January 14, 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.

This will rock you back. CNBC reports:

The CEO of Covid-19 vaccine maker Moderna warned Wednesday that the coronavirus that has brought world economies to a standstill and overwhelmed hospitals will be around “forever.”

Public health officials and infectious disease experts have said there is a high likelihood that Covid-19 will become an endemic disease, meaning it will become present in communities at all times, though likely at lower levels than it is now.

Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel appeared to agree Wednesday that Covid-19 will become endemic, saying “SARS-CoV-2 is not going away.”

One reason researchers believe that COVID-19 may be around “forever” is that the virus is constantly changing and adapting to challenges.

CNBC continues:

Health officials will have to continuously watch for new variants of the virus, so scientists can produce vaccines to fight them, he said. Researchers in Ohio said Wednesday they’ve discovered two new variants likely originating in the U.S. and that one of them quickly became the dominant strain in Columbus, Ohio, over a three-week period in late December and early January.

New data about Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is promising

New data just published in the New England Journal of Medicine says the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine seems to be safe and effective. The data shows the Johnson & Johnson vaccine takes about 28 days to provide protection. The side effects appear to be about the same as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines the FDA already approved. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is heading toward U.S. Food and Drug Administration consideration in a couple of weeks.

How COVID-19 made foster care even more difficult

Foster care systems say the persistent problem of not having enough certified foster families has gotten measurably worse in the pandemic because families can’t have people coming and going from their houses right now. Some families that might otherwise take in foster children have to look after vulnerable family members. Other families cannot foster because of economic pressures. This is a story that needs your attention.

NBC News reports:

Chicago has seen a 33 percent increase in the number of children in foster care. In Texas, children in foster care have reportedly contracted Covid-19 at nearly double the rate of the general population. And, in Los Angeles, kids in foster care are severely affected by learning loss.

“We’ve had kids that, during the pandemic, have been shuttled from foster placement to foster placement. Not for the child’s fault, but because the caregivers are concerned about Covid,” Lyndsey C. Wilson, CEO of First Star, a national nonprofit that supports children in foster care, tells NBC.

“Young people in the foster system aren’t there because they did something wrong,” Wilson added. “They’re there because of poverty sometimes. Because of their circumstances, young people can be put into the system. Foster youth are experiencing so many challenges.”

In some states, screening for foster parents ground to a halt and only recently started back up again, creating a huge backlog. The New York Times describes it this way:

“For a long while, the courts here were just not doing anything virtually,” said Shantell Lewis, a recruiter with the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program, which focuses on finding placements for older foster youth, at a Brooklyn nonprofit called MercyFirst. Though New York has more recently allowed work to be conducted virtually, the state has a considerable backlog. “New York has an old-school, antiquated system in some ways. They’ve always been closed to virtual work, so it’s been very, very slow moving to adapt.”

Another issue: Foster youth “aging-out” can be abrupt and hard in a robust economy. Aging out in a pandemic is a fight for survival. The Times continues:

We had reports of former foster youth sleeping in the streets or in cars,” said Bodner. “And that’s if they’re lucky enough to even have a car.”

This past May, FosterClub conducted a small survey of 613 former foster youth, 18 to 24, to understand how the pandemic was affecting young adults with experience in the foster care system. Sixty-five percent of respondents working before the pandemic reported losing their jobs. Another 23 percent said they were experiencing housing insecurity. And only 37 percent said they had an adult to turn to.

The NBC News report said that Black families, especially, are getting caught in COVID-19 foster care separations.

Additionally, Black parents experiencing poverty are more likely to be accused of neglect and separated from their children. With courts shuttered and visitation suspended due to the pandemic, parents have little recourse against separations. And families hoping to reunite have to wait longer than usual.

“Courts are taking an unprecedented amount of time to process adoptions and other matters and that’s keeping families apart longer,” Wilson says. “With Covid-19, the requirements to reunify families has been really challenging. The transactional tasks that are required of families usually happen in a physical space, but that can’t happen anymore. This means foster youth are so lonely, many have lost touch with their family members because of Covid. The only way to see someone now is through Zoom or video conferencing, and that’s one of the biggest challenges.”

Why are child abuse reports dropping in the pandemic?

It would be nice to think that the drop in child abuse reports around the country means fewer kids are being abused, but there is no reason to think so. Experts say it’s more likely that when kids are not in classrooms, teachers, who are a first line of defense for abused kids, do not see and therefore cannot report suspected abuse cases.

The Star Tribune reports:

Many of the stresses resulting from the pandemic — isolation, job loss and rising levels of hunger — can overwhelm families and lead children to experience more harm at home, not less, say child welfare experts. Research from the last economic downturn in the late 2000s showed a link between financial hardship and child abuse, particularly cases of abusive head trauma.

“Kids are hidden from view and God only knows what is happening to them,” said Rich Gehrman, director of Safe Passage for Children, a child protection watchdog group. “Families are under increased pressure and we’re not necessarily going to know about incidents of abuse while schools aren’t in session.”

The Star Tribune says it is not impossible to believe that a big effort to prevent child abuse is paying off, but a more realistic view seems to be that the problems are just out of sight at the moment.

“Violence against children has always been pervasive, and now things could be getting much worse,” said Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF. “Lockdowns, school closures and movement restrictions have left far too many children stuck with their abusers, without the safe space that school would normally offer. It is urgent to scale up efforts to protect children during these times and beyond.”

In a big setback, a Chinese COVID-19 vaccine falls short

Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria shows the press a box of COVID-19 vaccine CoronaVac as containers carrying doses of it are unloaded from a cargo plane that arrived from China at an airport near Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Brazilian scientists say a COVID-19 vaccine made in China is not 78% effective, as they said last week, but only really works about half of the time. There was great hope for the vaccine produced by the Chinese government-owned Sinovac and Sinopharm because it does not require extreme refrigeration. Despite its lower-than-hoped-for efficacy, some countries that already contracted for millions of doses may distribute it anyway under the notion that any level of protection is better than none, especially since it will likely be some time before other drugs become available.

What the cool kids are seeing at CES this week: tech-loaded masks

The Consumer Electronics Show is where companies and inventors roll out their cool stuff. This one caught my eye. It is a tech-loaded face mask. 

(Razer’s Project Hazel smart mask)

CNET explains:

Project Hazel, a concept for COVID-19 living. It’s an N95 mask packed with tech: Audio-processing pods that un-muffle your voice, active ventilation and auto-sterilization, a companion case that doubles as a UV sterilizer. And LED RBG lighting.

U.K. company Binatone also showed off its own tech-jammed mask at CES, an N95 mask with a Bluetooth headset.

All of the “smart masks” that are catching attention are “concept pieces,” meaning they are not in production or for sale, so who knows if they actually work.

Why aren’t we wearing better masks?

The high-tech masks at CES might prompt us to say, “Now that you mention it, why aren’t we wearing better masks?” The Atlantic is quick to point out that cloth masks, which most people use, are better than nothing, but lack a lot.

Tragically, America is swamped with fraudulent medical-grade masks, some of which are only 1 percent effective. Many masks do not have labels clearly indicating their manufacturer. Some official mask-testing methods are inappropriate, including the use of far higher pressure than normal breathing exerts. No reasonable certification is available for the most useful masks generally available to the public. All of this means that everyone has to somehow figure out for themselves which masks are effective.

Not all countries have this problem. Taiwan massively scaled up its manufacturing of masks at the start of 2020, such that by April every citizen received a fresh supply of high-quality masks each week, and the distribution system was regulated by the government. Taiwan’s COVID-19 death rate per capita is more than 1,000 times lower than that in the U.S. Hong Kong has been distributing patented six-layer masks (the efficacy of which has been laboratory tested) to every citizen. Singapore is on at least its fourth round of distributing free, reusable, multilayer masks with filters to everyone—even kids, who get kid-size ones. In Germany, Bavaria has just announced that it will be requiring higher-grade masks. If all of these places can do this, why can’t we?

This is more than parlor chit-chat. With mutant versions of the virus that may be more easily transmitted, we really do need better masks. And the article makes the point that better masks would provide a stronger argument for wearing them:

Not having higher-grade medical masks or even reliable, certified cloth masks distributed to the population means more transmission. But that’s not all. If we could confidently tell people that the masks would also help protect the wearer from infection, we would likely get more people to wear them. Appealing to solidarity is excellent (“My mask protects you; your mask protects me”), but being able to confidently add self-interest to the equation would be even better.

Cancer deaths see a record drop. But …

Amid the horrific headlines is this: New data shows in 2018 (the data lags some), deaths from cancer — America’s second leading cause of death — dropped 2.4%. That is a big drop for one year. Add that to the ongoing trend and the American Cancer Society says cancer deaths have dropped a stunning 31% since 1990.

The data comes from the American Cancer Society’s annual cancer statistics, appearing in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, and its consumer version, Cancer Facts & Figures 2021.

Here is what else the latest data shows:

Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer death, accounting for more deaths than breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers combined.

Cancer is the leading cause of death in Hispanic, Asian American, and Alaska Native persons.

The 5-year survival rate for all cancers combined diagnosed during 2010 through 2016 was 68% in White patients versus 63% in Black patients.

For all stages combined, survival is the highest for prostate cancer (98%), melanoma of the skin (93%), and female breast cancer (90%), and lowest for cancers of the pancreas (10%), liver (20%), esophagus (20%), and lung (21%).

Survival rates are lower for Black patients than for White patients for every cancer type except pancreas.

Prostate, lung and bronchus, and colorectal cancers account for 46% of all incident cases in men, with prostate cancer alone accounting for 26% of diagnoses.

For women, breast, lung, and colorectal cancers account for 50% of all new diagnoses, with breast cancer alone accounting for 30% of female cancers.

In contrast to declining trends for lung and colorectal cancers, female breast cancer incidence rates increased by about 0.5% per year from 2008 to 2017, which is attributed at least in part to continued declines in the fertility rate and increased body weight.

Colorectal cancer overtook leukemia in 2018 as the second leading cause of cancer death in men aged 20 to 39 years, reflecting increasing trends in colorectal cancer in this age group, coinciding with declining rates for leukemia.

One big unknown: how the pandemic will interrupt the progress described above. Without a doubt, patients are not getting screened for cancer at the rate they were pre-pandemic, and early detection is the best defense.

The way we work now

I want your time and attention for this item. Really. Take time to take this one in.

My friend and colleague who I admire, Sara Sidner, has been everywhere most people do not want to go and has seen everything most people do not want to see. She will be teaching with me in our TV Power Reporting seminar this spring.

Sidner has spent the last year mostly covering the demonstrations and protests following the police killing of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic. It all caught up with her live on the air Tuesday morning. She cried. Whoever said reporters are not supposed to cry on TV has not seen what she has seen lately.


Sidner explains in an article for CNN:

What moved me to tears was, at first, simply rage. Rage at those who won’t take our ills seriously and those who are actively fighting against the truth. They are putting people’s lives in danger.

Sidner was telling the story of Juliana Jimenez Sesma, who had to leave her job to care for her ill mother. Then Sesma’s whole family became infected. Within a space of 11 days, the young woman lost her stepfather and her mother to COVID-19. In fact, Sider met Sesma at a funeral for her mother, held in a parking lot because that was the only safe place they could find to gather.

Sesma stood in front of me, a stranger, and told me her story. She was trying to be brave at her mom’s funeral, but how can you say goodbye to the most important person in your life in a parking lot? Then, I would not let myself cry, I was working. But I did let myself see, feel and hear it as the mariachi band played “Amor Eterno,” or “Love Eternal.”

I can’t tell you what a hard slap in the face it is to constantly experience two distinctly different worlds in one beautiful but imperfect America: One based on reality, the other on conspiracy and tribalism.

I’ve now been to 10 hospitals trying to deal with the pandemic. I’ve witnessed people writhing in pain, gasping for breath and near death from Covid-19 in ICUs across the country. I’ve seen doctors and nurses with exhaustion written all over their faces still battling like the pandemic just began, though we are 12 months in.

And then, as I make my way home and stop to pump gas, someone rolls their eyes at me and asks, “Why are you wearing a mask?” Like it’s me that’s bonkers.

Sara Sidner has been attacked by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and KKK members. She has, like many of you, been publicly mocked, dodged tear gas canisters and reported again and again about the rise of hate in America. But working from the Los Angeles office, the pandemic has been the main focus of her attention lately.

For years I have been saying some of these guys are talking about a civil war and they are going to act at some point. People would look at me the same way the maskless guy at the gas station did. I was met with an eye roll or push back that I was exaggerating. And yet there, in front of my eyes, an insurrection was unfolding. Stark. Violent. And real.

Sidner, like so many other reporters who cover COVID-19, has lived isolated from her own family so she does not risk infecting them. She, live on the air, listened to the report she had just filed telling Sesma’s story. All of that was boiling in her mind as she reported.

I just wanted to scream. If few thought this could ever happen in modern America, I always feared it would. And I know it is not over. Just as sure as coronavirus is poised to deal another destructive blow because of the Christmas and New Year’s revelry, militia members, white nationalists, Trump insurrectionists, conspiracy theorists and their supporters may deal yet another blow to American democracy as we know it.

So, when you saw me cry, you witnessed my rage. I care about my country. I worry about the new and old ills facing us. And I feel like my country is on life support.

And this is what reporters saw when they walked in to work at the Capitol a week after the riot, on the day the U.S. House of Representatives impeached the president for the second time.

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