August 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.

With more employers demanding employees prove they have been vaccinated, there is a booming market in fake vaccination cards, The Wall Street Journal reports.

You could face a fine of $750,000 if you get caught with a fake vaccine card in Canada. Last week, two American travelers using fake vaccine cards were fined $19,720 each. I suppose the only good news for them is that considering the strong U.S. dollar, it is only $15,776 in U.S. currency.

KDVR (Denver) says creating or even possessing fake vaccine passports violates both federal and state laws:

“Under both federal law and state law, it is a crime to create, to sell, to buy, to use, or even to simply possess one of these false vaccination cards as long as you have the intent to deceive,” said associate law professor Ian Farrell at the University of Denver.

Farrell said it’s a federal offense to create a counterfeit card because of the seal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that has been placed on the cards. The federal offense is punishable by up to five years behind bars and/or a fine.

Pew’s Stateline points out that states are not likely to spend much effort tracking down individual fake users:

But state legislators say it’s unlikely that the FBI and federal prosecutors are going to go after people who commit smaller, individual violations, so pursuing those fraudsters mostly falls to state and local authorities. And if other states join New York in issuing digital vaccine passports, the federal law wouldn’t apply because those documents are created by a state and don’t have a federal agency’s seal.

WRAL-TV says fake certificates are especially attractive to college students who do not want the shots but who must prove they have been vaccinated.

Slate takes a deep dive into the fake vaccine card industry and finds one forger who claims to be able to get the names of unvaccinated people in the vaccine databases:

There is at least one place where scammers are still selling illegal certificates: Telegram. The messaging app, created by Russian developer Pavel Durov, has more than 500 million users from around the globe. Messages on the app are securely encrypted, and Telegram’s lack of willingness to cooperate with law enforcement or shut down channels has made it attractive to criminals, including scammers. Telegram recently added a feature that made it possible to buy and sell items through the app directly, allowing users to send cryptocurrency or direct transfers to bank accounts in direct messages. I did a dive into what is advertised for sale on Telegram, and it turned out that it is possible to buy almost anything—from pizza to travel packages, to vaccine cards as well.

It only took me several seconds to discover three channels—essentially, streams of information and updates that anyone can search for, and subscribe to—advertising fake vaccine records in English. One of them, “Covid19 vaccine cards certificate” has more than 400,000 followers. I reached out to the channel owner pretending to be a buyer and figured out that the CDC vaccine card, filled in with my information, would cost $200.

An ugly COVID week ahead

The Florida Hospital Association says 60% of the state’s hospitals will face a “critical staffing shortage” this week. The FHA expects Florida hospitals will handle more COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks than they did a year ago.

There is one hopeful spot. Mary C. Mayhew, the president and CEO of the FHA, says, “The fact that less than 3% of current hospitalizations arrived from nursing homes and long-term care facilities shows the state’s focus on vaccinating and protecting Florida’s seniors and most vulnerable has worked.”

I pulled the intensive care unit data from this weekend and the same weekend a year ago. We have more people in ICUs this year. But, a year ago, there were 972 more people in ICUs with COVID-19. So, you cannot just look at ICU occupancy and make an apples-to-apples comparison.

But ICU COVID-19 cases are growing without a doubt.

(Johns Hopkins)

(Johns Hopkins)

Charting COVID and state-by-state public policy on the same graphic

I want to point out a cool feature from Johns Hopkins.

(Johns Hopkins)

You can now read the COVID tracking graphic along with significant state policy actions, so you can see cases rise and fall as you also read what states are doing. Be careful not to apply a cause and effect to the timeline. There might be such an effect, but you will need to look at a wider context to guide that judgment.

New data: Vaccinated people can still carry a lot of virus

We got some new data from the United Kingdom and Israel over the weekend about how the coronavirus interacts with vaccines.

The U.K. REACT-1 drug trials involve 98,233 people. The data is from June to the end of July. The tests showed 527 of these vaccinated people tested positive. All of the positive cases had the delta variant.

Vaccinated people who tested positive were 59% less likely to be symptomatic, meaning they didn’t know they were infected.

But the data shows that the more delta evolves, the more people are getting reinfected and showing some symptoms. However, the vaccines are still quite effective at protecting against serious illness. They are extremely effective at protecting people from ending up in the hospital and staggeringly effective at keeping people from dying from this virus. Here are the charts:

(CDC)

The chart on the left shows that for every 100,000 people, 178 unvaccinated people tested positive for the virus. Only 21 vaccinated people did.

The second chart shows for every 100,000 people, 2.5 unvaccinated people were hospitalized with COVID-19. Only .1 vaccinated people per 100,000 were. (This means unvaccinated people were 25 times more likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated people. One factor, of course, is underlying health issues.)

Here is another new insight about how likely it is for vaccinated but infected people to pass the virus along to others, which is our newest concern.

(CDC)

This odd little chart shows that vaccinated people and unvaccinated people both carry the same “viral load,” meaning both groups can have the virus in their bodies. The viral load of CT 30 is considered infectious. But what happens next is key.

This is a telling graphic. The red line is unvaccinated people while the green is vaccinated.

(CDC)

About four days after infection, the vaccine kicks in and does its work in protecting the person. The viral load lingers day after day for unvaccinated people.

Epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, who compiled the above charts, says they seem to be telling us, “Vaccinated people seem to not be infectious after 9 days (Ct=30) compared to unvaccinated at 16 days.” CT stands for cycle threshold value, which indicates how much virus an infected person harbors. Medical experts look at CT values to flag people who are at risk of serious disease.

CT values are not exact. So, when you see them in a range, like you see in these charts, pay attention to the fact they are about the same and do not worry about whether they are precisely the same.

Science.org explains, “Early studies showed that patients in the first days of infection have CT values below 30, and often below 20, indicating a high level of virus; as the body clears the coronavirus, CT values rise gradually. More recent studies have shown that a higher viral load can profoundly impact a person’s contagiousness and reflect the severity of disease.”

European researchers want new warnings on J&J vaccine

The European Medicines Agency says it studied whether the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is connected to menstrual disorders and could not make a connection. The agency said, “No causal association between COVID-19 vaccines and menstrual disorders has been established so far.”

But the agency does want the company to add some new possible side effects from the vaccine.

Researchers say they have detected rare cases of low blood platelets, dizziness and tinnitus (ringing in the ear) that they say are potential adverse reactions related to the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine. The agency says, “The PRAC concluded that cases of dizziness and tinnitus (ringing or other noises in one or both ears) are linked to the administration of COVID-19 vaccine Janssen.”

It will be interesting to see if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration follows their lead in adding another warning to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

What can we expect when schools open?

Lucie Phillips, 6, and her brother David Phillips, 3, join parents and students during a rally at Utah State School Board Office calling for mask mandate Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Salt Lake City. The school year is days away for many kids in Utah and public health experts are worried about whether kids too young to get vaccinated will stay safe in school amid a wave of coronavirus cases. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Jetelina points out that “7.1 million adolescents are fully vaccinated: 40% of 16-17 year-olds and 28% of 12-15 year-olds. This is not nearly enough adolescents protected for the new school year.”

We will find out soon how the delta variant of the virus acts in schools compared to the alpha version, which was the dominant virus strain when schools closed a couple of months ago. In suburban Atlanta, more than 100 students at Drew Charter School are in quarantine. Nine students and five staff members turned up positive after the school opened.

Over the summer, we saw sizeable outbreaks in camps.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics agree that reopening schools should be a priority. And with good reason. The New York Times explains:

When you have masks and even three-foot distancing, you are not going to see major outbreaks in schools,” said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at Stanford Medicine and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Infectious Diseases. “There may be some transmissions, but they’re going to be pretty relatively infrequent.”

Studies in North Carolina, Utah, Missouri and elsewhere revealed that when schools layered several kinds of safety measures — some combination of masking, symptom screening, distancing, improved ventilation, virus testing, handwashing and dividing students into smaller groups — transmission rates in schools were even lower than they were in the surrounding community.

“It’s actually safer for the kids in school than it is for them to be home,” said Dr. Daniel Benjamin Jr., a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at Duke University.

These low rates may stem, in part, from the fact that children under 10 seem to be less likely to transmit the virus than older children and adults are. But another contributing factor is that schools are — or can be — controlled environments and may have stricter safety measures than the surrounding community, Dr. Benjamin said.

While COVID-19 cases among children are rising, especially in Florida and a few other southern states, children account for about 1%-4% of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

It will be interesting to see whether schools follow CDC guidance that schools cancel some extracurricular activities, like football and wrestling, and instead prioritize in-person schooling in counties with a high incidence of COVID-19.

Retailers say they expect a rush on masks as some schools, like those in Illinois, which announced mask mandates for all students and staff.

Removing COVID from a death certificate if family requests it?

The Kansas City Star has the story of a county coroner who doesn’t include COVID-19 on a death certificate if the family doesn’t want it mentioned. The story says it didn’t come up often, but if there were other contributing causes of death besides COVID-19, he would comply with the request:

COVID-19 is as much a political issue as a personal tragedy for some families. They don’t want the virus on any official record for their dead loved one. For others, restrictions on hospital or nursing home visits made death and the grieving process almost unbearable. The word “COVID” had become a cruel reminder of how they couldn’t see their family members as they lay dying and, ultimately, of what they had lost.

Of course, the problem is that complying with family requests skews the state’s official COVID-19 death figures.

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,…
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