September 21, 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.

The per-capita cost of COVID-19 is not as great as the 1918 pandemic because there are now more than three times as many people in America. But the total number of Americans who have died of COVID-19 has topped the 670,000 who died in the 1918 flu pandemic.

Let’s add another asterisk to that claim. In 1918, death records were not all-inclusive and almost certainly undercounted mortality rates. But mortalities in this pandemic are certainly undercounted, too — we just don’t know by how much.

Bloomberg notes:

“To have so many people who have died with modern medicine is distressing,” said Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Research Institute, who noted there were no ventilators or vaccines in 1918. “The number we are at represents a number that is far worse than it should be in the U.S.”

Health Affairs does the math:

The current US population, a little more than 330 million, is more than three times larger than the population in 1918, estimated at 105 million. The 675,000 deaths attributed to the influenza epidemic made up 0.64 percent of the total population, a little more than six in every thousand people. By contrast, the more than 500,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19 make up about 0.15 percent of the total population, or between one and two in every thousand people. If COVID-19 caused deaths at the same rate as the 1918 epidemic, the total would approach two million.

Just as today, in 1917-1918 there were epic battles over masks, social distancing, closing schools … you name it. CNBC reports, “Several cities implemented mask mandates, describing them as a symbol of ‘wartime patriotism,’ but some people refused to comply or take them seriously.”

The 1918 flu came in three waves, with the worst in the winter. One in three Americans would be infected by the virus before the pandemic ended.

Let me make it easier for you to tell the 1918 & 2021 stories. Here is a list of 50 cities’ experiences with the 1918 pandemic put together by The University of Michigan History of Medicine page:

Albany, Atlanta, Baltimore, Birmingham, Boston, Buffalo, Cambridge, Charleston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Dayton, Denver, Des Moines, Detroit, Fall River, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Louisville, Lowell, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Haven, New Orleans, New York, Newark, Oakland, Omaha, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland (Oregon), Providence, Richmond, Rochester, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Francisco, Seattle, Spokane, St. Louis, St. Paul, Syracuse, Toledo, Washington, DC, Worcester

Children could have vaccines by Halloween

If the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention follow a pace similar to the one they set when they approved COVID-19 vaccinations for teenagers, children ages 5 to 11 might be able to get Pfizer’s vaccine before the end of October.

Pfizer announced it had enough data from its vaccine trials involving 3,000 children to submit to the FDA soon. Pfizer says its children’s dose of 10 micrograms, rather than the typical 30 micrograms, produced a robust immune response. Like the other approved COVID-19 vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna, it is a two-dose regimen.

Here’s what happens next:

  • Pfizer will request that the FDA issue an Emergency Use Authorization, or EUA, in which the FDA — first through an advisory committee, then the FDA administration — looks at Pfizer’s data that claims the drug is safe and effective.
  • The FDA would then amend a previous EUA that it issued for children ages 12 to 15.
  • A CDC review committee would take up the matter next, usually within a week of the FDA’s hearing. That committee makes a recommendation to the CDC, which would set the national guidelines for the vaccine’s use, just as it did for adults and older teens.
  • Vaccinations could then begin.
  • Sometime before the end of the year, Pfizer says, it hopes to have enough data to recommend vaccinations for the youngest children and infants.

Despite the EUA for older kids to get vaccinations, the CDC says a little more than 40% of children ages 12 to 15 have been fully vaccinated. And the Kaiser Family Foundation found in August that parents are even less likely to sign the youngest children up for vaccinations.

(Kaiser Family Foundation)

Children now account for more than one in five new cases but it is highly unlikely that a school district, for example, would make a COVID-19 vaccine mandatory if it is still an EUA. But once it becomes fully approved, as the vaccine has been for adults, then it is more likely that it would be made mandatory, just as other childhood vaccines are today.

COVID is the leading cause of law enforcement deaths while cops refuse vaccinations

In this Jan. 14, 2021, file photo, police officer Jennifer Leeman receives a COVID-19 vaccine at Englewood Health in Englewood, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund says the leading cause of law enforcement deaths so far this year is COVID-19.

The first six months of this year have demonstrated that America’s law enforcement officers are still battling the deadly effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some 71 officers dying as a result of contracting the disease while executing official duties.

The 71 officers represent a decrease of 7% compared to the 76 officers who died of COVID-19 related causes during the first half of last year. However, this would still make COVID-19 related fatalities the single highest cause of law enforcement deaths occurring in the first six months of 2021.

(National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund)

The memorial fund says COVID-19 was also the No. 1 cause of officer deaths in 2020.

Thousands of Los Angeles Police Department employees are planning to seek religious exemptions to keep from taking the COVID-19 vaccine. Six officers sued the city to overturn an order that makes vaccinations mandatory for city workers.

Inlander documents how some police in Spokane, Washington, are opposing the vaccines. In San Diego, about a quarter of police officers are unvaccinated. Another quarter of officers there will not say if they are vaccinated or not.

NBC News reports:

The battle brewing in Chicago is playing out in cities and towns across the country. Police unions in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Seattle; and Syracuse, New York, have pushed back against vaccination requirements, as has the union representing state police in Massachusetts.

Brian Higgins, a former police chief and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said police officers are not used to being told what to do, which might contribute to lower-than-average vaccination rates among officers.

“But, at the same time, many police organizations are still paramilitary organizations, and officers take their orders,” Higgins said. “There’s a lot of cops who probably took it reluctantly.”

Higgins compared the reluctance to the pushback from officers in the 1980s who didn’t like being told they had to wear protective vests.

An interesting development is unfolding in Portland, Oregon. Late last week, the city’s legal office said Portland may exempt police from a mandatory vaccination order.

Oregon Public Broadcasting says that until now, the city believed that the governor’s order that health care providers get vaccinated also covered police. But on second thought, the city attorney said police probably should not be covered by the governor’s order. OPB reports:

The rule change would come after fierce backlash against the mandate from the city’s police union, which warned such a requirement would lead to mass resignations within an already short-staffed force. Willamette Week reported that the police union’s lead attorney had argued to the city that officers were opposed “so deeply” that they would leave the force before getting a vaccine. According to PPB spokesperson Teri Wallo-Strauss, the bureau has had 145 sworn bureau members leave since July of 2020.

The Portland Police Bureau said it does not have vaccination rates for its officers.

What is behind the 700+ point drop in the Dow? Should you worry?

The name behind the big drop in the U.S. stock market this week is Evergrande, a huge player in the Chinese real estate world but a name most people in America do not know. In fact, Evergrande is the most indebted developer in the world. The company has been saying for some time that it is having cash flow problems and might default on $300 billion in liabilities.

Big names in China’s stock market have dropped a lot this year as the Chinese government gets tougher on tech companies. But U.S. analysts generally agree that the Chinese government will not allow Evergrande to default.

Let’s put Monday’s performance in a five-year perspective.

Chart of the S&P’s five-year performance (Yahoo Finance)

But there is another big worry: the US debt ceiling deadline

Buckle in. The stock market may be in for a rough ride in the next week and a half. The Washington Post says “Congress may opt for a destructive game of chicken before allowing the U.S. Treasury to borrow more money and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to weigh on the global economy.”

The federal government hits its debt ceiling on Oct. 1. The Associated Press explains what that means:

The Treasury Department has engaged in extraordinary measures to keep the government running after the suspended debt limit was reinstated in August at a level of $22 trillion, about $6 trillion less than the current total debt load. Treasury’s extraordinary measures will be exhausted by October, creating the potential for default.

The debt limit is the amount of money Congress allows the Treasury to borrow. It was suspended three times during the Trump administration and has been lifted dozens of times since 1960. Created at the start of World War I so Congress would no longer need to approve each bond issuance, the debt limit has evolved into a political weapon as borrowing has sharply escalated over the past two decades.

Not to scare you and your audiences too much, but the deadline and ramifications are real. The government currently has a total debt of $28.4 trillion. Think of it as a credit card limit. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen added to Wall Street’s nervousness when she said that if Congress fails the meet the Oct. 1 deadline to raise the debt ceiling, it could trigger an unprecedented financial crisis in the United States, which would have global repercussions.

You can get local on this issue by reading the White House memo to state and local governments in which mayors, county leaders and governors got a list of all of the stuff they could see dry up if the federal government had to cut spending to meet a government cap. The list includes:

  • Disaster relief efforts – the federal government responds to disasters both by providing direct assistance and by providing grants to states and locales. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Transportation all spend tens of billions of dollars, and much more during years with especially damaging catastrophes, helping states deal with disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires.
  • Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) – the federal government covers 2/3rds of the cost of Medicaid and the entire cost of CHIP, which provide health insurance for 1 out of every 5 Americans and give more than half of a trillion dollars to states each year.
  • Infrastructure funding – through grants for transit, highways, and airports, the federal government provides roughly $100 billion to states and locales.
  • Education – across Title I education funding, special education funding such as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Head Start, and School Improvement Programs, the federal government provides more than $50 billion annually to states and local governments for schools.
  • Public Health – with the Community Health Centers and the rest of the Health Resources and Services Administration, as well as with the Centers and Diseases Control and Prevention and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the federal governments provide more than $10 billion to states for public health.
  • Child Nutrition – the federal government provides the funding to states and local governments to carry out the National School Lunch and National School Breakfast programs, which serve 30 million children.

Artificial Christmas trees and decorations will be a lot more expensive this year

In this Nov. 9, 2017, file photo, Dailyn Feliz strings Christmas lights on plastic trees in Mount Vernon, N.Y. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

CNN warns:

Some large sellers of artificial trees say they are increasing their prices by double-digit percentages and are blaming unduly high shipping costs tied to the ongoing global supply chain mess.

“We’ll have to raise prices. For trees, it’ll be on average about 20% higher,” said Mac Harman, CEO of Balsam Hill. The company, based in Redwood City, California, does more than $200 million in direct-to-consumer annual sales of artificial Christmas trees and other decorations in the United States.

“Even then it won’t cover our own costs because we’re paying as much as 300% more per shipping container this year,” said Harmon.

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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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