January 26, 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.

We got the kind of news late Monday that may be an important moment in our COVID-19 history months from now. Researchers in Minnesota confirmed the first known case of the “Brazil variant” of the virus. This is in addition to the variants found in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

The patient who showed up with the Brazil P.1 variant had recently traveled to Brazil.

“While this variant is thought to be more transmissible than the initial strain of the virus that causes COVID-19 disease,” the Minnesota Department of Health said, “it is not yet known whether the variant causes more severe illness.”

This emergence is concerning because it is more evidence that the virus is changing as it keeps moving across the globe. It raises new worries that the vaccines that we are rushing to get may not protect us from whatever the virus becomes.

The Star Tribune reports that the variants point to an urgent need to track the virus:

The lack of sequencing work is part of a broader funding problem for public health in the U.S., but there’s still a chance for improvement, said Dr. Sallie Permar, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. In the meantime, the threat from the variant can be controlled, Permar said, if people “double-down, triple-down, quadruple-down” on the standard recommendations about social distancing, wearing masks and adhering to quarantine/isolation protocols.

She added that viral variants are setting up a race against time that brings “extreme urgency” to the rollout of coronavirus vaccines.

The Minnesota Department of Health is sounding the alarm about international travel.

“These cases illustrate why it is so important to limit travel during a pandemic as much as possible,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield. “If you must travel, it is important to watch for symptoms of COVID-19, follow public health guidance on getting tested prior to travel, use careful protective measures during travel, and quarantine and get tested after travel.”

For passengers traveling to the United States from abroad, a negative test from within three days of travel or certificate of prior infection will be required to board, beginning Jan. 26. Travelers are recommended to test for COVID-19 three to five days after arrival and quarantine for at least seven days. It is recommended that people consider getting tested one to three days prior to domestic travel, that they restrict their activities for at least seven days upon return, and that they get tested for COVID-19 three to five days after arrival.

How much protection do vaccines provide for COVID-19 variants?

The scientists who are building the coronavirus vaccines are a little bit like mechanics trying to fix an airplane while in flight. The virus is changing in ways that may be making it spread faster and the drug companies are trying to figure out if the vaccines protect you from the new virus variants. 

Moderna gave us some new insight into its plans to adjust its vaccines to address these variants. The drug company says it believes that its vaccine will protect against the variants that are showing up in the United Kingdom and South Africa, but it has less confidence in how much protection the vaccine offers against the South African version. Moderna says it is working on what may become a “booster” shot to protect against that variant.

Moderna provides some insight into how quickly the virus is changing:

First detected in September 2020 in the United Kingdom, the SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7 variant has seventeen mutations in the viral genome with eight mutations located in the spike (S) protein. The B.1.351 variant, first detected in South Africa, has ten mutations located in the spike (S) protein. Both variants have spread at a rapid rate and are associated with increased transmission and a higher viral burden after infection.

USA Today offers a simple explanation for how variants happen:

Viruses live — if you can call it that — to replicate themselves. They hijack cells, including our own, and use them to make copies of themselves.

But every time a virus like the one that causes COVID-19 copies itself, as it does millions of times inside each infected person, mistakes can happen. Instead of perfectly copying its 29,811 bases, the four-letter alphabet used to describe its genetic code, a wrong letter sneaks in.

These changes are random and most are unimportant, but each infection increases the risk of a mutation that could make the virus more infectious, deadlier, or just different enough to render vaccines and natural infections less protective, or treatments ineffective, said Dr. Robert Bollinger, a professor of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

COVID-19 cases are dropping. But don’t get reckless.

Hannah Martin works behind a plexiglass sheet as she delivers book pickup orders at the Skylight Book store in Los Angeles Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. California has lifted regional stay-at-home orders statewide in response to improving coronavirus conditions. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

New COVID-19 cases are dropping nationwide. New cases have dropped by 21% in the past two weeks, and 37 states are seeing sustained reductions in cases.

Experts at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation say the combined effect of vaccinations and a seasonal decline in flu viruses are helping.

This map is very good news.

(USA Today)

President Joe Biden told reporters Monday that he is upping his vaccination goal to 1.5 million vaccines per day, but said that while he is going to “shut down the virus” he added that “it is going to take a heck of a long time.”

“By summer we should be on our way to herd immunity,” he said, adding that “we will be working on this well into the fall.”

Biden pointed to the drop in new cases as encouraging news, as long as we do not let up on efforts to control the spread of the virus. We’ve been here before. Let’s see if we can keep from driving the ship onto the rocks this time.

Look at the number of states lifting, easing and in some cases imposing some restrictions:

(USA Today)

Last summer, when southern states rushed to reopen businesses, cases picked right back up again. Similarly, as much as everybody wants to get back to “normal,” experts at Columbia University say if we keep our current restrictions — like working at home and wearing masks — through July, we have a chance at hitting reset. Lift restrictions in the next couple of weeks and the experts warn we will see a resurgence just as we did last summer.

This data comes from a team led by Marta Galanti and Jeffrey Shaman at Columbia University in collaboration with researchers at Pfizer. The New York Times has a full story on the data. (The New York Times)

Here’s a sample of what states are doing around the U.S.:

  • Massachusetts relaxed some coronavirus restrictions Monday.
  • On Jan. 21, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called on all schools in the state to resume in-person learning by March 1, if not sooner.
  • New York officials said they expect to lift some restrictions on “cluster zones” within the next few days because it appears that the post-holiday surge has peaked.
  • California health officials announced they were lifting a statewide stay-at-home order. On Monday, California reported a drop in coronavirus hospitalizations for the 14th day running, even while deaths increased.
  • This weekend, Chicago began easing some restrictions on bars and restaurants.
  • Several Colorado counties are lifting restrictions this week.

(New York Times)

How opening schools became a tool to fight suicides

Students enter P.S. 134 Henrietta Szold Elementary School, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in New York, shortly after public schools reopened for in-school learning after being closed since mid-November. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

This story in the New York Times is focused on Las Vegas, and I suspect you will find at least a piece of it applies to your community, too.

The spate of student suicides in and around Las Vegas has pushed the Clark County district, the nation’s fifth largest, toward bringing students back as quickly as possible. This month, the school board gave the green light to phase in the return of some elementary school grades and groups of struggling students even as greater Las Vegas continues to post huge numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths.

The data behind suicides in the pandemic are not as clear as you might think … yet. So we are, for the moment, left with anecdotal stories. Clark County, Nevada, for example, has recorded 18 suicides in the nine months of schools being closed — twice as many student suicides as the county counted in the previous school year. One 9-year-old student left a note saying there was nothing to look forward to. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had warned this would happen; that student suicides would rise if schools were closed.

The Times added context:

Adolescent suicide during the pandemic cannot conclusively be linked to school closures; national data on suicides in 2020 have yet to be compiled. One study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the percentage of youth emergency room visits that were for mental health reasons had risen during the pandemic. The actual number of those visits fell, though researchers noted that many people were avoiding hospitals that were dealing with the crush of coronavirus patients. And a compilation of emergency calls in more than 40 states among all age groups showed increased numbers related to mental health.

Even in normal circumstances, suicides are impulsive, unpredictable and difficult to ascribe to specific causes. The pandemic has created conditions unlike anything mental health professionals have seen before, making causation that much more difficult to determine.

And still, The Texas Tribune says, there is data to show the suicide threat is in the numbers:

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis found a significant increase in pediatric mental health-related emergency room visits, often the first point of care for children needing mental health care. Beginning in April, mental health-related visits to a large sampling of emergency rooms in 47 states increased 24% among children ages 5 to 11 and 31% for those 12 to 17 compared to 2019.

A June study of 3,300 U.S. high schoolers by America’s Promise Alliance showed 30% of young people said they were feeling unhappy or depressed more often.

Emerging research from other countries, as well as long-term data on the effect of other community disasters and prior epidemics, “suggest that the mental health toll of COVID-19 and its associated burdens on youth will be significant and long lasting,” said Sharon Hoover, professor of child adolescent psychiatry and co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “We anticipate increases in depression, anxiety, trauma and grief, and more demand for an array of mental health services and supports for children and families.”

Any story about suicide should include some resources to help understand the warning signs. I include these guidelines to help you journalists think about how to report on it.

Rapid tests have a place in controlling the virus

One of our readers, Katie L. Burke, digital features editor at American Scientist, the magazine of The Scientific Research Honor Society, wants reporters to show more respect for rapid tests that she says are more helpful than media make them out to be.

Burke says, however:

“PCR tests can detect people long after they are infectious; rapid tests do not — they detect people actively transmitting virus. If you compare PCR tests with rapid tests without accounting for the fact that the rapid tests stop working first — but help stop spread — then it will look like the rapid tests are working worse. But if you actually want to know who is transmitting virus, the Abbott BinaxNOW is actually better and faster and cheaper than PCR tests. According to the latest numbers from Michael Mina, who is monitoring many of these tests in screening and surveillance programs all over the world, the BinaxNOW has a lower false-positive rate than PCR tests do — and would work great for identifying asymptomatic people who are transmitting virus.”

In the end, rapid tests can help infected people know right away that they are infectious and that they should start distancing.

As Dr. Micah Bhatti at M.D. Anderson Center in Texas puts it, rapid tests “can be helpful in rapidly screening symptomatic individuals early in the infection. They can also help to rapidly screen a large group of individuals during an outbreak in a resource-limited setting. Someone with a positive rapid test should be treated as infected with COVID-19, but a negative test is less reliable and may need to be confirmed by a more sensitive molecular assay.”

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. 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,…
Al Tompkins

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