September 10, 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.

President Joe Biden is imposing new “goals and ambitious steps” that he says will help to end the pandemic. “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us,” he said.

Today I will explain the president’s plan and some of the legal establishment and questions that underpin it.

The president admits that he cannot outright force everybody to get a vaccination. He also can’t force businesses to make their employees get a vaccination. But he believes he has the authority to impose regulations on businesses through the Labor Department, which controls the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Biden is asking OSHA to mandate vaccinations or weekly testing for workplaces that have 100 or more workers. Under OSHA, such an order would come down as a safety regulation.

It is not OSHA’s first experience with COVID-era regulations. This summer, OSHA handed down new regulations for health care workplaces that required them to provide protective equipment, ventilation and the ability to socially distance from other workers. OSHA also required health care providers to give paid time off to workers to get vaccinated and additional time off if they suffer side effects.

OSHA will work under a rule called an “emergency temporary standard.” If businesses don’t comply, the government will “take enforcement actions,” which could include “substantial fines up to nearly $14,000 per violation,” according to officials.

By the way, employment websites are starting to see employers who do not require COVID-19 tests emphasizing that fact in their “help wanted” ads. Insider reports, “One site listed multiple openings for nurses at rural nursing homes that said: ‘No Jab required.”’

Big companies with thousands of employees may become impatient with workers who have to be tested every week. It could get expensive for companies to pay for all of that testing, and some companies have already said they will charge the cost of testing to the employees.

Pima County (Tucson), Arizona, tried offering a $300 bonus and three days off as a carrot to entice employees to get vaccinated. Now it will try a stick, too. County employees who turn down vaccinations will pay up to $1,570 a year more in health insurance.

Under Biden’s new order, all federal employees must be vaccinated. The option to remain unvaccinated and instead get regularly tested is off the table. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there will probably be a 75-day grace period, which would mean enforcement would not happen until sometime in November.

On the same day as the president’s new order, the nation’s second-largest school district, Los Angeles Unified public schools, voted to require all eligible students to be vaccinated. CNN reports:

The proposal approved Thursday requires all eligible students 12 years of age and older to receive their first Covid-19 vaccine doses by no later than November 21, and to be fully vaccinated by December 19. Students who participate in in-person extracurricular activities, including sports, face an earlier deadline of October 3 for a first dose of the vaccine and a second dose no later than October 31.

The district, which includes more than 600,000 students, already mandates the vaccine for teachers and staff, requires face coverings be worn by all, and tests all students and staff for infections weekly.

Biden leaned on governors to require teachers and students nationwide to be vaccinated. He added the 300,000 educators in federal Head Start programs to the mandatory vaccination list, since they are paid with federal funds.

The president said he will also make COVID-19 testing more plentiful. He is using the Defense Production Act to speed up the production of 25 million rapid tests that the federal government will send to clinics. Big retailers including Walmart and Amazon have pledged to sell at-home test kits with no markup. Incidentally, Ohio makes test kits free and available at 246 public libraries. 160,000 of the tests have been handed out so far and they come with free telehealth connections so that people use them correctly.

Biden’s plan also includes a booster shot campaign, starting the week of Sept. 20 — if the Food and Drug Administration approves the idea.

Who can the government force to take a vaccination?

The federal government is just like every other employer in that it has a legal right to ensure a safe workplace. Same for the military. Since the time of George Washington, the U.S. military has forced soldiers to be inoculated against this or that condition and disease.

And if you get money from federal government contracts, like nursing homes that get Medicare reimbursement, the federal government can force you to make sure employees are vaccinated as a stipulation of the contract.

But local governments have some muscle, too. States require vaccinations for students and, as you saw above, local school districts can require vaccinations not just for employees, but also for students.

The legal timber on which some of these regulations rest is more than one century old U.S. Supreme Court case of Henning Jacobson. Jacobson was a minister who had a reaction to a vaccine when he was a kid. In 1904, when the community of Cambridge, Massachusetts, tried to force him to get a smallpox vaccination, he said no. He said he believed the Constitution gave him the right to make his own decisions about whether he would be vaccinated.

The Supreme Court disagreed with him and ruled that when decisions like his put others in peril, the well-being of others takes precedent. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote:

Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.

Legal and medical ethics experts Dorit R. Reiss and Arthur L. Caplan write for Barrons that the president could go further than he went Thursday in ordering mandatory vaccines:

The federal government’s authority for responding to infectious disease is not unlimited. The Supreme Court found the federal eviction moratorium to be going too far only weeks ago. But that authority clearly extends to, for example, interstate travel and commerce, and travel into the nation. The federal government should impose vaccine mandates for flying in and out of the United States and between states. It should also impose vaccine requirements on other forms of interstate travel, like railways and boats, and on transportation of interstate goods, through, for example, freight trains or trucks. All these areas are already heavily regulated.

The federal government also needs to enter the vaccine authentication arena. Proof of vaccination remains a pathetic mess in America. Fraud and counterfeiting are rife. Biden needs to join the rest of the developed world, set a standard, and issue a national vaccination card that is durable and fraud-resistant.

Moderna just announced it will produce an all-in-one COVID and flu shot

Moderna thrilled Wall Street Thursday with the news that it plans to combine its COVID-19 vaccine with an annual flu vaccine. The combo vaccine is currently in the testing trials phase.

Schools are turning to unproven, expensive air filtration systems

An air circulation system at Nina Otero Community School is seen, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The system was rated “MERV 9,” which is a lower rating than the state’s original standard for coronavirus safety, but the highest the school’s system can handle. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

While Biden wants schools to do all they can to be safer, Kaiser Health News says:

Many studies have shown that better ventilation and air circulation can greatly reduce covid-19 transmission. But rather than stocking up on HEPA filters, some school districts are turning to high-tech air purification strategies, including the use of untested electronic methods and airborne chemicals. KHN has written extensively about school air filtration.

It would be worthwhile for you to poke around and find out how much money your school systems are spending on air filtration/purifying systems and whether they are buying what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. Again, let’s turn to Kaiser for advice:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not regulate the devices but, like academic air quality experts, recommends time-tested portable HEPA filters to clean the air in rooms. In comparison, ionizing and dry hydrogen peroxide air purifiers have a “less-documented track record” in air cleaning, the CDC says.

The CDC also urges consumers to research the technology and “request testing data.” Those reports, though, can be difficult to parse. They include arcane terms like “natural decay” and test conditions that only an expert could spot as different from those that prevail in real life.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates medical devices. But only air purifiers for a direct medical use or that make a medical claim, like relieving allergies, qualify. The FDA doesn’t consider ads saying a device can kill a microorganism a “medical claim,” spokesperson Shirley Simson said in an email.

Instead, the air purifiers fall under the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority as devices marketed to destroy “pests,” which include bacteria or viruses. But “unlike chemical pesticides, the EPA does not register devices and, therefore, does not routinely review their safety or efficacy,” the agency said.

Back in 2013, the Bureau of Toxic Substance Assessment took a look at a “purifier” system used by a school system in New York state. The investigators found the device made the air quality worse. Last year, New York state urged school systems not to buy ionizers.

California sent a similar warning with stronger language, saying, “Do not use air cleaning devices that generate harmful pollutants (i.e., ionization devices or ozone generators), or devices of unproven effectiveness.” New Jersey also looked into the blossoming business of classroom air purifiers and came away unimpressed, even concerned.

1.4% of schools closed (some reopened) due to COVID this school year

Yesterday, I told you about how since the beginning of this school year, 1,400 schools around the country have had to close because of COVID-19. Some have reopened, some didn’t. Some had a virtual teaching backup plan and some didn’t. I tried to put the figure in context but didn’t.

1,400 out of 98,000 is 1.4%, not .01% as I said. It’s a decimal thing that I cannot blame on any teacher, closed classroom or mask-wearing. Wait, maybe the tin hats are right and I am not getting enough oxygen!

How 9/11 changed travel

Transportation Security Administration agents process passengers at the south security checkpoint in Denver International Airport as travelers deal with the effects of the coronavirus Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Do you even remember what it was like to fly before 9/11? Do you remember not having to take your shoes off? Do you remember not having to think about whether that bottle of lotion that you packed in your carry-on will pass inspection?

I thought about this last weekend when I walked through a screening check at a baseball game. And yet, on Friday, Transportation Security Administration agents stopped a woman who tried to carry a loaded pistol through security at the little airport in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. It is the fifth gun TSA agents at that airport have found this year. The FIFTH.

In Nashville, TSA agents have found 98 guns this year — a new record. In Columbus, Ohio, a person tried to get on a plane with a pistol loaded with 15 rounds.

A few weeks ago, TSA agents in Austin, Texas, found three guns in one day, which brings the yearly total of guns found at Austin’s TSA checkpoints to a jaw-dropping 68.

And what are the penalties for bringing a gun through TSA? The government’s website says:

A typical first offense for carrying a loaded handgun into a checkpoint is $4,100. The complete list of civil penalties is on the TSA website. If a traveler with a gun is a member of TSA PreCheck, that individual will lose their TSA PreCheck privileges for a period of time.

Is it just me or does that seem kind of tame for trying to take a gun on a plane?

Are police really quitting in ‘droves?’

One often-repeated claim about the lingering effects of the 2020 racial uprising combined with the pandemic is that police officers were resigning in “droves.” But The Marshall Project checked Labor Department data and found that common knowledge may not be correct.

Last year, as the overall U.S. economy shed 6% of workers, local police departments lost just under 1% of employees after a decade of steady expansion, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s about 4,000 people out of nearly half a million employees in municipal police departments and sheriff’s offices nationwide. State and federal law enforcement departments actually saw a slight increase in the number of employees.

The Labor Department data contrasts with an informal survey by the Police Executive Research Forum that points to stories like these:

In Seattle, a record 180 officers left the police department in 2020, and 66 more officers have left so far this year. “I have about 1,080 deployable officers. This is the lowest I’ve seen our department,” Police Chief Adrian Diaz said recently.

In Minneapolis, Chief Medaria Arradondo told a City Council panel that reduced staffing is making his department “one-dimensional,” with officers mostly responding to 911 calls and not having time to do proactive policing.

But The Marshall Project points out:

Not every police department is facing hiring difficulties. Earlier this year, the New York Police Department saw more than 14,000 applicants take the police exam, according to Alden Foster, director of community affairs at the NYPD. On average, the NYPD received 20% more daily applicants than in previous years. This follows a police academy class that was canceled last year. Many of the applicants live in neighborhoods that experienced the most crimes last year, according to data from the NYPD.

You will need to get local to understand whether your police agencies are among those that are struggling to keep up with calls or whether they are having the resignations that some predicted.

Facebook introduces Ray-Ban Stories sunglasses, will record video

Journalists don’t need much of an imagination to think about how they might use the new Facebook/Ray-Ban sunglasses called “Stories.” They look like ordinary sunglasses except they can record video and, except for a small light, nobody will notice. I suspect protests over privacy invasion will begin in three, two, one …

COVID economy forces hotels to rethink fees and pricing

A couple ride the escalator outside The MGM Grand hotel-casino in Las Vegas on March 16, 2020. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

When I am working on the road — which I often am — I want very few things from hotels. I want a bed, internet, TV, food, indoor plumbing, hot water and quiet. I don’t use the spa or weight room (OK, I should) or even the business office. Hotels are now starting to figure out that business travelers — and there are fewer of us now — don’t want to pay for all of that stuff we do not need. Hotels are testing a la carte pricing.

This could work if they lower room prices then add on extras and not just keep prices and add on extras, which is what I imagine they will do.

The other big battleground involves those annoying resort fees that some hotels tack on to your bill. The fees do not show up prominently when you are searching online. A significant lawsuit filed by Travelers United says MGM Resorts’ resort fees, which can hit $45 a night, are a violation of the Consumer Protection Procedures Act.

While we are at it, why are hotels charging resort fees when they also close amenities like pools during the pandemic? And don’t get me started on parking fees at hotels.

Hey, you kids, get off my lawn.

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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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