July 26, 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.

NBC News produced an interesting piece about how anti-vaccine groups manage to stay under Facebook’s radar by changing their names to “dance parties” or “dinner parties.” Then the groups use code words to describe people who have been vaccinated.

I pulled these words out of their story to explain what they mean:

(Al Tompkins) 

A COVID booster for some people looks more likely in late fall

A number of news sources including Axios reported over the weekend that the Biden administration is leaning toward pushing for a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot for some but not all fully vaccinated people beginning late this fall. Caitlin Owens writes for Axios:

Some Biden officials are increasingly convinced that high levels of neutralizing antibodies correlate with a higher degree of protection against illness. They worry that means that as more time passes, vaccinated people may be increasingly vulnerable to mild, moderate or even severe disease, a Biden official told Axios.

The New York Times adds:

Senior officials now say they expect that people who are 65 and older or who have compromised immune systems will most likely need a third shot from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, two vaccines based on the same technology that have been used to inoculate the vast majority of Americans thus far. That is a sharp shift from just a few weeks ago, when the administration said it thought there was not enough evidence to back boosters yet.

On Thursday, a key official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency is exploring options to give patients with compromised immune systems third doses even before regulators broaden the emergency use authorization for coronavirus vaccines, a step that could come soon for the Pfizer vaccine.

You may have heard about an Israeli study that shows the Pfizer vaccine loses some effectiveness after six or seven months while still protecting against severe illness. But U.S. officials have lots of questions about the Israeli study because it does not line up with data that American experts have compiled.

Here is a key point: There is no evidence that if you are vaccinated that you are at risk of becoming severely ill from the coronavirus. And the Biden administration did purchase enough vaccine supplies to give a third shot to anybody who wants extra protection.

Millions of COVID doses are about to expire and be wasted

Boxes of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are loaded into a truck for shipment from the McKesson facility in Shepherdsville, Ky., Monday, March 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, Pool)

While much of the world cannot get the vaccines they need to save lives, states report they have batches of vaccines that are about to expire and will be trashed.

Public health officials in Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware and North Carolina told Stat they have thousands of unused vaccine vials.

The Daily Mail summarizes with these bullet points:

  • Millions of unused COVID-19 vaccines doses are set to expire in the next two months as demand drops off
  • In North Carolina, 119,000 doses will expire in July and 854,000 that will expire in August, even after giving 1.2 million doses back to the federal government. North Carolina, which also has stopped ordering doses, they have 119,000 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots that will expire in July and 854,000 that will expire in August, reported STAT News.
  • Arkansas stopped accepting orders in April when it had 500,000 unused doses, but has only cut this down to 380,000, of which 100,000 will expire in July
  • Delaware officials say they are sitting on a stockpile of doss with 25,000 that will expire next month.
  • Several states have asked if their vaccine doses can be sent abroad, but the Biden administration it is too logistically difficult
  • According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 390.7 million vaccine doses have been distributed across the U.S. However, 338.4 million have been administered, a difference of 52.3 million doses.

How a heat wave sends thousands to emergency rooms: new data

My wife and I are teaching in South Dakota this week where temperatures will top 100 degrees. It is cooler at my home in Florida!

I want to point you to some mind-boggling data that shows you how a heat wave in just one part of the country affects people’s health. The data comes in a just-released CDC study.

If you just look at the northwest Health and Human Services region — which includes Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington — from May through June of this year, there were 3,504 heat-related emergency room visits.

79% of those occurred over six days, June 25-30, when most of Oregon and Washington were under an excessive heat warning. A clear peak was detected on June 28, with 1,090 heat-related illness emergency room visits.

Then if you just take one of those dates — for this example, say, June 28, 2021 — and compare it to a more normal weather day — June 28, 2019 — you would find:

  • There were 1,090 heat-related visits in 2021.
  • There were nine heat-related visits in 2019.
  • Although the region includes approximately 4% of the U.S. population, it accounted for approximately 15% of the total heat-related illness emergency room visits nationwide during June.
  • The mean daily number of heat-related illness emergency room visits in HHS Region 10 for June 2021 (102) was more than seven times higher than that in June 2019 (14).
  • During June 25-30, 2021, that number (424) was 69 times higher than during the same days in 2019 (six), when no heat advisory was in effect.

The United Air-Conditioned States of America

Not long ago my boss escaped Florida to go to Maine for a cool stay in the woods. It was hotter there than it was here in Florida … and we have air conditioning. The Washington Post reports that we may soon be a nation of air-conditioned buildings as heat waves, like the new one moving into the Northwest, make people rethink their decisions to take a pass on AC units:

Although Seattle remains the nation’s least air-conditioned major metropolitan area — Houston is at the other extreme, with 99.4 percent of housing units cooled — what the Seattle Times called “the unimaginable” is coming soon: an air-conditioned majority among Seattle homes. (Nationwide, about 87 percent of homes have AC, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.)

Portland is already there. Though the city is about an hour inland from the ocean, it still ranks third nationally among least air-conditioned metro areas, but census data shows that longer heat waves have pushed the percentage of people with AC at home from 44 percent in 2002 to 78 percent in 2019.

Vaccine passports are not new. Your grandparents probably had one.

In this April 14, 1947 file photo, a long line winds toward the entrance to Morrisania Hospital in the Bronx borough of New York, where doctors are inoculating against smallpox. In an attempt to halt the spread of the disease, officials said city residents were being vaccinated at the rate of eight a minute. (AP Photo/File)

The opposition to vaccine passports is a curious one. There was a time a generation or so ago when they were considered to be part of a person’s patriotic duty. People used them to show they had been vaccinated against typhus or polio. If your grandparents ever traveled internationally, they may well have had a yellow booklet called the World Health Organization proof of vaccination form.

In fact, vaccine passports have been a part of U.S. history stretching back to the 1800s. And, it should be noted, even then there was an underground market for fake vaccine passports.

History.com reminds us that there is nothing new about people resisting others who try to tell them what to do. Go back more than 100 years when America was facing a smallpox outbreak:

The mandatory vaccination orders angered many Americans who formed anti-vaccination leagues to defend their personal liberties. In an attempt to dodge public health officials, who went door-to-door (often with a police escort) to enforce vaccination laws, some anti-vaccination activists would forge certificates of vaccination. Unable to tell if certificates were legitimate, health officials fell back on physical evidence: they demanded to see a vaccination scar.

Partly because the vaccination process was so brutal, and partly because anti-vaccination crusaders exaggerated the risk of contracting tetanus or syphilis through the vaccine, there were plenty of people who tried to avoid vaccination by any means necessary. The most common tactic was to buy a fake vaccination certificate.

Even as late as 1904, an article in The New York Times headlined “Vaccination Certificate Frauds” reports on “an extensive traffic in worthless certificates of sufficient vaccination by east side physicians” perpetrating a “petty swindle on the poor, ignorant and credulous.”

With all public schools requiring proof of vaccination, anti-vaccination leagues circulated names of doctors who would sign a piece of paper saying that a child was medically “unfit” for vaccination. If parents didn’t want to pay the doctor, they forged the medical certificate themselves.

Enforcement was so strong that at schools, factories and on immigrant ships heading into U.S. ports, if a person claimed to be vaccinated but could not show a scar where the vaccine was given, officials would vaccinate the person right then and there. Remember, smallpox vaccines were not the gentle little poke that the COVID-19 vaccination is. It involved scratching the skin with a knife then spreading a live virus onto the open wound.

A new untreatable superbug fungus is showing up in nursing homes

This is one of those things that journalists should know about but not overreact to at the moment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a new “superbug” fungus has shown up in a nursing home in Washington, D.C., and two hospitals in Dallas.

The fungus is called Candida auris and “is an emerging, often multidrug-resistant yeast that is highly transmissible, resulting in health care-associated outbreaks, especially in long-term care facilities.”

The fungus is not unheard of in the United States but it is rare. Other reported cases are thought to have been instances where a fungus resisted treatment and evolved. But now, researchers are exploring whether the fungus spreads from person to person.

Not only is the fungus resistant to all of the usual medicines, but it is also difficult to spot unless a lab has specialized equipment.

The fungus can cause “severe illness” in hospitalized patients, and the patients at highest risk are people who have IVs or other tubes entering the body. Here is more information than you probably need right now.

Where are Team USA athletes from?

I thought this map from Axios was cool.

(Axios)

Axios reports:

126 athletes are from California, which is more than twice as many as second-place Florida (51). Colorado (34), Texas (31) and New York (28) round out the top five. Colorado counts 34 athletes in the Olympic Games in more than 14 sports and 23 disciplines, according to Team USA.

Insider explains why some states have so many athletes:

First, based solely on population, California has roughly 10 million more residents than any other state. Second, California dominates some sports that are specific to the Summer Olympics. Of the 26 water polo players America is sending to Tokyo, 22 of them call California home. The same goes for 10 of the 15 softball players and seven of the 15 cyclists Team USA has on its roster.

As the second and third most populous states, Florida and Texas coming in behind California is also not that surprising. Colorado is punching above its weight a bit, sending the fourth most athletes to Tokyo despite having just the 21st highest population in the country.

In reality however, Axios points out that, “Dozens more Olympians live in Colorado because they train here — and the same goes for athletes from other countries, too.

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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