May 4, 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.

COVID-19 vaccines could soon be approved for people as young as 12 years old.

The New York Times reports:

The Food and Drug Administration is preparing to authorize use of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in adolescents 12 to 15 years old by early next week, according to federal officials familiar with the agency’s plans, opening up the nation’s vaccination campaign to millions more Americans.

The Times reports that its sources say by the end of this week, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine advisory panel will consider an emergency use approval that could result in young people being vaccinated as early as next week. It would go a long way toward raising the national immunity level.

Pfizer announced recently that none of the young people in its current drug trial had any serious reactions and the drugs seemed to be working in the young people just as they do in adults.

The first hint that the drug company was ready to go before the FDA came on CBS’s “Face the Nation” when Dr. Scott Gottlieb estimated that 5 million children between the ages of 12 and 15 would immediately receive the vaccine following approval, while another 5 to 7 million would likely be vaccinated before the beginning of the fall 2021 school year.

Pfizer asked the FDA to start its review a few weeks ago.

Moderna is also testing its vaccine on teens, but the results of those trials are not ready yet. The company is also testing its vaccine on even younger children and may have those results sometime after mid-year but before the new school year.

There are a lot of vaccine doses available in the U.S. even as other parts of the world are pleading for more. The CDC said Monday that 65 million doses had been delivered but not administered. About half of those are the  Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. 25 million doses of Moderna vaccine are on standby and about 10 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine are ready to be shipped.

At some point, there will be medical ethics conversations about whether supplies should be used to vaccinate lower-risk American teens or whether they should go to other parts of the world where at-risk populations are being infected.

This might be an opportunity to think about how it was teens who made the polio vaccine “hip.” Health authorities planned school dances called “Salk hops” around vaccination clinics.

Why herd immunity may no longer be possible

The overused and misunderstood phrase “herd immunity” is a post-pandemic goal that may be out of reach. The concept has implied that the virus won’t have a place to thrive once a high percentage of the population is vaccinated.

But if there was a chance that could happen, it is slipping away.

Experts say the virus’ mutations may mean we will be fighting this virus forever. Experts are starting to believe that the best we can hope for now is to manage the virus to keep illness and deaths minimal. The New York Times reports the sobering outlook this way:

It is already clear, however, that the virus is changing too quickly, new variants are spreading too easily and vaccination is proceeding too slowly for herd immunity to be within reach anytime soon.

“The virus is unlikely to go away,” said Rustom Antia, an evolutionary biologist at Emory University in Atlanta. “But we want to do all we can to check that it’s likely to become a mild infection.”

The shift in outlook presents a new challenge for public health authorities. The drive for herd immunity — by the summer, some experts once thought possible — captured the imagination of large segments of the public. To say the goal will not be attained adds another “why bother” to the list of reasons that vaccine skeptics use to avoid being inoculated.

Yet vaccinations remain the key to transforming the virus into a controllable threat, experts said.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the Biden administration’s top adviser on Covid-19, acknowledged the shift in experts’ thinking.

“People were getting confused and thinking you’re never going to get the infections down until you reach this mystical level of herd immunity, whatever that number is,” he said.

Science journal Nature reported a month ago that herd immunity was becoming increasingly unlikely because so many people — even those who have access to vaccines — were taking a pass:

That threshold is generally achievable only with high vaccination rates, and many scientists had thought that once people started being immunized en masse, herd immunity would permit society to return to normal. Most estimates had placed the threshold at 60–70% of the population gaining immunity, either through vaccinations or past exposure to the virus. But as the pandemic enters its second year, the thinking has begun to shift. In February, independent data scientist Youyang Gu changed the name of his popular COVID-19 forecasting model from ‘Path to Herd Immunity’ to ‘Path to Normality’. He said that reaching a herd-immunity threshold was looking unlikely because of factors such as vaccine hesitancy, the emergence of new variants and the delayed arrival of vaccinations for children.

Long-term prospects for the pandemic probably include COVID-19 becoming an endemic disease, much like influenza.

There is another big complication to consider when trying to forecast herd immunity: We do not know yet how long the vaccines protect us. Even if a high percentage of people get vaccinated, it might be that we have to keep hitting that percentage over and over as people need boosters to remain protected.

Is it bad if you feel good after your COVID-19 vaccination?

The experts tell us that feeling under the weather following your COVID-19 shot is a sign that the vaccine is doing what it should. But what if you feel nothing? Does it mean your vaccination is not working?

The vaccine experts tell us that we all react differently, and some people have a slower immune response. A person’s age and overall health may also affect how much they feel the effects of a vaccination.

NPR explores the issue:

But that doesn’t mean people who don’t react to the vaccine severely are less protected, says Dr. Joanna Schaenman, an expert on infectious diseases and the immunology of aging at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. While the symptoms of illness are undoubtedly part of the immune response, the immune response that counts is protection, she says. “That is preserved across age groups and likely to be independent of whether you had local or systemic side effects or not.”

The immune system responses that produce post-vaccination symptoms are thought to be triggered by proteins called toll-like receptors, which reside on certain immune cells. These receptors are less functional in older people, who are also likely to have chronic, low-grade activation of their immune systems that paradoxically mutes the more rapid response to a vaccine.

But other parts of their immune systems are responding more gradually to the vaccine by creating the specific types of cells needed to protect against the coronavirus. These are the so-called memory B cells, which make antibodies to attack the virus, and “killer T cells” that track and destroy virus-infected cells.

Why are so many police officers unvaccinated?

Police officer Jennifer Leeman receives a COVID-19 vaccine at Englewood Health in Englewood, N.J., Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The Washington Post surveyed 40 cities around the country to get a handle on vaccination rates. A few cities, such as Honolulu and Denver, have achieved significant vaccination rates. Many others have not.

Denver’s success may be linked to the chief of police joining in a partnership with the police union to get the vaccine.

Phoenix tried to give police department employees an incentive to take the shots but less than a fourth of officers and staff took the city up on the offer.

(The Washington Post)

The Post says overall vaccination rates tend to be reflected by police department vaccination rates:

Many officers also reject immunization because they think previous covid-19 infections have given them immunity, said Sean Smoot, director and chief legal counsel of the Police Benevolent and Protective Association of Illinois. That assumption runs counter to federal health guidance, which indicates that recovered people should be vaccinated because the duration of post-infection protection is unknown.

Some of the differences in police uptake of the vaccine reflect disparities among the communities they serve. Hawaii, where 80 percent of officers in Honolulu have received at least one dose, has administered more doses per capita than all but four states, and the Democratic governor, David Ige, has moved forward with plans for certifications known as vaccine passports, a cousin of vaccine mandates. A greater proportion of residents in Denver County are vaccinated than in, for example, Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, or Fulton County, which includes Atlanta.

Appreciating teachers in a pandemic

Today is National Teacher Day. After the year our teachers have survived, they deserve a day — heck, they deserve a month — of recognition.

This gives me a reason to share this creative and heart-tugging story about a teacher in Minnesota who has been teaching her students online, not from home, but from a hospital bed where she was undergoing chemotherapy.

The story is just one reason I share this link. KARE 11’s Boyd Huppert and photojournalist Chad Nelson also tried some production techniques on this one that make it worth your attention.

And now, a Mother’s Day flower shortage?

We should have a bingo card with all of the shortages that we have experienced or warned about in the last year. The newest one is that florists say they may have a Mother’s Day flower shortage.

Floral company FTD explains it this way:

When the worldwide pandemic started shutting down businesses in 2020, the projected demand based on previous “normal” years for those flowers hit a brick wall. Offices, restaurants, and retailers that usually had large, long-standing orders for flowers no longer needed them. For some growers, this meant that the demand for their flowers stock was cut by nearly 95%, forcing many farmers to give away their overstock they couldn’t sell, or simply letting them die in the fields at a tremendous loss.

The dominos continued to fall with growers forced to lay off large amounts of workers and suffer their own staggering financial loss. Many larger growing farms in California and South America had to shut down their growing operations and sell their farms because they no longer had the capital or labor to continue to run. Some of them are no longer used as flower farms, but instead as more lucrative cannabis growing farms, especially in South America. The result in the larger California farms closing and other farms no longer even producing flowers is a shortage that includes snapdragons, Delphinia, and gerbera daisies.

FTD says pandemic-related transportation problems and a less than ideal growing season in Latin America also add to the shortage.

It all means that some flower types will be harder to find, but the shortage is not enough for you to use as an excuse.

Online violence aimed at female journalists

Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa talks to reporters outside the Court of Tax Appeals in Metro Manila, Philippines, on Thursday, March 4, 2021. The UNESCO study says Ressa is “at the core of an online violence storm.” (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

A UNESCO-commissioned global study of online violence against female journalists draws on more than 900 responses from journalists in 125 countries and shows what too many of you have experienced: an increasing number and intensity of social media attacks on female journalists.

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of the survey respondents identifying as women said they had experienced online violence.

This study is truly worth your time. Do not think for a moment it is limited to journalists working on conflict zones. Based on the conversations that my wife (a therapist) and I have had while doing stress and trauma work with journalists in markets big and small and on all media platforms, I suspect you will find similar results in almost any newsroom.

Some of the other findings include:

Threats of physical violence (identified by 25% of survey respondents) including death threats, and sexual violence (identified by 18%) also plagued the women journalists we interviewed. And these threats radiated: 13% of survey respondents and many interviewees said they had received threats of violence against those close to them, including children and infants.

One-fifth (20%) of survey respondents identifying as women said they had been attacked or abused offline in connection with online violence they had experienced. A similar proportion of our interviewees also experienced offline abuse associated with online attacks, including the subjects of both of our big data case studies.

Racism, religious bigotry, sectarianism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia intersect with misogyny and sexism to produce significantly heightened exposure and deeper impacts for women experiencing multiple forms of discrimination concurrently, as evidenced by our survey respondents and interviewees, and detailed in our big data case study on Maria Ressa.

Employment and productivity impacts reported by the women survey respondents included missing work to recover from online violence (11%), making themselves less visible (38%), quitting their jobs (4%), and even abandoning journalism altogether (2%). Linked to this was the professional discreditation of online violence targets.

Black, Indigenous, Jewish, Arab and lesbian women journalists participating in our survey and interviews experienced both the highest rates and most severe impacts of online violence.

Physical threats associated with online violence caused 13% of women survey respondents to increase their physical security; 4% said that they had missed work due to particular concerns about the attacks moving offline and resulting in physical violence.

A number of our interviewees were suffering from PTSD connected to online violence, and many were in therapy as a result. The mental health impacts were also the most frequently identified (26%) consequence of online attacks among survey respondents. 12% of respondents said they had sought medical or psychological help due to the effects of online violence.

When asked “How does the level of online violence you experience affect your journalism practice and your interaction with sources/audiences?”, 30% of the women journalists surveyed answered that they self-censored on social media. 20% described how they withdrew from all online interaction. Self-censorship was also a response noted by many interviewees.

The women interviewed said Facebook was the platform used most often by their attackers and 41% said it appeared the attacks against them were the product of an organized effort. Fewer than one in 10 victims even bothered to try to get police involved, showing a huge lack of confidence that they would be taken seriously. And no wonder. The survey found:

Despite progress made by many employers over the past five years, only 25% of the women survey respondents said they had reported online violence incidents to their employers, and the top responses they said they received when they did were: no response (10%) and advice like “grow a thicker skin” or “toughen up” (9%), while 2% said they were asked what they did to provoke the attack.

This graphic gives you an idea of the range of attacks our colleagues around the globe have been subjected to:


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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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