March 15, 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.

Over the weekend, the Biden administration made some confusing claims about how many people had been vaccinated in recent days.

It is healthy to recognize that vaccine figures are most useful when we think of them as trends and not individual days. Sometimes, the figures are delayed. Sometimes, one day gets combined with another. Weather interruptions throw trends off, too. In a fact check, the Chicago Tribune points out:

President Joe Biden wrongly claimed the U.S. vaccinated a record 2.9 million people on Saturday while his special adviser on the pandemic exaggerated the share of older Americans who’ve been fully immunized.

Andy Slavitt, special adviser to the White House virus task force: “On Saturday, we set an all-time, single-day record: nearly 3 million Americans vaccinated — a pace seen nowhere else in the world.” — leading off a task force briefing.

The government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 2.9 million doses were recorded Saturday, but that total comes from multiple days of vaccinations. Only 1.56 million doses were administered Saturday, as currently reported by the CDC.

That’s far from a one-day record. The most productive day for vaccinations was Feb. 26, when 2.8 million doses were administered.

Although vaccinations have greatly increased overall in recent weeks, Saturday’s total is barely above the number of doses administered the day Biden took office.

The overall trend is that vaccinations are growing, just not as wildly as some would claim. Here is the CDC’s latest data:

(CDC)

I am seeing single-day records all over the country, in Wisconsin, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maine, Minnesota and beyond.

Variant outbreak: Italy going on new Easter virus lockdown

People stroll in the Navigli popular area Milan, Italy, Saturday, March 13, 2021. From Monday most of Northern Italy will become “red zone” with stricter rules aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, which is skyrocketing due to the variants. (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)

By now, when it comes to the coronavirus, we should know better than to ignore what is unfolding in other countries. Italy is going on lockdown after a new COVID-19 spike. The lockdown will last from today until at least Easter. The lockdown includes Rome and Milan.

Reuters reports:

Italy, the first Western country hit hard by the pandemic, saw infections rise by 10% this week compared with the week before, and officials have warned that the situation is deteriorating as new, highly contagious variants gain ground.

(Axios)

The lockdown is strict. Schools and nonessential businesses will be closed, and people may only leave their homes for medical, emergency or work reasons. It is unclear right now whether the lockdown will apply to Easter services in the largely Catholic country.

Like much of Europe, Italy is slowly getting a vaccination program rolling.

Our future depends on vaccines and variants

I point to the Italian story because it is a lesson for the United States. Our fate is in the hands of two things: the vaccines and the variants. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told CBS News that between now and the time the U.S. can vaccinate more of its population, “We’re going to see this B.1.1.7 surge occur.”

Axios quotes Stephen Kissler, a researcher at Harvard who models the spread of COVID-19, who says the U.S. is “lagging a couple of weeks behind many of the countries in Europe that are starting to see rises in cases right now.”

“I think we should take that as a very serious warning that that can and very well might happen here as well,” Kissler says.

Axios added that Europeans are beginning to realize the cost of premature reopenings while they are still trying to vaccinate the population:

Europe’s latest wave has been particularly destructive in Central European countries like the Czech Republic and Poland, but cases are now rising sharply in Italy and beginning to tick up in France and elsewhere in Western Europe.

Unusual reactions to AstraZeneca vaccine

It is too early to react strongly to this but there are more questions arising over the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has not been approved for use in the U.S. yet.

As I told you last week, eight European countries have placed a temporary hold on the vaccine’s distribution. Now we are hearing from Norwegian health officials that three health care workers who took the AstraZeneca vaccine have been hospitalized with blood clots and a low blood platelet count. The government is quick to say that the link to the vaccine, so far, is unproven, but the government is investigating. Norway was among the countries that put a temporary hold on the vaccine. Ireland joined the list over the weekend.

CNN reports: “Italy on Friday banned the use of vaccines from a specific batch of AstraZeneca doses following the death of a serviceman in Sicily, who had died of cardiac arrest one day after receiving his first dose of the vaccine.”

You have to wonder if this concerning news about a yet unapproved vaccine will raise worries among vaccine skeptics who were already worried about the approved vaccines that have been distributed to millions without incident. As boring as it may seem to you, it may be worthy of a sentence or two in your daily coverage to keep pointing out that in a handful of states, more than a fourth of the population now has taken at least one dose of the vaccine and the severe reactions have been very rare. (Acute allergic reactions occurred in 2.1% but anaphylaxis in only .025% of employees of two Boston hospitals who received their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, according to a research letter just published in JAMA.)

(NPR)

Cities and states may be flush with money with new stimulus

Here is a story you have not heard. The new federal stimulus bill does not solve every monetary problem for cities and states, but it will take care of a lot of them. Governing reports that local governments that were squealing for help a year ago are about to see a significant infusion of money:

State and local officials begged Washington most of last year for fiscal help, to little avail. By now, however, their revenues have rebounded much faster than expected, particularly at the state level, leading some to wonder whether this isn’t a case of too much, too late. For some states, the windfall will equal more than 20 percent of their 2020 operating revenues.

The “worst since the Depression” cash crisis in states that was predicted last year ultimately did not materialize. Overall, state revenues fell by less than 2 percent between April and December, compared with the same period in 2019, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

Expenses shot up due to the pandemic and unemployment, so states and localities did get a real fiscal shock. But once previous rounds of federal aid are factored in, they ended up only $56 billion in the hole from fiscal 2020 to fiscal 2022, according to a recent estimate by Moody’s Analytics.

“You’re talking roughly $300 billion more than necessary to keep the lights on and not lay people off,” says Dan White, director of government consulting and public finance research at Moody’s Analytics. “It’s definitely big enough. It’s probably more than big enough.”

The intent wasn’t just to make states and localities whole, however. As with the rest of the package, the hope is that the sudden gusher of federal funds will help stimulate the broader economy. “This is going to be an injection, a shot in the arm that’s very good for states,” says David Brunori, a public finance expert at George Washington University. He thinks the amount was probably excessive. That said, he notes that “the money will be welcome and will be spent and will be a boost to the economy.”

There are exceptions. States that depend on tourism, for example, like Florida and Hawaii, took a big tax hit in 2020 and Florida does not have a state income tax, so it leans harder on tourism. Also, the energy-producing states — including Alaska and Texas — have felt a bigger pinch in the pandemic.

Journalists, this new federal stimulus windfall will be attractive to reckless government spenders who may be tempted to use it for revolving expenses like salaries rather than one-time expenses like infrastructure (like roads, bridges, mass transit and broadband buildouts). The feds did attach some stipulations to the stimulus money. It cannot be used to fix broken pension systems or cut taxes.

Will any state just tell the feds, “Nope, we are good,” and turn down the federal stimulus? Governing includes this passage:

“Today, our reserve funds are full and we’ve got a projected ending balance of $433 million for fiscal year 2021,” says Tim Kraayenbrink, who chairs the Iowa Senate Appropriations Committee.

That doesn’t mean Iowa will reject federal aid.

“While I’m not sure we need the additional federal money being sent to us by Congress,” Kraayenbrink says, “we will certainly put it to good use helping Iowa families as we all work to recover from this global pandemic.”

What does pollen have to do with COVID-19?

Pine pollen gathers on the hood of a car on Monday, March 30, 2020, in Dunwoody Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

I have seen some scary misreporting on this so I thought I would include a line or two of clarity (or Claritin). A new peer-reviewed study says there is a connection between your sensitivity to pollen and your susceptibility to the coronavirus.

But it is not that pollen is connected to the virus. It is that when you are having an allergy attack, your body is busy addressing that, which makes it less likely to notice that a virus is hitting you, too. One other thing to be aware of: Some pollen allergies show up with symptoms that look something like COVID-19 symptoms.

The good way to protect yourself against pollen is to, wait for it … wear a mask.

(Associated Press, NORC)

Why libraries cannot lend some e-books

During the pandemic, people have kept up their reading habits without visiting the library by using e-books. But Amazon is blocking libraries from lending e-books from some of its big authors. The Washington Post tech reporter Geoffrey Fowler points out that Amazon has become a huge publisher and has blocked downloads for 10,000 e-books and tens of thousands of audiobooks. Fowler reports:

It’s hard to measure the hole Amazon is leaving in American libraries. Among e-books, Amazon published very few New York Times bestsellers in 2020; its Audible division produces audiobooks for more big authors and shows up on bestseller lists more frequently. You can get a sense of Amazon’s influence among its own customers from the Kindle bestseller list: In 2020, six of Amazon’s top 10 e-books were published by Amazon. And it’s not just about bestsellers: Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, the self-publishing business that’s open to anyone, produces many books about local history, personalities and communities that libraries have historically sought out.

In testimony to Congress, the American Library Association called digital sales bans like Amazon’s “the worst obstacle for libraries” moving into the 21st century. Lawmakers in New York and Rhode Island have proposed bills that would require Amazon (and everybody else) to sell e-books to libraries with reasonable terms. On March 10, the Maryland General Assembly unanimously approved its own library e-book bill, which now heads back to the state Senate.

There are lots of other stories connected to the pandemic and libraries waiting for you. Here is one about how people with disabilities rely on libraries but have a much tougher time right now.

President Biden’s economic stimulus bill includes $200 million for 17,000 libraries to reopen safely and boost Wi-Fi and internet hotspot tools. It might be interesting to find out what your local libraries will do with the money they get.

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,…
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