April 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.

Researchers are trying to figure out how 246 fully vaccinated Michiganders contracted the coronavirus — including three who died — from January to March.

“These are individuals who have had a positive test 14 or more days after the last dose in the vaccine series,” said Lynn Sutfin, a spokesperson for the state health department.

It may turn out that some of the people were infected before they were vaccinated, and the infection still showed up.

“These cases are undergoing further review to determine if they meet other (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) criteria for determination of potential breakthrough, including the absence of a positive antigen or PCR test less than 45 days prior to the post-vaccination positive test,” Sutfin said.

The Washington Post reports that these so-called breakthrough cases are drawing the CDC’s attention:

The precise number of these breakthrough cases is unknown, but figures released by states suggest it is at least several thousand. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has had a team monitoring breakthrough infections since February, has partial data but has not made it public.

What about the people who died? Again, health officials say, don’t jump to conclusions that there is a link to the vaccines. The Detroit Free Press reports that the three fully vaccinated people who died were all age 65 and older. Two of them were within three weeks of full vaccination.

The Washington Post quotes Dr. Anthony Fauci, who says he is not overly concerned by these reports of breakthrough cases, but that they deserve investigation:

There is no singular explanation for why the virus in rare cases is not neutralized by the vaccine-induced immune response. Infectious-disease experts say the human immune system is complicated, and some people may simply have a weak immune response to the vaccine. In this scenario, it’s not the vaccine that’s the wild card, it’s the patient.

Fauci offered that explanation Friday during the White House briefing. The several deaths reported so far among people already fully vaccinated were among elderly individuals who may have had underlying health conditions and may not have mounted a strong immune response when vaccinated, he said.

“I don’t think there needs to be any concern about any shift or change in the efficacy of the vaccine,” Fauci said.

The Michigan health department spokesperson says while most people get “full immunity” two weeks after their second shots, some people may take longer. The Free Press reports:

Although so-called vaccine breakthrough cases are extremely rare, and all three COVID-19 vaccines on the market are considered highly effective with efficacy rates ranging from 72% for Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine to 94% and 95% for Moderna’s and Pfizer’s, respectively, it can happen.

However, news of breakthrough cases should be taken into context, said Dr. Paul Thomas, a family medicine physician in Detroit who started Plum Health, a low-cost medical practice in Corktown.

People should keep in mind that the 246 breakthrough cases occurred among the more than 1.8 million Michiganders who are fully vaccinated, he said.

“That breaks down to 0.0144% of those who have gotten the vaccine have come down with a breakthrough infection,” Thomas said. “So that means that the vaccine is 99.99% effective in preventing infection.”

CDC says ‘no safety issues’ for Johnson & Johnson vaccine after multiple reactions in several states

As you look at three recent reports of multiple people experiencing reactions quickly after they received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you must keep in mind how many shots are being administered versus how many people are reporting feeling light-headed or nauseous.

We have known all along that some people would have a reaction, which is why there is a 15-minute waiting period after you get the shot.

Last week, over two days, two vaccination centers — one in Colorado and one in North Carolina — closed after more than two dozen people had adverse reactions after they got the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 shot. A few were taken to hospitals, others went home. In both cases, the reactions amounted to less than 1% of the people who got the shots. The CDC said “(an) analysis by the CDC did not find any safety issues or reason for concern.”

In the Atlanta suburb of Cumming, Georgia, eight people had a reaction after taking the shot on Wednesday. State officials shut that site down while they investigated. One person was sent to a local hospital and then released.

Georgia Public Broadcasting reports:

“There is no reason to believe there is anything wrong with the vaccine itself, and other individuals who have received the J&J vaccine should not be concerned,” Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Public Health commissioner, said in a statement. “We are looking into what happened and what may have caused the reactions, including the conditions at the fairgrounds such as heat and the ability to keep the site cool.’’

Johnson & Johnson will ship a lot fewer vaccines this week, but it is not related to the questions about reactions.

CDC COVID-19 warning: avoid Canada

Vancouver Canucks Brock Boeser (6) looks for a rebound after goaltender Toronto Maple Leafs Frederik Andersen (31) made a save during an NHL hockey game, Saturday, March 6, 2021, in Vancouver, Canada. 21 Canucks players have been infected with the virus. (AP Photo/Rich Lam)

The CDC issued a stern warning about traveling to Canada. The CDC says:

Travelers should avoid all travel to Canada. Because of the current situation in Canada even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants and should avoid all travel to Canada.

Canada is experiencing a spike in new cases and the vaccine program there lags far behind the United States. In Ontario, only about 2% of the population has been vaccinated. Less than 2% has been vaccinated in British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador. Week-to-week hospitalizations in Ontario are up 25%.


Canada’s most popular ski resort, Whistler, is at the center of an outbreak that infected at least 84 people.

21 players on Vancouver’s professional hockey team, the Canucks, have been infected.

The CBC reports that new curfews kicked in over the weekend:

Fearing an explosion of new cases in Montreal and Laval, Quebec Premier François Legault announced he was rolling back the curfew in the two cities to 8 p.m.

He also announced the added lockdown measures in place in Quebec City, Lévis, Beauce and Gatineau — where variants of COVID-19 are spreading rapidly — will be extended until April 19.

The situation is so bad in those areas, Legault said, that on just about every street, or every neighborhood, there is someone with the virus. “It’s everywhere and people of all ages have it,” he added.

Canada’s increasing COVID problems run coast to coast. This is the situation in British Columbia. Variant strains are spreading in Alberta.

The Canadian government has an interactive website to help travelers figure out whether they can enter the country and what they would have to do to get in. Businesses along the border say they are dying. And some communities rely on being able to cross, even briefly, through Canadian territory.

The one piece of good news is that Canada just got a shipment of vaccines through an international effort called COVAX. And the provincial governments say they are injecting the vaccines as fast as the vials arrive.

Pfizer hopes to vaccinate 12- to 15-year-olds right away

Pfizer says it is ready to show the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that its COVID-19 vaccine is safe for 12- to 16-year-olds. The drug company says it can present data from drug trials involving 2,260 teens that showed a remarkable 100% efficacy, meaning everyone who was vaccinated produced the antibodies needed to prevent COVID-19 infection. The application for FDA approval could mean that everyone over age 12 could be vaccinated before school opens this fall.

Pfizer is still conducting drug trials on younger children and pregnant women.

More countries reluctant to use the AstraZeneca vaccine

The COVID-19 vaccine that is the backbone of Europe’s vaccine efforts is struggling into a new week with some countries now telling people to consider mixing their vaccines.

German and French health officials say that if you are under age 55 and got AstraZeneca’s vaccine as your first shot, consider using a different brand shot for your second dose. Canada and Norway are also considering similar guidance, according to Yahoo News.

For weeks, European health officials have tried to nail down whether there is a definitive connection between the vaccine and rare blood clots.

In the United States, stockpiles of the AstraZeneca vaccine are piling up because the U.S. has not approved the vaccine. 20 million doses are waiting to be used or shipped to other countries that have approved it. Bloomberg points out that there is a prickly question about whether the U.S. should send a drug to other countries that our own FDA has not approved as safe and effective.

“Give them all away. By the time we even think about authorizing it, we are going to be in a glut situation domestically,” said Zeke Emanuel, a medical doctor and University of Pennsylvania vice provost who served as a senior health policy adviser in the Obama administration and on Biden’s Covid transition advisory board.

“We’re never going to use them,” he said.

Celine Gounder, a physician who also served on a Covid advisory board for the Biden transition, agreed the doses should be donated after the company secures authorization from the FDA. “We have enough — we don’t even need Johnson & Johnson,” the third authorized U.S. manufacturer, she said.

“I would like to see the FDA continue its process, issue the emergency use authorization assuming it passes snuff, and then donate that,” she added.

FDA authorization is “really important,” she said, “because of all the different questions with the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

Larger study finds no link between COVID-19 and blood types

I have been interested to see the emergence of research on whether there is a link between blood types and COVID-19 susceptibility. The newest and largest study so far shows no link. This is fairly new science, so don’t be surprised when additional studies find nuances.

100 days into 2021

Saturday marked the 100th day of 2021. Soon, you will flood the airwaves and pages with assessments of President Joe Biden’s first 100 days, but you might take a moment to first see what we have gone through in the last 100 days. I point you to a presentation from Doug Sosnik of Brunswick Group.

(Brunswick Group)

What’s the podcasting craze just a pandemic thing?

Amplifi Media has been plowing through Apple Podcast data and has found what you may have suspected but needed proof. Apple Podcasts lists 2 million titles. But there are not 2 million podcasts out there. Not nearly. About a fourth of them lasted one episode.

Amplifi found:

Analyzing data from Apple Podcasts reveals how that statistic is misleading. Out of the two million titles reflected in Apple Podcasts (and similar results from Podcast Index), a remarkable 26% have produced just a single episode. One and done. That suggests many people fired up their creative juices, especially during the pandemic, and stopped after creating one episode. Roughly 1/4th of all podcasts are out of business, or more likely, were never really in it.

Sure, there might be some that only planned a single episode but for our x-ray, let’s drop the number of podcasts down by 26% — which means there are roughly 1.5 million (1.48m) podcasts with two or more episodes.

44% of all podcasts did not get past three episodes. Only a third of all podcasts have produced 10 or more episodes. But then if the podcast is only planned for a limited run, then these numbers do not reflect success or failures.

The computer chip shortage cuts auto production

In this aerial photo, mid-sized pickup trucks and full-size vans are seen in a parking lot outside a General Motors assembly plant where they are produced Wednesday, March 24, 2021, in Wentzville, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

General Motors is cutting two overtime shifts at a pickup truck plant and it is not because they are not selling enough trucks. It is because they cannot get enough semiconductor computer chips for the trucks. The factories in Flint, Michigan, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, will cut three overtime shifts on weekends. But the shortage is causing problems to spread, and it is costing workers money. The shortage already affected Ford plants in Missouri and Illinois.

By one estimate, the semiconductor shortage will cost automakers more than $60 billion worldwide.

The way we live now

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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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