March 1, 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.

It may be that new COVID-19 variants, like the one in New York for example, will be more resistant to vaccines. But we don’t know that yet, and some experts are asking politicians to shut their yaps until we have some actual science to point to.

New York City’s chief medical adviser to the mayor, Dr. Jay Varma, says it is too early to use preliminary data to infer how effective the vaccines would be against the variant.

“We really don’t know enough about human immunity to draw those direct conclusions,” Varma said at a briefing along with Mayor Bill de Blasio. “That’s why we do clinical trials. That’s where we collect data continuously.” 

Reuters’ Peter Szekely reports:

The CDC has identified more than 1,900 cases of coronavirus variants spread across most states in the country, mostly the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, which has been shown to be more transmissible than earlier versions of the virus.

Varma urged readers to be “a little skeptical” of reports of the latest studies, adding that not all variants rise to the level of public health concerns. He characterized the latest discovery as a “variant of interest” that should be studied more closely.

New York City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi called the studies “quite exploratory with respect to the real-world effects,” adding that there is no indication that the new variant reduces vaccine effectiveness.

Earlier, Varma took to Twitter to urge researchers to share their work with government health departments before releasing them to the press, adding, “Pathogen porn isn’t helping public health.”

California cardiologist Eric Topol echoed Varma’s concerns about unnecessarily spreading fear, calling the New York variant a “scariant.”

Yale University Professor Nathan Grubaugh called conclusions drawn from the two studies “an absolute mess.”

This presents journalists with the challenge of reporting on the variants but being careful not to overstate what we know about vaccine effectiveness.

Convalescent plasma may not be all that

A patient donates convalescent plasma on Social Security blood bank at Arnulfo Arias Madrid hospital in Panama City, Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

Still on the topic of “let’s wait until we have some real data,” we now have some real data on whether convalescent plasma improves recovery from COVID-19. The data, from four peer-reviewed trials, says, “Among patients with COVID-19, treatment with convalescent plasma compared with control was not associated with improved survival or other positive clinical outcomes.”

It is not the news anybody wanted to hear but the findings are based on the results of more than 11,000 patients. 

The Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the use of convalescent plasma in the U.S. in August 2020. Even then, The National Institutes of Health and the Infectious Diseases Society of America were more cautious about how useful plasma might be in treating COVID-19 pending the data we now have.

The hope was that infusing plasma from somebody who already had COVID-19 might spark the newly infected patient’s immune system into producing antibodies.

It may still turn out that as researchers keep looking at plasma treatments for COVID-19, they discover a specific timeframe and donor profile that will prove to be more useful. The latest research, for example, shows that a donor over age 30 who had severe symptoms and who gives plasma within 60 days may have plasma that is more effective as a treatment. That is a pretty specific profile that will be difficult to match often enough to collect ample supplies.

When will conventions and in-person meetings resume?

The famous Louisville, Kentucky, hotel The Galt House is offering free on-site COVID-19 testing for anybody who wants to book meetings and conventions at the hotel right now. WAVE-TV reports:

Testing at the Galt House is aimed at luring back group meetings, giving organizers confidence to schedule face to face gatherings.

There have already been bookings for two large meetings with the hotel for later in the year, which require attendees to be tested.

Las Vegas hotels and meeting spaces hope to slowly open up to bigger and bigger groups. The Las Vegas Conventions and Visitors Authority says:

Public gatherings and venues hosting events, such as group meetings and live entertainment, are limited to 100 people or 35 percent capacity, whichever number is lower. If COVID-19 trends continue to decline, beginning March 15, the numbers will increase to 250 people or 50 percent capacity, whichever number is lower.

Large gathering plans may be submitted again. No events may resume until March 1 at the earliest, and only if granted approval by applicable local health & state authorities. Size limits will be 20 percent of total fixed seated capacity.

The Chicago Tribune looked at what is booked at the city’s massive McCormick Place Convention Center and found there are some groups optimistic enough to book big gatherings:

There are 59 events scheduled at the convention center from June 1 through Dec. 31, including 39 major events that could draw as many as 878,000 visitors and account for about 880,000 hotel room nights, according to estimates from the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns the Near South Side venue.

The Walter Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., which is normally packed with meetings, has an open calendar until April and then has a sprinkling of events planned.

These mammoth facilities must be hemorrhaging money every day they are vacant.

Finding enough substitute teachers will require creativity

School classrooms are reopening to students … but now schools have to find teachers.

Until teachers get vaccines, they understandably are reluctant to return to the classrooms, so schools are finding all sorts of solutions. In some cases, businesses are loaning employees to fill in as substitutes. In others, school systems are stretching the limits of who can work as a sub. NBC News provides some examples to get you thinking about your own stories.

Here are some other stories from Texas, South Carolina, Illinois and Missouri. I have seen similar stories in Michigan, Arizona and Pennsylvania. It is probably true everywhere.

Why would common cold cases increase when kids go back to classrooms?

In a report recently published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, the journal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers looked at what happened when classes in Hong Kong started meeting in person again and found cases of the common cold went up, even when kids and staff wore masks. They suspect that because children have been home and not exposed to rhinoviruses (which cause colds) they may have lost some of their immunity.

I guess I am not surprised. I remember our kids seemingly coming down with some kind of crud nonstop once the school year began. Those poor teachers must be constantly exposed.

Egg prices are about to go up. Blame the Texas winter storm.

Bloomberg is out with this cheery news:

The severe weather forced Sanderson Farms Inc., the third-biggest U.S. chicken producer, to euthanize 545,000 baby chicks at hatcheries in Texas. Over 700,000 eggs were also destroyed.

That means fewer pounds of chicken reaching grocery stores in the coming months.

The chicken struggles add to increasing costs to feed the animals, a signal that consumers likely will be paying more for poultry just as a nascent economic recovery boosts meat sales.

All of this comes just at the time when fast food restaurants are starting a new round of chicken sandwich wars. Grain prices are rising, too. Oh, and did I mention that China is buying a lot more chicken right now? And the bird flu is wiping out millions of chickens in Europe now, too.

Other than that, we are all good.

A fertility ‘crisis?’

This is one of those stories where I could imagine standing in my boss’ doorway, asking, “Hey how was your weekend? I know you have a lot on your mind, so I hate to bother you with this, but a researcher who specializes in fertility rates says the human race is in peril. So, you know, we might want to explore this.”

Shanna Swan, an environmental and reproductive epidemiologist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, says sperm counts have plummeted.

Swan is out with a new book and says, “If you look at the curve on sperm count and project it forward — which is always risky — it reaches zero in 2045,” meaning the median man would have essentially no viable sperm. “That’s a little concerning, to say the least.”

Axios explores some of the possible contributing factors.

Lobster comeback

A sternman, right, checks a lobster while fishing, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, off South Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Last spring, lobster prices were in the tank. But right now, the shell-shocked industry is clawing its way back. Prices are up to $10 per pound wholesale, which is about twice what they were in March when restaurants closed. The home consumer is finding ways to cook up lobster.

The biggest battle for lobstermen right now is a proposed set of rules that calls for a big reduction of risks to whales which will restrict lobster fishing. Learn more here.

Hot tub sales are hot

In case you are keeping score, yard tractors, bicycles, snowmobiles and lobsters are really popular right now. Add one more thing: hot tubs. In the U.S. and Canada, hot tub showrooms say they have very little supply left to show. There are a couple of familiar reasons behind all of this. One is the market is still trying to recover from a production slowdown last year and, of course, people are home so they want to soak if they can’t go out to eat and play.

Pandemic-era email is making us (more) miserable

The New Yorker has a brilliant piece on the research behind the claim that the email that is pouring into your inbox while you are not communicating face-to-face is stressing you out. There is actually clinical data on this.

Women may need to reconsider their ideal blood pressure

It might be that your doctor needs to adjust their thinking on the ideal blood pressure for women.

A new study just published in the trade journal Circulation says the widely accepted target of 120 over 80 probably should be 110/80 for women.

Dr. Susan Cheng, associate professor of cardiology and director of the Institute for Research on Healthy Aging at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai, is a senior author of the study and told CNN:

“We’ve been thinking about what normal blood pressure is in people under the assumption that men and women are the same, when really they’re a lot more different than we realized,” said Cheng, who also serves as associate professor of cardiology at Cedars-Sinai.

What is it with French bulldogs?

Pua, a 5-month old French bulldog, poses for photographers during a news conference at the American Kennel Club headquarter, Wednesday, March 28, 2018, in New York. American Kennel Club rankings released in 2018 show are the French bulldogs are the fourth most popular purebred dog. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

CNBC says French bulldogs can sell for up to $8,000 a puppy. That helps explain why crooks stole Lady Gaga’s dogs. Thieves in Atlanta stole two cars with dogs inside, and cops say they think the thieves wanted the dogs more than the cars. (One of the dogs was a French bulldog, the other a goldendoodle, which can cost $4,000.)

Slate reports:

French bulldogs are very expensive to breed, thanks to the testing, artificial insemination, and C-section births (their huge heads get stuck in the birth canal) required of each litter. Sandy Briley of Francoeur Frenchies, a breeder outside of Los Angeles, says that depending on the color of the dog (lilac tan is popular) and its DNA, a puppy of hers can sell for up to $12,500. She predicted that a stolen puppy, without American Kennel Club paperwork, could probably sell for $2,000.

A pet investigator told Slate:

Someone will see a reward sign and call you up but will only give information if the police aren’t involved. So, our signs always say the dog is “missing,” not “stolen.” People are more likely to respond to that. Like with this one case of mine with a French bulldog puppy in Tennessee, there was a $3,500 reward. This man called and said he found the puppy walking on the street. We know that’s not what happened. But he gave us the dog back, and we gave him the money.

Journalist takes on the city over water bills … again

Brad Edwards at CBS2 Chicago is battling once again with the city of Chicago over the city’s absurd water billing practices. Time after time the city gives people the runaround when they protest water bills. But when they try to pull that with Edwards, he will have none of it.

One water bill involves a guy who drives a taxi for a living. He got a water bill for $10,700 and, here’s the kicker, he has never lived in the house. In fact, the water has been cut off to the house for a decade. The city just sends a bill of what it thinks you might have used because the water line has no meter. Oh, and when Edwards filed a FOIA request, this is the record he got back:

(Brad Edwards)

Honest to goodness, journalist friends. Where would guys like Rodney Andrews turn if you were not there? And when Edwards challenges the system on Mr. Andrews’ behalf, he is forcing the system to confront its problems on behalf of everybody who pays a Chicago water bill.

Bravo to the TV station for dedicating significant time and energy to a story that is about as basic as it gets, a water bill.

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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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