October 28, 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 Federal Trade Commission’s new annual cigarette report said that manufacturers sold close to a billion more cigarettes (0.4% more) in 2020 compared to 2019.

The report does not say that the pandemic and its lockdowns had anything to do with the increase. It could be that it has more to do with advertising campaigns and discounts during the pandemic, since major cigarette companies spent $200 million more on advertising in 2020 than 2019.

In 2020, Bloomberg said that some people were buying smokes in bulk in case of shortages, which could have contributed to the sales hike.

But even with the uptick, the 203 billion cigarettes sold last year is a long way away from the 636 billion sold in 1981. In 2008, more than 300 billion cigarettes were sold in the U.S., so the one-year rise is not a trend, but it is a number of some interest.

NPR picks up on that thread:

The increase in sales last year looks unlikely to represent a long-term trend. Nielsen’s convenience-store report for a four-week period ending on March 27 of this year showed that overall sales of traditional cigarettes were down 4.9%, as reported by The Winston-Salem Journal.

Meanwhile, in the same Nielsen report, sales of electronic cigarettes were down slightly, although they had risen 7.5% year over year.

Pressure play: Will Biden delay mandatory vaccines?

A semi truck drives through Philadelphia, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

President Joe Biden’s mandate for businesses with 100 or more employers to require workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 is still in the hands of the Offices of Management and Budget. It is up to OMB to approve regulations proposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which would impose fines on companies that do not force workers to get vaccinated.

For the last couple of weeks, including the first half of this week, OMB has been hearing from a steady parade of lobbyists and industry executives who want the president to delay enforcement during the holiday season.

Earlier this week, the American Trucking Associations warned that a vaccine mandate would cost companies drivers. The trucking industry already needs 80,000 drivers to meet demand.

Chris Spear, the association’s president and CEO, wrote in a letter to the OMB, “Now placing vaccination mandates on employers, which in turn force employees to be vaccinated, will create a workforce crisis for our industry and the communities, families and businesses we serve.”

Trucking companies are arguing that truck drivers are “remote workers” who don’t interact with other people very much, so they should be exempt from a vaccination mandate.

CNBC reports that trucking companies and big retailers are asking OMB to give them up to 90 days to comply with the mandate. That would mean even if OMB rules soon, the workers might not lose their jobs until January. Even if OMB allows some time for employees to get vaccinated, OSHA rules might force mandatory testing for unvaccinated workers right away.

CNBC reports:

The National Association of Manufacturers, in a letter to the OMB and OSHA head James Frederick last Monday, asked the administration to exempt businesses from the requirements if they have already implemented companywide mandates, or achieved a certain level of vaccination among employees through voluntary programs if certified by a local public health agency.

Robyn Boerstling, a top lobbyist for the manufacturers’ group, called the federal requirements “redundant and costly” for companies that already support vaccination among their staff. Boerstling also expressed concern that businesses with barely more than 100 employees could lose valuable people to competitors who are not covered by the mandate.

“A realistic implementation period can allow for workforce planning that is necessary given the acute skilled worker shortage and ongoing supply chain challenges by supporting the need to keep manufacturing open and operational,” Boerstling wrote in the letter to the administration last Monday.

CNBC also points out that a key question for employers and employees will be who pays for the testing if an employee refuses vaccination. Generally, procedures and equipment required by OSHA safety rules are covered by the employer. Will that same rule of thumb apply here? It could be costly enough that employers require workers to get vaccinated.

A fourth shot for immunocompromised people?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s newest guidelines out this week say severely immunocompromised people may need a fourth dose of the vaccine to stimulate the proper immune response to protect them. The phrasing that CDC uses to describe the treatment for these patients is tricky. The third dose is referred to as an “additional” dose, which makes a fourth dose a “booster.” The fourth dose will be half the dosage of the others.

NYPD may send a fourth of unvaxxed workers home Friday

NYPD officers stand guard at a checkpoint on 46th Street partially shutdown to unofficial traffic near the United Nations headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, during the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

There is something of a standoff unfolding in New York City where up to a fourth of the police department is still unvaccinated and risk being sent home without pay Friday. The police union is hoping a lawsuit will delay enforcement. A week ago, the 63rd NYPD officer died from COVID-19. If the mandate goes into effect as scheduled, some officers will work 12-hour shifts to fill holes in the schedules.

Unvaxxed workers in LA must pay $130 a week for COVID-19 testing

Los Angeles originally said any city worker who was not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 would lose their job Oct. 20. The deadline is now Dec. 18, but Los Angeles city employees who have not been vaccinated will be billed $130 each week to cover twice-a-week COVID-19 testing. About three-fourths of the city workers there have been vaccinated.

ERs full, and not from COVID-19

NPR reports that emergency rooms are scrambling to treat patients in overflowing exam rooms — and it is not related to COVID-19. And even when there are enough beds, the patients are arriving much sicker.

Terrified of contracting COVID, people who were sick with other things did their best to stay away from hospitals. Visits to emergency departments dropped to half their normal levels, according to the Epic Health Research Network, and didn’t fully rebound until the summer of 2021.

But now, they’re too full. Even in parts of the country where COVID isn’t overwhelming the health system, patients are showing up to the ER sicker than they were before the pandemic, their diseases more advanced and in need of more complicated care.

Months of treatment delays have exacerbated chronic conditions and worsened symptoms. Doctors and nurses say the severity of illness ranges widely and includes abdominal pain, respiratory problems, blood clots, heart conditions, and suicide attempts, among others.

“We are hearing from members in every part of the country,” says Dr. Lisa Moreno, president of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine. “The Midwest, the South, the Northeast, the West … they are seeing this exact same phenomenon.”

First responders are at even higher COVID-19 risk than other health care workers

University of Arizona researchers say their latest study shows that first responders — including firefighters, law enforcement, correctional officers and emergency medical service providers — are at elevated risk of COVID-19 infection compared with other essential workers and frontline health care personnel.

That data would seem to make it even more important for first responders to get vaccinated. The Associated Press says that there is no reliable national database for how many first responders are vaccinated but police and fire departments across the country report their first responders are vaccinated at a rate below the general public.

A study of the shoddy ivermectin studies

There are a lot of studies that have examined whether the Food and Drug Administration-approved drug ivermectin, which is usually used as an antiparasitic medication, has any application in treating COVID-19. A couple of meta-analyses of 24 studies found that ivermectin could be useful in reducing mortality. But many of those studies were not peer-reviewed, some turned out to be unreliable and, at the moment, the FDA and World Health Organization do not recommend the drug for COVID-19 patients.

All of that brings me to this piece from The Atlantic, which takes a deep dive into what its researchers found when they plowed through 30 of the reports that most emphatically supported ivermectin. The Atlantic found some of the research papers have been withdrawn. Others were based on such shoddy science that they should be withdrawn. Read this comedy of research wreckage:

In the withdrawn study, a team in Egypt compared outcomes among COVID-19 patients who did and did not receive ivermectin — but, for the latter group, they included deaths that had occurred before the study began. (According to the journal Nature, the lead author “defended the paper” in an email, and claimed that the withdrawal took place without his knowledge. He did not respond to an inquiry from The Atlantic.)

Other papers also have egregious flaws. Researchers in Argentina said they recruited participants from hospitals that had no record of having participated in the research, and then blamed mistakes on a statistician who claimed never to have been consulted.

A few studies show clear evidence of severe data irregularities. In one from Lebanon, for example, the same section of patient records repeats over and over again in the data set, as if it had been copied and pasted. (An author on that paper conceded that the data were flawed, and claimed to have requested a retraction.)

The Atlantic article points out the sorry state of how researchers currently publish scientific articles. The system allows bad science to make it into the public — but couldn’t it also be that the broken system also allows good research to be ignored if it is not published in the “right” journal to get in front of the “right” people?

How journalists have wrongly reported ‘drone sightings’ as near misses

Attorney Jonathan Rupprecht, who is a voice of support for responsible drone pilots, raises a good question about how much you should trust the Federal Aviation Administration’s data about dangerous drones. He cites new FAA data that he says shows an inflated number of “sightings” that may not have been drones at all. He notes that drone sightings are not necessarily “near misses” even when they are reported by pilots who spot the drones in the sky. He adds two more points:

The reported drone sightings over time are NOT growing. They’re decreasing.

The FAA has inaccurately reported on the drone sightings data and this is proven by their own data they released.

Rupprecht says it is clear that we have been reporting drone sightings near airports as if they were a danger, when thousands of the drone operators are flying safe, FAA-approved flights and the drone was simply spotted by an airplane. He says:

What you end with is this large number that is thrown out all over the place on the news. Many think the total number is the actual number of drone near misses because they don’t really bother to look further into the data.  Many of the drone sightings are simply harmless sightings that could be drones being lawfully flown.

This is an extremely important point. The sightings will have two groups in it: the lawful and unlawful.

The FAA gave us some big numbers without indicating how many of these “sightings” were lawful or not. They didn’t “clean” the data for lawful flights. The May 2018 U.S. Government Accountability Office report said, “FAA also told us that some of the reports, despite the reporting pilots’ concerns, may have involved UAS operating in a safe and authorized manner.”

(Rupprecht Law)

(Rupprecht Law)

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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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