January 8, 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.

Kaiser Health News reports that a bottleneck in delivering lifesaving oxygen is forcing Los Angeles County officials to order emergency responders to do all they can to preserve supplies.

“Everybody is worried about what’s going to happen in the next week or so,” said Cathy Chidester, director of the L.A. County Emergency Medical Services Agency.

Oxygen, which makes up 21% of the Earth’s air, isn’t running short. But covid damages the lungs, and the crush of patients in hot spots such as Los Angeles, the Navajo Nation, El Paso, Texas, and in New York last spring have needed high concentrations of it. That has stressed the infrastructure for delivering the gas to hospitals and their patients.

The strain in those areas is caused by multiple weak links in the pandemic supply chain. In some hospitals that pipe oxygen to patients’ rooms, the massive volume of cold liquid oxygen is freezing the equipment needed to deliver it, which can block the system.

“You can completely — literally, completely — shut down the entire hospital supply if that happens,” said Rich Branson, a respiratory therapist with the University of Cincinnati and editor-in-chief of the journal Respiratory Care.

It is not just oxygen that is in short supply. Other critical items like tubing and portable cylinders are getting hard to come by too.

There is also pressure on the availability of both the portable cylinders that hold oxygen and the concentrators that pull oxygen from the air. And in some cases, vendors that supply the oxygen have struggled to get enough of the gas to hospitals. Even nasal cannulas, the tubing used to deliver oxygen, are now running low.

“It’s been nuts, absolutely nuts,” said Esteban Trejo, general manager of Syoxsa, an industrial and medical gas distributor based in El Paso. He provides oxygen to several temporary hospitals set up specifically to treat people with covid.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom just set up an “Oxygen Strategy” task force while Los Angeles Emergency Medical Services Agency director Cathy Chidester is calling the shortage “a hidden disaster.” “It’s not a fire, it’s not a train wreck,” she said. “It’s happening behind closed doors.”

Medical-grade oxygen is critical in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Inverse, a news site that focuses on technology and science, explains:

It’s especially crucial for patients suffering from Covid-19, a disease that wages war on the lungs and often comes along with hallmark symptoms like shortness of breath and low blood oxygen levels. One in five Covid-19 patients will require oxygen therapy, while another five percent need ventilation, according to the World Health Organization.

Ambient air contains 21 percent oxygen concentration. Medical grade oxygen can ramp that proportion up and is dispensed at a higher flow rate — helping patients efficiently oxygenate their bodies.

The shortages now showing up in the U.S. have been sweeping the globe. This report documents severe shortages in Egypt, Haiti, Ethiopia, Columbia and beyond.

One online video in Egypt recently sparked national outrage when it showed doctors trying to save COVID-19 patients. The patients died, the video said, because there was no medical oxygen available.

Every day is worse than the last: The U.S. set new COVID-19 records this week

The United States reported 3,865 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, the highest number of deaths reported in a single day since the pandemic began. CNN writes: “The nation’s death toll as of Thursday stands at more than 362,000, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, while the number of people who have been infected has topped more than 21.3 million.”

Los Angeles is experiencing one COVID-19 death every eight minutes.

Dallas reported record coronavirus hospitalizations Thursday with 2,590 new cases and 20 deaths.

And the head of Operation Warp Speed says “nothing has gone wrong” with the nation’s vaccine program.

New data on allergic reactions to vaccines

New data shows that out of about 2 million vaccines delivered in December, 21 people had a severe allergic reaction. Of those, three-quarters had the reaction within 15 minutes of getting the vaccination. 17 of the 21 people who experienced severe reactions have a history of allergic reactions.

How long will vaccines last? Maybe years?

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said this week that he believes the company’s COVID-19 vaccine can last for “a couple of years.” That is just what he believes, not what he can prove. And a good bit of the answer may depend on the constantly morphing virus and whether the vaccines can protect against new forms that have shown up in five states so far.

The CDC has identified 52 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant in the U.S. California has recorded 26 cases, 22 cases have shown up in Florida, Colorado has two cases, and Georgia and New York each have one.


The Washington Post reports:

There is no evidence that the variant, which has recently been detected in more than 30 countries, carries a greater risk of severe disease or death. But the appearance of coronavirus variants, including another mutation-laden variant that has shown up in South Africa, presents a challenge for every country hoping to crush the pandemic.

Why so many people hate it when you show those needles

Hina Alam at The Canadian Press attended our Poynter workshop on covering the COVID-19 vaccines and came away with this story idea. The story points out that a significant number of people are afraid of needles and seeing people on TV or in photographs being poked in the arm might be an excuse not to get vaccinated:

A fear of needles is among the factors that could cause people not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and it is important to address the problem when there is a need to get as many people vaccinated as possible, says an expert.

“It’s pretty well documented that you don’t have to have a phobia to actually interfere with you participating in procedures like vaccination,” said Dr. Anna Taddio, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Leslie Dan faculty of pharmacy.

“Just the fact that you’re afraid means it’s going to be an additional barrier to getting you comfortable with getting vaccinated.”

The story even profiles a psychologist who has a needle phobia that was once so severe he would pass out at the sight of a needle. It took years of working on the phobia to overcome it.

What is the 25th Amendment?

I am seeing the “enact the 25th Amendment” phrase a lot right now and I suspect most people have little notion of what we “amended” when it was enacted, why it was enacted in the first place, and what each of the four parts of the amendment do. You might also be surprised to know it has been used several times in the last 50 years but not to remove a president from office. I also want to help you understand how difficult it would be to remove a president using this route and why it is probably a good thing that it isn’t easy. Just meander to this link and I will lay it out for you.

A Trump executive order could mean 10 years for Capitol rioters

U.S. Capitol Police hold protesters at gunpoint near the House Chamber inside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Last year, while protestors defaced and destroyed some monuments of Confederates and attacked other federal properties, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that could mean up to 10-year prison terms for people who damage federal property.

That very order could apply to the Trump supporters who rampaged through the U.S. Capitol. In fact, acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen vowed that rioters who entered the building would “face the full consequences of their actions under the law,” which means that the tough prison sentences Trump intended for his opponents also apply to his most rabid supporters.

This is what the president tweeted back in June:


In the June executive order, the president added:

My Administration will not allow violent mobs incited by a radical fringe to become the arbiters of the aspects of our history that can be celebrated in public spaces. State and local public officials’ abdication of their law enforcement responsibilities in deference to this violent assault must end.

And, the order says, the federal government will prosecute “to the fullest extent” “any person or any entity that participates in efforts to incite violence or other illegal activity in connection with the riots and acts of vandalism.”

Other statutes punish those who participate in or assist the agitators who have coordinated these lawless acts. President-elect Joe Biden said Thursday that President Trump “incited” the mob action. Will the Department of Justice go after the president, Donald Trump Jr. and Rudy Giuliani for egging the rioters on?

Credit where credit is due

Hey, I wanted to shout out to Jenni Bergal at Stateline for the story I linked to yesterday about trials being put back on hold because of COVID-19. I cited The Associated Press, which was the source of the photo on the piece, but Jenni wrote the story. If you missed it, it is a good story idea for you to follow up on about how court systems are backing up, with hundreds of cases awaiting trial — a backlog that will take who knows how long to clear.

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,…
Al Tompkins

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