July 12, 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.

A new wave of confusion set in over the last few days about whether there is an imminent need for a COVID-19 vaccine booster.

Pfizer started the confusion when it said it was working on a booster shot and will apply for approval within the next few weeks. Pfizer said it looks like people who took its vaccine will need a booster about six to 12 months after they got their second dose.

But the federal government was caught flat-footed by the announcement. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still saying the approved vaccines are working fine, even against the delta variant that has everyone concerned. The Department of Health and Human Services issued a direct enough statement saying, “Americans who have been fully vaccinated do not need a booster shot at this time.”

Today Pfizer will brief top U.S. experts about why it is so certain that booster shots might be needed. And why the Food and Drug Administration could get moving faster.

The Washington Post reported over the weekend:

Those invited to the upcoming briefing include Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health; Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration; David Kessler, chief science officer for the covid-19 response; and Vivek H. Murthy, the surgeon general. It is not yet clear who will attend. The meeting is scheduled for Monday, though that could change.

The people familiar with the meeting and others who described discussions about booster shots spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the issue. Several companies have regularly briefed U.S. officials on their data and findings throughout vaccine trials.

On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci said it was too soon for the government to recommend another shot but that it might be needed sometime. He sided with the CDC and FDA for pushing back against Pfizer’s more urgent call for a third shot.

By now, you are familiar with the process for approving vaccines. Pfizer would send its data and then go before the CDC panel called the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. That is the panel that recommends to the CDC, which recommends to the FDA that a drug is safe and effective.

Since, by now, the panel knows a lot about the vaccines that would be used, some key questions would be the focus of the next discussions. For one thing, the panel may find that only the most vulnerable people — such as senior citizens or people who are immune-compromised — may need a booster. The panel will also ask if it matters whether people got a Moderna or Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Some researchers say mixing the brands may offer an advantage.

There is a bit of urgency behind Pfizer’s request for approval. As you know, the process typically takes months, even in a pandemic. If the vaccines begin to wane after six months, for example, then the first seniors who were vaccinated would be needing a booster very soon. The United Kingdom is not waiting and is already making plans to start delivering boosters in September.

The Post explained:

Pfizer officials have begun to worry that data out of Israel showing declining effectiveness could cause some people to believe its vaccine is not effective. They have also grown concerned there could be outbreaks in nursing homes and among other vulnerable populations as the delta variant surges in the United States, and have worried about waiting too long to administer boosters, according to a person familiar with some of the discussions.

Some skeptical scientists say Pfizer may be motivated by the notion that it could sell hundreds of millions of more doses if it could convince everyone that we all need a booster shot. Quartz calculates:

Moderna’s forecast for sales of the first two doses of the vaccine was $18.4 billion for 2021, so the booster shot could add about $9 billion to that. Pfizer projected at least $15 billion in sales for 1 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses, so the booster would bring an additional $7.5 billion to the pharma giant.

Journalists, keep an eye on this development. I will, too. The federal government will face a huge challenge in messaging. If it approves a booster, there is a risk that it will send a signal to the unvaccinated population that the vaccine is not effective — which, of course, it is.

The delta variant also grows faster inside your body

Not only can the delta variant of the coronavirus transmit from person to person faster than other versions of the virus, but new research says it may grow faster inside the human body. NPR reports the details of the newest findings:

On average, people infected with the delta variant had about 1,000 times more copies of the virus in their respiratory tracts than those infected with the original strain of the coronavirus, the study reported.

In addition, after someone catches the delta variant, the person likely becomes infectious sooner. On average, it took about four days for the delta variant to reach detectable levels inside a person, compared with six days for the original coronavirus variant.

The FTC may abolish noncompete clauses for journalists and everyone else

On Friday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that got a lot of headlines because it takes aim at Big Tech, Big Mergers and maybe even Big Media. Biden is urging the Federal Trade Commission to get busy making it more difficult for employers to enforce noncompete clauses in employment contracts. The president’s order says:

(White House)

Noncompete contract clauses are fairly common among television journalists, especially for anchors, who are forbidden from leaving one station and going to the station across town after their contract expires. Other news organizations also impose noncompete agreements on workers, especially if they are higher-profile journalists.

TV journalists often find, after they have not had their contracts renewed or they have been laid off, that they cannot go on the air in the same market because of noncompete clauses. TV stations argue that they put a lot of money and effort into promoting their on-air talent and they have an interest in not seeing competitors benefit from that. Broadcasters in Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Utah, Washington and Washington, D.C., have been exempted from noncompete provisions.

This is far from just a media issue. Restaurants may want to discourage a chef from moving to the competition. Salons want to keep their star stylists.

The FTC estimates that “16 to 18 percent of workers in the United States are subject to a non-compete clause. Further, almost 14 percent of workers who earn less than $40,000 a year are parties to non-compete agreements.”

Indeed, the FTC cited Jimmy John’s, the sandwich store, which tried to enforce noncompete clauses on sandwich makers and forbade them from working at a restaurant within three miles of any Jimmy John’s in the country. The state of Illinois sued and stopped the practice. A dozen states prohibit the use of noncompete contracts with low-wage workers like fast-food restaurant workers.

FTC Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter gave other examples when she testified before an FTC workshop last year:

The examples of how non-competes affect people’s livelihoods and ability to earn a living go on and on.

  • A Florida security guard was blocked from working as a security guard in all of Florida, summer camp counselors couldn’t work for competing camps
  • An hourly laborer shoveling dirt for an environmental drilling company was prevented from seeking a higher paying job at competing firm
  • Low-level customer service employees at a check-cashing business were bound by non-competes
  • Coffee shop baristas couldn’t work for another coffee shop within a 10-mile radius for 18 months
  • Physicians are also increasingly being subject to non-competes, which means patients can lose their long-time and preferred doctors. According to one survey, approximately 45 percent of primary care physicians are subject to a restrictive covenant that prohibits them from taking patients to a new competing practice.

Yahoo Money explains:

Noncompete agreements prevent workers from going to a competitor or starting a competing business within a certain period after leaving their previous job. Between 36 million and 60 million private-sector workers were subject to noncompete agreements in 2019, according to estimates by the Economic Policy Institute.

“The only economic leverage that non-unionized workers have is the implicit threat that they could quit and go somewhere else,” Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, told Yahoo Money. “Noncompete agreements reduce wages. Your employer doesn’t have to pay you bigger wages if they know that you don’t have outside options.”

Limiting noncompete agreements or making them unenforceable — as Biden’s order sets out to do — may not be enough, according to Shierholz. Banning them instead would give workers more leverage, she said.

California, North Dakota and Oklahoma do not allow noncompete covenants. California not only bans noncompete contracts, it tells employers if they try to force workers to sign them, the workers may sue, even if the employer is not attempting to enforce the noncompete agreement.

The Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization found that noncompete contract clauses stop employees from looking for better pay or positions, even if the state in which they live takes a dim view of noncompete clauses. The threat of legal entanglement stops the employee from looking at other opportunities. For that reason, researchers say, employers often demand an employee to sign a noncompete document even though the state in which they work does not recognize noncompete clauses. The researchers say workers with noncompete clauses tend to stay in their jobs 11% longer and, when they do leave, most do not go to a competitor.

The report says, “Approximately 40% of respondents bound by non-competes — in both enforcing and nonenforcing states — report that a noncompete has been a factor in their declining a job offer from a competitor.”

Americans drank a lot more alcohol during the pandemic. Will that change?

Bottles of alcohol sit on the shelf behind the bar as Michael Neff, co-owner of the Cottonmouth Club, talks about the bar Tuesday, June 23, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Early on in the pandemic, surveys and sales data showed Americans were buying a lot more alcohol. Then surveys showed we were consuming what we bought, not just stocking up just in case. Axios points out:

Another survey conducted by the American Psychological Association this year found nearly one in four Americans reported drinking more specifically to combat pandemic-related stress, and a separate study found women had a greater increase in excessive drinking than men, to the point that their intake levels were almost equal.

It’s too early to know how the return to in-person socializing will affect drinking trends, though a number of states have moved to extend more liberal pandemic-era alcohol regulations like allowing bars to sell to-go cocktails.

The historical American pattern has been to binge — often during periods of social stress and dislocation, like the Industrial Revolution — and then abstain, which means we could be in for a turn away from the hard stuff.

Electric lawn equipment is replacing gas engines

I was skeptical that an electric chainsaw could fit my needs, having had gas-powered saws for my yard cleanups for decades. I am a convert. And I notice my neighbors increasingly are using battery-powered mowers, blowers and trimmers, too. It turns out, it is a movement.

The Washington Post reports, “The volume of electric-powered lawn equipment that North American manufacturers shipped jumped from about 9 million units in 2015 to over 16 million in 2020 — a leap of more than 75 percent in only five years. And during that time electric went from roughly 32 percent to 44 percent of the overall lawn equipment market.”

My motivation to change was keyed to how often I would struggle to start a gas motor after it sat unused for a while. But the larger shift is twofold. One motivator is noise and the other is related to pollution. The Post says:

A 2019 California Air Resources Board (CARB) survey found that more than half of household lawn and garden equipment in the state was already zero emissions. While that number is much lower (around 5 percent) for commercial landscapers, there are a number of all-electric companies across the country. Chris Regis, founder of the Florida-based lawn-care company Suntek, said he’s able to charge a premium for electric because his customers value the quiet, especially with more people at home during the pandemic.

Gas equipment is also dirty. According to CARB, operating a gas leaf blower for an hour can create as much smog-forming pollution as driving a Toyota Camry 1,100 miles. Department of Transportation data shows that in 2018 Americans consumed nearly 3 billion gallons of gasoline running lawn and garden equipment. That’s equivalent to the annual energy use of more than 3 million homes.

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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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