December 1, 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.

Wall Street is reacting, in part, to Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell saying the central bank will discuss speeding up the bond-buying taper at its December meeting. Traders take it as a sign that Powell is more concerned about inflation than he has previously indicated. The reaction is also linked to uncertainty about how effective our current vaccines will be against the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus.

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel told The Financial Times that it appears likely that the current COVID-19 vaccines will not be as effective against the omicron variant as they were and are against the delta variant. Bancel said, “I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to … are like, ‘This is not going to be good.’”

At the same time, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin told Reuters that people vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine will most likely be protected from severe illness if infected with omicron.

Let’s keep in mind these two CEOs are talking about two different things. The Moderna CEO was talking about preventing infections and the BioNTech CEO was referring to hospitalizations.

Within days, we may have a new Food and Drug Administration-approved antiviral pill to treat COVID-19. An FDA advisory committee took a big step Tuesday by recommending that the FDA approve the use of molnupiravir, which could help prevent hospitalizations and death among people who are infected with COVID-19, including variants like omicron. It is noteworthy that the FDA advisory panel narrowly voted for the recommendation to approve the drug, which is produced by Merck. The 13-10 vote is not binding on the full FDA but the FDA does generally follow the panel’s recommendations.

The pill is different from the intravenous antiviral medications in that it could be taken at home, not just in hospital settings. It is not a cure-all and is not an iron-clad way to prevent severe illness, but it has proven effective in some 30% of cases where the infection was caught early. Pfizer also plans to submit an antiviral pill to the FDA for consideration within a few weeks.

Airline, hotel and cruise stocks were hit hard as the world wonders whether the outbreak of the latest variant — which is still small but growing — will upend winter and spring travel plans. Maybe one of the biggest warning signals is Tuesday’s steep drop in oil prices — the single biggest one-day drop since the pandemic began — in anticipation of less travel and a slowdown in business production if the pandemic grows worse.

The number of confirmed omicron cases worldwide rose only by 50 Tuesday.

(BNO News)

So far, no Thanksgiving COVID surge

Before Thanksgiving, the United States averaged about 95,000 new cases of COVID-19 per day. So far, in the days following the holiday and weekend of intensive travel, new case counts have fallen, not risen as experts feared. It is difficult to know if that is because of inconsistent testing or reporting or whether we may have escaped the scenario that health officials feared: that holiday gatherings and travel might reignite the outbreak.

I checked 2020 data and the post-Thanksgiving surge then started in earnest Nov. 30 and kept going up and up for weeks. But, keep in mind, that was before we had access to vaccines.

States got millions of dollars to perform contact tracing. Are they?

Five-year-old Berkeley Goss reviews classwork with his mother, Emily, inside their Monroe, N.C. home on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. Berkeley was forced to quarantine after a classmate tested positive for COVID-19 during the first week of in-person kindergarten. He was among 7,000 students to do so in a school district where leaders have chosen not to require masks and end contact tracing. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan)

Remember all of those contact-tracing efforts that states launched? Whatever happened to the apps and grand plans to track the spread of the virus? Many states have all but ended widespread routine COVID-19 contact tracing.

Use this website to discover:

You will find that some states received millions of federal dollars to conduct contact tracing. Many of these awards came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June as part of the government’s attempt to help even disparities between cities and rural areas.

(National Academy for State Health Policy)

The World Health Organization said this week that tracing and testing will be key to understanding and containing the omicron variant. WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris said, “Testing and tracing remains fundamental to managing this pandemic and really understanding what you’re dealing with.

“We’re asking all countries to really look for this variant, to look if people who have got it are ending up in hospital and if people who are fully vaccinated are ending up in hospital,” she said.

Testing wastewater is one of the fastest and most effective ways to detect outbreaks

Ryan Dupont, Utah State University Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, collects sewage samples from the dorms at Utah State University Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, in Logan, Utah, to test for the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

South African cities Pretoria, Cape Town and Johannesburg are all testing city wastewater samples to detect the virus’ spread.

The CDC says wastewater testing for COVID-19 can be a much faster way to detect new outbreaks. Wastewater monitoring is not for individual homes, and it does not give an estimate of how many people might be infected. But it can be useful for cities, universities and other communities that share a wastewater facility to make decisions about shutdowns or curfews.

Here are the advantages, via the CDC:

  • Sewage testing has been successfully used as a method for early detection of other diseases, such as polio.
  • SARS-CoV-2 can be shed in the feces of individuals with symptomatic or asymptomatic infection; therefore, wastewater surveillance can capture data on both types of infection.
  • Nearly 80 percent of United States households are served by municipal sewage collection systems.
  • Quantitative SARS-CoV-2 measurements in untreated sewage can provide information on changes in total SARS-CoV-2 infection in the community contributing to that wastewater treatment plant (that area is known as the “sewershed.”)
  • Depending on the frequency of testing, sewage surveillance can be a leading indicator of changes in COVID-19 burden in a community.
  • SARS-CoV-2 RNA detection in sewage serves as a COVID-19 indicator that is independent of healthcare-seeking behaviors and access to clinical testing.

Utah, for example, now has 42 communities monitoring wastewater for COVID-19. That covers 80% of the state’s population. Florida is also planning to begin more widespread wastewater virus monitoring.

One 2020 study monitored wastewater samples in 159 counties in 40 states. The study found wastewater data showed outbreaks and illnesses that would lead to hospitalizations before the usual testing methods produced the same results later.

Do our current COVID-19 rapid and PCR tests detect the omicron variant?

Abbott Labs says its rapid tests can detect the omicron variant. The company sent out an alert:

Abbott has been intently monitoring the mutations of COVID-19 so we can ensure our tests can detect them. We have already conducted an assessment of the Omicron variant and we’re confident our rapid and PCR tests can detect the virus. While the Omicron variant contains mutations to the spike protein, Abbott’s rapid and molecular tests — antigen, PCR and NAAT — do not rely on the spike gene to detect the virus.

Abbott is currently manufacturing more than 100 million COVID-19 rapid and PCR tests a month to help support increased need for testing around the globe.

Other manufacturers also say their PCR tests “accurately detect the new coronavirus omicron variant.”

The World Health Organization updated its COVID-19 advisory to say, “The widely-used PCR tests continue to detect infection, including infection with Omicron, as we have seen with other variants.”

The multiple deadlines ahead amid a pandemic

As if you do not have enough to keep you awake at night, Congress may begin voting tomorrow on a spending bill to keep the government running. Congress watchers say most likely there will be another continuing resolution that will fund the government into January. The current continuing resolution expires midnight Friday.

But wait, there’s more.

Remember a month or so ago when expert after expert warned us that Congress must raise the nation’s debt limit or the national economy would melt down? That deadline is approaching. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says it is Dec. 15.

In the coming days, you will probably see more messages from health care providers, including lobbying groups for hospitals, about a $14 billion cut in Medicare payments. The American Hospital Association and America’s Essential Hospitals oppose the cuts. In short, the new payment schedule cuts the amount that doctors and hospitals can charge Medicare for a range of services from administering vaccines to office visits. Here is some background on the subject.

Congress is still tussling over the nearly $2 trillion Build Back Better bill that may or may not include four weeks of paid family leave and expanding Medicare to give seniors coverage for hearing and dental care. Senate Democrats want a vote before Christmas, but the House would have to vote on it again if the Senate makes big changes to the bill.

Climate change denial is dead, but the next battle will pair climate change and immigration

There was a time, even a few years ago, when climate change denialism was as prevalent as COVID-19 vaccine disinformation is today. But the newest Gallup polling shows that more people today believe climate change is underestimated as opposed to exaggerated.


The Guardian warns that the battles ahead over climate change will be closely linked to migration and border control:

The number of people uprooted around the world will balloon further, to as many as 1.2 billion by 2050 by some estimates, and while most will move within their own countries, many millions are expected to seek refuge across borders. This mass upending of lives is set to cause internal and external conflicts that the Pentagon, among others, has warned will escalate into violence.

Millions of people are already being displaced from their homes, predominately in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, due to disasters worsened by climate change such as flooding, storms and wildfires. In August, the United Nations said Madagascar was on the brink of the world’s first “climate change famine”.

The Guardian says in Europe, far-right groups are already pointing to eco-issues as ways to fight immigration. The themes take on typical scare tactics and morph them into some sort of backhanded green messaging. Read this passage and tuck it into your memory. We will likely see a version of it again:

The far right depict migrants as being “essentially poor custodians of their own lands and then treating European nature badly as well”, Turner said. “So you get these headlines around asylum seekers eating swans, all these ridiculous scaremongering tactics. But they play into this idea that by stopping immigrants coming here, you are actually supporting a green project.”

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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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