August 10, 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.

Members of the military must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by mid-September. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a memo Monday that makes it clear that he is not going to wait for the Food and Drug Administration to fully approve the vaccines to require members of the military to get vaccinated.

Some within the Biden administration wanted the Department of Defense to wait for the FDA to give full approval before the DOD required all members of the military to be vaccinated, but Austin wrote, “I want you to know that I will seek the President’s approval to make the vaccines mandatory no later than mid-September, or immediately upon the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) licensure, whichever comes first.”

As the secretary points out, the FDA, working faster than usual on the application for full approval, might rule by the end of September.

It is still unclear how the military branches will enforce the rule, but Austin said via memo, “I will not hesitate to act sooner or recommend a different course to the President if l feel the need to do so. To defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force.”

CDC advisers will discuss COVID vaccine boosters in a Friday meeting

Take a quick look at the agenda for the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the influential group that advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and influences the FDA’s rules about vaccinations. The group will take up the issue of COVID-19 vaccine boosters Friday.

The last time the committee took up the issue it remained unconvinced that there was a need to tell people to get a booster shot. But both Moderna and Pfizer are pressing for that recommendation.

This could be a pretty newsworthy meeting because, if the recommendation is for certain groups — including seniors — to get a booster, it would affect millions of people and require a whole new infrastructure to administer so many doses.

Two numbers to watch this week in a COVID economy

Tomorrow we’ll get the newest Consumer Price Index figures. Then, on Thursday, we’ll see the Producer Price Index update. These are more than nerdy figures that only economists pay attention to. These numbers may help you determine if your income is keeping up with the cost of the stuff you buy. It probably isn’t.

The CPI is sometimes called the “cost of living” calculator. In an unpredictable era, these figures that measure inflation on the consumer and manufacturer level can calm stock markets or stir up concerns. We will see this week if June’s inflation rate still holds. Inflation is running above 5% right now, which likely exceeds most of your annual raises, if you get raises at all. In short, you may be falling behind inflation.

Below is the June chart. You can see that energy prices blew the numbers out of the water as we started traveling and factories ramped up production.

(U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

In June, gasoline prices were up 45%, used car and truck prices were up 45%, and other everyday costs including restaurant food rose 4%. Fruits and vegetables were up more than 3%. All of those are significant jumps for one month.

It is especially interesting when you get local. CPI data is broken down into state and even major municipality levels. For example, you can see the inflation rate at the consumer level in Atlanta was even higher than the national level last month.

(U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

The Federal Reserve tries to keep inflation around 2%, but higher car prices and unstable lumber prices blew the lid off that figure in recent months. Lumber prices have fallen but car prices have not.

Raises and Social Security payments can be affected by such figures. The Federal Reserve could be buoyed by last week’s improved jobless figures, which might mean the Fed buys fewer bonds, which could lead to higher interest rates. These numbers are all interlocked.

And yet, the figures are based on a fast-moving reality about a pandemic that was different when the figures were collected a month ago.

New data about why people who have had COVID but reject vaccine should rethink that decision

There is certainly such a thing as “natural immunity,” meaning once you get infected with the coronavirus your body produces antibodies that help you fight off a future infection. But data the CDC just published says people who had COVID-19 and rejected the vaccine are still more than twice as likely to get infected as people who take the vaccine. The study was conducted in Kentucky and involved 246 patients.

Let’s address vaccine side effects for young people

Jenna Ramkhelawan, 12, receives the first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine from LPN nurse Dolores Fye, Tuesday, May 18, 2021, in Miami. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

When I asked my granddaughters why so many of their friends were not getting vaccinated, they told me that there was a lot of concern about side effects of the vaccine. So let’s dive in to the brand new data that is now based on 8.9 million doses delivered.

It’s true that teens, just like adults, commonly have some side effects from getting the vaccines. Most of the side effects are that you just feel crummy for a couple of days.

  • 49-56% of adolescents experience a side effect after the first dose.
  • 63-70% report side effects after dose two.
  • 24% of adolescents were unable to perform normal daily activities the day after the second dose.
  • The most common side effect was fatigue, followed by headaches, muscle pain and fever.

Less than .5% of all teens who were vaccinated needed medical care. A tiny fraction, .02%, needed hospital care after they got theirs, but it is not at all clear that the vaccination was the cause of what landed them in the hospital.

You will recall there was some concern that the vaccines might be connected to rare cases of myocarditis, a heart inflammation. The CDC investigated 147 reported cases among 12- to 17-year-olds. But remember, this condition also occurs, albeit rarely, in young people who have not been vaccinated. The newest data did show a small increase in cases among vaccinated teens, emphasis, “small.”

Among female teens, there were eight myocarditis cases per million vaccinated. As a reminder, the normal background rate is about two cases per million. So, you could accurately state that the rate is four times the expected rate, but that would be an exaggeration because both numbers are so low.

Among male teens who were vaccinated, there were 63 myocarditis cases per million vaccinations. That rate is compared to four cases per million in the unvaccinated population so, without a doubt, the suspicion is there is a link to the vaccines. But as the experts advising the CDC said, the risk from the virus is far greater than the risk of myocarditis, which is treated routinely. This is how the CDC weighs the risks and benefits based on a million doses:


Jails and prisons are starting to see more infections, but data is sparse

Jails are starting to see an increase in COVID-19 cases. At the same time, about half of all states are not disclosing data about vaccination rates among staff and incarcerated people.

The Tampa Bay Times is trying, as you probably are, to get a handle on how bad the outbreaks are. The Times found:

Sixty-nine incarcerated people have tested positive across 16 state prisons amid the new wave, according to Aug. 2 data provided by the Florida Department of Corrections. The state prison agency declined to disclose the number of staff with active infections. Its public coronavirus dashboard, which provided data on active cases and deaths among staff and residents, has not been updated since June 2.

“FDC collected and reported data on COVID-19 as part of our agency’s emergency response,” said Molly Best, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Corrections, in an emailed statement. This data is no longer operationally necessary, as we have resumed normal non-emergency operations. All normal infectious disease protocols are in effect.”

Nine immigrants in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Broward Transitional Center in Deerfield Beach also currently have active infections. The immigration agency declined to disclose the number of staff who have the virus or vaccination efforts for staff and detainees.

I encourage you to keep asking questions and keep reporting every time the state does not disclose answers.

Why, when the pandemic ends, thousands of formerly imprisoned people will go back to prison

During the early days of the pandemic, the Trump administration’s Justice Department issued an order that said once the pandemic officially ends, the thousands of people who were let out of federal prisons to control COVID-19 behind bars will have to return to prison.

The Biden administration has not changed that plan.

The best guess is that it will involve around 4,000 people convicted of nonviolent crimes.

It is an especially interesting bind that Biden finds himself in because part of his campaign platform was to reduce prison populations.

The New York Times says there may be two options open to keep from sending people back to prison if they have stayed out of trouble during the pandemic release:

Either Congress could enact a law to expand the Justice Department’s authority to keep them at home beyond the emergency, or President Biden could use his clemency powers to commute their sentences to home confinement.

The Biden team is said to be wary of a blanket, mass commutation, however, both because it would represent an extraordinary intervention in the normal functioning of the judicial system and it could create political risks if any recipient who would otherwise be locked up commits a serious crime. Another option is case-by-case assessment for commutations, but the volume of work required to individually evaluate so many people is daunting.

Justice reform advocates say the COVID-era home incarceration program is proof that people convicted of nonviolent crimes need not be in expensive prisons. Forbes reports:

The position of both administrations seems odd when the program has been such a success. When Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director Michael Carvajal testified before both the House and Senate in March and April 2021, he stated that of the 20,000 on home detention (CARES Act plus those on home confinement because they were near the end of their prison term) there had only been 20 individuals returned to prison institutions as a result of violations. That’s a 99.9% success rate.

Thousands of inmates have returned home, have jobs, have reintegrated with their families and now might have to return to prison. The real issue, heartache, is for those who have years to serve on their prison terms … some more than 3 years. If inmates are to return, the BOP will be asked to make a judgment call on whether some will just continue on home confinement because it might not make sense to return them to prison … too few months remaining.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys is pressing the president to commute the sentences of all of the prisoners on pandemic release. The group says:

There is absolutely nothing standing in the way of President Biden commuting the sentences of the approximately 4,000 individuals in CARES Act home confinement,” said NACDL President Christopher W. Adams. “The President should act with all deliberate speed to ensure that these individuals are not removed from their homes and communities in the middle of their re-entry process. While granting clemency to these individuals by commuting their sentences won’t change the fact that the United States is the world’s leading incarcerator, it would be a powerful signal that the administration is prioritizing criminal legal system reform, second chances, and the importance of a robust executive clemency power.”

Why does the US Postal Service have different mask rules from the rest of the government?

A USPS worker is seen in front of The James A. Farley Building, the main United States Postal Service building in New York City. (John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx)

The Federal News Network, which covers stories about government employees, posted an interesting piece that says union members at the U.S. Postal Service have quarantined in big numbers since the agency ditched its mask mandate. The USPS relaxed its mask rules while the rest of the federal government ordered workers in areas with high COVID-19 transmission, which is most of the country, to put masks back on. The FNN reports:

The Postal Service, as an independent agency, is setting its own rules on masks and vaccines apart from the rest of the federal workforce, but is seeing an uptick in employees who need to quarantine as the delta variant of COVID-19 presents new challenges for the agency.

The American Postal Workers Union (APWU), in a July 26 message to its members, said USPS “unilaterally” changed its policy last month to no longer require fully vaccinated employees and contractors to wear a mask at work.

USPS updated its mask policy for fully vaccinated employees on July 16 to allow fully vaccinated employees not to wear a mask, except when required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations. The agency also informed managers and supervisors not to ask employees to verify their vaccination status.

But APWU data shows quarantines among the USPS workforce have increased by nearly 30% in the last month, and have ticked upward in the weeks since the agency lifted the mask mandate.

An hour after putting masks on, a third of people wear them incorrectly

A study just published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine tells the story of how some emergency room workers in Indianapolis tried to find a way to help patients wear masks correctly. They recruited 123 patients and put masks on them. Half of the patients had their masks attached with a small piece of surgical tape to keep them in place.

An hour later, 31% had removed their masks or had their noses and/or mouth exposed. But all of the people who had their masks held in place with the tape were still correctly wearing them an hour later.

Maybe this would work well for children … or husbands.

Last week my wife and I laughed at how slowly people on our flight ate their pretzels and drank their five ounces of soda. We suspected they were just stalling for time to keep their masks off. People usually scarf down those 10 pretzels like hungry dogs.

COVID antibodies are showing up in deer

A very young fawn lays in a yard in Zelienople, Pa. June 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

I have no idea how important this is — maybe nobody does just yet — but scientists have found deer in four states carrying COVID-19 antibodies. The discovery seems to mean that the deer somehow came in contact with the virus, fought off infection and developed antibodies. National Geographic reports:

Researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) analyzed blood samples from more than 600 deer in Michigan, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania over the past decade, and they discovered that 40 percent of the 152 wild deer tested from January through March 2021 had antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Another three deer from January 2020 also had antibodies.

Viruses do this sort of thing, move from species to species. The biggest concern is that while moving through the 30 million deer in the U.S., the virus could evolve and become more difficult for humans to control. One other thing: There is no evidence that the virus is making the deer sick.

And just to head off you wise guys, this item does not explain the superspreader COVID-19 event that unfolded at the Milwaukee Bucks victory party.

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,…
Al Tompkins

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