September 2, 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.

With so much heated debate about the efficacy of masks, you would think we would have clear and convincing details about which masks work and which ones are fairly worthless.

Some international airlines are now banning cloth masks. European governments encourage people to wear medical masks, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dissuades Americans from using N95 masks to ensure there will be enough of them for medical workers. The CDC also does not say to ditch cloth masks as other countries are doing.

Fast Company provides an update on the shifting international standards:

Many airlines now ban fabric masks on flights. Last week, Finnair was the latest to adopt this policy, joining Air France, Lufthansa, Swissair, Croatia Airlines, and LATAM Airlines in announcing that passengers would not be allowed to wear cloth masks on flights. The reason? “Fabric masks are slightly less efficient at protecting people from infection than surgical masks,” according to Finnair’s statement. Now, all of these airlines are only allowing N95 masks, surgical masks, and respirators that do not have exhaust valves.

In Germany and Austria, the governments mandated that citizens wear filtering facepieces (FFP) — a European standard that offers a similar filtration system to the N95 — on public transportation, in workplaces, and in shops. In its announcement, the German government said that medical masks offer the wearer more protection than cloth masks, “which are not subject to any standards with regards to their effectiveness.”

Fast Company explains that the biggest problem with cloth masks is that there is no standard for their filtration.

N95 masks, for instance, prevent at least 95% of airborne particles from entering. In a test conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), surgical masks were found to provide 71.5% filtration, but only when they were fitted with ties that provide a close fit on the face. Surgical masks with ear loops only offered 38.1% filtration.

The EPA estimates that a triple layer cotton mask would block just a little over one-fourth of particles associated with a virus. A nylon mask with two layers, a filter and a metal fitting over the nose would block 79% of particles. The tightness of the seal on the face is a big determinant of how effective a mask is.

(EPA)

And of course, as governments and airlines and eventually others begin upping their requirements for the kinds of masks you wear, you can expect that counterfeiters will get even more active. The CDC has a list of approved N95 manufacturers that might help prevent you from wasting your money on fakes.

(CDC)

Is this a definitive mask study?

There is this other new research on masks that I wanted you to see because the researchers say it is significant due to the sample size and because it is based on the real world and not confined to a lab.

I forewarn you that it is a pre-print study, so it has not been peer-reviewed yet, but it was conducted by researchers from Yale and Stanford.

In short, the close study of 340,000 adults across 600 villages found that there was a direct relationship between an increase in mask-wearing and a decrease in the spread of the coronavirus. Yale economist Jason Abaluck, who helped lead the study, called it “a nail in the coffin” of the arguments against masks. This may sound like what you already know, but the researchers stress, “This was the first large-scale randomized evaluation to demonstrate the effectiveness of masks in a real-world setting.”

You can read the details of the study here.

The Washington Post also has a detailed report about the study.

Mask madness

Military.com tells the story of a Marine corporal who so opposed wearing a mask that she was dismissed from the corp. Military.com carefully fact-checks the corporal’s objections:

In an interview with Military.com, McHaffie said the mask mandate violated her religious liberties. She said that she doesn’t believe masks are effective and wearing them would be to bear false witness, a violation of the ninth commandment in Judaism and Christianity.

The uncomfortable intersection of religion and vaccinations

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is urging members to mask up and get vaccinated. It has been a tough sell for the church that has a recognized central voice, just as it has for some faiths that are run more independently. An Associated Press story reports the results of a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core. The survey found:

  • About 65% of Latter-day Saints who responded to a recent survey said they were vaccine acceptors, meaning they’ve gotten at least one dose or plan to soon.
  • Another 15% identified as hesitant, and
  • 19% said they would not get the vaccine
  • The survey found 79% of white Catholics and 56% of white Evangelical Protestants identified as vaccine acceptors.

In the last few days, the New York Public Health and Planning Council confirmed the state’s mandate for health care workers to get vaccinated and, at the same time, the council removed a religious exemption that could allow people to avoid vaccination.

The Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, New York, reports:

The mandate approved by the council also removed a planned exemption that would have allowed workers to avoid vaccination based on religious considerations. Any religious exemptions previously granted are no longer valid and facilities will not be allowed to include religious exemptions at all, said Vanessa Murphy, a DOH attorney.

“We’re not constitutionally required to provide a religious exemption,” Murphy said. “You see that with the Measles and the Mumps requirement for health care workers.”

This week, The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, explained that state’s religious exemption for teachers who want to remain unvaccinated:

Religion, according to the state, is defined to include organized denominations as well as beliefs that are individualistic, new, uncommon or do not belong to a formal church or sect. Morals and ethics “held with the strength of traditional religious views” may meet state and federal standards, while social, political or economic philosophies and personal preferences do not.

For school districts, human resources departments should be responsible for reviewing and approving religious accommodation requests, according to the state.

According to guidance from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, employers should offer – but not require – employees the option to submit their religious accommodation request in writing.

“In determining whether an employee’s religious belief is sincerely held,” the guidance reads, “a limited initial inquiry could include objective, general questions, without delving too far into an employee’s reasons for a particular belief and without requiring input from an outside source, such as a formal religious leader.”

When an educator claims an exemption based on religion, Washington State provides a form with five questions that employees are required to fill out and submit to their employer’s Human Resources department for review and approval. The questions are:

  1. Describe the religious belief, practice, or observance that is the basis for your request for a religious accommodation.
  2. Does your religious belief, practice, or observance lead you to object to: a. All medical treatment – Yes/No; b. All vaccinations – Yes/No; c. Only the COVID-19 vaccination – Yes/No
  3. Briefly explain how your sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with the COVID-19 vaccination requirement.
  4. Briefly describe the accommodation you are requesting.
  5. If the request for accommodation is temporary, please identify the anticipated date the accommodation is no longer needed.

States must fit their COVID-19 vaccine exemptions next to existing personal belief and religious exemption laws.

Click on the map for links to state laws. (National Conference of State Legislators)

NCSL explains:

All 50 states have legislation requiring specified vaccines for students. Although exemptions vary from state to state, all school immunization laws grant exemptions to children for medical reasons. There are 44 states and Washington D.C. that grant religious exemptions for people who have religious objections to immunizations. Currently, 15 states allow philosophical exemptions for children whose parents object to immunizations because of personal, moral or other beliefs. Many states align their vaccine requirements with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. At this time, no state requires children to receive the COVID-19 vaccine for school entry.

I am seeing stories about people who are doing end-runs around religious institutions. A Michigan small-town school board member who also runs a gun store told Facebook followers that he is ordained and would be happy to give a religious exemption to anybody who wants it.

Patriots say Newton’s release was not vaccine-related

New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the New York Giants Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)

First, thanks to those of you who pointed out that I boneheadedly called Bill Belichick the team owner of the New England Patriots yesterday. The owner is Robert Kraft.

Now, the update. Belichick claims the Pats did not release Cam Newton over Newton’s COVID-19 vaccination status. Newton recently missed three days of practice due to what he called a “misunderstanding” about the NFL’s rules for unvaccinated players. The NFL tests unvaccinated players daily and, if they test positive, the player is out for at least 10 days. Newton is choosing not to be vaccinated.

Belichick told reporters, “The number of players, coaches and staff members that have been affected by COVID in this training camp — who have been vaccinated — is a pretty high number. So, I wouldn’t lose sight of that.”

But Belichick’s comments miss the fact that if vaccinated players test positive, they can return to the field if they take two tests separated by 24 hours and show up negative. A quarterback who misses 10 days in a season is for sure out for one game, an unvaccinated player might not be.

Then add to that this from The Florida Times-Union. The Jacksonville Jaguars coach Urban Meyer said when the team made decisions this week on who to cut, vaccination status was a factor in the decision.

“’Everyone was considered; that was part of the production and also was he vaccinated or not,”’ Meyer said. ”To say that was a decision-maker, it certainly was under consideration.” Not long after that hit the fan, the Jags issued a “clarification”:

But before the team could attempt to walk back Meyer’s statement, the NFL Players Association said it was opening an investigation into the matter.

The New York Post reports:

Hall of Famer John Smoltz and former Met and Yankee Al Leiter will no longer appear in-studio for MLB Network after refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine, The Post has learned. MLBN has made it mandatory for all employees to be vaccinated, with the mandate going into effect Sept. 1. MLBN executives, Smoltz and Leiter made a compromise to keep them on-the-air, but not in the Secaucus studios. They will both appear remotely for the shows.

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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