March 17, 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.

People who know about such things are reminding us today that immunity will not last forever. The virus keeps changing, so it is inevitable that we will all need booster shots. The question is how often.

The head of Britain’s effort to sequence the virus’s genomes, Sharon Peacock, told Reuters, “We have to appreciate that we were always going to have to have booster doses; immunity to coronavirus doesn’t last forever.”

“We already are tweaking the vaccines to deal with what the virus is doing in terms of evolution — so there are variants arising that have a combination of increased transmissibility and an ability to partially evade our immune response,” she told Reuters.

The CEO of Pfizer agrees. In an interview with “Axios on HBO,” Albert Bourla said the current vaccine costs the U.S. government $19.50 per dose and it is unclear who would pay for the ongoing costs of booster shots. And, he said, once the vaccine is sold on the open market, as flu shots are now, the price could be different.

He also said that Pfizer is currently studying whether a third shot would protect people against variants.

Moderna begins tests on children and babies

It will be several months before we have data on this, but Moderna has begun testing a COVID-19 vaccine on young children. The test will involve more than 6,700 children in addition to the study already underway on teenagers. That study, on 12- to 17-year-olds, could produce enough results in time to make decisions on whether to vaccinate teens before the start of the fall school semester.

Johnson & Johnson says it intends to begin testing the single-shot vaccine on teens and then children.

3 feet may be the new ‘safe 6’ for schools

Socially distanced students with protective partitions work on an art project during class at the Sinaloa Middle School in Novato, Calif., on March 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Haven Daley, File)

For a year, we have been following the guideline that we should socially distance from each other — meaning keeping at least 6 feet between us. That is not much of a challenge in grocery aisles, but the 6-foot guideline is a deal-breaker for schools that do not have the space to seat kids that far apart. But a new study is getting some attention around the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This study looked at a half-million students, 99,000 staff and 251 school districts over 16 weeks. The study found that schools with 6-foot spacing and schools with 3-foot spacing had about the incidence of COVID-19 cases.

NPR points out the data is not a slam dunk:

The authors pointed out an important caveat to the findings: It’s possible that districts that allowed a minimum of 3 feet were able to attain larger distances than that in reality — and in that case, the study would be capturing official policy but not its real-world implementation.

And not all guidance from experts agrees with the 6-foot distancing rule. Again, from NPR:

The World Health Organization’s school guidance suggests that in areas with community transmission of COVID-19, at least 1 meter (3.28 feet) of distance should be maintained between individuals. That’s much shorter than the CDC’s recommended 6 feet.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that desks be placed at least 3 feet apart, and 6 feet if possible. But it notes that in many schools, 6 feet is not possible without severely limiting the number of students. As a consequence, the APA says, “Schools should weigh the benefits of strict adherence to a 6-feet spacing rule between students with the potential downside if remote learning is the only alternative.”

Biden’s new education secretary Miguel Cardona told NPR recently that one way to achieve social distancing requirements is to use parts of the school building differently. He pointed to a Connecticut school that was using its gymnasium as a classroom for part of the day, and he said warm weather allows for the possibility of outdoor classrooms.

One county’s experience: 70% of new cases are among young people

Officials in Bryan, Texas, say 70% of the 177 new cases there are among young people ages 18 to 24 years old. This is just one county, but I am wondering if it is more than that.

How to get vaccinated if you are afraid of needles

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam gives a thumbs up after he receives a COVID-19 vaccination from Lt. Col. Kris Clark, of the Virginia Air National Guard at the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, Va., Monday, March 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

A study by researchers at the University of Michigan gives you a glimpse of how many people avoid important vaccinations because they fear needles. The study found that “women have greater needle fear than men, across all countries studied. Approximately one in six health care workers in long-term care facilities and one in 13 health care workers in hospitals avoided influenza vaccination because of the fear of needles.”

The study found that a significant percentage of people don’t take the flu shot because of such a fear. The prevalence of avoidance due to fear was:

27% in hospital employees

18% in health care workers at long-term care facilities

8% in health care workers at hospitals

16% in adult patients

Results were similar for the avoidance of other vaccines. In a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults:

19% did not obtain a pneumococcal vaccination and

20% did not obtain a tetanus vaccination because of dislike of needles

In a survey of 100 US physicians, 71% indicated that fear of needles was a contributing factor to not obtaining a tetanus vaccination; the figures were 71% and 69% for influenza vaccination and pneumococcal vaccination, respectively

In a nationally representative survey of individuals 65 years and older in the US, 2.6% did not obtain a pneumococcal vaccination because the person “didn’t like shots or needles.”

The New York Times asks phobia experts for some ideas about how to overcome needle phobias. Some people overcome phobias by looking at images of syringes, and maybe even holding one to become desensitized to it. Two other strategies include distracting yourself with music or videos, sort of like they do in dentists’ offices now. Focusing on the benefits of the shot could also be enough to endure the discomfort. Of course, it might help to talk with a therapist.

You journalists can help, too, by not showing people in discomfort while getting shots.

How to get your hands on the new child tax credit quickly

The newly passed stimulus bill includes a significant child tax credit. But how do people get their hands on that money quickly without waiting until they file 2021 taxes a year from now?

The 2021 boost to the child tax credit will give eligible parents $3,600 for each child under age 6 and $3,000 for each child under age 18. Until now, the credit was up to only $2,000 per child under age 17.

CNN dives in with an explanation, with the caveat that this is an unsettled issue at the moment:

Families could receive half their total credit on a periodic basis — up to $300 per child up to age 6 and $250 per child ages 6 to 17 — starting as early as July and running through the rest of the year, according to the legislation. They could then claim the remaining half on their 2021 tax returns.

The enhanced portion of the credit begins to phase out for single filers with annual incomes of more than $75,000, heads of households earning more than $112,500 and joint filers making more than $150,000.

CBS News explains the Child Tax Credit, or CTC, further:

The CTC will be partially paid out on a monthly basis, rather than claimed once per year when people file their tax returns. In other words, a family with two children under 6 would qualify for $7,200 in CTC payments, or $600 in monthly payments.

But there’s a hitch: The monthly payments will run only from July through December of this year, with the other half of the CTC paid when people file their tax returns. In other words, households would receive six months of monthly income, and then would receive the rest of the CTC through their tax refund.

Even so, receiving guaranteed monthly income for half of 2021 could be a game changer for many low-income families, experts say. Low-income households have been particularly hurt by the pandemic’s economic impact, partly because they are more likely to work in jobs that couldn’t shift to remote work.

The tax increase that Biden promised is tuning up

Presidential candidate Joe Biden proposed raising the corporate tax from 21% to 28% and increasing the income tax rate on people making over $400,000. And now, Bloomberg reports, the plans for the first federal tax increase in 30 years are in the discussion stages. The changes in the tax structure are keys to Biden’s plan to rebuild infrastructure, address climate change and narrow the gap between what the rich and the poor pay as a percentage of income.

The COVID-19 exodus from cities may be overstated

Governing, a website that local and state lawmakers frequent, says the headlines of the last year that point to a mass exodus from cities seem to be an exaggeration.

Last June, a careful study by the Pew Research Center found that 3 percent of Americans reported moving permanently or temporarily for reasons related to the coronavirus. In November, the number was up to 5 percent. That’s not a trivial number of people, but it’s far short of a national exodus. A subsequent study by the Cleveland Federal Reserve reached a similar conclusion, reporting somewhat cautiously that the statistics on people leaving cities “probably would not fit most definitions of an exodus.”

And people who leave are not really exiting. San Francisco, for example saw 80,000 people leave last year but the largest percentage of them moved across the bay to Oakland, which is not the kind of move you would make if you were trying to escape a virus. People who moved from Denver; Portland, Oregon; and Austin, Texas; tended to move further away, but all three cities are pretty far down the list of “exited cities.”

Governing says the real story about relocations in a pandemic may be this:

Most cities that lost population in 2020 didn’t lose it because of people leaving. They shed population because newcomers weren’t coming. In New York City, according to a McKinsey study, the ratio of arriving workers to departing ones was down 27 percent. This, too, is only common sense. Why would you move into New York when jobs were disappearing there? Similar numbers apply to Los Angeles, Boston and Seattle.

This has the makings of a significant event. Nearly all the big cities that gained or held onto population numbers in the past decade did so because of immigrants arriving from outside the United States. If they stop coming for an extended length of time, big-city populations could drop significantly even if the mass exodus continues to be a myth.

Recent research also tells us something about just who the urban emigrants have been. They haven’t been middle-aged people with families. For the most part, they haven’t had middle-class incomes. They have been young people, unattached and economically stressed. Among Americans age 18-29, Pew reported, 11 percent said they had moved in 2020 for virus-related reasons. Within the low-income population cohort, the figure was 9 percent — roughly twice as high as the overall U.S. number.

And even that is not the whole story. In 2020, as many of you could testify, our college-age kiddos may have relocated for a while. In my own family’s case, Jacksonville lost a resident while St. Petersburg gained one in 2020. This chart from Pew tells us why they moved. Mostly, it was money and not the virus behind the decision:


Go to the Pew study for a deep dive into this migration and the changing reasons for why people moved in the last year.

Why you should not post a selfie with your vaccine card

A vaccination record card is shown during a COVID-19 vaccination drive for Spring Branch Independent School District education workers Tuesday, March 16, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Tech and privacy experts tell us not to post a photo of you and your vaccine card. The experts warn that scammers might want your full legal name and birthday. Of course, that stuff is already “out there,” so I am not sure what the huge new risk is except that it makes the job of the scammer easier.

Other scams include people who claim they have a place in the vaccine line for sale, people calling to ask to be paid for a vaccine and other such weirdness.

In Green Bay, Wisconsin, a suspected fraudster is trying to set up appointments for people and is asking for credit card information. In Virginia, people were deleting emails that they thought were scams, only to discover they actually were coming from the state’s vaccine information system. In Oregon, the lack of a centralized sign-up system is an invitation for confusion and scams.

In celebration of the Irish

The U.S. Census Bureau provides an interactive map to help you explore the estimated percentage of Irish blood in every county in the United States.

(U.S. Census Bureau)

(U.S. Census Bureau)

(U.S. Census Bureau)

The Census Bureau says:

Irish heritage is strong in America: More than 31.5 million residents claim Irish ancestry, second only to German (43.0 million).

And when it comes to U.S. presidents, including current President Joe Biden, exactly half (23) trace some of their roots to Ireland.

Let’s play a little game:

  • Name a guitar-playing rock and roller who claims Irish roots.
  • Name a U.S. first lady who claimed Irish roots and renovated the White House.
  • Name an investigative journalist with Irish roots who uncovered horrific working conditions and also went undercover in a New York mental institution.
  • Name the U.S. president who only discovered his Irish blood in 2007.
  • This man’s real name was William Henry McCarty. But what name made this criminal with Irish roots famous?

The answers are all here.

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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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