May 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.

A year after we topped off our shelves with toilet paper, East Coast drivers are topping off their gas tanks in anticipation of gasoline being in short supply by the end of the week due to the Colonial Pipeline shutdown.

Nearly one out of 10 gas stations in North Carolina reported they were out of fuel or running out. Long lines formed at the pumps Tuesday morning.

GasBuddy said in five states served by Colonial Pipeline — Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia — demand was up by a collective 40% today. Gas stations in Alabama and Tennessee also had spotty outages that were not as widespread.

Gas experts say the closer you are to refining hubs, the less likely you are to experience fuel shortages. Outages are more likely in states without refineries because the supplies that would normally move by pipeline have to be trucked long distances.

So far, gas prices have risen a little but have not spiked. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp suspended the state fuel tax until Saturday to prevent price gouging and to assure Georgians that gas prices wouldn’t skyrocket. “There is no need to fill up every tank that you have or hoard gasoline,” he said. “Don’t do things you don’t need to do. Do what you need to and just use good common sense.”

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said, “Let me emphasize that much as there was no cause for, say, hoarding toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic, there should be no cause for hoarding gasoline, especially in light of the fact that the pipeline should be substantially operational by the end of this week.” She added, “It’s not that we have a gasoline shortage, it’s that we have this supply crunch and that things will be back to normal soon, and that we’re asking people not to hoard.”

CNBC reports that the pipeline interruption is affecting airlines:

American Airlines is adding stops to two long-haul flights to conserve fuel at its second-busiest hub.

American Airlines said in a statement that the effect of the outage on its operation has been minor. It said Monday it will add stops for two long flights out of Charlotte Douglas Airport. A nonstop to Honolulu will stop at Dallas-Fort Worth International where fuel supplies haven’t been disrupted. Customers will change planes there to a Boeing 777-300 to continue on to Hawaii. A Charlotte-London flight will stop in Boston for additional fuel. The changes are effective until at least Friday.

Southwest Airlines is flying planes with additional fuel into airports including Nashville International Airport “to supplement the local supply.” Airlines can load more fuel on planes than generally needed to avoid or reduce ground refueling.

United and Delta said they are not yet feeling any supply problems.

The CDC’s ‘misleading statistic’ on outdoor transmissions

Masked and unmasked pedestrians walk near the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. The CDC eased its guidelines on April 27, 2021, on the wearing of masks outdoors, saying fully vaccinated Americans don’t need to cover their faces unless they are in a big crowd of strangers. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

I want to point you to an interesting piece by The New York Times’ David Leonhardt about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s claim that less than 10% of COVID-19 transmissions occurred outdoors. He says the actual statistic was far less. Here’s how he comes to that statement:

It appears to be based partly on a misclassification of some Covid transmission that actually took place in enclosed spaces (as I explain below). An even bigger issue is the extreme caution of C.D.C. officials, who picked a benchmark — 10 percent — so high that nobody could reasonably dispute it.

That benchmark “seems to be a huge exaggeration,” as Dr. Muge Cevik, a virologist at the University of St. Andrews, said. In truth, the share of transmission that has occurred outdoors seems to be below 1 percent and may be below 0.1 percent, multiple epidemiologists told me. The rare outdoor transmission that has happened almost all seems to have involved crowded places or close conversation.

Saying that less than 10 percent of Covid transmission occurs outdoors is akin to saying that sharks attack fewer than 20,000 swimmers a year. (The actual worldwide number is around 150.) It’s both true and deceiving.

The point of the exercise is to question whether the CDC is being too cautious about its recommendations for how vaccinated people can safely live in a pandemic. And the 10% benchmark comes from a single study sample from Singapore construction sites. But even that data, Leonhardt reports, is conflated. It could be that the infections on those construction sites occurred indoors, not outdoors.

99% of COVID-19 hospitalized patients (in one Cleveland Clinic hospital) were unvaccinated

If you were looking for a common factor underlying COVID-19 patients in the Cleveland Clinic study of hospitalized patients between Jan. 1 and mid-April, it is that nearly every single one of them was unvaccinated. And when the researchers looked at the 47,000 workers at the hospital, it discovered that only 0.3% of the people who were infected had been fully vaccinated. The data underscores that while the vaccines are not entirely infallible, they are highly effective.

It is time to start talking about COVID-19 booster shots

Let’s not wait until there is a need to line up in stadium parking lots and rush for a booster shot to start a conversation about what we know with some certainty is going to unfold. The fact is that evidence is mounting that you are going to need a booster shot to get your COVID-19 vaccination up to speed sometime later this year. Think of it as a biological software update that protects against new bugs.

Moderna has started its Phase II trials testing booster shots. The goal is to be sure that an updated booster addresses two variants, B1.351 (first documented in South Africa) and P.1 (first documented in Brazil). Dr. Katelyn Jetelina describes the Moderna trials as having three main strategies:

mRNA-1273.351: I’ll call this 351. This is basically a vaccine that includes instructions made JUST for the S protein found in the B.1.351 variant. This is called a monovalent vaccine — it’s designed to immunize against a single antigen.

mRNA-1273.211: I’ll call this 211. This is a mixed vaccine: 50% with the original vaccine and 50% with 351 booster. This is called a polyvalent vaccine — it’s designed to immunize against two or more strains

mRNA-1273: I’ll call this 1273. This is just a smaller dose (half actually) of the original vaccine that we already got.

In the months ahead, we will hear more about how each of these strategies tests out.

Census snapshot: An equal number are vacationing and barely scraping by

I know that I am attaching a fairly detailed graphic here, but I think it is important for you to see this new data from the U.S. Census Bureau. While it shows a lot of people are planning a trip soon, more households say it is difficult to pay basic expenses right now.

(U.S. Census Bureau)

One in 10 households that depends on child care can’t get it.

Close to one in 10 households didn’t have enough to eat last week.

Close to 15% expect a member of the household to lose a job soon. Teleworking and telemedicine are still being widely used.

Even if there is no story for you in all of this — and I think there are lots of them — it is data to keep in mind while you think of the public we serve. It’s tough out there. Not hopeless, but tough.

Is it safe to drink or smoke weed after being vaccinated?

George Ripley, 72, of Washington, holds up his free beer after receiving the Johnson & Johnson. vaccine, Thursday, May 6, 2021, at the Kennedy Center in Washington. People who received a vaccination at the event had the option to have a free beer. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Health experts are saying that there is no evidence that marijuana or alcohol has any effect on how the vaccines perform in your body.

In an interview with Health.com, Tania Elliott, M.D., a clinical instructor of medicine at NYU Langone Health, warned, “Vaccine side effects include muscle aches and pains and feeling under the weather. Compounding that with the side effects of alcohol runs the risk of making you feel worse.”

The key here is moderation.

“It’s theoretically possible that it could help with the pain or nausea or headaches. Though it may make fatigue worse,” Zachary Jenkins, Pharm.D., an associate professor of pharmacy practice at Cedarville University, told Refinery29. “I think it’ll vary person to person.”

As office buildings reopen, remember to check the water systems

Office ventilation systems are rightfully getting a lot of attention as businesses think through how to reopen post-pandemic. But while you have been gone from the office, the water systems have been largely unused and the health experts say they are going to need some attention.  

WTOP radio spoke with Sean McCrady, director of assets and sustainability, real estate and properties at Underwriter Laboratories:

“Nobody is getting COVID, as far as I know, from bad water. But what we’re seeing is that during this unprecedented time, you have all these buildings that have been underused, and you have water sitting in pipes. And when water sits in pipes and it doesn’t flow, you get all sorts of funky stuff going on,” McCrady said.

“You get leaching of toxic metals, biofilm that can cause waterborne pathogens to grow. It can get pretty nasty. So I think we will see a big problem with water quality on the tail end of vacancy in buildings and that’s why it’s important for people to know how to flush those systems, and get on top of it now before people start coming back in droves,” he said.

UL has given its Verified Healthy Buildings designation to about 100 buildings so far in the D.C.-metro area, and since September, to nearly 200 million square feet around the nation either verified or committed to the program.

Mix-and-match vaccines might be more effective than two of the same dose

Vials for the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines are displayed on a tray at a clinic set up by the New Hampshire National Guard in the parking lot of Exeter, N.H., High School. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

The phrase for the day today is “heterologous vaccination.” You can also call it “mix-and-match vaccination,” and it is not unheard of in the medical world. It could be that taking one dose of Moderna’s vaccine and one of Pfizer’s may increase your immune response.

Let’s be clear that the Food and Drug Administration recommends you get two shots of the same kind. But drug shortages around the globe are forcing people to get what they can. NPR explains:

Health agencies in France and Germany are already encouraging people who’ve gotten the AstraZeneca vaccine to consider getting one of the mRNA vaccines for their second shot.

“So there’s a practical reason why you would want to mix two different types of vaccine. But there is also a scientific reason as well,” Fletcher says.

Basically, all vaccines work by showing people’s immune systems something that looks like an invading virus but really isn’t. If the real virus ever comes along, their immune systems will recognize it and be prepared to fight it off.

Using two different vaccines is a bit like giving the immune system two pictures of the virus, maybe one face-on and one in profile.

“If you give two different types of vaccine, then you tend to get a better immune response than if you give the same vaccine twice,” Fletcher says.

The NPR story says one reason we are not using heterologous COVID-19 vaccines more widely is that it complicates a system that needs to move quickly. Mixing doses would require a lot more cooperation from the pharmaceutical companies that could slow delivery.

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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