September 9, 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 outbreaks have closed 1,400 schools in 35 states across the country. US News and World Report says:

More than 1,400 schools across 278 districts in 35 states that began the academic year in person have closed, according to Burbio, an organization that’s tracking how schools respond to the ongoing pandemic. The figures are up from 698 schools across 158 districts in 25 states.

(Burbio)

In context, there are 98,000 schools in America. That means 1.4% of schools have been closed due to COVID-19.

Burbio says most of the schools that closed used virtual learning as a backup, but four in 10 didn’t.

Biden to announce six steps to control COVID today, will not include national vaccine mandate

President Joe Biden will suggest six steps to get control of the COVID-19 pandemic that now is claiming a thousand American lives per day. The only information that has leaked out about the six steps are:

Requiring more vaccinations, including pressing federal employees to get vaccinated. Biden already ordered mandatory vaccinations for the nation’s 2.1 million federal employees. The Department of Defense will require vaccinations for 1.3 million active-duty service members.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki conceded Wednesday that the president has limited authority to make vaccinations mandatory for people other than federal employees or members of the military and the six-point plan will not call for a national vaccine mandate.

Increasing pressure on private employers to require vaccinations.  One way the president can apply leverage in this area is to require private employers that have federal contracts to mandate vaccines. For example, the president ordered all nursing homes to require their staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to continue receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding.

Making it safer for kids to go to school. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said masks, social distancing and quarantining sick kids all help lower infections and the federal government has made money available to help keep schools safe. Biden will urge parents to get their kids age 12 and older vaccinated and will push parents of younger children to act quickly to get their children vaccinated after the Food and Drug Administration approves a vaccine for children in the weeks ahead. We do not know to what extent Biden will wade into the divisive debate over mask mandates in schools.

Calling for a global COVID-19 summit in the week of Sept. 20. The Washington Post says details are still up in the air, but the president wants to hold a meeting with global leaders during the United Nations General Assembly meetings that are coming up.

The president’s speech today comes a week and a half before the administration was set to begin widely rolling out booster shots of the Pfizer vaccine, even while there is wide disagreement about whether there is a compelling need for booster shots. The FDA meets Sept. 17 to discuss boosters. The decision to move ahead with the recommendation is not certain.

The president’s speech also comes right after the World Health Organization announced that COVAX, the global group that is trying to get vaccines to developing countries, will have 25% fewer vaccines to hand out this year than it hoped. WHO, as you will recall, hoped the United States and other countries would hold off on booster shots for now and send the vaccines to countries that have not been able to offer the first rounds of vaccinations.

Pediatric COVID cases spike: 250,000 new cases in one week

Just as children nationwide are going back to school, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that, for the first time, weekly pediatric coronavirus cases surpassed 250,000 new cases in a week. AAP says:

As of September 2, over 5 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic. About 252,000 cases were added the past week, the largest number of child cases in a week since the pandemic began. After declining in early summer, child cases have increased exponentially, with over 750,000 cases added between August 5 and September 2.

At this time, it appears that severe illness due to COVID-19 is uncommon among children. However, there is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects.

Let me walk you through some of the AAP charts. The first chart is a trend chart that shows the dramatic increase in new cases among children:

(AAP)

The next chart is the infection rate:

(AAP)

You may put many asterisks on this chart, including whether states accurately and fully report pediatric infections. And, remember, many pediatric infections go undetected because the children are asymptomatic.

This chart is the actual number of reported cases by state:

(AAP)

Again, you may find some states are more aggressively collecting and reporting data.

Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said it is not inevitable that these pediatric infections keep rising, depending on whether schools take precautions and whether the FDA can approve vaccines for children soon.

(Burbio)

The Washington Post reports a couple of sobering stories:

Miami-Dade County Public Schools are reporting at least 13 employee deaths from covid-19 since mid-August. (CNN reports “All 13 — four teachers, one security monitor, one cafeteria worker and seven school bus drivers — were unvaccinated)

Masks are now mandatory for students and staff in the Connally Independent School District, on the outskirts of Waco. The decision, made late last week, followed the two teacher deaths and a surge of cases in the community.

What we learn about ‘natural immunity’ from Sturgis, South Dakota

People sing and dance at a rock concert on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, in Sturgis, South Dakota. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

I was teaching in South Dakota the week before the big Sturgis motorcycle rally. The battle cry that I heard all around me was that South Dakotans had a phenomenal “natural immunity” built up because, they said, so many people in that state had already survived COVID-19 infections.

It is probable, experts say, that about half of South Dakotans have been infected and the other half has been vaccinated. So, if the theory of natural immunity protecting people was going to play out, that would be a good playground to see it work.

The Washington Post delivers the results of this experiment:

But unfortunately, that’s not what happened. In the weeks since the rally began in early August, infection numbers have shot up more than 600 percent in South Dakota. We can expect to see big increases in other states, too, since bikers returned home from the event. Last year, after Sturgis, we saw massive outbreaks across the Dakotas, Wyoming, Indiana, even Nevada. Much of the region was aflame because of Sturgis, probably causing thousands of deaths.

Dr. Ashish K. Jha, health policy researcher and the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, wrote a column for The Washington Post asking what we should learn from this. For example, does this mean that even outdoor events are dangerous? Other events, like Chicago’s Lollapalooza, didn’t seem to produce much of an outbreak. But that music festival asked attendees to promise they have been vaccinated or recently tested negative. Jha observed:

Eighteen months into the pandemic, we’ve learned that outdoor gatherings are reasonably safe — it’s the indoor activities that invariably follow that are deadly. At Sturgis, it is unlikely that the outdoor bike rallies were a problem. Most of the spread likely happened in the evenings, when people crowded into bars and restaurants, most unvaccinated, all unmasked. Large gatherings that work on keeping indoor spaces safe through vaccinations, masking, ventilation and other techniques can keep the entire gathering safer.

The simple interpretation of the large outbreak after Sturgis is that big gatherings are just not possible during a pandemic. But that is the wrong lesson. It’s important for Americans to find ways to come together. So, we should ask how we can make gatherings safer.

Here, the pandemic playbook is straightforward: Ensure you have a highly vaccinated population. Verify people’s vaccination status. Require rapid and frequent testing, especially for the unvaccinated. Improve indoor air quality, and use masking intermittently when needed.

Mega study: Hydroxychloroquine doesn’t offer much help to prevent or treat COVID

This year alone, physicians have written a half million prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine to treat or prevent COVID-19, according to Dr. Charles H. Hennekens of the Florida Atlantic University Schmidt College of Medicine, in Boca Raton, Florida. Add that to the number of people who already took the drug for immune diseases and it approaches 900,000 prescriptions a year, which is nine times greater than before the pandemic.

It is clear that doctors are prescribing hydroxychloroquine during the pandemic. What has been less clear is whether the drug does what people hope it would do: prevent or treat COVID-19.

Hennekens and his colleagues pulled together a mega-collection of data for the American Journal of Medicine and found the drug presented a small risk of heart problems and a low probability that it will help COVID-19 patients recover faster or avoid getting sick altogether. The study said more specifically that their meta-analysis of available data shows the effect the drug has on people who are not hospitalized and those who are more seriously ill in the hospital:

A nonsignificant relative risk of 0.9 and a statistically nonsignificant 10% estimated reduction in COVID-19 infection in those treated with the drug.

Meanwhile, their meta-analysis of hydroxychloroquine in hospitalized patients with COVID-19 found a nonsignificant relative risk of 1.1 as well as a statistically nonsignificant estimated 10% increase in mortality, but with sufficient precision to rule out as small as a 1% reduction.

The study found that the drug does not significantly increase the risk of heart disease in immunocompromised people who use it for that purpose, but not for COVID-19 treatment, because most of the people being treated for lupus are younger. Those being treated for COVID-19 tended to be older and more susceptible to heart disease.

The researcher told Healio:

“Premature and avoidable deaths will continue to occur if subjects take hydroxychloroquine and avoid the public health strategies of proven benefit,” he said. “These include vaccinations and masking, social distancing, crowd avoidance, and frequent hand and face washing.”

All of this, by the way, is in line with what previous medical researchers have found.

Tracking PPP loans to fake businesses

When billions of dollars flow fast from the federal government you can bet freeloaders will be there to lap it up, and they have. KUSA in Denver is tracking several dozen “businesses” that took in millions in Paycheck Protection Program loans. But the businesses do not seem to exist. Some closed years ago.

Now, here is a little extra. My friend Jeremy Jojola cut a video in which he walks you through how he and his team found this story and how they verified who got the money and why it was problematic.

Treehouses in a pandemic

Artist Melinda Hackett poses for a picture on the steps leading up to the treehouse in her backyard in New York City, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that, once the pandemic is over, a lot of people are going to wonder why they spent money to build an expensive treehouse. But right now, The Associated Press says:

Treehouses have proliferated during the pandemic. There are stylish backyard ones built by professionals, and makeshift ones thrown up just to escape the four walls of home. There are listings on sites like Airbnb for treehouses to camp in.

Unlike the rickety treehouses of yore, many of these new ones have been upgraded. Most are still accessed with a ladder, however, requiring you to climb.

On social media, a variety of treehouse hashtags on TikTok pulls up millions of results. On Pinterest, searches for “treehouse homes” are up sevenfold from the year prior. And treehouse rentals have their own section on Airbnb.

You know what you call a banker who lives in a treehouse, right? A branch manager.

Correction: 1.4% of U.S. schools have closed due to COVID-19, not .01%. Insert joke here about journalists and math. We apologize for the error. 

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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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