February 24, 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 drug companies that are producing America’s COVID-19 vaccines told Congress Tuesday they will produce a combined 140 million doses over the next five weeks. To date, Moderna and Pfizer have produced 82 million.

If the projections hold true, the persistent frustrating shortage of vaccines may be nearing an end. But then, they have not hit production and delivery goals so far.

Moderna has gotten positive feedback on plans to increase the number of doses per vial and Pfizer says it will increase production in the coming weeks. Add to that Johnson & Johnson’s hopes to get approval for its one-shot vaccine this week and the pipeline for vaccines should fill up much faster.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s newest data shows a big improvement in the amount of vaccine produced and the number of shots delivered.

(CDC)

One rule change that could vaccinate thousands each week

A vial of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is held at a vaccination site Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

NBC News has a story about a rule change that would allow thousands of additional vaccinations per week.

After vaccine providers draw the sixth (and technically final) dose from vials, there almost always is some vaccine left over. But Food and Drug Administration rules do not allow them to administer “pooled doses” — doses that are compiled from different vials. They have to throw away the leftover vaccine.

“It doesn’t look like a lot at the bottom of the bottle,” said Dr. Stephen Jones, CEO of Inova Health System, based in Falls Church, Virginia. “But ultimately, in aggregate, that adds up to a lot of doses that end up being wasted, and we’re not allowed to use that additional vaccine. But there are times where there’s almost a full dose at the end of the vial, which is heartbreaking to let that go to waste.”

The Inova pharmacists did an experiment, taking 100 vials that had residual vaccine. Eighty of them had significant amounts left over. The pharmacists found that with the vaccine left in the 80 vials, they could make 40 additional full doses. That meant that on a typical vaccination day, when the hospital will typically give more than 4,000 shots, it could give an additional 400 vaccination shots with the same supply.

“If we can simply start putting them together, using them immediately, we’ll increase the amount of vaccines available for free,” Jones said.

Experts say it’s a simple process that pharmacists have been doing for years.

The NBC story says as long as the vaccines are from the same lot number, they could be tracked in case of side effects. But because neither Moderna’s nor Pfizer’s vaccines contain preservatives to stop bacteria in case the vaccine doses become contaminated, the medicines cannot legally be combined.

The FDA responded to NBC News, saying:

“This is an infection control measure,” an FDA spokeswoman said in a statement. “Cross-contamination of multidose medications through the use of the same needle and syringe has occurred with other medications when this practice was utilized, causing serious bacterial infections. If one vial becomes contaminated, this practice can spread contamination to the others, prolonging presence of the pathogen and increasing the potential for disease transmission.”

But pharmacists say they could immediately use whatever pooled vaccines they put together. This simple solution seems like something that is worthy of journalists exploring further with pharmacy experts.

Depression among college students is growing worse

A Boston University researcher surveyed 33,000 college students nationwide and found anxiety and depression are growing. They are lonely, feeling isolated and not doing as well in school. 

Read the study results here. They find that more than one in 10 college students has had thoughts of suicide in the last year. 39% of college students report they are, on some level, depressed. And an even greater percentage said they think, “Most people would think less of someone who has received mental health treatment.”

Science Daily summarizes:

“Half of students in fall 2020 screened positive for depression and/or anxiety,” says Sarah Ketchen Lipson, a Boston University mental health researcher and a co-principal investigator of the nationwide survey published on February 11, 2021, which was administered online during the fall 2020 semester through the Healthy Minds Network. The survey further reveals that 83 percent of students said their mental health had negatively impacted their academic performance within the past month, and that two-thirds of college students are struggling with loneliness and feeling isolated — an all-time high prevalence that reflects the toll of the pandemic and the social distancing necessary to control it.

The study says loneliness is widespread among college students.

(Boston University)

Students respond to their situations in a range of ways, from binge drinking to a lot of exercise — in about equal parts.

(Boston University)

(Boston University)

The researcher offered ideas about how to lower all of this anxiety:

… instructors can protect students’ mental health by having class assignments due at 5 p.m., rather than midnight or 9 a.m., times that Lipson says can encourage students to go to bed later and lose valuable sleep to meet those deadlines.

Crucially, she says, instructors must bear in mind that the burden of mental health is not the same across all student demographics. “Students of color and low-income students are more likely to be grieving the loss of a loved one due to COVID,” Lipson says. They are also “more likely to be facing financial stress.” All of these factors can negatively impact mental health and academic performance in profound ways, she says.

Good news for farmers — exports and prices are up

The U.S. Agriculture Department says U.S. farm exports to China are expected to hit a record $31.5 billion this year. China’s recovery from COVID-19 is a factor in the buying spree for corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and chicken. Former President Donald Trump can claim some part of this upturn in trade since the numbers are fiscal year figures, which would have included his last three and a half months in office.

This is a huge relief to U.S. farmers, who were caught in the crossfire of the American and Chinese tariff wars.

People who are flying resent ‘travel shaming’

A United Airlines airplane takes off over a plane on the runway at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

CNN turned out a piece about people who are flying from here to there for business, to be with loved ones or who are just trying to “get away.” You know, like taking your kids to Mexico because you don’t have electricity. Anyway, these travelers say they are being “travel shamed” and feel misunderstood.

How much has your city paid in police misconduct settlements?

The Marshall Project and FiveThirtyEight just compiled records from 31 cities around the country to calculate how much they paid in police misconduct settlements. The cities they looked at paid about $3 billion over the last 10 years.

The report says:

As the country has witnessed episode after episode of police abuse, holding police officers accountable for misconduct has become an urgent issue. But despite increased attention, it’s still rare for police officers to face criminal prosecution. That leaves civil lawsuits as victims’ primary route for seeking legal redress and financial compensation when a police encounter goes wrong. The resulting settlements can be expensive for the city, which is generally on the hook for the payouts (meaning ultimately, most are subsidized by taxpayers), and those costs can encourage cities to make broader changes.

Total police settlement spending in records obtained by FiveThirtyEight and The Marshall Project, along with the years of data available and the average amount spent annually on police settlements. (The Marshall Project/FiveThirtyEight)

The Marshall Project reports:

Three billion dollars sounds like a lot of money. But the vast majority — $2.5 billion over 10 years — was spent by the nation’s three largest cities, which had a combined budget of around $115 billion last year alone. Smaller cities spent much less than New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, although a significant number, including Milwaukee, Detroit and San Francisco, still spent tens of millions of dollars on police misconduct settlements over the same period.

There is a fair chance, the reporters write, that the data is not complete. State laws require different calculations and records. And UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz offered some reasons why the numbers may, in some cases, be smaller than you might expect:

Some states have laws that are particularly protective of police officers, which raises the likelihood that lawsuits will be dismissed with no payout.

One place — like, say, New York City — might have more civil rights lawyers who are willing to take on police misconduct cases.

There might be formal or informal caps on how much a city will pay in a settlement.

It’s possible that juries in some parts of the country are more willing to rule in favor of police misconduct victims, giving cities more of an incentive to settle lawsuits before they get to trial.

The process of filing a lawsuit may be so expensive and complicated that people are only willing to wade into the legal system when they’re victims of egregious misconduct — allowing other damaging behavior to slip under the radar.

Do you need blue light glasses?

Wirecutter’s Kaitlyn Wells tested 13 pairs of glasses, pored over a dozen studies and found the glasses that claim to cut blue light that comes from your computer screen and keeps you awake at night are “meh.”

A pair of glasses won’t magically cure your headaches or migraines. People who tell you otherwise don’t have the data to back it up. Our experts agreed that blue-light-blocking glasses are useful to help you fall (and stay) asleep, as they may help counteract the effects of blue light on your sleep-wake cycle.

The Wirecutter survey found very little connection between price and performance. And does blue light even matter? What’s that all about? Wirecutter explains:

Blue light plays a major part in controlling your sleep cycle. Too much of it — even everyday levels, if you spend a lot of time in front of a screen — has proven problematic. Daylight, which contains blue light, helps tell your internal clock when it’s time to start the day or hit the hay. Stare at a blue-light-emitting device for too long at night, and your body might think it’s still daytime. Blue light, especially, has been found to suppress melatonin for about twice as long as green light. That could mean the difference between falling asleep in 30 minutes and one hour. During the day, such exposure to blue light can help keep you alert, but in the evening hours it can be potentially problematic (which is why many devices have nighttime modes that turn the screen that yellowish hue).

The best advice seems to be if you want to try blue light-cutting glasses, go for a $20 pair first to see if it makes you feel better. Then if it does, look over the Wirecutter list of recommendations to see some more pricey styles.

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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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