way, it is interesting and understandable.

Brooke Harrington wrote a piece for The Atlantic to help us understand why people who have not been vaccinated are reluctant to let others know they are now getting the shots:

Shifting from an individual to a relational perspective helps us understand why people are seeking vaccination in disguise. They want to save face within the very specific set of social ties that sociologists call “reference groups”—the neighborhoods, churches, workplaces, and friendship networks that help people obtain the income, information, companionship, mutual aid, and other resources they need to live. The price of access to those resources is conformity to group norms. That’s why nobody strives for the good opinion of everyone; most people primarily seek the approval of people in their own reference groups.

In Missouri and other red states, vaccine refusal on partisan grounds has become a defining marker of community affiliation. Acceptance within some circles is contingent on refusal to cooperate with the Biden administration’s public-health campaign. Getting vaccinated is a betrayal of that group norm, and those who get the shot can legitimately fear losing their job or incurring the wrath of their families and other reference groups.

In 2017, Dr. Nicholas S. Zeppos, who was then the chancellor of Vanderbilt University, stopped by a journalism workshop I was teaching on the school’s campus. He delivered a greeting to our Poynter group and, in his 15-minute talk, delivered some thoughts so profound I wrote them down and carried them in my wallet until the paper disintegrated from age and use.

Zeppos said that we are most in danger when “dialogue no longer changes opinions.” His point was that we have come to believe that intractable opinions are a sign of strength, when we should instead value altering our positions as we gather better information.

Zeppos warned journalists that we might be adding to that problem by verbally punishing people, including politicians, who change their minds. It does not mean we don’t hold thought leaders accountable for their words, but I think Zeppos was right. Intractable positions are usually a sign of weakness and fear, not strength and reasoning.

Restaurants say ‘we can’t take another hit’

Bartender Denis Angelov pours drinks at Tin Pan Alley restaurant in Provincetown, Mass. April 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

As local and state governments around the country reimpose or at least strongly recommend mask-wearing in restaurants and bars, those businesses are warning that another round of shutdowns or curtailments could put them out of business. In some states, government officials are not stepping in with orders, leaving it up to businesses to decide how they will protect customers and staff while knowing they will anger some patrons if they insist on mask-wearing.

CBS News reports:

At some eateries, customer fear of the virulent Delta strain of coronavirus is already curtailing traffic.

The renewed hesitancy can be seen in online-reservation data from OpenTable, which recorded a 48% drop in dining out in Brooklyn on Thursday versus the same day two years ago in the pre-pandemic summer of 2019. On Sunday, reservations in Brooklyn were off 33% from 2019’s number.

But the dining scene is an entirely different picture in pockets of the country, including in San Antonio, Texas, where finding enough workers is the biggest worry for John Russ, the owner of Clementine’s.

Business has been doing fine since Texas lifted its COVID-19 restrictions, according to Russ, who said he isn’t worried about another round of statewide business closures given Governor Greg Abbott’s bans on vaccine and face mask mandates.

On Thursday, online dining reservations in San Antonio were up 31% from two years ago, and Sunday marked a similar 27% rise, according to OpenTable.

Still, some bars and restaurants say they will only serve you if you are vaccinated.

1 million COVID doses were wasted by no-shows, lack of interest and storage issues

The New York Times points out that the vaccines that states trashed amount to 1 or 2% of the doses they were allotted.

Much of the loss has come as demand for inoculations plummeted, with the daily rate of vaccinations now at less than one-fifth of its peak average of 3.4 million shots, reached in mid-April.

More than 110,000 doses have been destroyed in Georgia, officials there said. Of the more than 53,000 doses wasted in New Jersey, nearly 20,000 were discarded in June, up from around 4,000 in April. Around 50,000 doses in Maryland were not used, officials said.

In Ohio, state officials reported on July 20 that more than 230,000 doses have been reported as unusable by state providers.

Here come the COVID cases in jails again

In Pasco County, Florida, the county jail saw six COVID-19 cases in the month of June. The jail logged 39 cases in one day last week.

I saw word of a big outbreak in a California jail, too.

The virus had a disastrous effect on jails and prisons, where there were almost 400,000 positive cases across the country. At least 2,700 imprisoned people died of COVID-19.

First responders are getting sick

In Tampa, the Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Department has more first responders out sick with the coronavirus than at any time in the 18 months of the pandemic.

How pharma companies profit from your sniffles

Pharmacies make a lot of money selling stuff like cold medicine. But the pandemic, as you know, really cut cold and seasonal flu cases in 2020. That is why it is so interesting to see that now that we are mingling with others out in the world, cold meds are selling again. NBC News reports:

“The issue that we have right now is that the most profitable part of our business has been under extreme duress,” said Heyward Donigan, CEO of Rite Aid, in an earnings call last month. “And not just has been but still is. And that’s the cough, cold and flu and all the acute business that has not yet come back.”

Covid precautions led to a $5 million drop in prescription transactions revenue during last year’s flu season, drug price tracker GoodRx said in a May earnings call. Walgreens said the low level of flu incidences led to a 3.5 percent drop in cough and cold medicine store sales between the first three months of 2021 compared to the same time period last year.

Prescriptions for Tamiflu fell from 200,000 before the pandemic to just 200 last year, Rite Aid reported in March. The company also noted a decline of nearly 40 percent in its cough, cold and flu remedies business from the year before.

Already, retail pharmacies are seeing a rebound in cold and flu sales as respiratory virus cases are on the rise. Mucinex sales tracked higher in June than last year and even higher in the early weeks of July.

NBC took a look at some market research forecasts and came up with another insight. It could be, the story says, that the pandemic taught us how to work from home and how to teach our kids remotely so they don’t go to school and spread their germs when they are infectious. And the result may be — may be — that we get sick less often in the years ahead. That’s good news for you, not so good news if you sell cough medicine.

Covid and its behavioral fallout has already altered long-term forecasts for cold and flu product sales, which are expected to decline from $9.5 billion last year to $9.4 billion by 2025, according to an April report from market research firm Mintel. The market’s growth or decline will depend on the adoption of remote work, hybrid schooling and new masking and hygiene behaviors, it said.

How to reach the ‘invisible population’ with vaccines

I really appreciated this story about a physician who runs a sensory-friendly clinic that makes it easier for patients who have psychological issues that make them sensitive to stimulation to visit the doctor. The lower-key environment makes it much easier for her patients to get COVID-19 vaccines and not get overstimulated. Pediatrician Dr. Wendy Ross has resources on her website to “help neurodiverse individuals prepare for vaccinations and other Covid-related issues.”

More phone calls and gardening, less shopping and grooming: How we spent our time during the pandemic

Susan Crowley, a 75-year-old retired attorney, works in her winter garden at her home in Hood River, Ore., on Jan. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

The American Time Use Survey is just what it sounds like, a Labor Department survey that tried to track how the people in the sample spent their pandemic days minute by minute. The survey says:

  • We worked about the same as we did in 2019 — which I do not believe. I think we worked more, but the survey included some people who lost their jobs and the data had to account for that.
  • We spent about 11% less time grooming ourselves.
  • We spent 15% less time traveling to buy stuff (I suppose it is because we discovered delivery services).
  • We played more. “The average time spent in leisure and sports activities increased by 32 minutes per day, from 5.0 hours in 2019 to 5.5 hours per day in 2020. Leisure time increased by an average of 37 minutes per day for men and 27 minutes for women.”
  • We cleaned and gardened more, with 12% more time spent on housework and 7% more time on food prep and cleanup. We spent 30% more time on lawn and garden care. “Compared with 2019, both men and women spent more time in 2020 doing household activities, such as housework, cooking, lawn care, and household management. Men spent an average of 16 minutes more per day doing these activities in 2020, while women spent 11 minutes more per day. However, men continued to spend less time in these activities in 2020 than did women — 1.6 hours versus 2.4 hours.”

Why are so many pedestrians getting hit by cars?

Transportation consultant and writer Angie Schmitt, who wrote “Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America,” has been digging around for answers about why other countries seem to be able to reduce pedestrian fatalities but America’s rate just keeps going up.

Governing, a website that local government leaders read, talked to Schmitt to find out what needs to change:

Schmitt found that even as reported rates of walking among Americans have been on the decline, pedestrian deaths have surged in recent years. Between 2009 and 2019, total driving miles increased by 10 percent, but pedestrian deaths increased by 50 percent. In Europe, by contrast, they fell by 36 percent over the last decade. Since then, the U.S. toll has only grown worse.

Schmitt says some of the contributing factors that make U.S. streets so dangerous are:

  • The pandemic did not lessen pedestrian deaths because, with less traffic, drivers went faster.
  • In the U.S., more people drive SUVs, which are heavier and higher off the ground. When SUVs hit a pedestrian, they hit the person higher on the body, which is more likely to cause fatal injuries.
  • Demographics shifted so the most dangerous part of the United States for pedestrians gained population.
  • The U.S. also has seen growth in the suburbs, which were not designed with pedestrian safety in mind.

And there is this:

In most cities in the United States, well-off white people aren’t doing much walking. If they are, they’re in a pretty safe spot. They’re not the ones who are having to cross a seven-lane highway in Florida to catch a bus. The people who are put in that position aren’t in positions of power in government and media and all the institutions that set policy.

I was just down in South Florida and the kind of people who are out walking in locations like that are an underclass. It’s people with disabilities, the very poor, the kind of people that are working third shifts or are maybe unhoused. Most reporters or engineers probably don’t have any direct experience with that.

The prevailing narrative for a long time has been if you are killed by a car, it’s your own fault. If you’re killed while you’re walking, it’s your own fault. You shouldn’t have been in the street. That’s the moral lens we’re seeing the problem through, even though if you step back it’s cruel and inaccurate. If you step back, we can see that there’s all these patterns about where this is occurring, and it has to do with a lot of factors outside individual agency.

Experts at the Rand Corporation say the biggest improvements in pedestrian safety may lie in rethinking vehicle safety, including improved blind spot monitoring and automatic braking. Rand imagines what it would take to reach zero pedestrian deaths by 2050.

We’ll be back tomorrow 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,…
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