March 8, 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.

In the next few days, Congress will finish up work on the new stimulus bills and, shortly, checks up to $1,400 will be on the way.

Assuming the House does not change much about the Senate bill, here is a calculator to figure out how much you will see from this stimulus.

CNET built a probable timeline for the next steps:

(CNET)

CNET also offered some useful details about how payments will arrive:

With the second stimulus checks, the IRS told CNET in January that some people who received a physical check or EIP card the first time may have been paid by the other method the second time around. And, anecdotally, we learned of people who received direct deposit payments the first time finally getting an EIP card in the mail — and not an electronic bank transfer — weeks after the IRS tool said the payment was issued.

While you won’t have the final say in how you get your payment, we recommend signing up for direct deposit with the IRS when you submit your 2020 tax return, if you ordinarily file taxes. If you already have an account, make sure your details are correct. We also suggest you try to file your taxes quickly. While you can file an extension to submit your taxes later (you’d still have to pay taxes owed now) whether that will help or hurt you may get a little complicated.

There may be a few things you can do to help speed up receipt of a third payment, assuming the stimulus bill is approved. For example, signing up for direct deposit with your 2020 tax return would put you in the priority category for a third stimulus payment.

If you’ve moved recently, tell the IRS and USPS. Here are our other suggestions for how people can make it more likely they’ll get their checks faster. Note that there could be some changes to qualifications that may not apply to a possible third stimulus check.

Can a business make you wear a mask if the state doesn’t require it?

A sign requiring masks is seen near diners eating at a restaurant on the River Walk, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in San Antonio. Gov. Greg Abbott says Texas is lifting a mask mandate and lifting business capacity limits. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Imagine you are a Texas and Mississippi business that wants employees and customers to wear masks this week, even though the state is no longer requiring them. It will be on you to enforce the restrictions … and good luck with that.

Big retailers like Macy’s and Kroger say with or without state mandates if you want to shop in their stores, wear a mask. The Texas-based H-E-B stores require their workers to wear masks and ask customers to do the same, but do not make it a requirement.

The Hill points to the fight ahead:

Industry groups and major companies with operations in Texas are already saying they plan to stick with their own coronavirus mitigation measures and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regardless of changes at the state level.

Relaxing common-sense, non-intrusive safety protocols like wearing masks is a mistake,” said Jason Brewer, executive vice president of communications and state affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “Going backwards on safety measures will unfairly put retail employees back in the role of enforcing guidelines still recommended by the CDC and other public health advocates.”

In response to states lifting mask mandates, the National Retail Federation (NRF) stressed that businesses have the right to establish and enforce their own policies.

“Retail stores are private entities. If they require you to wear a mask in their stores, and you choose not to, that store can refuse admission or service,” said Bill Thorne, NRF senior vice president of communications and public affairs.

CVS and Target Corp. are among those saying masks are still required for customers and employees nationwide. Target said it doesn’t plan to drop those kinds of requirements even as vaccination distributions increase.

To make things more confusing, a mall may not require you to wear a mask but an individual business inside the mall might. Bloomberg points out:

Since malls and stores began to reopen after the shutdown in the U.S. last spring, security guards and retail staff have faced verbal threats and violence when trying to enforce Covid safety measures. Incidents over face coverings have piled up across the country, and there’s been at least one death over mask enforcement when a guard was shot and killed in a dispute at a Family Dollar in Flint, Michigan, last year.

These frontline workers also have to deal with the danger of the virus itself, which is killing guards at some of the highest rates of any job. The U.S. doesn’t track such data on professions, but the U.K. does. Its Office for National Statistics found that male security guards have had 100.7 deaths per 100,000 workers recorded from March to December of 2020, a rate more than three times the national average for all jobs.

Those thermal scanners are fairly worthless for detecting COVID-19

A heat seeking thermal imaging scanner is used to detect body temperature of casino patrons in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (STRF/STAR MAX/IPx)

The Food and Drug Administration says those thermal scanners that schools and airports and such use to try to detect people with fevers are so inaccurate that they can be dangerous. The FDA says while the scanners may detect higher skin temperatures, they are not dependable for detecting COVID-19 infections.

The FDA might never have come around to this if it had not been for The Washington Post’s reporting about studies done by the research organization IPVM. IPVM has been warning since last May that the thermal scanners have big problems. In August, Dr. Anthony Fauci said temperature screening was “notoriously inaccurate” and said even the White House stopped using it. Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said in an interview that temperature screening “is not effective at all.”

The FDA alert said:

Improper use of thermal imaging systems may lead to inaccurate body temperature measurements which can present potentially serious public health risks. Such risks may include, but are not limited to, the device incorrectly detecting a normal human body temperature when a person has an elevated temperature and incorrectly assessing a person to have an elevated body temperature when they do not.

These risks are more likely to be present where thermal imaging systems scan multiple individuals simultaneously. To help mitigate these risks, the FDA is providing important recommendations in the safety communication to consumers, health care providers and other users about the proper and improper use of these systems.

The FDA even named names of companies that are improperly pushing devices:

The FDA is also aware that some firms are marketing unapproved, uncleared and unauthorized thermal imaging devices intended to measure human body temperature, including measuring multiple individuals’ temperatures simultaneously, and has issued Warning Letters to Certify Global Inc., Kogniz Inc., Opgal Optronic Industries Ltd. and Thermavis. The FDA’s position is that Warning Letters are issued only for violations of regulatory significance.

You might wonder how these scanners make it to the market without FDA clearance. All of this may sound familiar to those of you who have been readers of mine for some time. On May 13, 2020, I warned you that the Trump-era FDA decided to give such devices a pass.

At just the time there is a global gold rush to sell thermo-scanners, the Food and Drug Administration said it would not require the typical 130-day “pre-market” clearance, a period of time the FDA uses to determine whether a device is what it says it is and does what it claims to do. The FDA said in a pandemic, the need for testing equipment is urgent, so it is taking a pass on holding up the marketing of devices that are not intended for “medical use.”

That means if a doctor uses the device, it will have to clear FDA approval. But if the device is going to be used to determine if you can board a plane, go to work or grocery shop, the FDA said it will not stop a manufacturer from selling it.

The FDA did say that when these thermal scanners are used for “triage use,” not medical use, they can only scan one person at a time and not the dozens some companies have marketed their gear as being able to achieve.

Now, 10 months later, the FDA is catching up to the problem. In the meantime, government agencies spent thousands of dollars on these machines, untold hours monitoring them and worse, you thought the machines were protecting you.

By the way, those thermal scan thermometers also don’t tell you what you might think they tell you. For starters, about 40% of people who are infected with COVID-19 do not develop a fever.

And once again, the devices show you skin temperature readings, not core temperatures. Back in August, I told you about how KNBC’s Joel Grover tested a bunch of thermal thermometers and found they came up with different results. Let’s remember, we all have different “normal” temperatures that can go up and down as we age.

Why are some Catholics calling the J&J COVID-19 vaccine ‘morally compromised?’

Some Catholic leaders are saying that the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is “morally compromised” because of “their use of morally compromised cell lines created from two abortions that occurred, one in the 1970s and one in the 1980s.”

Let’s sort this out because it is likely to become a spreading rumor and one more reason for people to turn away from COVID-19 vaccines or go vaccine shopping to get one vaccine over another one.

When drug companies are working on vaccines, they test them on human cells. The cells they sometimes use are referred to as HEK293 cells, which reportedly trace their origins to an aborted fetus from 1973 and another from 1985. A researcher in the Netherlands obtained the cells decades ago and, over the decades, scientists have cloned the original cells millions of times. The cells being used in research today are not the original fetal tissue — they are like photocopies of photocopies of photocopies of photocopies.

So, while the cells being used today have a controversial origin, they were grown in laboratories and not in a human body.

TEGNA’s Verify unit explains it further:

Scientists use fetal cell lines because they replicate rapidly outside the human body. For the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, the cell lines allowed researchers to test the mRNA-based vaccines and prove that they worked.

The Johnson and Johnson vaccine works differently than the two vaccines that have been widely distributed in the US so far. For the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, genetic material that codes for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein is delivered in a lipid nanoparticle.

When it’s in the body, the mRNA triggers the body to produce the spike protein, and then the body responds to the presence of the spike protein by creating antibodies.

That antibody response is what prepares the immune system to react if it ever encounters SARS-CoV-2, lowering the likelihood that the virus will result in a COVID-19 infection.

Given that the lab-grown cells being used to test the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines and being used in the development of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have no direct connection with fetal cells, why are Catholics raising concerns?

Catholics are being given some confusing guidance in light of all of this. On the one hand, the Church says the vaccine is “morally compromised.” But on the other hand, it says the vaccine can be morally acceptable.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans, in light of guidance from the Vatican, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and The National Catholic Bioethics Center affirm that though there was some lab testing that utilized the abortion-derived cell line, the two vaccines currently available from Pfizer and Moderna do not rely on cell lines from abortions in the manufacturing process and therefore can be morally acceptable for Catholics as the connection to abortion is extremely remote.

It is under the same guidance that the archdiocese must instruct Catholics that the latest vaccine from Janssen/Johnson & Johnson is morally compromised as it uses the abortion-derived cell line in development and production of the vaccine as well as the testing.

One Bishop in Texas went even further, not clarifying that the cells used were cloned and far removed by decades from the fetal cells.

The Vatican said in December that “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses” in the research and production process when “ethically irreproachable” vaccines aren’t available to the public. In other words, if you can get some other vaccine, do that, but take what you can at the earliest opportunity.

Here is one other piece of context. The cell lines that began with fetal tissue are the foundation on which critically important vaccines were developed for years, including vaccines to prevent hepatitis A, rubella, chickenpox and shingles. Researchers have estimated that vaccines made using the clones of those original fetal cells have prevented nearly 11 million deaths and 4.5 billion cases of disease.

Learn more about the history of using human cell strains in vaccine development. Vaccine expert Dr. Paul Offit explains the use of fetal cells in vaccine research. And here’s a National Institutes of Health publication that gives background on fetal tissue research.

Did zoo apes get COVID-19 vaccines before you?

Yes, the San Diego Zoo did vaccinate five bonobos and four orangutans, but they didn’t use a vaccine meant for you. It was an experimental veterinary vaccine. The zoo used the vaccine after some of the primates there tested positive and showed COVID-19 symptoms. They likely got the virus from a human. Zoos are really worried about the virus jumping from humans to other species.

A growing share of Americans say they will take a vaccine. What is stopping the others?

There is nothing terribly surprising about this new Pew data, but it is an update to the stories about vaccine reluctance that we have all seen. We have known all along that as millions get the shots and do just fine afterward, more people would join in.

The main takeaway for me is what is still on the minds of people who have questions. That interests me because it helps me to focus on what stories journalists need to be exploring to help people make informed decisions.

(Pew Research Center)

The times in which we live: The feta pasta craze

(Shutterstock)

What happens when somebody posts a TikTok video about feta pasta and people go freaking nuts over it? Grocery chains say they have had shortages of feta cheese as a result.

The Charlotte Observer says, “Finding a block of feta cheese is like a ‘golden ticket’ in Charlotte right now, all because of a viral TikTok recipe.”

My granddaughter and daughter both grabbed the video and whipped up the recipe to confirm its awesomeness.

The New York Times says:

But it didn’t really take off in the United States until it started racking up ecstatic fans on TikTok in early January. The videos are just as likely to be made by influencers as by teenagers without large followings. Now #fetapasta has more than 600 million views, not counting spillover into Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and followers of Rachael Ray, the “Today” show and “Good Morning America.”

Walshe Birney, who oversees the specialty cheese counters for Kroger, writes, “This is the largest and most geographically broad interest and sales increase in a product that I have personally ever seen.”

I know you journalists want to get in front of the next big thing, so the Times says to keep an eye on trending TikToks about baked oat cake and do-it-yourself vegan chicken.

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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