July 16, 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.

Poor record-keeping limits ‘breakthrough’ COVID-19 case documentation

As states cut back on their COVID-19 data collection and fail to document “breakthrough” cases, we are left to guess how often and where people are being infected. I have said this a few times and now it is becoming real.

Read deeper to let me explain why the phrase “breakthrough” may be a disservice to the public.

First, consider the case unfolding in Las Vegas, where the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports:

At least 11 employees of Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a party on June 7, according to Southern Nevada Health District emails obtained through records requests by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation’s Documenting COVID-19 project. The emails, which were shared with the Review-Journal, indicate that eight of the employees had been fully vaccinated in December and January, meaning that the virus had “broken through” the protection of inoculation.

Two other employees who were infected had received one dose of a double-dose vaccination. One was unvaccinated. At least 10 of the 11 had the delta variant, a more easily transmissible strain of the virus.

One question is whether the vaccines had been properly stored. But the hospital that administered them said there was no problem with storage. Was there something unique about this party that made transmission more possible?

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and some states have stopped gathering as much data as they once did. Again, the Las Vegas Journal-Review:

Beginning May 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped monitoring all reported vaccine breakthrough cases, focusing instead on those resulting in hospitalization or death. The state of Nevada and the health district, in turn, stopped reporting totals of identified cases.

However, in a June 22 email, a health district official told other agency officials there had been 471 identified breakthrough cases in Clark County, with 53 resulting in hospitalization and eight in death. In other words, there were nearly 10 times as many breakthrough cases identified as were publicly disclosed.

Nobody promised that there would be no breakthroughs. As WCVB explains, as with any vaccine — especially one protecting against a fast-changing virus — some fully vaccinated people will still get sick or become virus carriers. Remember, even in breakthrough cases, vaccinated patients are far less likely to become seriously ill.

The Atlantic raises the issue of whether using the word “breakthrough” is harmful to the public’s understanding. Because, really, these are expected infections:

The … thing to know about the COVID-19 vaccines is that they’re flame retardants, not impenetrable firewalls, when it comes to the coronavirus. Some vaccinated people are still getting infected, and a small subset of these individuals is still getting sick — and this is completely expected.

We’re really, really bad at communicating that second point, which is all about breakthroughs, a concept that has, not entirely accurately, become synonymous with vaccine failure. It’s a problem that goes far beyond semantics: Bungling the messaging around our shots’ astounding success has made it hard to convey the truly minimal risk that the vaccinated face, and the enormous gamble taken by those who eschew the jabs.

The CDC has a definition for “breakthrough cases.” And, the CDC says:

As of July 6, 2021, more than 157 million people in the United States had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

During the same time, CDC received reports from 48 U.S. states and territories of 5,186 patients with COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough infection who were hospitalized or died.


Keep in mind that the CDC no longer gathers “breakthrough” data unless the person ends up in the hospital. This means that it misses a lot of cases since we know from the data that most breakthrough cases do not result in sickness serious enough to send a person to the hospital. To get an idea of what the data looks like when all “breakthrough” cases are reported, look at the January through April data, before the CDC changed its rules. More than 10,000 cases were reported in that timeframe.

I like the way The Atlantic put all of this in perspective:

The overwhelming majority of the COVID-19 cases we’re seeing are among the unvaccinated. And when the virus does affect the immunized, it seems to accumulate to lower levels, and spread less enthusiastically to new hosts; it’s causing, on average, milder and more transient symptoms.

30% of ICE detainees refuse COVID-19 vaccines

Axios reports that one out of three people detained in U.S. detention centers is refusing a COVID-19 vaccination. Axios reports, “There have been nearly 20,000 COVID-19 cases and nine deaths among ICE detainees, according to agency data. There are currently more than 900 confirmed cases.”

Protests against mandatory vaccines

Earlier this week I told you about how France is forcing health care workers to be vaccinated or be fired. It is not going over well. Protestors and police faced off this week.

France plans to make vaccines or negative COVID-19 tests mandatory for anybody who wants to go to a shopping mall or eat inside at a restaurant or bar.

A one-decade warning: NASA says flooding will increase in the 2030s

A pedestrian makes his way down East Battery as a king tide rolls into the historic Battery causing flooding in Charleston, S.C. Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)

I am not sure that a country where more than a third of the population ignores near-certain prevention for a deadly virus will pay attention to this warning, but let’s give it a shot.

NASA says one decade from now, we will have persistent flooding even on dry days. Expect streets to flood in what are called “high-tide floods” or “nuisance floods” caused by the moon. The cause is actually known as “moon wobble.”

Coastal cities already know about these. In 2019, there were more than 600 lunar floods. As the lunar cycle comes back around in a decade and as tides rise, it will be worse, NASA says. I will post NASA’s prediction — if only so, a decade from now when Congress is holding an emergency session to explore why we did nothing to prevent it from happening, we can point back to it:

Why will cities on such widely separated coastlines begin to experience these higher rates of flooding at almost the same time? The main reason is a regular wobble in the Moon’s orbit that takes 18.6 years to complete. There’s nothing new or dangerous about the wobble; it was first reported in 1728. What’s new is how one of the wobble’s effects on the Moon’s gravitational pull — the main cause of Earth’s tides — will combine with rising sea levels resulting from the planet’s warming.

In half of the Moon’s 18.6-year cycle, Earth’s regular daily tides are suppressed: High tides are lower than normal, and low tides are higher than normal. In the other half of the cycle, tides are amplified: High tides get higher, and low tides get lower. Global sea level rise pushes high tides in only one direction — higher. So, half of the 18.6-year lunar cycle counteracts the effect of sea level rise on high tides, and the other half increases the effect.

The Moon is in the tide-amplifying part of its cycle now. However, along most U.S. coastlines, sea levels have not risen so much that even with this lunar assist, high tides regularly top flooding thresholds.

It will be a different story the next time the cycle comes around to amplify tides again, in the mid-2030s. Global sea level rise will have been at work for another decade. The higher seas, amplified by the lunar cycle, will cause a leap in flood numbers on almost all U.S. mainland coastlines, Hawaii, and Guam. Only far northern coastlines, including Alaska’s, will be spared for another decade or longer because these land areas are rising due to long-term geological processes.

For more, turn to the high-tide flood tool on NASA’s sea level portal, a resource for decision-makers and the general public. It will be updated again soon, NASA says.

The wait for a new passport is at least 18 weeks

Need a new passport? Be ready to wait four and a half months.

Two things contributed to the long lines to get new passports. During the pandemic, people had other things on their minds and certainly were not thinking about traveling. Many allowed their passports to lapse. At the same time, the State Department could not process passports at the usual rate during the pandemic because of office restrictions.

Now, it is taking weeks to get a new passport … unless you can navigate the State Department’s website to get an in-person appointment at one of a couple of dozen passport offices and land a passport the same day. There, you can apply for one of two kinds of passports.


This is where you can find the in-person centers. I suspect you could find some pretty desperate people showing up there.


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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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