October 25, 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.

True breakthroughs are rare in the world of medicine. We tend to learn things in tiny pieces at a time. In that vein, this discovery could be useful. A new study found that pregnant women carrying baby boys have fewer coronavirus antibodies than those carrying girls.

“So what?” you may ask. The finding may help scientists discover why male immune systems react differently from those of females. As always, keep in mind this is a small study sample of 38 women who were infected with COVID-19 during pregnancy. When the babies were born, scientists noted “striking differences” in “placental transfer of antibodies to male and female infants.” That means girls born to COVID-infected mothers tended to have significantly more antibodies at birth.

Also interesting, the women themselves were affected. The women carrying boys had fewer antibodies than the women who gave birth to girls.

Yahoo News explains:

“There’s obviously some crosstalk that’s happening between the fetus and mother’s immune system,” Andrea Edlow, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital who co-led the study, told Insider.

The findings may hint at broader differences in how men and women respond to COVID-19. Male fetuses seemed to develop an inflammatory response to the virus that wasn’t detected among female fetuses. Edlow said that inflammation may be interfering with a mother’s ability to pass coronavirus antibodies to her unborn baby boy.

This is a clue, not an answer, about why COVID-19 seems to affect men more severely than women. Our very response to the COVID-19 virus may begin before birth. Yahoo continues:

Indeed, men represent the majority of COVID-19 deaths in the US (54%), despite making up the minority of recorded COVID-19 cases (48%). This pattern holds true across multiple age groups.

“There is a lot that has been written about how the male fetus — and maybe this extends later into male life — lives dangerously on the edge of inflammation, sort of skating by with just the right amount,” Edlow said.

“I don’t think that can fully explain the sex bias in COVID,” she added, “but it does give us some hints into male immunity in general that starts in utero.”

COVID sends Russia into lockdown, Australia opens up, Britain worries. What does this mean to Americans?

An aerial view shows fresh graves at the Yastrebkovskoe cemetery, which serves as one of the burial grounds for those who died of the coronavirus, outside in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov)

I know that most journalists reading this column work in local and national news, so I want to explain why I am pushing you to stay attuned to how COVID-19 is affecting other countries.

Pandemics force countries to think outside of their isolation and understand viruses do not recognize borders. If we have learned nothing else in the last nearly two years, we have learned that we can predict what is heading to America’s shores by watching what unfolds in Europe and Asia — and there is plenty to pay attention to this week.

Moscow’s mayor is ordering all unvaccinated persons over age 60 to stay home for four months. Read that again, four MONTHS. In addition, Moscow just ordered a 10-day lockdown for everyone. From Oct. 30 to Nov. 7, the entire country will observe “non-working days” so people can stay home.  Less than half of the country is vaccinated and Russia is only allowing Russian-made vaccines, not any of the Western vaccines that have proven to be effective and safe.

(Moscow Times)

Over the weekend, the British medical world kept up loud criticism of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s reluctance to order new requirements for vaccinations and social distancing as that country’s infection rate spikes for a third time.

Australia is now lifting some restrictions. Melbourne media call what they have been through “the world’s longest lockdown” and 70% of the population is fully vaccinated. The country is lifting lockdown rules even while the number of new cases is near record highs and expected to grow when people start moving around again. But the tiny downward movement in the last week was enough to encourage leaders to say “enough.”

(CNN)

CNN explains:

Victoria’s 6.7 million residents can now leave their homes for any reason, though they’ll need to show proof of full vaccination to enter public venues. Restaurants can cater for limited numbers of diners indoors, students are back in schools, and there’s no longer a 9 p.m. curfew in Melbourne.

However, stores selling non-essential goods won’t open until 80% of the state is double vaccinated and masks are required inside and out.

Still, the end of the lockdown is a huge relief for Melbourne residents who have spent more than 260 days confined to their homes, forbidden to leave except to buy groceries or other essential items, mostly in two long stretches from July to October, 2020 and August to October this year.

FDA considers vaccines for younger children this week

Tomorrow, the Food and Drug Administration advisory committee known as the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee meets to consider Pfizer’s application to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to children ages 5 to 11. The data that the committee got over the weekend says the vaccine is more than 90% effective at protecting children from symptomatic COVID-19.

Pfizer’s drug trials involved 2,250 children. No cases of the heart inflammation known as myocarditis were reported two months after the second vaccination, which was administered three weeks after the first.

As Pfizer puts it:

  • Although the mortality rate for COVID-19 in children is substantially lower than that in adults, COVID-19 was among the top 10 leading causes of death for children 5 to 14 years of age between January and May 2021 in the US.
  • There have been 1.8 million confirmed COVID-19 cases among children 5-12.
  • At least 143 of those children died of COVID-19 through October 14th, 2021.
  • 8,622 children have been hospitalized with COVID-19 through late September.
  • Some children so suffer from long-term effects, just as adults do.

If the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approve this pediatric vaccine, the White House plans to aggressively start the vaccination program focusing on doctor’s offices and pharmacies rather than big vaccination centers as have been used by adults.

Do you have to be boosted to be ‘fully vaccinated’ now?

The CDC may change its definition of “fully vaccinated” one day soon to include getting two doses of the vaccine and a follow-up booster shot. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the CDC may need to “update” its definition. The current definition of full vaccination is, “Fully vaccinated persons are those who are ≥14 days post-completion of the primary series of an FDA-authorized COVID-19 vaccine.”

The definition matters because of mandates that require people to be fully vaccinated to work some jobs or attend classes.

The easiest booster chart yet

After all of the conversations, studies and confusions, this may help the public understand the choices. The key message seems to be that all of the boosters work well. Go get one.

(CDC)

The chart does not say it, but the data shows that for people who got a Johnson & Johnson shot, a Moderna booster seems to generate the best defense.

Epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina summarizes:

After the primary Moderna series, there was equal benefit from either a Moderna or Pfizer booster. After the primary Pfizer series, the greatest benefit was from a Moderna booster. But Pfizer boosters generate antibodies too.

What is a ‘bomb cyclone?’

Rocks and vegetation cover Highway 70 following a landslide in the Dixie Fire zone on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021, in Plumas County, Calif. Heavy rains blanketing Northern California created slide and flood hazards in land scorched during last summer’s wildfires. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Weathercasters used phrases like “bomb cyclone” and “atmospheric rivers” to describe the heavy rain that washed over the West Coast this weekend and will unfold much of this week across the country. These conditions are not as rare as they might seem, but the names are scary, so we probably should avoid them, or at minimum explain them.

Atmospheric rivers refer to a concentrated plume of moisture that extends over the ocean, typically in the troposphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere. Accuweather said, “An atmospheric river is almost like a firehose of moisture in the sky and is capable of unleashing intense rain and mountain snow.”

Bomb cyclones are formed by rapid atmospheric pressures that push the atmospheric rivers down. In other words, a bomb cyclone is simply a storm that gets very strong very quickly.

To qualify as a bomb cyclone, the barometric pressure must drop by at least 24 millibars in 24 hours. Generally, this happens when warm air meets cold air and, just as happens when tornadoes form, the mixture of the air temperatures start a circulation, which creates a sort of cyclone when coupled with the earth’s movement. Bomb cyclones may also be described as “bombogenesis.”

Bomb cyclones usually only occur on the coasts, where warm water mixes with suddenly cool air. That’s why most bomb cyclones happen in winter when Arctic air pours in from Canada. As climate change warms water, it may happen more often. Most bomb cyclones occur from October to March.

You may hear the words bomb cyclone mixed with the word Nor’Easter. And now you know why. The Nor’Easter delivers the cold air to the warm water that creates the circulation that forces the rain/snow to fall.

Make no mistake, these can be powerful storms with the force of a tropical storm or small hurricane.

As CNN explains:

Fall is commonly considered a secondary peak season for severe weather in the US.

Large temperature swings associated with the changing seasons can help fuel severe weather development. Even though tornadoes can occur anytime of the year, fall typically experiences an uptick in activity as warm, humid air from the south interacts with increasingly more potent cold fronts from the north.

The Alec Baldwin ‘prop gun’ shooting is an opportunity to teach about gun safety

When I was about 12 years old, my 4-H camp gun range teacher, who was a former military drill instructor, shouted in unmistakable terms, “Never, NEVER point a gun at anything you do not intend to shoot. Assume every gun is loaded. Assume you will kill what you are aiming at.” He said it over and over.

That was more than 50 years ago, and I still remember his face, his name and his lesson. That is what the people on the set of the movie “Rust” learned last week when actor Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun that killed one person and wounded another.

That lesson from my youth was on my mind as I read the protocols that Hollywood uses for handling “prop guns.” Here it is, right out of the safety manual of the “Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee for the Motion Picture and Television Industry”:

(CSATF)

Yahoo does a first-rate job explaining how “blanks” are supposed to work and why even a blank round can be dangerous. The Daily Mail looks at the way that TV and movie production sets are supposed to handle weapon safety. An Associated Press report from 2016 revealed that between 1990 and 2016, at least 43 people died on sets in the U.S. and more than 150 had been left with life-altering injuries.

But the larger lesson may be to teach the public that accidental gun deaths claim hundreds of lives every year in America and about half of them are children.

These guidelines, again from the motion picture industry, are instructive to everyone:

(CSATF)

My point is if you are going to cover the Alec Baldwin story and the investigation of the shooting, make it matter to the audience by teaching the public something that might be useful in their own lives.

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,…
Al Tompkins

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