July 9, 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.

New data shows how vitally important it is for people to get both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and not stop at one dose.

French scientists published a peer-reviewed study in the journal Nature that says that a single dose of the two-dose AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines “barely” offers protection against the delta variant of the virus that is spreading around the globe. Two doses provide significant protection.

If that sounds familiar, it may be because American researchers reported similar findings on Wednesday that the approved vaccines are effective even against the variant versions of the virus.

What would encourage people to get vaccinated?

Heidi Russell of Aurora, Colo., takes the facsimile of her check after a news conference Wednesday, July 7, 2021, to introduce the woman as the fifth and final $1-million winner in the state’s vaccine lottery at the governor’s mansion in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Kaiser Family Foundation Vaccine Monitor, an ongoing survey that tracks American’s attitudes about vaccinations, has surfaced some specific ways that the government could encourage people who have not gotten COVID-19 vaccinations to take the shots.

Just telling people to get vaccinated is getting us nowhere. This survey instead identifies some actionable ways to increase vaccinations.

Get full FDA approval for the vaccines: Somewhere between 30% to 50% of the “wait and see” group of people who have not gotten vaccinated say they would be “more likely” to do so if the Food and Drug Administration would move at least one of the vaccines from “emergency use” to full FDA approval.

A growing chorus of experts is saying it is time, maybe past time, for the FDA to do this. HealthLine reports:

Dr. Eric J. Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at the Scripps Research Translational Institute, wrote in a recent New York Times opinion article that given the months of data now available, the FDA should move quickly to grant full approval of the mRNA vaccines.

“Few if any biologics (vaccines, antibodies, molecules) have had their safety and efficacy scrutinized to this degree,” he wrote.

Pfizer and BioNTech as well as Moderna have already submitted applications for full approval of their vaccines — officially known as a Biologic License Application (BLA) — to the FDA on May 7, 2021, and June 1, 2021, respectively.

The FDA’s usual process is to take 30 days to make sure the submissions are complete, then up to six months to review the data. That might mean it is 2022 before the FDA grants full approval.

The difference between emergency approval and full approval is the amount of data behind them. Emergency approval was initially based on a few months of drug trials, but drug companies now have extensive databases of real-life use to show the FDA.

Employer requires/encourages shots: Kaiser’s survey found:

Two-thirds of employed adults say their employer has encouraged workers to get vaccinated and half say their employer provided them paid time off to get the vaccine or recover from side effects. Notably, workers who say their employer did either one of these things are more likely to report being vaccinated, even after controlling for other demographics, suggesting that more employers encouraging vaccination and offering paid time off could lead to higher vaccination rates among U.S. workers.

While half the public overall say employers should require their workers to get vaccinated, most workers do not want their own employer to require vaccination, including the vast majority of unvaccinated workers (92%) as well as four in ten workers who are already vaccinated (42%). About four in ten adults say employers should provide cash bonuses or other incentives to workers who get vaccinated, but just 12% of workers say their own employer has offered such an incentive.

Healthline reports a connection between FDA full approval and workplace mandates:

However, some employers may be waiting for the FDA to grant full approval before setting up their own vaccine mandate.

This includes the U.S. military, which has encouraged, but not required, its active-duty members to get vaccinated.

Partial vaccination rates in the military range from 58 percent for the Marine Corps to 77 percent for the Navy.

However, the military has suggested that once the vaccine is fully approved, it may make vaccination a “medical readiness requirement” for service members.

Even if federal employment law allows for vaccine mandates, businesses in certain states may have a harder time requiring their employees to be vaccinated.

Many states have introduced or passed laws restricting the use of employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates or proof of vaccination.

A big money lottery: Kaiser’s survey found a lot of reluctant Americans can be persuaded to get vaccinated if there is a million-dollar lottery for people who get the shots (like the one Illinois just awarded yesterday).

Olympics in a COVID-19 emergency

Japanese officials just imposed another emergency order that bans spectators from all Olympic events, which begin July 23. Japan has not had an explosive COVID-19 experience but has recorded 810,000 cases and 14,900 deaths. The country is now recording nearly a thousand new cases a day, which is close to the peak of the pandemic in May.

The bigger issue is that only 15% of the population has been vaccinated. Health officials feared that unless they took emergency action, Japan could see 2,000 new cases a day, which hospitals could not handle.

(Johns Hopkins)

KyodoNews reports, “The organizers will decide on how many spectators will be allowed at Paralympic venues after the Olympics close on Aug. 8. The Paralympics will take place between Aug. 24 and Sept. 5.”

Vehicle crashes increase in states that legalize marijuana — but that’s not the whole story

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety produced new data showing that when states legalize the retail sale of recreational marijuana, vehicle crashes rise. The data comes from California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. But, as the late-night TV commercial says, wait, there’s more. IIHS found:

However, the preliminary results of a separate IIHS study of injured drivers who visited emergency rooms in California, Colorado and Oregon showed that drivers who used marijuana alone were no more likely to be involved in crashes than drivers who hadn’t used the drug. That is consistent with a 2015 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that found that a positive test for marijuana was not associated with increased risk of being involved in a police-reported crash.

Driving simulator tests have shown that drivers who are high on marijuana react more slowly, find it harder to pay attention, have more difficulty maintaining their car’s position in the lane and make more errors when something goes wrong than they do when they’re sober. But such tests have also shown marijuana-impaired drivers are likely to drive at slower speeds, make fewer attempts to overtake and keep more distance between their vehicle and the one ahead of them.

And this new data is almost a replica of what a similar study found in 2018. The best guess is that legalizing pot is encouraging people to both drink and use cannabis, and that combination shows up in the data as really dangerous. AAA’s Traffic Safety Culture Index found:

These motorists identified as someone who consumed alcohol and used marijuana in the past 30 days, and in some cases, they may have used both at the same time. They also engage in various other dangerous driving behaviors far more than drivers who consume either just alcohol or abstain from either drinking alcohol or using marijuana. Compared to alcohol-only users, drivers who admitted to using both were more likely to report such behaviors as:

  • Speeding on residential streets (55%) vs. alcohol-only (35%)
  • Aggressive driving (52%) vs. alcohol-only (28%)
  • Intentional red-light running (48%) vs alcohol-only (32%)
  • Texting while driving (40%) vs. alcohol-only (21%)

Why would the Olympics care about marijuana?

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency nailed sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson for using pot and made her the second track star sanctioned for marijuana use. Kahmari Montgomery was also suspended in June. Richardson, as you probably know, will miss competing at the Olympics in Tokyo.

But why would marijuana, a depressant, be considered to be a performance-enhancing drug? What possible advantage could it offer? Why ban cannabis but not alcohol use? And, remember, Richardson’s drug test was taken at the Olympic trials being held in Oregon — one of nearly two dozen states that has legalized recreational cannabis use.

Slate explains it may have less to do with enhancement and more to do with appearance:

USADA’s page on marijuana explains that the drug is banned by the World Anti-Doping Association, whose rules USADA must follow, because it meets three criteria: “a) it poses a health risk to athletes b) it has the potential to enhance performance and c) it violates the spirit of sport.” Officially, a drug need only meet two of the three criteria to be banned, but USADA links to a 2011 WADA-sponsored paper that declares the drug meets all three criteria.

While that paper acknowledges that “cannabis is often portrayed as a substance that has detrimental effects on performance,” the researchers nonetheless speculate that the drug has the potential to enhance performance, based on research, survey responses from French university students, and “anecdotal evidence from blogs and drug hotlines.” For instance, one study “noted that athletes use cannabis for relief of anxiety and stress, and perhaps to reduce muscle spasm.” Athletes self-reporting to WADA’s hotline, the study says, describe marijuana “as a drug that has significant positive effects in sports, such as improvement of vision for goalkeepers and muscle relaxation.”

Slate also points to this:

But it is worth noting an academic paper, “Cannabis and the Health and Performance of the Elite Athlete,” published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine in 2018. The paper surveys research on the subject, which it notes is “scant.” “There is no evidence for cannabis use as a performance-enhancing drug,” conclude the paper’s five authors, who include a specialist in medical marijuana, several sports medicine practitioners, and Dr. Alan Vernec. Dr. Vernec’s day job? He’s the medical director of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

A note about condo associations

My piece yesterday about the pressures that condo associations are under right now because the first generation of condominiums is aging generated a question about a point I made that is worth clarifying. The question had to do with state laws in Florida and other states that require 80% approval from condo owners before a condo is sold. By that, I mean a condo building, not an individual unit, of course.

In Florida, the 80% rule was the result of the 2008 housing collapse, after which condo and homeowner boards found they did not have enough money to keep up with maintenance. They decided to sell out to developers that might want to turn the condos into apartments, for example.

During the condo boom pre-2008, apartment developers decided to turn apartments into condo buildings. Then, when the housing bust took hold, they wanted to turn units back into apartments. The concept of condo ownership is that owners share some common expenses, including repairs, and some decisions, like paint colors. So it does not work well when some units are apartments and some are condos.

At one time, it would have taken all of the individual owners to approve such a conversion or sale to a single building owner. But in some states, including Florida, the rules changed so one unit owner could not have the power to stop a deal.

Even at 80%, it is pretty difficult to sell an entire dilapidated condo building to a single buyer or convert it from a condo to an apartment. And yet, as more high-rises come to terms with the vitally important repairs that are overdue, they may have some tough decisions to make about whether owners want to pony up for repairs.

As I mentioned yesterday, Slate did a solid job explaining the pressures on condo boards these days.

Mortgage rates dropped — again

Did you see that mortgage rates dropped again yesterday?

(The Washington Post)

The latest data from Freddie Mac shows the 30-year fixed-rate average dropped to 2.90%. It was 2.98 percent a week ago and 3.03 percent a year ago.

Curiously, fewer people applied for mortgages last week. Possible reasons include:

  • There are fewer homes available to buy
  • The cost of houses that are available is too high.
  • People who wanted to refinance have done so already.

CNBC reminds us that there could be a lot more houses on the market pretty soon:

The nation’s mortgage servicers are gearing up for the biggest wave of delinquent loans since the subprime mortgage crisis, but this time they say they are ready.

The first wave of borrowers to enter the government’s coronavirus mortgage bailout program are entering their last possible quarter for relief, which means that come September they will either have to start paying, sell their homes or go into foreclosure.

Mortgage bailout programs, both government and private sector, launched at the start of the Covid pandemic. The government originally allowed borrowers to delay their monthly payments for up to a year. That was then extended to 18 months. Each quarter, borrowers must re-up.

How climate change is changing the Great Lakes — and what it means to others not on the ocean coasts

The shadow of the Willis Tower, left, falls on Lake Michigan and passing storm clouds as the setting sun lights up the Chicago skyline Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar)

For goodness sake, take some time to look at The New York Times’ piece on climate change and the Great Lakes. It is dang good reporting and cool interactive graphics rolled into one. Let me give you the flavor of the story with this passage, which focuses on Chicago:

“There are buildings just teetering on the edge of the lake. A few years ago, they had a beach. Now the water is lapping at their foundations,” Josh Ellis, a former vice president of Chicago’s 87-year-old, nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council, said this year. “This is an existential problem for those neighborhoods and, ultimately, for the city.”

What is happening to Chicago’s 22 miles of shoreline is threatening 10,000 miles of Great Lakes shores. The story warns that ocean levels rise slowly, but lakes are rising much faster.

There is something about this that reminds me of the stories about New Orleans’ failing pump system that the Times-Picayune published years ahead of Katrina.

We’ll be back Monday 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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