February 16, 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.

A storm that so many of you are enduring is closing vaccination sites. At the same time, it is keeping people home and not out spreading the virus.

The biggest downside will be if the winter weather keeps people inside, but gathered with neighbors or friends. StatNews explains the connection between weather and the virus’ spread:

Dropping temperatures, diving relative humidity, and drier respiratory tracts. When the weather turns cold, air gets drier. And turning on the heat dries both the air and the tissues lining the airways, impairing how well mucus removes debris and invaders like SARS-CoV-2.

Studies show significantly more infections happen and spread when the relative humidity falls from between 40% and 60% — a range typical in warmer weather — to 20%. That research draws from past outbreaks of flu and MERS, which is caused by another coronavirus. More recent case reports from the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic’s early days in China and Seattle conclude the same thing: The virus stays stable longer and finds purchase on receptors in our airways better when the relative humidity sits at a wintry 20%. That’s one reason why we catch more colds and flu in cold weather.

I thought it was interesting that the sheriff in Miami County, Ohio, said deputies would help people get to their vaccination appointments if needed.

Why naming COVID-19 variants after countries can be harmful

Virus researchers from Louisiana State University and the University of New Mexico found seven variants of the coronavirus circulating in the United States (the study has not yet been peer-reviewed). We do not yet know how these changes in the virus affect how infectious the virus is or whether it spreads faster. What we do know is the virus is, as all viruses are, a moving target that is constantly adapting. The New York Times does a nice job of explaining how these mutations happen.

Instead of naming the variants after countries, these researchers decided that it would be more useful to name them after birds. CNN explains:

One, called Robin 1, has turned up in more than 30 US states, predominating in the Midwest, they said.

A second “first appeared from an Oct 6, 2020 sample from Alabama and is named ‘Robin 2’ owing to its similarity to the parental Robin 1 sub-lineage,” they wrote. It’s mainly seen in the Southeast.

One called Pelican was first seen in a sample from Oregon and has since turned up in 12 other states as well as Australia, Denmark, Switzerland and India.

Pelican was the first variant that grabbed the attention of the researchers, in part because it was found in nearly 28% of samples from Louisiana and 11% of samples from New Mexico.

“The remaining Q677H sub-lineages each contain around 100 or fewer sequences, and are named: Yellowhammer, detected mostly in the southeast US; Bluebird, mostly in the northeast United States; Quail, mainly in the Southwest and Northeast; and Mockingbird, mainly in the South-central and East coast states,” the research team wrote.

There is some concern that the recent trend of naming a variant based on where it was first noticed stigmatizes that country and anybody associated with it. Though I suppose there is always the chance that wackos will hear the phrase “pelican virus” and think that pelicans are spreading it. This virus is not like mad cow disease or the swine flu, which were actually associated with a species.

Maybe the only way to not stigmatize a species or location would be to name a virus after something that is extinct, like a dinosaur. Or name them after a constellation, which would have a side benefit of increasing our astronomy vocabulary.

Wired explains the problems with naming variants:

Scientists don’t like to name diseases after places or people (too stigmatizing). They prefer something more precise — and more esoteric. What a virus is called is also, often, what it does, or where it fits on the family tree. Scientists argue about nomenclature, about the naming of things, because it’s a proxy for fighting about what things are — methodologically, objectively, and philosophically. But in the middle of a pandemic, that might not be good enough. “It’s too complicated,” Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the World Health Organization’s emerging diseases unit, said in a Q&A at the end of January. “We don’t actually have to name every variant that’s of interest, but we do need to name the ones that are important, the ones that have potential impact on severity, on transmission, and any of them that have any impact on therapeutics and vaccines.” So with all the bigwigs of Covid nomenclature, the (World Health Organization) has begun to try to untangle the naming mess.

No epidemic has ever had so many people sequencing so many samples of a virus. There was bound to be a pile-up. “It might seem like it burst onto the public stage. But in the scientific community, this discussion about, ‘How do we talk about it? What nomenclature do we use?’ has been brewing for a while,” says Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern and co-developer of Nextstrain, one of the main efforts to organize viral genetic sequences. “A lot of it does depend on what you’re doing. Are you doing public health intervention or large-scale evolution?”

There is a protocol for scientists who identify a virus variant. They upload the research results to a database called GISAID, the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data. At that level, the variant would be known as B.1.351 or SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01, which are variants first noticed in Brazil and Great Britain.

Mutant, variant or strain?

The Conversation, a website that brings academic experts to the public, attempts to provide definitions for “mutant,” “variant” and “strain,” which should not be used interchangeably.

The genetic material of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is called ribonucleic acid (RNA). To replicate, and therefore establish infection, SARS-CoV-2 RNA must hijack a host cell and use the cell’s machinery to duplicate itself.

Errors often occur during the process of duplicating the viral RNA. This results in viruses that are similar but not exact copies of the original virus. These errors in the viral RNA are called mutations, and viruses with these mutations are called variants. Variants could differ by a single or many mutations.

A variant is referred to as a strain when it shows distinct physical properties. Put simply, a strain is a variant that is built differently, and so behaves differently, to its parent virus. These behavioral differences can be subtle or obvious.

Let’s make this a graphic to help you understand:

(The Conversation)

A mutation causes a variant, which is the old strain with new RNA. If the RNA change causes a virus to act differently, then it is a new strain.

In New Zealand, the virus reemerges and forces a lockdown

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (center) and Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield (right) talk to media on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021, in Wellington, New Zealand. As people in Auckland adjusted to a new lockdown, health officials said they’d found no evidence the coronavirus had spread further in the community, raising hopes the restrictions might be short-lived.

This is a reminder that when governments relax restrictions, the virus can make a comeback. New Zealand has had fewer than 2,500 COVID-19 cases and 25 deaths until now. But a family in Auckland just tested positive for the virus and the city is going into lockdown.

Think about that response. One family tested positive and a whole city — complete with bars and gyms and restaurants — closes. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the country is taking a “precautionary approach that has served us so well as a country.”

These are the top misinformation superspreaders

The Associated Press collaborated with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab to produce a list of the people and organizations behind the “most viral misinformation about the origins of the coronavirus. Their claims were explosive. Their evidence was weak. These are the superspreaders.”

They are professors, websites with important-sounding names and even a Nobel Prize winner.

A program worth reporting: Food Rescue Heroes

10 cities participate in a program called Food Rescue Hero that more should consider.

The Washington Post explains it involves “18,000 volunteers who use an app called Food Rescue Hero, linking them to places where they can pick up produce, meat, dairy products and prepared meals that are close to being thrown away. The volunteers then deliver the donated goods to families in need in their communities or drop them off at local churches and food pantries.”

(Food Rescue Hero)

So far, the groups have “redirected 28 million pounds of food.” One person called them the “Uber or DoorDash for surplus food, but with the driving and deliveries purely powered by volunteers.”

One of the cool features of this project is that volunteers (most of whom are seniors) can offer their help anytime they have time. They check the app to find out what needs to be picked up and the app tells them where to deliver it.

The Post story includes a little passage that warmed my heart. It tells the story of a cake shop that donates — but more than just food that is about to expire. This little shop makes food especially to be donated.

“We’re fortunate to still be surviving — our community has been good to us,” said Victoria Wu, who owns Cakes by Happy Eatery in Manassas, Va. “It’s important for us to give right back to the community.”

Wu has contributed everything from chicken pot pies to vegan chocolate cupcakes to the cause. Rather than donate leftovers, she and her crew prepare 100 to 150 meals from scratch for families in need every Thursday.

Journalists, I encourage you to find these kinds of examples of good people doing smart things. Not only does it give them the publicity they need to keep going, but it will also encourage others to find solutions.

What does post-pandemic mass transit look like?

Patrick Foye, Chairman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, hands out masks on a New York subway, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Slate.com reports:

The tallest building in San Francisco is the Salesforce Tower, a totem of blue glass and a symbol of the city’s tech economy since its completion in 2018. On Tuesday, the software company’s “chief people officer” outlined new work policies. “The 9-to-5 workday is dead,” he wrote. Most employees will be in the office between one and three days a week. Twitter, another San Francisco tech employer, has announced an indefinite work-from-home policy. The situation looks similar in New York, D.C., Chicago, and other major U.S. cities.

If it does come to pass, the decline of downtown would have severe ramifications for American life, upending local businesses, municipal budgets, housing markets, and civic culture. But mass transit would grapple with its effects first. Asking a transit agency to operate without rush hour is like asking a restaurant to operate without dinner service. Most systems are built to serve a downtown core and managed to serve peak demand. And it was during that peak that transit agencies collected most of their fares.

Slate points out that city after city has sunk billions of dollars into infrastructure to deal with rush-hour traffic. But what if, in the course of a year or two, rush-hour traffic becomes a thing of the past? How are your city planners thinking about all of this? I recommend that you take a look at Slate’s deep dive.

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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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