January 22, 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.

On President Joe Biden’s first day in office, he asked all Americans to wear a mask for the next 100 days. He says it would save 50,000 lives. He also invites you to read the 181-page plan to fight the coronavirus.

Biden says he is launching a “full-scale wartime effort” to fight COVID-19. He signed executive action using the Defense Production Act to accelerate whatever is needed to test and vaccinate and protect the public against the virus.

What does the Defense Production Act do? Didn’t President Trump already enact it?

The Defense Production Act is a byproduct of the World War II-era War Powers Act, which gave President Franklin Roosevelt broad authority to influence the economy and manufacturing. The Defense Production Act gives the federal government the authority to get contracts for the U.S. government ahead of everybody else when purchasing essential goods.

And yes, President Donald Trump used the Defense Production Act. It is not at all uncommon for presidents to do so. President Trump claimed to have used the Defense Production Act 80 times to accelerate the production of respirators, rubber gloves and masks, for example. But in fact, The New York Times says, Trump rarely used the act and instead relied on Department of Defense expenditures and executive orders. The Federal Research Service identified six times Trump used the act. The Times says:

U.S. government agencies routinely use the Defense Production Act. It is used thousands of times a year for things like purchasing critical military equipment and speeding up infrastructure repairs following hurricanes. But during the early months of the pandemic, the White House suggested that wielding that authority would have amounted to left-wing overreach.

When Biden criticized President Trump for not using the Defense Production Act when Biden was still a candidate for president, Trump began claiming that he did.

Using the Defense Production Act may stir images in your head of the president signing an order and factory lines roaring to life. The reality is more like what happened on July 19, when the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services announced a $3.5 million award for surgical mask production. The masks should start coming off production lines in May of this year.

One example that you may remember from last spring did involve the Defense Production Act. General Motors and a company called Ventec moved lightning fast to convert a GM parts factory into a facility that produces ventilators. The plan to build the ventilators started with the Defense Production Act, but those involved in the process said the act made it possible to get the parts necessary to build the ventilators. It took only one month from the first phone call for the first ventilator to be produced in a former car parts plant. Six months later, the plant had produced 30,000 ventilators.

But the Defense Production Act can put manufacturers in a bind when they already have orders that come from other countries to fill and are forced to shove them back to comply with the U.S. government’s needs.

Why do we need the Defense Production Act now?

The new national COVID-19 plan includes a passage that named 12 immediate supply shortages. They are:

  1. Dead-space needle syringes to administer vaccines
  2. N95 masks
  3. Isolation gowns
  4. Nitrile gloves
  5. Polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, sample collection swabs
  6. Test reagents
  7. Pipette tips
  8. Laboratory analysis machines for PCR tests
  9. High-absorbency foam swabs
  10. Nitrocellulose material for rapid antigen tests
  11. Rapid test kits
  12. All the necessary equipment and material to accelerate the manufacture, delivery and administration of COVID-19 vaccines

The national plan mentions the shortage of “low dead-space needles” a couple of times. Low dead-space needles preserve the amount of vaccine that is wasted in any shot. Look at this diagram and you see that a low dead-space needle saves a tiny bit of vaccine, but multiply that by hundreds of millions of doses and you see why this would matter.

(TSK)

With each shot, a low dead-space needle saves 4 to 8% of vaccine used. And low dead-space needles also mean that the patient gets the full dose that was intended, without leaving some medicine in the syringe.

How bad is the shortage of personal protective gear? One indication might be how many requests come into the nongovernmental group “Get US PPE.” They produce a daily report on what and how much PPE is being requested:

(Get Us PPE)

The pandemic job market grows worse

One day into his new job, President Biden inherited an economy that is tanking. Last week — and keep in mind, this is one week — 900,000 people filed new unemployment claims.

That’s not all. Another 423,000 people in 47 states filed claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. That program helps self-employed and gig-workers whose work has dried up during the pandemic.

These are big numbers, so let’s get a comparison. Until now, the single biggest week of unemployment filings was near the beginning of the pandemic in the U.S. — when 695,000 people filed for assistance. The 900,000 last week easily tops the previous high of 695,000. (A note of caution: Sometimes the weekly figures do fluctuate some, so they may not be exact.)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says about a fourth of the nation’s unemployed are temporarily out of a job, meaning they expect to be back at work within six months.

Vaccination appointments canceled

Residents seeking to receive the COVID-19 vaccine stand in line at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in the Harlem section of New York City on Jan. 17, 2021. (Photo: mpi43/MediaPunch /IPX)

Somebody recently told me, or maybe it was posted somewhere, that scoring a COVID-19 vaccine is like trying to score a ticket to a Rihanna concert. Now, even after you get through the clogged website or overloaded phone lines, some states have begun canceling appointments because they are out of vaccines.

In New York City, 23,000 appointments were canceled. Mayor Bill de Blasio said a shipment of the Moderna vaccine was delayed but didn’t explain why or how.

The city’s commissioner of health, Dr. Dave Chokshi, didn’t offer much insight, saying, “Our best understanding is that this was purely a shipment issue. Whether it was a logistical challenge of making sure there was enough packing material or dry ice for the shipment, we don’t have those details. But it appears that it was a logistical issue from the distributor of the vaccine that the federal government partners with.”

I have seen similar stories from Erie County, New York. Michigan is also reporting shortages and various cities in California are running out of vaccines.

Fox News says:

San Francisco’s health department said it is likely to run out of vaccine this week, in part because the state pulled back on administering a batch of Moderna shots after several health workers suffered what may have been a bad reaction. The county health department received 12,000 doses last week but fewer than 2,000 this week.

West Virginia, which has run one of the speediest vaccination drives in the country, in part by using small-town pharmacies, said it didn’t receive an expected increase in doses this week. With 99.6% of first doses on hand already administered, officials are clamoring for the government to send more.

“Here we are with no vaccines,” said Republican Gov. Jim Justice, fretting that other states have doses sitting unused. “We’ve got them all in people’s arms and we’ve done exactly what we should have done. … I think performance ought to be rewarded.”

He said the state hasn’t received a promised 25,000 additional doses this week on top of its usual weekly allocation of about 23,000.

Hawaii leaders complained that the state received 59,000 doses last week but expects only about 32,000 this week.

The Oklahoman says the Oklahoma City health department sought 25,000 doses last week and got 6,000 doses. The city says it could give four times as many shots per day if it just had the vaccine.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports Georgia is emptying shelves.  But people who got their first dose of the vaccine on Jan. 11 will be due for a second shot in early February and there is no assurance that there will be enough vaccine available to provide the booster:

Even if they get appointments, it’s not clear if Georgia will have enough doses on hand to administer second shots while still meeting the overwhelming demand for first shots.

On Tuesday the head of the Georgia Department of Public Health reiterated the use-’em-up policy, saying local health departments have been told not to hold any doses back.

Not all health districts administering first doses have been automatically setting up follow-up appointments, which should be set three weeks later for the Pfizer vaccine and four weeks for the Moderna. Some departments have only been writing the dates on the backs of vaccination cards when patients should return for their booster, leaving it up to them to set the appointments.

That’s created fear and confusion within a population desperate to put the pandemic behind them, as a super-spreader variant strain is gaining a foothold and the death toll continues to break records.

If you are not a resident, don’t come here to get your shot

Some states seem to be having more success in scoring vaccines than others, so some states are getting tougher about who gets their shots. Florida just announced that it is requiring proof of state residency for vaccination. It appears seasonal residents (we call them snowbirds) will still have access to shots.

This is not just a Florida story. Your state may be seeing this, too, especially if you are in a community near a state line next to a state that has its act together when yours does not.

As has been typical of the national vaccine rollout so far, mass confusion has set in as Florida county health departments say they are unclear about what a patient must prove to get a shot. As a result, about 39,000 out-of-staters have gotten the vaccine in Florida.

Florida says, in effect, if we are going to be giving vaccines to visitors, we need more supply. Some are taking the philosophical “we are all in this together” approach and, after all, the federal government is paying the tab. The Tampa Bay Times reports:

Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida, said the state shouldn’t be thinking about geography when it comes to vaccines, but about getting shots to as many people as possible, although she doesn’t like the idea of so-called “vaccine tourism.”

“If you’re living here, meet the criteria and willing to get the vaccine, let’s stick it in your arm,” she said.

Her own parents are snowbirds from the Midwest who got shots this month in South Florida. Both are in their 80s and have underlying conditions, Rasmussen said.

“They pay property taxes, they do spend six months a year,” she said. “They, by all rights, should get a vaccine even though their driver’s license says Minnesota.”

And what about foreign visitors? Would states allow a sort of vaccine tourism industry to begin where visitors come for the vaccine and hang around and spend money for 21 days to get the booster?

U.S. rejoins WHO

President Biden had until July 6 to cancel America’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization, but it made it one of the first things he did when he got to the Oval Office. President Trump had announced last year that he wanted the U.S. to pull out of the WHO and gave the organization the required one-year notice.

But even in saying the country will rejoin the organization, the Biden-Harris campaign threw a little shade on the WHO, saying that “while (the WHO is) not perfect — (it) is essential to coordinating a global response during a pandemic.”

NPR said the relationship damage caused by leaving the WHO will be more difficult to repair than the financial effects of the country’s temporary withdrawal:

When the U.S. first announced plans to pull out of WHO, many critics worried about the effects on funding for the organization. The U.S. has historically been its top donor — contributing $893 million to the agency’s budget for the budget cycle of 2018 and 2019.

While the U.S. still owes about $90 million to the WHO in outstanding membership dues (known as assessment contributions), other countries have stepped in to fill the gap, says Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University who is also director of the World Health Organization on Global Health Law. However, he says the loss of U.S. funding would have been “devastating if it were made permanent by U.S. withdrawal.”

Will the U.S. join COVAX? And what is COVAX?

The Biden administration recently announced that the U.S. would join COVAX, an international cooperative to help get vaccines to poorer countries. President Trump refused to join the group, which involves virtually all of the rest of the world, except Russia.

(Axios)

Axios reported that COVAX “is expected to be the only source of vaccines for some of the world’s poorest countries, and it needs additional funding to fulfill its goal of vaccinating at least 20% of the population in every country by the end of 2021.”

Axios adds:

Wealthy countries like the U.S. have secured their access to those vaccines and others and are increasingly confident they’ll begin mass vaccination this spring. But according to research from Duke University’s Global Health Institute, there likely won’t be enough doses to cover the entire global population until 2024.

With its bulk orders for six vaccines, the U.S. could find itself in control of around one-quarter of the world’s near-term supply, according to the Duke analysis.

What’s with videos saying people are ‘reacting’ to COVID-19 vaccines?

I have warned about this before and, like clockwork, here come the social media videos claiming that people who took COVID-19 vaccines started shaking and convulsing. While it is true that a small percentage of people who have a history of allergic reactions to vaccines have had mild reactions to this one, too, the videos that claim severe reactions are unproven. When PolitiFact tried to get to the root of the videos, the claims had more holes in them than Swiss cheese.

There is always the possibility that spending the time and energy dispelling rumors just draws more attention to them, but at some level I suppose we have to trust the public to separate truth from nonsense — if we supply them truth on which to make a decision.

Record low monarch butterfly count — does it matter?

A Monarch butterfly pauses in a field of goldenrod. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Each year, the Xerces Society counts western monarch butterflies that winter along the coast of California. The researchers announced this week that the 2020 butterfly count was the lowest ever. The count is usually tens of thousands or, looking back to the 1980s, even millions. This year, and it is no typo, they counted 2,000 (to be clear: two-thousand) butterflies. The Xerces Society says, “For every 2,250 monarchs there were 30 years ago, there is only one left flying today.”

An Associated Press story explains what might be going on and what it means:

Scientists say the butterflies are at critically low levels in western states because of destruction to their milkweed habitat along their migratory route as housing expands into their territory and use of pesticides and herbicides increases.

Researchers also have noted the effect of climate change. Along with farming, climate change is one of the main drivers of the monarch’s threatened extinction, disrupting an annual 3,000-mile (4,828-kilometer) migration synched to springtime and the blossoming of wildflowers. Massive wildfires throughout the U.S. West last year may have influenced their breeding and migration, researchers said.

The experts say that, at some point, the species will get so low that it will not survive. In the meantime, the Xerces Society says it is working with farmers to restore habitats.

Why should you care about a butterfly? They are pollinators. About 80% of all plants need help pollinating, whether by bees or birds or other critters, including butterflies. Think of it this way: Experts say about one out of every three bites of food you eat is made possible by a pollinator. And it goes beyond what they mean to humans. Pollinators are essential to the global ecosystem. What harms one could be a signal to all.

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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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