February 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.

South African officials on Sunday stopped the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine when it was discovered that the vaccine does not protect clinical trial participants from mild or moderate illness caused by the South African variant of the virus. The variant, also known as 501.V2 or B.1.351, is already the dominant virus variant in large parts of South Africa.

This is a big setback for a COVID-19 vaccins that was just being distributed in South Africa but would have been heading for worldwide use, including, eventually, the United States.

This news is also concerning because it shows us that the virus is changing fast and researchers will have to constantly test to ensure vaccines are effective to prevent infection from the evolving threat. The South African version of the virus has shown up in the United States with a couple of cases in late January in South Carolina. Another more contagious strain first discovered in the United Kingdom has been found in more than 28 states, and a third highly transmissible variant first spotted in Brazil was recently found in Minnesota.

The South African strain of the virus is now in 30 countries and spreading fast.

LiveScience rounded up what other vaccine companies have said about their drug’s ability to fight the South African variant:

Johnson & Johnson released new data on its COVID-19 vaccine candidate on Friday (Jan. 29) which showed that its vaccine was 72% effective in the U.S. and only 57% effective in South Africa, where the new variant is dominant, Live Science previously reported.

In addition, another vaccine maker, Novavax, released early results Thursday (Jan. 28) showing that its vaccine was nearly 85% effective against the so-called U.K. variant, but only 50% effective at preventing infection with the South African variant, Nature reported.

This diminished effectiveness will likely crop up for other vaccines, too. A recent study of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, which looked at blood samples from people who’d been vaccinated, found that the levels of antibodies produced in response to the South African variant were six-fold lower than levels produced in response to other strains, according to The Scientist.  Despite this reduction, the vaccine is still expected to offer some protection against the variant, the company said in a statement.

“You could diminish the vaccine-induced antibody efficacy by a few fold and still be well within the protective range,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a news briefing on Wednesday (Jan. 27).

Still, Moderna said that out of an abundance of caution, the company has started work on a “booster” vaccine dose against the South African variant, which could potentially be added to the two-dose series for the existing vaccine.

130 countries with a combined 2.5 billion people have not yet given a single COVID-19 shot

The World Health Organization says three-quarters of all vaccinations have been given in just 10 countries that account for 60% of global gross domestic product. In other words, the richest countries have the vaccines, the poorest have none.

The pandemic is, by definition, a global event. Unless it is controlled globally, you will never be safe from it.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says, “Once countries with vaccines have vaccinated their own health workers and older people, the best way to protect the rest of their own population is to share vaccines so other countries can do the same.” That’s because the longer it takes to vaccinate those most at risk everywhere, the more opportunity we give the virus to mutate and evade vaccines.

In other words, unless we suppress the virus everywhere, we could end up back at square one.

CNN reports:

Canada, for example, has purchased enough doses of Covid-19 vaccines to immunize its citizens five times over if all the leading vaccines are approved, the People’s Vaccine Alliance, an international vaccine watchdog, said in December. The new Biden administration has secured in six days more than three times the vaccines Colombia was able to secure in ten months. And Germany is already ordering coronavirus vaccines for 2022, German Health Minister Jens Spahn said.

The CDC will issue new school reopening guidelines this week

Students bundle up as they walk to a school bus after in-person classes at an elementary school in Wheeling, Ill., Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will issue new guidelines for reopening schools.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is taking some heat for saying recently that schools could safely reopen without teachers getting vaccinated for COVID-19. “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen,” she said. “And that that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely.”

But the White House says that is her opinion and is not CDC policy at the moment.

“Schools should be the last places closed and the first places opened,” Walensky said.

Twenty-four states plus Washington, D.C., are allowing some or all of their teachers and school staff to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

President Joe Biden has said he will work to reopen most K-12 schools within his first 100 days in office — even though Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “That may not happen.” The president is pushing Congress this week to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that would include another

$170 billion for K-12 schools, colleges and universities to help them operate safely in person or facilitate remote learning.

Could this be a preamble for what will come this week? NPR reports:

CDC scientists published an article last week in JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association, that showed some schools were able to reopen safely by following safety precautions — but the article included a disclaimer that the conclusions “do not necessarily represent the official position” of the CDC.

Whatever the CDC recommends this week, it will be big news, but in the end, the decisions on whether to reopen schools will not belong to the feds, but to state and local governments.

Here is a map of current statewide school orders from Education Week.

The other big thing this week: Democrats suggest $3,000 per child stimulus

The Washington Post got its hands on what Democrats plan to roll out Monday to get more support for a stimulus bill. The proposal is to send regular payments to families for several months:

Under the proposal, the Internal Revenue Service would provide $3,600 over the course of the year per child under the age of 6, as well as $3,000 per child of ages 6 to 17. The size of the benefit would diminish for Americans earning more than $75,000 per year, as well as for couples jointly earning more than $150,000 per year. The payments would be sent monthly beginning in July, a delay intended to give the IRS time to prepare for the massive new initiative.

The Democrats’ proposal comes right after Republican Sen. Mitt Romney pitched his idea for a $3,000 stimulus per child.

All this week, Congress will tussle with how much stimulus is too much, whether the money is going to where it will be most effective and whether another stimulus bill so close to the last one is needed.

Supreme Court rules on COVID-19 restrictions for churches

Worshipers gather for Christmas Eve Mass inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Thursday, Dec 24, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Late Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a California case that will be of interest way beyond California. The court ruled that California can’t bar indoor church services because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it can — for now — ban group singing and chanting indoors. They also ruled that the state can cap indoor services at 25% of a building’s capacity. The justices were split in this decision in a case that began when California banned church services statewide.

The lawsuit was brought by South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, and Harvest International Ministry, which runs 160 churches. The ruling set aside decisions by federal courts in San Diego and San Bernardino and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which all upheld the state’s orders.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority, saying:

… the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero … appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake.

Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Clarence Thomas said they would have gone further and tossed out California’s ban on church singing. “Since the arrival of COVID–19, California has openly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses,” Justice Gorsuch wrote.

The opinion and dissents were especially enlightening in how the justices are thinking through how to balance public safety, science and freedom of religion and expression. They wrestled with whether churches are being restricted more than restaurants, casinos and movie production sets.

“California worries that worship brings people together for too much time,” Gorsuch added. “Yet, California does not limit its citizens to running in and out of other establishments; no one is barred from lingering in shopping malls, salons, or bus terminals.”

That line of reasoning is especially important to this ruling because it is a refrain from a decision in November.

I want to share a few paragraphs from a Vox examination of why this California case matters. It is the second COVID-related case involving church freedom to reach the court in the last few months. Both stretch to try to protect churches from being more regulated than private enterprises. Vox clarifies:

Until last November, the Court’s religion cases drew a line between religious discrimination cases, where religious institutions were treated worse than comparable secular institutions, and cases involving a “neutral law of general applicability,” meaning that the law applies with equal force against religious and secular institutions.

Religious liberty plaintiffs who could prove discrimination typically prevailed, while plaintiffs who challenged a state law that applies equally to religious and secular behavior typically lost their case. (A federal statute applies a stricter rule to federal laws that burden religious exercise, so religious liberty plaintiffs are much more likely to prevail in suits against the federal government than they are in suits against a state.)

The night before last Thanksgiving, however, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, which vastly expanded the Court’s definition of what constitutes “discrimination” against religion. Prior to Roman Catholic Diocese, the Court’s decisions indicated that states were only required to treat religious activity the same as they do “analogous non-religious conduct.” So a state could impose restrictions on a church so long as the same restrictions applied to secular institutions that are similar in character to that church, such as lecture halls, movie theaters, and other places where people sit together for extended periods of time.

Roman Catholic Diocese, however, blocked New York’s strict occupancy limits on places of worship because the same restrictions didn’t apply to secular businesses that are quite unlike houses of worship, such as “acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, [and] garages.” The Court’s decision in Roman Catholic Diocese suggested, in other words, that religious discrimination exists if a state treats any secular institution differently than a religious institution, no matter how dissimilar those two institutions might be.

Justice Elena Kagan, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying that the court’s action “risks worsening the pandemic” by “making a special exception for worship services.” Justice Kagan wrote:

I fervently hope that the Court’s intervention will not worsen the Nation’s COVID crisis. But if this decision causes suffering, we will not pay. Our marble halls are now closed to the public, and our life tenure forever insulates us from responsibility for our errors. That would seem good reason to avoid disrupting a State’s pandemic response. But the Court forges ahead regardless, insisting that science-based policy yield to judicial edict.

The newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, used this case to be the first in which she offered an opinion. Vox takes a look at what her leanings on this case tell us about where she fits on the political leanings scale compared to the other justices.

Stopping scalpers from snapping up COVID-19 vaccine slots

Grabbing a spot in the vaccine line really is like trying to land concert tickets. Retailers and pharmacies say they are having to beef up security against “bot attacks” by scalpers. Reuters reports:

For over a decade, the retail industry has battled so-called “scalper bots,” programmed to cut digital lines and snap up limited-supply products within milliseconds of their release, that are resold at significant mark-ups.

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the problem because the boom in online shopping expanded scalpers’ sights to new categories from fitness equipment to essential goods like toilet paper and detergents. In Britain, scalpers using bots have also snatched online grocery delivery slots reserved for at-risk senior citizens.

Security companies that track this activity now warn that U.S. retailers and pharmacies enlisted to play a big role in COVID-19 vaccine dissemination could be the next target of bot attacks as they begin distributing as early as Feb. 11.

While we are at it, let’s check in with Mashable, which reports:

Researchers with the email security firm Tessian have discovered that scam artists are behind many of the more than 2,600 newly registered domain names promoting COVID-19 vaccines. The scammers are looking to steal sensitive personal data from unsuspecting people seeking vaccine information.

Journalists came to the rescue of a senior who needed the vaccine

My friend Chris Vanderveen at KUSA in Denver posted a story about a viewer who is also a cancer patient. The man signed up for a COVID-19 shot but a Boulder hospital canceled the appointment because the man has a hospital bill of $243.85 that was sent to a collections agency and another bill for $243.63 that was due. The hospital told the man to pay up or they would not give him a COVID-19 vaccine.

(KUSA)

The man called the TV station, which called the hospital. In short order, he got his shot and an apology from the big cheese at the hospital. But, as Vanderveen says:

A new ‘vaccine finder’ tool

The CDC launched a website that, in theory, will help you find an available vaccine nearest to you. I say “in theory” because the National Association of Chain Drug Stores said that the CDC was building the new tool a couple of days ago but, so far, it does not give you info about COVID-19 vaccines. But the site does have you covered if you need a dengue fever shot.

The times in which we live

(CBS Sunday Morning)

On Jan. 27, after five days apart, the nurses brought Mr. Martinez to his wife’s bedside. They were able to hold hands and eat dinner together, just like they have done for 63 years. They are both still hospitalized but stable.

God bless nurses who are buried in work and stressed with their own stuff but still find the energy and soul to do something like this. Bless them all.

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,…
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