August 12, 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.

The geniuses on Facebook are offering advice to people who refuse to take a COVID-19 shot and lose their jobs as a result.

The dubious advice is not to quit, but to let your employer fire you so you can get unemployment benefits and have better standing to sue. Maybe you should not take legal advice from Facebook friends. (Maybe it is better just to use them for health advice. Wait … on second thought.)

USA Today turned to legal authorities to get some answers. Natalie K. Sanders, an employment law attorney, advises, “Employees should not refuse vaccination relying on the assumption that they will be able to collect unemployment.”

The story explains that if you are fired for not following a company’s standards, you likely are not eligible for unemployment. But states do have some different qualifications for eligibility.

PolitiFact explains:

Each state sets its own guidelines for determining eligibility, including for fired workers. But in many states, a person who was let go for misconduct can be denied benefits.

In Alabama, for example, a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates, a state handbook says unemployment payments can be delayed or disqualified for workers fired “for misconduct in connection with the work,” which can include “failure to obey an employer’s work rules and policies,” “endangering the safety of others” and “disregarding orders or instructions.”

Experts agreed that violating a policy requiring vaccinations against COVID-19 would likely disqualify a fired employee from getting benefits, unless the worker was exempted for medical or religious reasons covered by federal law.

Here is what three experts told USA Today:

Jennifer Shinall, a professor of law at Vanderbilt University, said employees are usually barred from getting unemployment benefits if they quit or if the employer had cause for termination.

“But every state defines what ‘cause’ is a little bit differently,” Shinall said. “Some states have more guidance than others, and the COVID vaccine itself is relatively new, so certainly these employer mandates are very new.”

Labor and employment attorney Charles Krugel said there are some common standards that undergird unemployment eligibility throughout the country. If employees are fired for violating a known workplace policy and were treated the same as their peers, they are unlikely to receive unemployment benefits. For example, if an employee refused to follow a company’s dress code and got fired, they would not be eligible for unemployment.

But employees who can prove a medical or religious exemption may have a claim, experts say. “There is no one-size-fits-all answer,” Michael Elkins, founder and partner of the labor and employment firm MLE Law, said in an email. “If an employee was fired for refusing a company-wide policy that applied to everyone, like getting vaccinated, that could be considered misconduct, and they could lose out on unemployment as a result.”

Legislators are tuned in to this conversation. Lawmakers in Tennessee, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana and Michigan are working on bills that would allow unemployment benefits for employees who quit or are fired because of a vaccine requirement.

State mandates vaccines for teachers as COVID spreads through classrooms on opening day

Teacher Joy Harrison instructs her second graders as California Gov. Gavin Newsom visits the classroom at Carl B. Munck Elementary School, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, in Oakland, Calif. Gov. Newsom announced that California will require its 320,000 teachers and school employees to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing. (Santiago Mejia/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, Pool)

California, the trendsetter that it often is, is telling teachers that they must be vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 tests. Educators have until mid-October to comply.

And no wonder. As schools open, positive cases among both adults and students are popping up.

Nearly 5,000 children, educators and school staff are quarantined in Mississippi after returning to classrooms at the start of the new school year, some under mask-optional policies.

The 69 outbreaks reported between Aug. 2 to Aug. 6, which was the second week of school for some districts, resulted in nearly 1,000 children and 300 teachers and staff testing positive for COVID-19, according to a weekly report from Mississippi’s Department of Health.

In southern Mississippi, Lamar County School District shuttered two of its schools during the last week in July and returned students to virtual learning until Aug. 16 after a week-long staggered reopening resulted in one high school identifying six cases among staff and 41 cases among students, forcing the quarantine of roughly 100 people. Highlighting just how contagious the delta variant is, after one week of in-person learning last year, the school district recorded only five cases among staff and five among students.

Despite the early warning signs from states like Mississippi and Arkansas, where more than 800 students, educators and staff from one school district were quarantined just days after they began the new school year under a mask-optional policy, a handful of Republican governors are refusing to reconsider executive orders and state laws barring school districts from requiring masks.

Politico reports this disturbing summary:

  • Nearly 1,600 kids with Covid-19 were hospitalized last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a new seven-day record and a 27 percent increase from the week before.
  • Tennessee’s health commissioner expects the state’s children’s hospitals to be full by the week’s end. Louisiana reached that point more than a week ago. And Arkansas’ only children’s hospital has just two ICU beds remaining.
  • Patients at Children’s of Mississippi hospital in Jackson often have to wait hours in the emergency room for a bed to clear because the facility has been slammed with RSV and coronavirus cases. In recent days, the hospital has had between 13 and 16 kids with Covid admitted at any one time — about twice the number it saw during January’s peak, said pediatrics chair Mary Taylor.
  • Arkansas Children’s Hospital joined other hospitals and medical organizations in a letter asking all schools in the state to mandate masks for everyone regardless of vaccination status — something school districts can do because a judge blocked a state ban on mask requirements.

New Kaiser Family Foundation polling shows most parents of teenagers in America do not support mandating vaccines for teens, but do support mandating masks in schools.

(Kaiser Family Foundation)

(Kaiser Family Foundation)

The poll also found:

  • Parents of younger children who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated continue to take a cautious approach to COVID-19 vaccines, with four in ten parents of children under 12 saying that once a vaccine is authorized for their child’s age group they will “wait a while to see how it is working” before getting their child vaccinated. About half of parents, regardless of their child’s age, say they are very or somewhat worried about their child getting seriously sick from coronavirus.
  • For parents of unvaccinated teens, their top concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine center around the potential for long-term or serious side effects in children.

CDC stresses importance of vaccines for pregnant women

A pregnant woman gets a Pfizer vaccine shot for COVID-19 at a library converted into a vaccination center in Mexico City, Thursday, May 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is telling women to get vaccinated even if they are in the first 20 months of pregnancy. The CDC points to new data involving 2,456 women that says, in effect, whatever risks might be associated with the vaccine, the risks from COVID-19 are greater. The study said:

While there is no compelling biological reason to expect that mRNA COVID-19 vaccination (either preconception or during pregnancy) presents a risk to pregnancy, data are limited. It is, however, well documented that SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy is associated with severe illness and increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes. Among recognized pregnancies in high-income countries, 11–16% end in spontaneous abortion (SAB).

When compared to the expected range of SABs in recognized pregnancies, these data suggest receipt of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine preconception or during pregnancy is not associated with an increased risk of SAB. These findings add to accumulating evidence that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines during pregnancy are safe.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and almost two dozen other medical and health-related groups agree with the CDC’s recommendations:

As the leading organizations representing experts in maternal care and public health professionals that advocate and educate about vaccination, we strongly urge all pregnant individuals—along with recently pregnant, planning to become pregnant, lactating and other eligible individuals—to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

No vaccination? Be prepared to pay more for health insurance

Forbes reports that one thing that may be effective at convincing people to get vaccinated is when employers start deducting more from their paychecks to cover higher health insurance costs for the unvaccinated.

COVID on the border

Olga Galicia holds her one-year-old daughter Auri Vigia, next to her two-year-old daughter Gabi and her husband Sergio Vigia, at a makeshift migrant camp in Tijuana, Mexico, July 1, 2021. The family who came from Guatemala has just spent their first day in the camp after six days of travel from their home country. They are waiting to talk with a lawyer to request asylum in the US. (AP Photo/Emilio Espejel)

I implore you to spend some time with this excellent explainer from The Associated Press’ Jude Joffe-Block. It is a detailed Q&A that tries to verify or clarify what is true and what is nonsense about COVID-19 cases along the U.S.-Mexico border. As you know, this has been a constant talking point among Republicans and their Fox News megaphones.

To be sure, migrants are testing positive. The AP story points out:

On Aug. 4, local officials in McAllen, Texas, announced that out of nearly 88,000 migrants released by CBP in the city since mid-February, more than 7,000 had tested positive for COVID-19, which is a positivity rate of more than 8%. Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley arranged hotel rooms for those infected. Positive tests became more frequent in recent weeks, surpassing 16% — a rate that county officials said was similar to the local population.

But a Houston Chronicle editorial puts the COVID-19 story at the border into context:

Peeling back the layers, a far more nuanced picture emerges once you talk with local officials, both Democrats and Republicans. While the delta variant is present among migrants coming across the border, it mirrors the soaring case totals here in Texas where around half the state still remains unvaccinated. The biggest COVID threat in Texas isn’t coming across the border, it’s already here.

Ivan Melendez, the health authority for Hidalgo County, offered a sober assessment that political leaders would be wise to echo.

“Are the migrating folks part of the problem? Absolutely. Are they the problem? No. Are they bringing the disease in? Yes. Are they bringing diseases in that we don’t already have? No. Is their positivity rate greater than our positivity rate is? No,” Melendez said at a press conference. “Is this a pandemic of the migrants? No, it’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

Yes, McAllen officials say that 7,000 migrants have tested positive for COVID since February, but bear in mind, those folks were promptly quarantined until they tested negative. Even if a few managed to expose someone during that time, that is certainly less cause for alarm or blame than the estimated 116 million vaccine-eligible Americans who have refused to get their shots.

NBC News explains that border agents called for more medical staffing:

Migrants are not tested for Covid in Border Patrol custody unless they show symptoms, but all are tested when they leave Border Patrol custody, according to DHS officials. Immigrants who are allowed to stay in the U.S. to claim asylum are given tests when they are transferred to ICE, Health and Human Services or non-governmental organizations. Deportees who are scheduled to be put on planes out of the U.S. are tested for Covid and other infectious diseases by ICE.

The Biden administration is considering whether the government should test all of the people in custody. Customs and Border Protection says it does not have nearly enough capacity to test that many people.

The Chronicle makes the point:

The migrants, legally here while the U.S. considers their asylum claims, aren’t just “released” into the general public, as some have claimed. They’re asked to quarantine, many at local hotels, before they can be transported to their next destination. But local officials say the Biden administration has failed to provide enough facilities for quarantine so they’ve had to improvise by setting up emergency tents, including one at a Hidalgo County park. The mounting numbers of migrants in quarantine has, understandably, drawn concerns from residents. Local officials say they’ve had to issue disaster declarations to get help from the state and federal governments to care for the group of mostly families.

As you might have guessed, the COVID-19 outbreak among migrants has become a searingly hot political issue. But the Chronicle makes this critically important observation:

Migrants are not tested for the virus by authorities, and Abbott refused help from the federal government for testing in March, leaving that responsibility to non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, which have gone about it diligently. They say they test migrants as many as three times at the border before they are released for transport.

It is a time-honored tactic to paint immigrants as a health threat to whichever country they enter. A few years ago, a two-year study by the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health looked at the history of this argument worldwide and found, “Contrary to the current political narrative portraying migrants as disease carriers who are a blight on society, migrants are an essential part of economic stability in the U.S.”

The exception, the study says, is hepatitis, tuberculosis and HIV. But the people most at risk from those infections, which are the product of inhumane migrant conditions, are the migrants themselves.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? 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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