May 28, 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.

Chlorine is running low, just in time for Memorial Day weekend. The first I heard about this was from friend and reader Jim Sweeney, who spotted a story about a local splash pad that might not open this summer because, in part, the operators could not get the chlorine they need.

The supply problem seems to be limited to the chlorine tablets mostly used by smaller pools and private owners. Still, CNBC says, it is “the worst chlorine shortage we have ever seen.”

One chlorine tech company, King Technology, said in a news release:

There’s no shortage of some types of chlorine. However, the shortage of trichlor, the most common type of chlorine used in residential pools, is painfully real due to two major events.

One, 2020’s COVID-19 mandates forced Americans to stay at home, where they used their pools — a lot.

Two, after Hurricane Laura hit the Gulf Coast in August 2020, a fire damaged the plant that supplies the nation with trichlor tablets. Rebuilding is at least a year away.

The double whammy created a higher demand and scarcity for trichlor; prices have increased, and finding it is more difficult. Dealers and service companies have been stockpiling to keep a supply for their customers.

Pool industry veterans of 30 years say they’ve never witnessed a chlorine shortage like this before.

By now, you know what comes with a pandemic-era shortage of anything: a price hike and hoarding. WABC in New York reports:

“A steep price increase is likely,” Chestnut Ridge-based retailer B&B Pool and Spa Center says on its website. “The extent of the chlorine shortage is still unknown. While it is still early yet for the swimming season, it is advisable to prepare now for your pool opening. That includes stocking up on chemicals needed to get you through the majority, if not the entire swimming season.”

At Suntek Pools and Spas in Farmingdale, owner Robert Lucia said just as he’s about to run out of tablets, he receives another shipment.

“So that’s the way we’ve been operating here,” he said.

Lucia said a lot of people are panic buying, which is also adding to the supply chain issue.

Some pool supply stores are limiting how much chlorine customers can buy per trip.

WABC said the shortage does not appear to be affecting municipal pools. Here is why:

Eyewitness News found the tablet shortage is not affecting municipal pools on Long Island since most of them use granular or liquid chlorine. Those alternatives are used in communal or commercial pools because they have to be done every day or every other day.

Most pool supply stores have a sufficient supply of granular or liquid chlorine. The price has gone up slightly since last summer.

Pool maintenance companies say they are going to have to be agile this summer, probably switching from tablets to liquid and maybe to other techniques. CNBC reports:

“We started buying early, way early, and stockpiled as much as we could,” said Allan Curtis. “We won’t last more than probably mid-May, or late May, and we’ll be out of chlorine.”

His pool maintenance business, Ask the Pool Guy, services 1,000 customers near Howell, Michigan. He’s worked in the industry for 34 years, and this is the first time he’s stockpiling chlorine.

“(I expect pool owners) will have to go from tablets to powdered chlorine, from powdered chlorine to liquid chlorine, from liquid chlorine to nonchlorinated shocks and things,” Curtis said. “And I do believe that all of those are going to literally run out.”

Are you wondering how many people this might affect? CNBC quotes an industry source:

According to Atlanta-based research firm Pkdata, there are 5.2 million residential inground pools in the U.S. and 255,000 commercial pools. The number of above-ground pools is unknown. Aquatic Facility Training & Consultants CEO Rudy Stankowitz estimated that 60% to 70% use chlorine tablets.

Did the CDC’s decision on masks reignite vaccinations?

A sign recommends visitors to wear face coverings at the Denver Zoo, even though they are no longer required, on Thursday, May 13, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Elizabeth Cohen at CNN found an interesting story in daily vaccination data. She zeroes in on May 13, the day that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vaccinated people can, in most circumstances, stop wearing masks indoors and outdoors.

On that very day, vaccinations went up. It might be interesting to look at your local daily data to see if something similar unfolded.

Here is what CNN found:

On vaccines.gov, May 13 started out like any other day, as visits climbed throughout the morning and then started to decline around noon.

But then things took an unusual turn.

At 2:17 p.m. ET, Walensky made her surprising announcement. “Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,” she said. Within minutes, at a point in the day when visits on the site typically go down, the opposite happened.

“Just after 2 p.m., you really started to see them go up,” Brownstein said. The number of visits kept climbing, hitting a peak shortly after 4 p.m., just after Biden mentioned the new rules.

“Today is a great day for America in our long battle with the coronavirus,” Biden said at 3:58 p.m. at a White House briefing. “I think it’s a great milestone. A great day.”

At 4:12 he tweeted: “The rule is now simple: get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do. The choice is yours.”

Shortly after Biden’s speech and tweet, vaccines.gov saw its second-highest peak ever — just over 40,000 visitors — since the site launched on April 30. The highest peak was on May 4, with slightly more visitors, following a publicity campaign for the site’s launch.

The spike in vaccinations continued for a week after the announcement. Now, let’s be careful about making a direct link between the CDC announcement and the increase in vaccinations because young teenagers became eligible for vaccinations right around that same time.

Still, this data may be telling us that lifting mask mandates did not discourage people from getting vaccinations. Instead, it may have been an important enticement for people to sign up for the shots.

53 million vaccine doses in storage, US stockpile grows as world pleads for help

The Biden administration will have to make decisions soon on how to manage more than 53 million doses of unused vaccines on American shelves. States are pleading with people to take the shots while other countries plead for vaccines.

ABC News says governors are starting to worry that doses they are sitting on will expire on the shelves.

India’s still-unfolding tragedy

A patient who is receiving treatment at a free COVID-19 care center displays a placard asking for help from volunteers of a Sikh voluntary organization in New Delhi, India, Thursday, May 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Amit Sharma)

As often happens with America’s interest in international news, the story of India’s COVID-19 emergency has fallen off our newscasts and front pages. But it is no less of an emergency.

More than 140,000 people have died since mid-April and, even as cases have declined from the peak, journalists are cross-referencing death reports to find that the real number of deaths may be many times higher than the government says. On Monday, new cases fell below 200,000 for the first time since April 14.

(BBC)

As we have learned time and again watching India’s data, the real case levels may be much higher in rural areas where data is sparse.

Meanwhile, Malaysia now has more new cases per capita than India.

(CNBC)

All of this makes America’s decision to allocate unused doses all the more urgent.

Trying to reach military and vets with COVID-19 vaccines

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

As of mid-May, 45% of veterans who use Veterans Affairs services have been vaccinated. The Philadelphia VA Health Care System has recorded that 54% of its veterans (more than 49,500 individuals) have been fully immunized.

Those rates are similar to Philadelphia’s Police and Fire Departments, where nearly half among their ranks are also unvaccinated.

COVID-19 vaccines may last a long time

I know that the public must be impatient with the ever-changing news about vaccines and the virus, but that is the nature of these things. New data produces new understandings. A month ago, it seemed as though it was inevitable that we would need a COVID-19 booster shot, maybe as soon as later this year. Now, new data says the vaccines could be good for more than a year.

Here is one study just published in Nature. Here is another in BioRXiv, which is a site for bioresearch (that study is not yet peer-reviewed).

The best lesson from this research may not be that we have new guesses about how long we will go without the need for a booster; it might be that new research produces new understandings and we should be open to the best knowledge we have at the time.

What should we call the virus variants?

Time.com published an interesting piece on the World Health Organization’s struggle to come up with an equitable and accurate way to describe the COVID-19 variants without naming a country of origin. The new naming system may be similar to how we name hurricanes.

The WHO says it is working on a new system “that gives variants of concern an easily-recallable name.” But community groups are criticizing the WHO for not moving faster. The organization took six weeks to announce the name “COVID-19” after cases of the coronavirus infection were first reported in Wuhan, China.

“I don’t see why it should take so long for them to give this variant a proper name,” says Sabrina Malhi, a spokesperson for the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA). On May 7, SAJA issued a note to journalists advising publications not to refer to the “Indian variant,” pointing to WHO guidance on the topic. “The former president of the U.S. called coronavirus the ‘China virus’ and we’ve seen an uptick in violence against Asian-Americans, some people say due to that,” she tells TIME. “We didn’t want that happening with the COVID variant that originated in India.”

The WHO’s new naming convention will likely be similar to the system used for hurricanes in the U.S., the WHO’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told The Hindu newspaper earlier this month. “It will … be easier for the lay public to remember rather than these complicated lineage numbers,” she said.

National Cemeteries lift COVID-19 restrictions in time for Memorial Day

Stars and Stripes reports:

The Department of Veterans Affairs will no longer require masks or social distancing at its 155 national veterans cemeteries for people who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The VA is also lifting its restrictions on gathering sizes at funeral services starting Wednesday. The new rules go into effect days before Memorial Day weekend, which is expected to draw many visitors to veterans cemeteries across the country.

“We are lifting the limits on the number of people who can attend a committal service at all of our 155 national cemeteries,” said Ronald Walters, the acting undersecretary for memorial affairs at the VA. “I’m sure many families will be happy to get the news that there’s no longer a limit on the number of people who can attend a service.”

New bill would give hiring preference to the children of fallen troops

On this Memorial Day weekend, this story may be of special interest. A couple of bills are moving through Congress that would extend hiring preferences for children who lost a parent in military service. The preference applies to people seeking federal government jobs.

Currently, candidates for federal employment are graded on a 100-point scale. Under the Gold Star Children Act, eligible Gold Star children would receive a 10-point hiring preference.

Two bills, one sponsored by a Republican and the other by a Democrat, just cleared the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and are heading for the full House, where it has a fast-growing list of co-sponsors.

Military.com reports:

The legislation would offer benefits to Gold Star children, or children of service members who died while in uniform, and covert air transport employees who served in military conflicts.

The Gold Star Children Act would extend federal hiring preferences to the children of veterans who died during a war or campaign or who are totally disabled as a result of their service.

Rep. Van Taylor, R-Texas, authored the Gold Star Children Act.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who chairs the committee, said that she “strongly support(s)” it, adding that the notion that children in Gold Star families do not receive veterans preference is “just plain wrong.”

“There are more than 15,000 children in the United States right now who have lost a mother or father to war. Many other children have a parent who was permanently and totally disabled as a result of their military service,” she said. “The bill would finally right this wrong by extending the veterans preference to these children in recognition of the sacrifice that they too have endured.”

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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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