October 22, 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.

I do not understand the whole zodiac thing. I didn’t understand it in the ’70s and I do not understand it now — and I don’t want to. But, for some reason, the Salt Lake County Health Department looked at vaccine rates and found that a larger percentage of people born under the sign of Leo are vaccinated in that county.

The Salt Lake Tribune explains:

Right behind Salt Lake County’s Leos are those born under the idealistic sign of Aquarius (67% vaccinated), followed by the determined Aries and inquisitive Sagittarius.

Notably, three of the top four signs are elemental fire signs. “We are overachievers,” said Eason, an Aries.

Perfectionist Virgos were dismayed to find their vaccination rate only slightly higher than Scorpios, at 50%.

“Wow, I’m really disappointed in my fellow Virgos,” one Twitter user mused. “Honestly I expected better,” another replied.

Falling in the middle were the pleasure-seeking, take-it-or-leave-it Taurus, and the multifaceted but easily distracted Gemini, at 56% and 55%.

It might be a tad risky for a science-driven health department to wade into these waters, but maybe having a little fun will get people talking about vaccination rates. And that is a good thing.

The cleverest line in the Salt Lake Tribune story is at the end:

Disclosure: This article was written by a Scorpio and edited by a Virgo.

How dangerous is a new variant showing up in Russia and UK?

I mentioned yesterday that the Russian government is ordering people not to go to work for a week because of a rise in new COVID-19 cases. Now we are learning the infections involve a new variant of the virus called AY.4.2.

This new variant has already been detected in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, but only in fewer than a dozen cases so far. The delta variant is AY.4, so you can see the AY.4.2 is of the same lineage. AY.4 accounts for about 70% of the COVID-19 cases in the world today.

That variant is spreading in the United Kingdom, which has its highest infection rate since July. Some estimates say the AY.4.2 strain of the virus may be more transmissible than even the delta variant, which spread quickly in the United States this year. AY.4.2 has shown up in Israel, too.

The Guardian reports:

According to a briefing from the UK Health Security Agency, released on Friday, “a Delta sublineage newly designated as AY.4.2 is noted to be expanding in England”, with the body adding that the variant is being monitored and assessed.

The report states that in the week beginning 27 September — the last week for which complete sequencing data was available — AY.4.2 accounted for about 6% of sequenced coronavirus cases and is “on an increasing trajectory”.

AY.4.2 contains two mutations in its spike protein, called A222V and Y145H. The spike protein sits on the outside of the coronavirus and helps the virus to enter cells.

(The Guardian)

The Telegraph has a deep exploration into AY.4.2, including why it is different from other strains and why it may not lead to a big new spike in cases. The World Health Organization may soon elevate this variant to a status that puts it under closer watch around the world.

How vaccines protect against this and other variants is a key question. It will take months of drug trials to get conclusive answers.

Business Insider puts it this way:

Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on Twitter over the weekend that “we need urgent research” to figure out how much of a threat the new Delta descendant really poses.

It’s possible that AY.4.2 could turn out to be slightly more transmissible than other versions of the virus we’ve seen so far. But that’s no reason to panic.

“This is not a situation comparable to the emergence of Alpha and Delta that were far more transmissible (50 percent or more) than any strain in circulation at the time,” Professor Francois Balloux, Director of the University College London Genetics Institute, said Tuesday.

“Here we are dealing with a potential small increase in transmissibility that would not have a comparable impact on the pandemic.”

The new variant rose in Denmark and, at one point reached about 2% of new cases. Then, as quickly as it rose, it declined.

Why do chickenpox vaccines last a lifetime and COVID-19 vaccines don’t?

It is possible that we will need regular booster shots to protect us from COVID-19 and its variants for years to come. But why don’t COVID-19 boosters last longer?

For one thing, coronaviruses mutate four times faster than influenza viruses. So, we need boosters to keep up with variants.

And, The Jerusalem Post explains, our body’s antibodies decay over time.

Another reason we might need repeated shots is due to variants, or what is known in scientific terms as “antigenic drift.” If the virus is always changing, then our vaccines will need to be updated to protect against the latest threat.

Some viruses, such as polio, measles and mumps, do not change a lot, hence the vaccines continue to be effective. In contrast, influenza changes every year, so people receive a new flu vaccine to protect against it.

“The vaccine is the protection,” said Prof. Meital Gal Tanamy, head of the Molecular Virology Lab at Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Medicine. “The period of protection is dependent on the vaccine and the virus.”

Another reason we may need booster shots in the years to come is that we want this vaccine to prevent infections. If all we were trying to do is prevent serious infections, less robust immune protection might be enough and we might not need a booster.

Scientists know that if we waited longer between the first and second COVID-19 injection, we might not have needed a booster at all. But we had a need to quickly protect people in a pandemic, so time was not on our side.

Avoid hyperbole: Let’s report the stories about ‘food shortages’ accurately

Some dog and cat food brands have run low due to manufacturing supply issues and increased demand. Many other brands remain in stock. (STRF/STAR MAX/IPx)

When journalists report that there is a shortage of food at grocery stores, it can set off a chain reaction and overreaction that results in hoarding and even more shortages. It’s true that grocery stores and restaurants are seeing intermittent shortages in some supplies, but this is hardly a moment when grocery shelves are empty. Chicken tenders or pork products might occasionally run short, particular sizes of some products might be in tight supply some days and the supply of small turkeys may be limited this Thanksgiving — but there are lots of bigger ones.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says:

There are currently no nationwide shortages of food, although in some cases the inventory of certain foods at your grocery store might be temporarily low before stores can restock. Food production and manufacturing are widely dispersed throughout the U.S. and there are currently no wide-spread disruptions reported in the supply chain.

Bloomberg provides some examples that illustrate the spotty nature of short supplies:

In Denver, broken parts at the milk supplier’s plant affected shipments of half-pint cartons, on top of disruptions at one time or another in cereal, tortillas and juice. “We’ve been struggling with supply-chain issues with different items since school started,” said Theresa Hafner, the executive director of food services at Denver Public Schools. “It just continues to pop up. It’s like playing Whack-a-Mole.

In Chicago, Dill Pickle Food Co-Op ran out of certain dry goods because its two main distributors haven’t been sending orders in full in recent weeks.

“Early in the pandemic, panic buying was the cause of many of the out-of-stock situations that grocers experienced,” general manager I’Talia McCarthy said in an email to store owners this month. “Although the food industry was able to somewhat rebound, the sustained nature of the pandemic, combined with the slow pace of vaccination globally and the recent surge caused by the delta variant, have resurfaced the problem.”

The shortages aren’t as acute as they were earlier in the pandemic. At supermarkets, on-shelf availability has stabilized since dropping drastically in November last year, according to data from NielsenIQ.

There are lots of temporary problems behind these interruptions. In one case, a pork producer could not get enough Styrofoam trays to ship meat. In other cases, meat processors can’t get enough workers for production lines and trucking companies are trying to find drivers.

Around LA, the average gasoline price is $4.52 a gallon. In another town, more than $7

In this Friday, May 20, 2021, photo, a fuel truck driver checks the gasoline tank level at a United Oil gas station in Sunset Blvd., in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

KABC in Los Angeles says in the coastal California town of Gorda, gasoline prices hit a record $7.59 per gallon this week. The town is 40 miles from the next gas station and often has stratospheric prices. But even in Los Angeles, gas prices top $4.52 and are rising almost daily.

Southwest cuts flights to avoid more cancellations

Southwest Airlines says it is cutting its flights by about 8% until it can get a handle on staffing needs and not have hundreds of canceled or delayed flights, as it experienced recently.

American Airlines shows a pandemic profit thanks to federal funds

It may surprise you to know that American Airlines, which like other airlines got $900 million of federal dollars to make it through the pandemic, now says it made a sizeable profit last quarter. It would have posted a loss if it had not been for the federal bailout. In the next quarter, which includes holiday travel, American says it expects revenue to be down 20% compared to 2019 (pre-pandemic).

Is a TSA waiting line mess in the making?

If unvaccinated Transportation Security Administration workers were going to meet President Joe Biden’s deadline for federal workers to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22, they would have needed to have gotten one of the mRNA shots by now. If they are planning to get the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, they have until Nov. 8. Exact figures are difficult to come by but, according to the last report, 40% of TSA staff was not vaccinated with holiday travel now a matter of weeks away.

Hospital strikes reflect hospital COVID-19 strife

Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations is tracking 30 health care worker strikes across America. There have been 35 health care/hospital worker strikes nationwide this year:


Politico reports:

Health care workers who spoke with POLITICO say they had hoped to capitalize on the public goodwill they banked at the outset of the health crisis and seize this moment while demand for their services has never been higher. While they acknowledge they may incur public scorn for walking off the job in the middle of the pandemic, they say they have no choice but to exert what leverage they have.

Other health care workers didn’t strike, but quit in number never seen before. Politico built a chart to visualize the trend:


Is diet soda making you fat?

A new study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network says diet sodas may increase food cravings for some people, especially women and people who are obese. The study finds that drinks made with sucralose may stimulate the appetite. Other studies have shown that diet soda consumption is linked to weight gain.

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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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