February 12, 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will today release its new guidance for how to safely open schools. Various news agencies are citing sources saying the guidance will not insist that teachers and staff be vaccinated but will focus on five key strategies that will sound familiar:

  • hand washing
  • masking
  • social distancing
  • cleaning and ventilation
  • contact tracing, isolation and quarantine

The CDC clearly understands the stakes involved with this recommendation. The CDC met with more than 70 organizations while drafting its guidelines, including the nation’s two biggest teachers unions. The CDC also heard from parent’s groups, advocacy groups that represent children who have disabilities, and charter schools.

President Joe Biden is asking Congress for $130 billion to get schools reopened. The money would go to everything from increasing testing to improving school ventilation systems.

What is different in this recommendation compared to what the CDC said at the start of the school year?

Last summer, the CDC raised the notion of distance learning and warned school districts that they had to limit class sizes.

This time, the guidance will be more geared toward how to reopen, not why schools should close. Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser for the White House COVID-19 response team, said, “There’s no debate over whether to open schools here, there’s a debate on how.”

Not everyone embraces a rush back to the classroom. The Washington Post notes:

The momentum in recent days has been toward a return to school, with teachers in Chicago agreeing to a deal with the city after weeks of threatening a strike, and the teachers union in D.C. voting against authorizing a strike as schools reopened.

In addition, more teachers are being vaccinated every day, giving them some comfort. A survey by the National Education Association (NEA) conducted from Jan. 27 to Feb. 3 found that 18 percent of its members had received at least the first of two shots.

How open is ‘open?’

The Biden administration took office with the promise of opening public schools within 100 days. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki clarified this week that “open” might just mean opening more than half of all classrooms in K-8 schools to students at least one day a week. By mid-week, Psaki clarified the goal.

“The president’s objectives are for all schools to reopen, to stay open, to be open five days a week, for kids to be learning. That’s what our focus is on,” she said. “This is simply a goal for 100 days. That’s, again, the bar of where we’d like the majority of schools across the country to be, which they’re not at this point in time, and we want to build from there.”

The website Burbio, which unofficially tracks what schools are open, says more than half of the nation’s schools are already partially open. Republicans jumped on Biden’s school reopening goals, saying they are not aggressive enough.

Fauci: Vaccines for first-graders could be approved by fall

Dr. Anthony Fauci says if vaccine tests kick into a higher gear, the Food and Drug Administration could approve vaccines for first-graders by September. That is probably more comforting for teachers than for parents, but it is something that affects everyone because the virus will keep spreading unless everyone is vaccinated..

Fauci made the comments to ProPublica:

Children as young as first graders may be able to get the coronavirus vaccine by the time school starts in September, presuming trials are successful in those age groups, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with ProPublica.

“We’re in the process of starting clinical trials in what we call age de-escalation, where you do a clinical trial with people 16 to 12, then 12 to 9, then 9 to 6,” Fauci said. When asked what was the youngest age group that might be authorized for the vaccine by September, he said, “I would think by the time we get to school opening, we likely will be able to get people who come into the first grade.”

ProPublica’s reporting includes a quick update on where the drug trials involving children stand:

Pfizer has finished enrolling participants in its study of 12- to 15-year-olds and anticipates having data in “the early part of 2021,” according to a spokeswoman. “From there, we will plan to finalize our study in 5-11 year olds,” she added.

Moderna is still enrolling participants in its trial for adolescents ages 12 to 18, and it is “on track to provide updated data around mid-year 2021,” the company said in an emailed statement. Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s chief executive officer, has said that the company’s goal is to have data from the adolescent study in advance of the 2021 school year. Moderna said it’ll begin an age de-escalation study in children ages 11 years to 6 months this year, but Bancel has said that the company doesn’t expect clinical data until 2022.

Johnson and Johnson hasn’t started any pediatric studies yet.

Novavax, similarly, hasn’t begun any trials in children, and a company spokeswoman said it couldn’t share any details at this time.

The University of Oxford, which partnered with AstraZeneca in developing a vaccine, will begin tests in 12- to 18-year-olds next month, according to Bloomberg News.

What 95% efficacy means, and it is probably not what you think

A nurse prepares syringes with Pfizer vaccines next to health workers resting after being vaccinated during the national program of the vaccination of hospital staff at the CHR Citadelle hospital in Liege, Belgium, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

One thing that I think most people do not understand is that the COVID-19 vaccines that drug companies have produced very quickly are foreheadslappingly effective. The numbers we use to describe what researchers have accomplished may have confused you.

Let’s start with two words that are not interchangeable, though sometimes journalists use them as if they mean the same thing. These definitions come from pharmaceutical company Merck’s definition handbook but are widely used:

Efficacy is the capacity to produce an effect (e.g., lower blood pressure).

Efficacy can be assessed accurately only in ideal conditions (i.e., when patients are selected by proper criteria and strictly adhere to the dosing schedule). Thus, efficacy is measured under expert supervision in a group of patients most likely to have a response to a drug, such as in a controlled clinical trial.

Effectiveness differs from efficacy in that it takes into account how well a drug works in real-world use. Often, a drug that is efficacious in clinical trials is not very effective in actual use. For example, a drug may have high efficacy in lowering blood pressure but may have low effectiveness because it causes so many adverse effects that patients stop taking it. Effectiveness also may be lower than efficacy if clinicians inadvertently prescribe the drug inappropriately (e.g., giving a fibrinolytic drug to a patient thought to have an ischemic stroke, but who had an unrecognized cerebral hemorrhage on CT scan). Thus, effectiveness tends to be lower than efficacy. Patient-oriented outcomes, rather than surrogate or intermediate outcomes, should be used to judge efficacy and effectiveness.

The Pfizer vaccine arrived with 95% efficacy. That does not mean that five out of 100 vaccinated people still get COVID-19. In fact, it means that 0.04% of the people who were vaccinated who were then exposed to the virus got infected. In other words, the vaccine is about 100 times more protective than you may have thought. LiveScience takes a stab at trying to explain this:

What the 95% actually means is that vaccinated people had a 95% lower risk of getting COVID-19 compared with the control group participants, who weren’t vaccinated. In other words, vaccinated people in the Pfizer clinical trial were 20 times less likely than the control group to get COVID-19.

That makes the vaccine “one of the most effective vaccines that we have,” Barker told Live Science. For comparison, the two-dose measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is 97% effective against measles and 88% effective against mumps, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The seasonal flu vaccine is between 40% and 60% effective (it varies from year to year, depending on that year’s vaccine and flu strains), but it still prevented an estimated 7.5 million cases of the flu in the U.S. during the 2019-2020 flu season, according to the CDC.

Some complications arise in understanding the figures. For one thing, how the vaccine protects you depends a lot on you. If you have severe health issues, if you work or associate with people who are more likely to be infected or spreading the virus, then you have a greater chance of being exposed than a person who is vaccinated and then stays home.

Also, the drug companies conducting the trials have different definitions for what they mean by “a case of COVID-19.” LiveScience explains that the definitions make it difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison between the efficacy of the vaccines:

Pfizer and Moderna defined a case as having at least one symptom (however mild) and a positive COVID-19 test.

Johnson & Johnson defined a “case” as having a positive COVID-19 test plus at least one moderate symptom (such as shortness of breath, abnormal blood oxygen levels or abnormal respiratory rate) or at least two milder symptoms (such as fever, cough, fatigue, headache, or nausea). Someone with a moderate case of COVID-19 by this definition could either be mildly affected or be incapacitated and feel pretty sick for a few weeks.

We also have to remember that the efficacy of a drug is measured at one point in time. The virus changes, so the drug’s efficacy may or may not remain the same.

A ‘Biden bump’ for international students in U.S. universities

Foreign students are critically important to the financial health of American colleges and universities. After years of decline, Forbes reports that 2021 could be a comeback year for that sector. Forbes includes this passage:

Compared to 2019-20, the volume of international applicants has increased by about 9% this year according to data from the Common App, as of January 22. Most of the top “sending” countries are showing increases, with the notable exception of China, the leading source of international students in the U.S.

Although applications from China are down by 18% from last year, that loss is more than offset by large increases in applicants from several other countries; including:

  • India (+28%)
  • Canada (+22%)
  • Nigeria (+12%)
  • Pakistan (+37%)
  • United Kingdom (+23%)
  • Brazil (+41%).

Individual colleges were also reporting large increases in their International applications.

Some are labeling this surge in international applications as a “Biden bump” after the Trump administration made it more difficult for foreign students to attend schools in the U.S. Biden signed a number of executive orders to overturn those restrictions.

By some estimates, international students bring $45 billion into the American economy. The recent increase follows some pretty tough years. Migration Policy Institute ran the numbers:

About 1.1 million international students were enrolled in U.S. institutions in school year (SY) 2019-20. This marked a decrease of almost 20,000 international students from the year before, following a decade of consistent growth. Among the key factors for this decline were the rising cost of U.S. higher education, high numbers of student visa delays and denials, a difficult political environment for immigrants under the Trump administration, and expanded opportunities to study in other countries.

Click on the bullet points below to help you get local on this story:

Universities battle a new COVID-19 outbreak

By one estimate, the average college and university in the U.S. spent $9 million per school testing for COVID-19 cases last year. With college students generally low on the priority list for vaccines, schools are nervously testing their way through a spring semester that, for many, does not include a spring sreak in which students might go out of town and bring a mutant strain of the virus home with them.

The New York Times records more than 397,000 cases and at least 90 deaths connected to campuses since the pandemic began.

What the attack on the Florida water plant teaches us

ArsTechnica reports that the attack on a Tampa Bay water system points us to some common problems that you may have in your own city … heck maybe your own newsroom. For a quick background, somebody, we still don’t know who, tampered with a community’s water plant controls and came perilously close to poisoning the water. How could this happen?

According to an advisory from the state of Massachusetts, employees with the Oldsmar facility used a computer running Windows 7 to remotely access plant controls known as a SCADA — short for “supervisory control and data acquisition” — system. What’s more, the computer had no firewall installed and used a password that was shared among employees for remotely logging in to city systems with the TeamViewer application.

The FBI came to a similar conclusion:

(FBI image published by ArsTechnica)

Keep in mind that Microsoft ended support — and therefore security updates — for Windows 7 in January. What have you found out about the security of your town’s water and other utilities?

The future is in streetlights

Sometimes I just post things that make me say wow. This is such an item. Axios’ Jennifer A. Kingson has a piece out this week that opens with this line:

“Cities are rushing to replace their legacy streetlights with “smart” LED fixtures that could one day be able to find you a parking space, monitor air quality, and announce an oncoming thunderstorm.”

I had no idea that streetlights can add up to account for 40% of a city’s energy bills. I had never thought of how cities might use streetlights to collect data that might have real, sellable value. Kingson adds:

Today, hopes have coalesced around the potential for “smart” streetlights, which bear sensors that can do everything from analyzing traffic patterns to assisting 911 operators.

“Streetlights are becoming the backbone of larger smart city initiatives,” per a report by the Northeast Group, a smart cities market intelligence firm.

Cities will invest $8.2 billion in them in the next 10 years, the report said.

It will take time: “Overall, over 90% of streetlights will be LED by 2029 and 35% will be connected,” Northeast Group said.

Cities large and small — including Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Cleveland — have been replacing traditional streetlights with LEDs, which consume less energy and can be programmed to dim or brighten as needed.

The Axios story reminds me of some other reporting that shows street lighting can have a direct effect on crime. UChicago Urban Labs includes a piece focused on New York cut clearly with applications elsewhere, saying:

The lights study found that the developments that received new lights experienced crime rates that were significantly lower than would have been the case without the new lights. Among other findings, the study concluded that increased levels of lighting led to a 36% reduction in “index crimes” — a subset of serious felony crimes that includes murder, robbery and aggravated assault, as well as certain property crimes — that took place outdoors at night in developments that received new lighting, with an overall 4% reduction in index crimes.

But another study from Rice University says it is more complicated than just adding lights.

After finding in a previous report, “Streetlights in the City: Understanding the Distribution of Houston Streetlights,” that the city of Houston’s more than 173,000 streetlights were not evenly distributed throughout the city, this next report answers the question: do places with more streetlights have lower crime rates? The findings complicate the common perception that more streetlights lead to fewer crimes. While there was some evidence that a particularly high density of streetlights can provide protective benefits, excluding those extremes provides a much muddier picture, suggesting that crime is a reflection of other neighborhood contexts. As such, cities should be cautious in expecting direct reductions in crime with the introduction of more streetlights.

It is Lunar New Year. Here is how to say happy Year of the Ox.

Women wearing face masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walk by red lanterns hanging on a hutong alley near the Houhai Lake for celebrating the Lunar New Year in Beijing, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Today is the Lunar New Year, which Britannica explains:

Lunar New Year, Chinese Chunjie, Vietnamese Tet, Korean Solnal, Tibetan Losar, also called Spring Festival, festival typically celebrated in China and other Asian countries that begins with the first new moon of the lunar calendar and ends on the first full moon of the lunar calendar, 15 days later.

The lunar calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, so the dates of the holiday vary slightly from year to year, beginning some time between January 21 and February 20 according to Western calendars.

Approximately 10 days before the beginning of the new lunar year, houses are thoroughly cleaned to remove any bad luck that might be lingering inside, a custom called “sweeping of the grounds.”

Traditionally, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are reserved for family celebrations, including religious ceremonies honoring ancestors.

Also on New Year’s Day, family members receive red envelopes (lai see) containing small amounts of money. Dances and fireworks are prevalent throughout the holidays, culminating in the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated on the last day of the New Year’s celebrations.

On this night colorful lanterns light up the houses, and traditional foods such as yuanxiao (sticky rice balls that symbolize family unity), fagao (prosperity cake), and yusheng (raw fish and vegetable salad) are served.

To wish someone a happy Lunar New Year, give these greetings a go. Click on the links to listen:

新年快乐 / 新年快樂 (Xīnnián kuàilè) ‘New Year happiness!’

In Mandarin: /sshin-nyen kwhy-ler/

In Cantonese: /sen-nin feye-lor/

“Xīnnián kuàilè” is a great way to say “Happy New Year” in Chinese. It is a formal greeting typically used for strangers.

There are other usual options to pass along.

2021 is the “Year of the Ox,” which is based on the Chinese Zodiac. An Ox year occurs, naturally, every 12 years.

Here’s wishing a prosperous and healthy happy Lunar New Year to you all.

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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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