July 15, 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.

Remember a year ago when we were calling nurses “heroes” and the Blue Angels were doing fly-bys of hospitals and all that stuff? Well, those nurses want you to put your mask back on. They are seeing the real-life outcomes in two dozen states where COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising.

Their union, National Nurses United, just sent a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says:

It should come as no surprise that cases are rising following the rapid reopening of many states and the removal of public health measures, including the CDC’s May 13 guidance update that told vaccinated individuals they no longer needed to wear masks, observe physical distancing, avoid crowds, or get tested or isolate after an exposure, within only a few exceptions.

The CDC’s guidance failed to account for the possibility — which preliminary data from the United Kingdom and Israel now indicates is likely — of infection and transmission of the virus, especially variants of concern, by fully vaccinated individuals.

The CDC’s May 13, 2021 guidance also failed to protect medically vulnerable patients, children, and infants who cannot be vaccinated, and immunocompromised individuals for whom vaccines may be less effective.

While Covid-19 vaccines are important public health tools, and the vaccination effort has been truly historic, Covid-19 vaccines are not enough by themselves to combat the pandemic.

The threat of this virus remains very real. To protect public health, we call upon the CDC to reinstate the recommendation for everyone to wear masks when in public or in physical proximity to others outside their own household.

The nurses also asked the CDC to:

  • Require tracking and transparent reporting of Covid infections among health care workers and other essential workers. (The union says3,200 health care workers have died from COVID.)
  • Track infections in people who are fully vaccinated, including mild and asymptomatic infections. The CDC’s decision at the beginning of May to only track vaccine breakthrough infections if they result in hospitalization or death was imprudent and short-sighted.

7 professional organizations say it is time to require all health care workers to be vaccinated

Seven organizations that represent professional health care workers want all workers in the field to be vaccinated. Fierce Healthcare reports:

Seven professional organizations for infectious disease, epidemiology and long-term care professionals have released a consensus statement recommending that COVID-19 vaccination be a condition for employment for all healthcare personnel.

The group also wants people who don’t directly administer care but are in the vicinity of caregivers and patients, including students and volunteers, to be vaccinated, too. Among the organizations that signed the petitions are:

  • The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA)
  • AMDA – The Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine
  • The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology
  • The Infectious Diseases Society of America
  • The HIV Medicine Association
  • The Pediatric Infectious Disease Society
  • The Society of Infectious Disease Pharmacists

At the same time, the list of hospitals that are requiring all health care workers to be vaccinated is growing. The list includes Houston Methodist, Mercy, Henry Ford Health System and SSM Health. As of Friday, Trinity Health, Piedmont Healthcare and St. Mary’s Health Care will also require employees to be vaccinated.

What the nurses are seeing

Mercy Hospital in Springfield, Missouri, now has more people in the intensive care unit with COVID-19 than it has ever had, even during last winter’s surge. On June 1, there were 26 COVID-19 patients in the ICU there. Now there are 130.

One nurse said every single patient with COVID-19 she has worked with in the ICU ward was unvaccinated. Every. Single. One.

In nearby Branson, Missouri, a nurse told Fox2 that as summer tourism brings more people to the Ozarks, the ICU is filling up with COVID-19 cases.

Here are two more data points:

  • Roughly 91% of patients in the Missouri intensive care unit are on ventilators, and these include young patients, in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
  • Statewide, 40% of Missourians are fully vaccinated. In some counties, fewer than 20% are vaccinated.

CNN lets us see what the nurses are witnessing in one county:

In Texas County Memorial Hospital in Houston, Missouri, hospital leaders say half the number of COVID-19 deaths they’ve seen since the start of this year — eight in total — occurred over the past week.

A little more than 23% of the county’s population has received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, according to hospital spokesperson Helania Wulff. And the county, now labeled as “very high” risk, saw its positivity test rate jump from 9.5% last week to more than 30% this week, Wulff said.

Lauren Toman, the hospital’s director of respiratory care, said that while during previous surges patients tended to be older and have preexisting conditions, patients now are younger and healthier — but are coming in sicker and getting worse more quickly.

“They rapidly decline, very fast, and then even after intubation we’ll see them rapidly decline and unfortunately we are seeing people passing quicker than before,” Toman told CNN.

In Mississippi, where less than 34% of the population is fully vaccinated, the state’s top health officer warned the delta variant surge has led to seven children being treated for COVID-19 in state ICUs — including two on ventilators.

The University of Kansas Health System has three dozen COVID-19 patients in the ICU. Almost all of them are unvaccinated.

KHOU in Houston reports:

Another major hospital in the Texas Medical Center is seeing a rise in seriously ill COVID-19 patients.

Last week, Houston Methodist told KHOU 11 hospitalizations went up 40% over the course of two weeks. Now, Memorial Hermann says it’s seeing the same thing.

The epidemic in the pandemic: Drug overdoses hit a record in 2020

The figures we dreaded came out on Wednesday, showing that drug overdose deaths hit a record last year. The situation has not improved so far this year. The old record for drug deaths in a single year was 72,000.  Last year, the number hovered around 93,000 — a 29% increase.

I dove into the CDC data to pull out some maps and graphs for you to consider.

(CDC)

You can see the states that had the biggest increases on this map. The darker colors are the highest increases.

It is odd how Vermont has one of the highest increases in the nation while, next door, New Hampshire’s drug deaths dropped. You have to wonder if there is a difference in record-keeping or if there is actually some other reason worth exploring. The same is true for South Dakota, where drug deaths seem to have dropped while deaths are way up for three states that border it.

(CDC)

Let’s look at some of the states with the biggest increases in drug deaths last year, including Kentucky, South Carolina, West Virginia, Vermont, Nebraska and California.

(CDC)

(CDC)

(CDC)

(CDC)

The Associated Press says:

While prescription painkillers once drove the nation’s overdose epidemic, they were supplanted first by heroin and then by fentanyl, a dangerously powerful opioid, in recent years. Fentanyl was developed to treat intense pain from ailments like cancer but has increasingly been sold illicitly and mixed with other drugs.

“What’s really driving the surge in overdoses is this increasingly poisoned drug supply,” said Shannon Monnat, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University who researches geographic patterns in overdoses. “Nearly all of this increase is fentanyl contamination in some way. Heroin is contaminated. Cocaine is contaminated. Methamphetamine is contaminated.”

Fentanyl was involved in more than 60% of the overdose deaths last year, CDC data suggests.

How concerned should we be about inflation?

This week, we saw another increase in inflation. The current rate is 5.4% — the highest rate in 13 years.

But when we deal with percentages, context matters. Some of the biggest drivers of inflation are occurring due to the incredible circumstances of 2020. Airline tickets, for example, “deflated” or dropped in price during the worst days of the pandemic in 2020. Now, airfares are up almost 25% from a year ago. But a year ago was not normal for airfares. Now they are returning to more like 2019’s normal. It’s a similar but not quite as exaggerated story for hotel prices.

In some other ways, prices rose last month but probably will come back down, including for both new and used cars and trucks. Computer device prices are sky-high right now because of a computer chip shortage, which also is contributing to the auto shortage. All of that will even out probably by late summer. Some higher prices may stick long term because, for example, employers are paying more, especially in the food industry.

The consumer price index zeros in on the fastest rising and falling categories of stuff you pay for:

  • The index for used cars and trucks continued to rise sharply, increasing 10.5 percent in June. This increase accounted for more than one-third of the seasonally adjusted all items increase.
  • The food index increased 0.8 percent in June, a larger increase than the 0.4-percent increase reported for May. The food at home increase was mostly due to the index for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs, which increased 2.5 percent over the month. The beef index rose 4.5 percent in June, its largest 1-month increase since June 2020.
  • The energy index increased 1.5 percent in June, with the gasoline index rising 2.5 percent over the month. ·

The Wall Street Journal’s David Harrison describes this week’s consumer price index a little differently.  He helps us see inflation as four categories of spending:

  • First are the items where prices fell sharply at the start of the pandemic and that are now returning to their pre-pandemic levels.
  • Second are items where prices have temporarily risen above their pre-pandemic levels due to supply constraints and could come down.

For example, the CPI report said, “The index for used cars and trucks rose sharply for the third consecutive month, increasing 10.5 percent in June. This was the largest monthly increase ever reported for the used cars and trucks index, which was first published in January 1953.”

  • Third are items where prices are likely settling at a permanently higher level.
  • And fourth are items where price increases have slowed rather than accelerated as a result of the pandemic, at least for now.

Now, a bit of context. Let’s look, for example, at the cost of food at restaurants since that was a big percentage increase. The CPI said, “Food away from home rose 4.2 percent over the last year, the largest 12-month increase in that index since the period ending in May 2009.” That means that a $20 meal in 2019 would cost 84 cents more today.

Here’s a bit of context that might surprise you: The CPI reports medical costs, including pharmaceuticals, dropped last month:

The medical care index declined 0.1 percent in June, as it did in May. Medical care component indexes were mixed. The index for prescription drugs declined 0.2 percent in June after falling 0.3 percent in May. The hospital services index increased 0.2 percent, while the physicians’ services index rose 0.3 percent in June.

We played a lot of video games in the pandemic

Associated Press writer Tamara Lush plays video games during the coronavirus outbreak with the news on the television in the background Oct. 26, 2020, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Tamara Lush)

The newest data from market research firm Ipsos shows that two-thirds of Americans played video games during the pandemic. USA Today summarizes:

More than half of players (55%) said they played more games during the pandemic, and most players (90%) said they will continue playing after the country opens up, according to a survey of 4,000 U.S. adults conducted by market research firm Ipsos in February for the Entertainment Software Association.

For players during the pandemic, video games were a source of stress relief (55%) and distraction (48%), the survey found.

Video games also served as an escape and a break for children, 71% of parents surveyed said. More than half of parents (59%) said their children played educational games and two-thirds of parents (66%) said video games made the transition to distance learning easier for their children.

Other facts from the Entertainment Software Association’s 2021 Essential Facts About the Video eGame Industry:

  • 67% of American adults (aged 18+) are players
  • 76% of U.S. children (under 18) are players
  • The average video game player is 31 years old
  • 45% of gamers identify as female.
  • 80% of video game players in the U.S. are over 18.
  • More than half of all gamers (51%) played 7+ hours weekly.
  • The most popular game genre? Casual games, played by 63% of players, followed by action games (39%) or shooter games (39%).

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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