October 20, 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.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said while rules may remain in place for vaccinations and indoor gatherings, the country’s pandemic emergency declaration may end on Nov. 25, German publication Bild reports.

This will no doubt encourage other countries to begin thinking about when to say the pandemic is over, with the danger that we will once again move too quickly and invite a new surge of infections.

DW summarizes the announcement:

“This means the state of emergency that has been in place for almost 19 months since March 28, 2020, will end,” Spahn said, according to Bild. “We are moving from a state of emergency to a state of special caution,” he added.

Germany’s health minister cited the country’s public health authority, the Robert Koch Institute, and its assessment that vaccinated people posed a “moderate” risk, in addition to the current vaccination rates, as reasons for the state of emergency to expire on November 25, Bild reported.

“So, we are moving from a state of emergency to a state of special caution,” Spahn said, adding that today’s rules and regulations would not be held through spring of next year.

When can Americans safely remove masks?

Following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, when a county has moderate to low transmission rates, it is safe to be indoors without a mask.


You can look at the map and see that 165 counties meet that threshold today. Notice that most of the low to moderate rate counties are in the warm South. Most of Puerto Rico is now listed as moderate. More than 80% of the eligible population of Puerto Rico is vaccinated, a fact worth taking into account as you consider the island’s low infection rate.

Watching the British COVID-19 case peak — a warning?

People wear face masks as they sit on a bus, in London, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. Many scientists are pressing the British government to reimpose social restrictions and speed up booster vaccinations as coronavirus infection rates, already Europe’s highest, rise once more. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

Let’s tie together the first two items with a warning. It’s tempting to see the news above — Germany saying the pandemic’s end may be near and some U.S. counties seeing new cases fall low enough to safely remove masks — and assume that it may be time to loosen restrictions. But the British government is considering new restrictions after they loosened them and just saw the highest new case count since summer.

There is encouraging but equally concerning news buried in the latest charts tracking new cases and trends. On the one hand, if you think 83,576 new cases in a day is good news, then you can take that and run with it. It is about half of the number we saw at the highest peak of the pandemic and it is still about equal to the population of Duluth, Minnesota, or Largo, Florida, every day. It is the same rate we recorded in mid-February, and the same rate from a year ago, late October 2020, before we had vaccines.

Epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina says we should take a lesson from the United Kingdom’s new surge of cases and not let up our virus vigilance too quickly.

(Our World in Data)

Jetelina says there are other components to the new spike that the Brits are trying to manage.

The UK peaked on Sept. 9 but, after two weeks of decreasing cases, it reversed course. Cases are now exponentially increasing while the rest of Europe is fairing very well.

The Financial Times’ charts show how Britain relaxed COVID-19 restrictions much quicker than other European countries.

(Financial Times)

Relaxing public health measures only partially explains UK’s increase, though. Other factors include:

  • Spread of A.4 (a new sublineage [mutation] of Delta)
  • Suboptimal vaccination rates for kids compared to other European countries
  • Leveraging AstraZeneca (slightly less efficacious vaccine)
  • Vaccinated sooner compared to other European countries (so vaccines are waning)

Incidentally, The Associated Press reports that British public health officials want the government to reimpose social distancing restrictions and to get the country’s booster shot program moving faster. New cases topped 49,000 on Monday, which is the highest new case rate since July.

Cases are rising in colder counties. Is this what is ahead?

When you look at the map of where COVID-19 cases are rising and falling, you might notice that the two counties with the highest per capita rates of new cases are in cool weather counties in Vermont and New Hampshire on the Canadian border. In Orleans County, Vermont, one out of 11 people have tested positive, a 52% increase in cases in the last two weeks.

COVID-19 hot spots in Vermont. (The New York Times)

In fact, the counties with the fastest rising caseloads are all in cool weather states including Colorado, Michigan and Minnesota, as well as Vermont and New Hampshire.

We will find out soon enough if the pattern developing now will spread as winter moves in and people gather indoors. Typically, that leads to viruses spreading. It is true for the seasonal flu and the COVID-19 virus spread that way last year.

We may be less prepared for the next pandemic

The New York Times found that far from learning how to respond to a pandemic, we seem to have made ourselves less prepared for the future:

State and local public health departments across the country have endured not only the public’s fury, but widespread staff defections, burnout, firings, unpredictable funding and a significant erosion in their authority to impose the health orders that were critical to America’s early response to the pandemic.

A New York Times review of hundreds of health departments in all 50 states indicates that local public health across the country is less equipped to confront a pandemic now than it was at the beginning of 2020.

Will the FDA open the door to ‘mixed booster’ shots?

The Food and Drug Administration won’t recommend one approved drug over another approved drug but, later this week, it may approve providers prescribing a Pfizer or Moderna booster shot for people who were initially vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Without the approval for the mix and match, patients might have to pay for their shots. But with FDA approval, the government would cover the cost.

Around the same time this week, a CDC advisory committee will also consider the mix-and-match data, sparse as it is.

The New York Times dives into how state health officials are pressing the FDA to approve the mix-and-match option. For example:

Dr. Clay Marsh, West Virginia’s Covid-19 czar, said the state had a greater supply of Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines than of Johnson & Johnson’s, so officials there might prefer to use them for boosters out of convenience. Others said the option of switching vaccines could streamline the administration of boosters.

“The impetus for states and local health departments was that if they were going to go out to a community site or long-term care facility and start providing boosters, it was a little inefficient to show up somewhere and say, ‘We’re just doing the people who got Pfizer,’” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “When you have a captive audience, you want to take advantage of that.”

The challenge ahead will be how to clearly explain new booster guidelines to the public. By the end of this week this will likely be the status of boosters:

  • The Food and Drug Administration this week is expected to authorize boosters for all Johnson & Johnson recipients 18 and older.
  • The only Moderna recipients who are expected to become eligible for boosters are those who are at least 65 or otherwise considered to be immunocompromised or at high risk because they come in close contact with people who could be infected. We will find out this week whether the Moderna booster will be a half dose or a full dose.
  • Recipients of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine who are 65 and older can get booster shots six months after they were fully vaccinated. Same for immunocompromised adults and adults who come in close contact with others. They will get a full dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Real-world data backs up Pfizer vaccine effectiveness for 12- to 18-year-olds

Now that the Pfizer vaccine is approved for 12- to 18 year-olds, we have some “real-world” data on the vaccine’s effectiveness, not just drug trial data. The news is good. The vaccine was found to be “highly effective.”

Wine bottle shortage

Wine educator David Mayer pours glasses of 2017 Edizione Pennino Zinfandel for guests at the Inglenook winery Friday, June 12, 2020, in Rutherford, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Again, this is the kind of supply shortage that is not going to cause starvation or panic, but it is generating a good deal of press interest. Supplies of glass bottles are tight, driving up the price. Winemakers say they are scrambling for ways to get the wine out of barrels. Yahoo News talked with Phil Long, owner of a California winery:

The pandemic has also fed an uptick in drinking and a hike in retail alcohol sales, which winemakers like Long have scrambled to find the supplies to meet. Long has cobbled together a supply of bottles by purchasing extra glass from wineries with some to spare and has even resorted to buying bottles bearing another vineyard’s name.

But with too much wine and not enough bottles, Long has had to let wine stay in tanks, which can slow the maturation process and result in a bland flavor. Even worse, however, is keeping the wine in oak barrels, which can infuse the drink with an unpleasant aroma.

“Too much oak throws the wine out of balance,” Long said. “When oak becomes the dominant element in wine, it overshadows characteristic fruit flavors and tastes overwhelmingly woodsy.”

But bottles aren’t the only item in short supply — when asked which goods are most scarce right now, Lloyd Davis, the owner of Corner 103 winery, responded saying “they all are.”

Paper items like labels and bags, as well as bottles and corks, often remain in limbo on the water for weeks, caught in the massive container ship traffic jams at American ports that are only expected to worsen.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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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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