January 29, 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.

One of the most perplexing questions of the week is which states are holding back second doses of vaccines for people already vaccinated.

Data on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker raises a question: Where are all of the vaccines that have been shipped to states but not administered?

(CDC)

The White House COVID-19 response team and the CDC cannot say, because they apparently do not know whether states are storing up doses. Some states say yes, some say no, and one said no and then changed it to yes.

Both the Biden and Trump administrations told states to empty their shelves and hold back nothing. But some states, like Florida, and cities, like New York City, say they are holding back second doses to be sure the vaccine is there when people are due for their booster.

Kristen Ehresmann, Minnesota’s director of infectious disease epidemiology, prevention and control, tells CNN, “When a first dose comes, you can just go ahead and give it to someone. When a second dose comes, it needs to be 21 days later for Pfizer or 28 days later for Moderna. So yes, we get this vaccine and then give it at the appropriate interval, and it can look like we are ‘sitting on doses’ when that is not the case.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been feuding with the Biden White House over vaccine supplies, at first denied holding back vaccines then said yes, that is what the state is doing. DeSantis said the Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccines with the understanding that it would be a two-shot dose, and said Florida is going to be sure that people who get the first dose will also get the second one.

“We’re not going to divert second doses away from seniors,” DeSantis says. “Seniors want it, we’re going to do it. … And if the White House is suggesting that we shouldn’t be doing that, I think that’s not a good suggestion.”

It is interesting to see how some states, like Texas, have distributed a much greater percentage of doses they received compared to states like California, Oregon and Missouri.

(CDC)

The White House says that even just one dose of the vaccine provides some protection and there is an urgency to get as many people vaccinated as possible as quickly as possible.

You are seeing some of the cost of allowing states to make up their own distribution rules rather than having a national plan.

Can dogs detect COVID-19?

Wayne Waseman and his dog Happy sniff fans for the COVID-19 virus as they arrive at the American Airlines Arena for an NBA basketball game between the Miami Heat and the LA Clippers, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, in Miami. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Health.com reports:

In Florida, the Miami Heat have announced they’ll use coronavirus-sniffing dogs at American Airlines Arena to screen fans who want to attend their games, starting this week. According to NBC Sports, the Heat have been working on the plan for months, and the dogs have had something of a trial run at games where a small number of guests — mainly friends and family of players and staff — have been in attendance.

Can dogs actually smell the virus?

Before I tell you about two studies, let me forewarn you the studies I am about to cite are preprint studies, which I will explain below. Just know for now that these are small studies that have not gone through the usual review process.

With that in mind, a group of researchers in France say yes, dogs can detect the virus. For their study, the researchers trained eight dogs to detect COVID-19 in 198 armpit sweat samples, around half of which were from people with the disease. The researchers claim that the dogs identified the positive samples 83% to 100% of the time. Another study involved dogs sniffing saliva. In that one, the dogs were right 94% of the time.

Dubai International Airport is already using COVID-sniffing dogs. Back in Miami, The Associated Press reports:

At Heat games, fans arriving for the game will be brought to a screening area and the detection dogs will walk past. If the dog keeps going, the fan is cleared; if the dog sits, that’s a sign it detects the virus and the fan will be denied entry.

Other protocols the Heat will use: A health screening questionnaire will be mandatory for all guests, masks must be worn continually and only soda and water will be sold. All transactions will be cashless and if a fan feels ill during a game, isolation rooms will be available.

And if a fan is allergic to or afraid of dogs, the Heat are offering an option to skip the dog screening and submit to a rapid antigen test instead. The Heat say those tests can be processed in less than 45 minutes.

A flood of COVID-19 ‘studies’ invites shoddy science

Quartz raised a great point about what happens when the world’s scientists produce 200,000 studies about one topic, COVID-19. It simply is not possible for such important work to go through traditional and reliable peer-review channels before publication. A new pipeline has opened up. Quartz says:

Instead of waiting months or years to have their experimental results reviewed by peers and published in a prestigious academic journal, a growing number of scientists now just cut to the chase and put their work online as soon as it’s done.

These so-called preprints—uploaded to open platforms where other scientists (and non-scientists, too!) can read and respond for free — exploded in popularity during the pandemic. As much as 25% of all research published about Covid-19 has appeared in a preprint.

Wired takes the notion further:

Instead of waiting for their work to go through the slow process of peer review at scientific journals, scientists are now often going straight to print themselves, posting write-ups of their work to public servers as soon as they’re complete. This disregard for the traditional gatekeepers has led to grave concerns among both scientists and commentators: Might not shoddy science — and dangerous scientific errors — make its way into the media, and spread before an author’s fellow experts can correct it?

A couple of journalism professors who wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times say “research is being weaponized.” Northeastern University professors Aleszu Bajak and Jeff Howe wrote that preprint studies that have not gone through a traditional intensive review can result in bad information going public — information that various points of view will use in their favor. When the study has to do with a pandemic, the misinformation can cause great harm. Bajak and Howe write:

Preprints are meant to help scientists find and discuss new findings in real time, which is especially important during a pandemic. They generally carry a warning label: “This research has yet to be peer reviewed.” To a scientist, this means it’s provisional knowledge — maybe true, maybe not. But in the right-wing news media, all that is just fine print, and anything carrying the mark of a respected institution counts as knowledge, particularly when it reinforces the day’s talking points.

Preprints have been around for years, but their use has exploded in our current crisis. More than 10,000 academic works have been published about Covid-19 since January alone, 3,500 of them preprints. By comparison, only 29 studies were published before the 2003 SARS pandemic ended.

Wired makes the argument that preprints are not all bad if the public has already been exposed to the firehose of bad science. The college professors I know who produce original research tell me the nightmares of trying to get published. It can take years, which means by the time the research (which is not only important to the world, but also vital to researchers’ careers) gets published, the value is diminished by the passage of time.

For journalists, this whole discussion is a caution. When you read studies — and you read them all the time — you have to ask questions about what kind of review process they have undergone. Who reviewed it and are those people qualified to do so?

A COVID-19 anal swab?

Just how accurate do you need that COVID-19 test to be? Chinese scientists say a swab of your behind will produce more accurate results than throat samples. The doctors say that it could be a useful tool for hospitals before they send COVID-19 patients home. But the process captured the public’s attention and ire when it was used on some 1,000 schoolchildren and teachers in Bejing.

Bloomberg says the Chinese government also did some other surprise tests:

On Monday, passengers on a flight from Changchun, the capital city of Jilin province, to Beijing were told to disembark after officials discovered that someone from an area deemed as high risk for virus transmission was on board. They were then brought to a hotel where health workers took nose and anal swabs, said a passenger who asked to be identified only by his last name, Wang.

And you thought it was hard to get people to wear a mask.

Do vaccines make you more attractive on Tinder?

TMZ, which I guess monitors such things, says:

Reps for Tinder, Bumble and OkCupid have all recently said they’re seeing a major uptick in how many times their users are mentioning the words “vaccine” or “vaccinated” in their bios, not to mention how many are using vaccination readiness as a screener for matches.

Tinder says the number of times “vaccine” has been mentioned in user bios has risen as much as 258% between the months of September and December … including casual mention of it, like … “if you believe in the 5-second rule…don’t worry about what’s in the vaccine.”

Bumble says it’s seen a “steady increase” in how often “vaccine” is mentioned in bios, and OkCupid says those who indicate they’ve already gotten vaccinated or willing to are being liked at double the rate of people who openly say they’re not interested in getting it.

Vice says:

OkCupid started adding questions specifically around social distancing when this whole mess began: “What’s your ideal virtual date?” and “What’s your preferable winter-lockdown date?” to name a few.

It recently added a matching question that asks, “Will you get the Covid-19 vaccine?” which users can answer “yes,” “no,” “I’m not sure,” or “I already have.” Users can skip the whole question, or select their own responses — and choose what their ideal match would say.

According to Michael Kaye, public relations manager at OkCupid, 72 percent of respondents said they’d take the vaccine, 3 percent say they’ve already taken it, and 16 percent are “still deciding,” having chosen the “I’m not sure” option. Nine percent are currently opposed to taking the vaccine.

“Basically, getting the vaccine is the hottest thing you could be doing on a dating app right now,” OkCupid spokesperson Michael Kaye says. Online daters take the virus seriously. 170,000 OkCupid users said they would cancel a date that didn’t want to socially distance.

It is all a bit odd to me since very few 20-somethings have gotten the vaccine and that is the age group that uses the dating apps most. My favorite mention on a bio:

(Vice)

Will you splurge after getting your vaccine?

A friend told me the other day she went out to dinner for the first time in a long while after she got a COVID-19 shot. First, I reminded her that one shot is not the full vaccination and it takes a little while for the immunity to build up after you get a shot. But I got the point she was making; the vaccine was something to celebrate.

A new LendingTree survey says only one out of three people plan to splurge on some celebration after they get the vaccine. And how’s this for a downer; the survey said:

  • Only one in four said they feel financially secure.
  • 60% said they need at least six months to over a year before they would feel comfortable with their personal finances again.
  • More than one in seven reported they’ll never feel secure in their financial position again, even after the vaccine brings down the pandemic.

The way in which we live now

A sign about all-electric trucks and SUVs is unveiled at General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in Hamtramck, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

I wonder if someday we will look back on Jan. 28, 2021, as the day we remember General Motors saying they will stop making gasoline engine cars within 14 years. Just take a moment and consider the implications of the last 48 hours, when President Joe Biden announced the federal government would be buying electric vehicles and then GM announced it would end an era.

It has been quite a week in climate change news, as CNBC reports:

GM’s plans to use 100% renewable energy to power its U.S. facilities by 2030 and global facilities by 2035 — five years ahead of a previously announced goal.

GM’s announcement comes a day after President Joe Biden signed a series of executive orders that prioritize climate change across all levels of government and put the U.S. on track to curb planet-warming carbon emissions.

We’ll be back Monday 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,…
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