July 22, 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.

Dr. Brytney Cobia, a physician at Grandview Medical Center in Birmingham, Alabama, posted the following on her Facebook page. Read every word.

I’m admitting young healthy people to the hospital with very serious COVID infections. One of the last things they do before they’re intubated is beg me for the vaccine.

I hold their hand and tell them that I’m sorry, but it’s too late.

A few days later when I call time of death, I hug their family members and I tell them the best way to honor their loved one is to go get vaccinated and encourage everyone they know to do the same.

They cry. And they tell me they didn’t know. They thought it was a hoax. They thought it was political. They thought because they had a certain blood type or a certain skin color they wouldn’t get as sick. They thought it was ‘just the flu’. But they were wrong. And they wish they could go back. But they can’t.

So, they thank me and they go get the vaccine. And I go back to my office, write their death note, and say a small prayer that this loss will save more lives.

One in four hospital workers is not vaccinated

A woman in a nurses uniform stands surrounded by white pairs of shoes to represent the 402 nurses who died because of COVID-19, near the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

With Cobia’s post in mind, it is hard to explain the data surfaced by a WebMD and Medscape Medical News analysis of data collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 2,500 hospitals across the country.

The report says about one in four people who work in hospitals are not vaccinated. In addition:

  • Among the nation’s 50 largest hospitals, the percentage of unvaccinated health care workers appears to be even larger, about 1 in 3.
  • Vaccination rates range from a high of 99% at Houston Methodist Hospital, which was the first in the nation to mandate the shots for its workers, to a low between 30% and 40% at some hospitals in Florida.
  • Lakeland Regional Medical Center in Lakeland, FL, reported to HHS that 63% of its health care personnel are still unvaccinated. The hospital did not return a call to verify that number.

An investigation by Kaiser Health News and The Guardianrecently revealed that more than 3,600 health care workers died in COVID-19’s first year in the U.S. Medscape has curated a continually updated list to honor the fallen health care workers.

The stats that tell the COVID-19 vaccine story

A new Yale study estimates that covid vaccines have prevented approximately 279,000 deaths just in the United States. The Yale study presents these striking numbers:

If only half as many vaccinations had been administered there would have been more than 120,000 additional deaths and 450,000 additional hospitalizations, according to the researchers.

As of July 2, the United States has administered more than 328 million COVID-19 vaccine doses and 67% of adults have received at least one dose, the researchers said. The number of cases, meanwhile, has fallen from over 300,000 per day at the pandemic’s peak in January to less than 20,000 daily in mid-June.

Two stats you could and should report every day

In states with low vaccination rates, more than 99% of COVID-19 deaths over the past six months have been among unvaccinated people, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

Washington Post contributing columnist Kate Cohen says the nonstop stories of vaccine breakthroughs are only newsworthy because the vaccines are so good that it seems surprising that they would not be failproof. Cohen makes an interesting suggestion that journalists should consider when reporting on such cases:

I propose a running tally in bold type: covid deaths among unvaccinated vs. vaccinated citizens. Two numbers, side by side. Every newspaper’s front page, every state and federal website, the crawl at the bottom of every cable television news broadcast.

Google can design something cute for its search bar. Facebook owes it to us.

Every day, all day. Two numbers.

  • The Associated Press, using figures provided by the CDC, found that of the more than 18,000 Americans who died of covid in May, only about 150 were fully vaccinated. That’s 0.8 percent.
  • Between Jan. 21 and July 9, 2,471 Virginians died of covid; 18 of them were vaccinated, or 0.7 percent.
  • Between Jan. 1 and June 30, 37,180 Californians died of covid; about 71 — 0.2 percent — were vaccinated.
  • Maryland reported that of the 130 Marylanders who died of covid in June, none were vaccinated.

130 vs. 0. I can see it on a billboard now.

Listen to the concerns of the unvaccinated. Answer the questions that underscore doubts.

It is a given that some anti-vaxxers are deep state conspiracists. But the more you listen to why so many people are avoiding the vaccines, the more you can start to understand where government messaging has missed the mark at teaching the public about the remarkable effectiveness and safety record of the COVID-19 vaccines.

A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll of 1,715 U.S. adults conducted last week found:

  • Just 29% of unvaccinated Americans believe the virus poses a greater risk to their health than the vaccines, while 37% say they believe the vaccines represent a greater health risk than the virus. Put another way, more people say the vaccine is riskier than the virus. After millions of vaccinations administered globally, the only serious reactions that have surfaced have been extremely rare cases of heart inflammation and even more rare allergic reactions. Even those unlikely reactions are usually mild.
  • 37% percent of unvaccinated Americans say they are “concerned about long-term side effects” of the vaccines. One would suppose that the only way to overcome this concern would be to wait for a long time to see whether their concerns were well-founded or not. By then, the virus will have continued to spread and mutate.
  • 17% of the unvaccinated said, “I don’t trust the government.” This week, a number of GOP leaders and influencers started adding their voices to the chorus of people urging doubters to get vaccinated.
  • 16% said, “The vaccines are too new,” apparently referring to the mRNA technology behind the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
  • And 11% say, “The FDA hasn’t fully approved the vaccines yet,” which refers to the emergency order under which the vaccines are being distributed. In addition to the tens of thousands of vaccines administered in drug trials a year ago, we now have the real-life experience of hundreds of millions of people who have gotten the vaccines. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to consider full approval of the vaccines beginning in a few months.

State lawmakers nationwide are blocking employers who want proof of vaccination

Since the federal government issued guidance that private employers do have the legal ability to require employees to prove they have been vaccinated, state lawmakers in nearly every state have gotten to work introducing — and in several cases passing — laws that prevent employers from asking.

Click on the interactive map by the National Academy for State Health Policy to see legislation in each state. (NASHP)

Seven states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Montana, Oklahoma and Utah — have enacted legislation restricting public schools from requiring either coronavirus vaccinations or documentation of vaccination status.

A federal court will decide if requiring students to wear a mask violates religious beliefs

A federal court in Michigan will decide whether it is a violation of religious freedom to require schoolchildren to wear masks. The line of reasoning is being raised by the Lansing-based Resurrection School, a Catholic school. The school told the court masks make people anti-social, mask the human image, are disruptive to the Catholic faith and that wearing a mask is a form of “expression.” The lawsuit says:

Wearing a face mask during this current and highly politicized pandemic has become a form of expression. The wearing of a face mask, when socially distanced or when the situation and condition make doing so extreme or unreasonable, is for many, including Plaintiffs, a symbol of oppression and government tyranny. It is a sign that the wearer is willing to surrender his or her freedoms to the government.

COVID-19 is killing cash

Axios has an interesting piece on how, during the pandemic, we turned even further away from using cash.

(Axios)

Axios reports:

For long-term trends, surveys by the Atlanta Fed determined that in 2019, paper currency was used in 26% of consumer payments by number, and 6% by value. That’s down from 40%, and 14%, respectively, in 2012.

This bit of insight from Axios really shocked me:

Demand for $100 bills illustrates the increasingly underground use of cash, says Kenneth Rogoff, professor of economics at Harvard who authored the definitive tome about the dark side of paper money.

The $100 bill accounts for more than 80% of U.S. bills in circulation, according to the Bank for International Settlements. Hundred dollar bills are rarely used in retail transactions, and are more commonly used for paying for goods and services off the books.

I don’t know about you, but I still pay my utility bills by check. I do this mostly because I want to be sure I am monitoring my water and power use, which I do not think I would if I was on an auto-pay system.

Biden killed the high-flow showerhead

In this Aug. 12, 2020, file photo, water flows from a showerhead in Portland, Ore. The Trump administration on Wednesday, Dec. 16, relaxed a regulation restricting water flow from showerheads, a pet peeve of then-President Donald Trump, who complained that he needed more water to make his hair “perfect.” (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

When he was president, Donald Trump promised that he would deliver a showerhead that would spew more powerful sprays. In the final month of his administration, the Energy Department changed the rules to fit the president’s promise. But the Biden administration just published a recommendation to roll the regulations back to what they used to be. The rules may be changed in a couple of months after a period of comment from the public.

Prior to the December rules change, the DOE said a showerhead could be capped at 2.5 gallons per minute.

But the new rules put the cap not on a showerhead but on a shower installation. So, if you had two nozzles in a shower stall, a single showerhead could blast 5 gallons a minute.

The Associated Press quotes Kelly Speakes-Backman, acting assistant secretary for the department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, who says, “As many parts of America experience historic droughts, this commonsense proposal means consumers can purchase showerheads that conserve water and save them money on their utility bills.″

The Energy Department also wants to water down the 2020 rule that allowed “body sprays” to end-run the rules on water use.

Solving the 2020 pandemic mystery: those seeds from China

Chris Heath, a correspondent for GQ, did a deep research project for The Atlantic in which he tried to figure out the truth behind those seed packets that hundreds of Americans said showed up in their mailboxes a year ago.

You will recall the speculation that these packets, which said they were from China, might be bio-terrorism or genetic warfare. At the time, government officials warned not to plant them.

Heath finds that none of the seeds turned out to be hazardous. Some were planted and bore vegetables, fruit or flowers. And, while nobody can say for certain, it appears likely that the people who got the seeds may have ordered them, not knowing they were ordering them from China. Shipping delays made them arrive months after they ordered them and the buyers forgot about the orders. There may also have been a marketing scam called “brushing” involved.

But, a year later, we know of no poison seed deaths. So you can worry about something else.

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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