March 29, 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.

Rutgers University says students who want to come back to campus will have to prove that they have been vaccinated. It is the first university in the country to require vaccinations. Others may be on the verge of similar decisions.

NBC News includes this quote from Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities:

“I’m just starting to hear discussion about mandating vaccines, and everyone I’ve talked to has said that they are leaning in the direction of mandating vaccines not just with the students, but with faculty and staff, as well.”

Rutgers issued a statement on its new policy:

Students may request an exemption from vaccination for medical or religious reasons. Students enrolled in fully remote online degree programs and individuals participating in online-only continuing education programs will not be required to be vaccinated.

Interestingly, Rutgers, so far, will not require staff and faculty to be vaccinated.

There could be legal battles ahead. Look back at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance for these vaccines. They are currently approved for “emergency use,” meaning they are voluntary and under an “Emergency Use Authorization.” The CDC says people “have the option to accept or refuse the EUA product.”

Proof of vaccination cards are already a bit controversial. The governor of New Jersey recently suggested you may need to show your vaccination card in the future in order to board a plane or attend a sporting event and came under fire from people who said the decision to get a vaccination should be a private one.

NBC News reports:

A spokesperson for the University of California president’s office said that “at this time, we do not anticipate making the Covid-19 vaccines mandatory.” The University of Notre Dame said “no decision has been made” about a mandate for students returning in the fall. The University of Michigan won’t require vaccinations for students “at this time.” At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, vaccinations aren’t required “at this time.”

How can schools require vaccinations?

Can schools require vaccinations? For starters, if it is a state school or a public school, yes — the state can require a COVID-19 vaccine just as all 50 states require vaccines for other diseases such as polio and measles. The legal basis for this goes back more than 100 years when the issue was smallpox vaccinations.

It would likely take three steps for states to require COVID-19 vaccinations for students. First, the vaccines would have to be approved for people under age 18. Then the CDC would have to list COVID-19 vaccines on its list of recommended childhood immunizations. The third step would be for state legislatures to vote on the matter.

Researchers at Yale point out that almost every state carves out exemptions:

Religious and other exemptions to mandatory vaccination laws are not required by the U.S. Constitution. However, since 100 percent immunization rates are not needed to achieve herd immunity, most state governments have chosen to exempt certain individuals from their mandatory vaccination requirements, believing that communities can obtain herd immunity even if such individuals do not become immunized.

Most notably, 48 out of 50 states have exempted those whose religious beliefs forbid vaccination. Eighteen states also have made the more controversial decision to exempt individuals who claim to possess non-religious cultural or philosophical objections to vaccines, which in some states are granted merely by checking one box on a simple form.

The University of Miami listened to experts around the country on the wisdom of requiring vaccines and heard:

Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean and distinguished professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, said he preferred “a more carrot rather than stick approach.” He suggested students, and the public in general, could be enticed with special privileges or incentives, rather than mandates. For example, he said, students who don’t get vaccinated could be barred from taking certain large classes or attending special events. A university’s health insurance programs also could offer discounted rates to those who are vaccinated—much like they charge extra to cover smokers.

“There are ways to encourage rather than mandate,” del Rio said.

As an example of what that would look like, NBC News reports:

Dickinson State University in North Dakota has a plan to encourage students to get their Covid-19 vaccinations: Students who have been fully vaccinated will receive a pin or a bracelet that will exempt them from the campus-wide mask mandate, university administrators announced this week.

Who else is considering ‘required’ COVID-19 vaccinations?

In Massachusetts, Hebrew SeniorLife, one of the biggest senior care operators in the state, is making plans to require new employees to be vaccinated.

The state’s attorney general suggested last week that state police and prison workers “should be expected” to get vaccinated. The Boston Globe reports:

“(If) you’re going to sign up for public work, and receive a paycheck from the taxpayers of this state who have sacrificed and lost so much … (and) you can’t get a vaccination? It’s irresponsible,” (Massachusetts Attorney General Maura) Healey said on GBH’s Boston Public Radio, while acknowledging that some may have health conditions that prevent them from getting the shots.

The Globe reported last week that 30 percent of the State Police’s 2,850 employees haven’t been vaccinated at department-run clinics, though department officials said they know that some booked appointments elsewhere. And more than half of Department of Correction employees have refused the state’s offer to get the COVID-19 vaccine at work.

Now, a Globe survey of nearly two dozen of the state’s largest police, fire, and emergency medical departments shows swaths of others declining to get the shots through their employers. Roughly 54 percent of Boston police employees booked vaccinations through the department, though its medical staff estimates another 20 percent sought doses at other clinics, based on an informal department survey.

Will younger people voluntarily get vaccines?

Evidence is building that younger people may not be opposed to taking the vaccine, they just don’t see much urgency.

West Virginia is about to launch a vaccination campaign focused on people ages 16 to 29. An Associated Press story explains why:

Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar, said younger and older people are turning up sicker at hospitals, which he attributed to variants of the coronavirus circulating. The number of coronavirus patients has increased 40% in under two weeks to 212 people.

The state has approximately 24 confirmed cases of the UK coronavirus variant, according to state health officer Dr. Ayne Amjad. It is one of the variants spreading in the United States that researchers believe may spread more easily.

“We’ve absolutely got a transmission issue that we need to jump back on and cut this thing off at its knees,” Justice said.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel says it “talked with more than three dozen young adults visiting or living in South Florida, attending college, or on Spring Break. While a handful said they would get the vaccine if it were convenient, most weigh the risk and reject vaccination — at least for now. Many are taking a wait-and-see approach while they live their close-to-normal lives.”

Will there be vaccine passports?

Various reports are coming out of the Biden White House that the administration is thinking through whether it can create a sort of “vaccine passport” that would allow travelers to enter and leave other countries. The goal is to make the passports electronic. Other countries are already working on similar plans.

There are lots of challenges ahead, including privacy concerns and how to create verifiable information from all of the states that other countries would honor.

More ‘breakthrough’ cases reported but not fully understood

In the last few days, we have seen a growing number of stories about breakthrough cases in which a person was “fully vaccinated” and still tested positive for COVID-19. In Minnesota, where they have “fully vaccinated” (meaning two shots plus 14 days) about 800,000 people, there are about 89 reported “breakthrough” cases. Of those, 30 had some COVID-19 symptoms and none were severe. None of the 89 has been hospitalized. The breakthrough cases represent about .1% of the people who have been vaccinated, or about one in 9,000 vaccinated people.

The CDC is tracking these so-called breakthrough cases to see if they have anything in common.

Could it be, for example, that the person got infected just before being vaccinated, or just after they got their shot, before the vaccine could build antibodies?

If researchers found a bunch of people who got infected after they got their second shot on the same day, they might suspect a tainted or mishandled batch of vaccines. So far, they have not found any such cluster anywhere in the country.

The Atlantic does a nice job explaining breakthrough cases, which are not unexpected. But do keep in mind that they are very rare and even when they happen, they have not been nearly as severe.

Here is a new phrase for you to learn: “variant of high consequence.” That is CDC-speak for something that happened in the vaccination process that made the vaccine less effective. See if you can work that phrase into casual conversation today. It will be our little joke.

Significant study on vaccines and pregnant women

(AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)

According to a pre-print study (meaning it has not been peer-reviewed) in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are safe for pregnant women. It is the largest study of its kind. It would be very good news considering tens of thousands of pregnant women have already been vaccinated.

The times in which we live: Sales of beer, boats and pet supplies are up, flu meds and lipstick sales are down

Maybe it is where boredom meets stimulus checks, but we are buying TVs like crazy and snapping up potted plants and pet supplies. As you might have guessed, with so many people wearing masks and staying home, the cold and flu season came in way less than normal, so drug store chains say they sold a lot less over-the-counter medications.

The decline in flu-season sales is so sharp that Wall Street stepped back from big pharmacy chain stocks. Barrons reports:

Rite Aid reported a 5.6% decline in fiscal fourth-quarter front-of-store sales, driven by an almost 37% slump in nonprescription medications for coughs, colds, and the flu.

MarketWatch provides a couple of interesting charts of how we spent our money a year ago and what we are buying now:

(MarketWatch)

(MarketWatch)

Mexico’s hidden COVID-19 death toll

In this March 17, 2021 file photo, family members attend the burial service of a relative who died from COVID-19 in the Chalco cemetery just outside Mexico City, amid the new coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File)

Reuters says, based on government data, Mexico’s actual COVID-19 death toll might be 60% higher than the 182,301 confirmed COVID-19 deaths the government has reported. The real number of deaths “associated with” the virus most likely tops a quarter of a million.

Stuck in Mexico with COVID-19

The story above is directly related to the harrowing stories that Americans tell about traveling to Mexico for a vacation, then getting stuck there after testing positive. USA Today explains:

Travelers don’t need a COVID test to fly to Mexico, but they can’t board a flight back to the United States from the country or any international destination without showing a negative test taken no more than three days before departure or proof of recovery from COVID.

Test positive, and you can’t fly home until you are cleared by a doctor or provide proof of a negative test. Hotel and airline interpretations of the CDC rules vary, but travelers who’ve been stuck say they were told between 10 and 14 days in isolation.

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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