January 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.

President Joe Biden had just signed a bunch of executive orders on his first full day in office when Associated Press White House reporter Zeke Miller asked if a million vaccines a day and 100 million in the first 100 days is enough.

The exact question was, “Shouldn’t you set the goal higher? That’s basically where the U.S. is right now.”

Biden barked back “When I announced it, you all said it’s not possible. Come on, gimme a break, man! It’s a good start.” And everybody let it go at that.

But it is a legit question. On that very day, the country delivered about 1.6 million vaccines. The Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker says an average of 939,973 doses per day were administered over the last week.

That means President Biden’s new wartime aggressive battle goal to get people vaccinated is basically about the same speed as the program he inherited.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki later played an interesting math game, saying that under the Trump administration, about 17 million doses of vaccines were administered — for a rate of about 500,000 a day. But that includes all of the ramping up from zero a day to now.

(Bloomberg)

There is still a bit of fog around whether the goal is to get 100 million Americans fully vaccinated with two shots or to just get 100 million shots out there, which would protect 50 million people.

CNN puts the numbers in perspective:

In the past seven days, about 914,000 doses have been administered daily. If vaccination continues at this same rate, every adult in the US could be fully vaccinated by summer 2022, according to a CNN analysis.

If vaccination picks up to 1 million shots per day, in line with Biden’s promise, that timeline could bump up to spring 2022.

To fully vaccinate all adults in the US by the end of the year, the pace would have to increase to about 1.3 million doses administered per day.

Assuming three-quarters of US adults must be fully vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, the US could reach this threshold by February 2022 if vaccination continues at the same rate as the past seven days — about 914,000 doses administered daily, according to a CNN analysis.

If vaccination picks up to 1 million shots per day, herd immunity in the US could be reached by the end of 2021.

I am not expert enough to say whether a million vaccines a day is aggressive enough, or whether it is setting the bar intentionally low so the new president can claim a win. Either way, it is totally fair game for journalists to ask the question of a president who is not known for holding news conferences. Journalists have to get answers when they can, even in a photo-op scrum. Keep pressing for answers.

How accurate are the rapid COVID-19 tests? It depends on if you have symptoms.

A worker uses an Abbott ID Now rapid antigen testing machine for United Airlines passengers at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just published new data that found those rapid tests that produce results in 15 minutes are more useful if you have COVID-19 symptoms than if you do not. In fact, the CDC study says, rapid tests may miss two-thirds of COVID-19 cases among people who have no symptoms.

The study looked at 3,400 patients and used both the rapid test and the PCR test that takes a few days to get returns back. Even for people who had symptoms, the rapid tests missed almost four out of 10 cases that the slower testing system caught.

Abbott, which produces the rapid tests, said:

“BinaxNOW is great at finding infectious people,” the company said, pointing to the subset of positive participants, where the test identified 78.6% of people with culturable virus but no symptoms and 92.6% of people who were symptomatic.

The bottom line is that the inexpensive rapid tests that you can use in your home seem to be most useful for those who have symptoms and are most likely to infect other people. But just because a quick test does not come back positive does not mean you are negative. Think of it as you would think of a jury decision in a criminal court case. The jury does not find you to be “innocent,” but it might find you to be “not guilty.”

If you have symptoms and the quick test comes back negative, go get a PCR test to be certain.

How COVID-19 keeps people in prison longer

I have passed along innumerable stories about the pandemic’s spread through jails and prisons, and it just keeps getting worse. This is a different take on the story. When incarcerated people cannot work because prison industries close, they cannot earn early release work-credits.

Pew reports:

In at least half the states, incarcerated people can have time taken off their sentence by working, getting educational degrees or completing programs such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Sometimes programs or work are required as part of a sentence.

Several states have distributed time credits in other ways to make up for lost programs. California and New Jersey have even increased time credits because of the coronavirus.

As the pandemic stretches on, though, with some states hesitant to administer vaccines to incarcerated people before other groups, advocates say states could make better use of systems allowing “good time” credits to reduce prison populations.

“We are calling on states to, rather than letting good time fall to the wayside, take good time and leverage it,” said Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice think tank based in Northampton, Massachusetts. “First because it’s fair, and second because it will let more people get out of prison now.”

But the policies aren’t popular with some law enforcement officials and lawmakers, who argue incarcerated people should serve the sentence they’ve been dealt, COVID-19 risks or not.

Even though states and counties lowered their prison and jail populations early in the pandemic, counts started rising again starting late summer and early fall last year.

(Prison Policy Initiative)

You really should go look at your local jails and see their population trends since summer.

Keep in mind, the pandemic has increased in jails and prisons. Whatever reasons states and counties had for emptying lockups early in the pandemic are even more pressing now, but they have reversed policies. The Prison Policy Initiative says:

Since July, 77% of the jails in our sample had population increases, suggesting that the early reforms instituted to mitigate COVID-19 have largely been abandoned. For example, by mid-April, the Philadelphia city jail population reportedly dropped by more than 17% after city police suspended low-level arrests and judges released “certain nonviolent detainees” jailed for “low-level charges.” But on May 1st — as the pandemic raged on — the Philadelphia police force announced that they would resume arrests for property crimes, effectively reversing the earlier reduction efforts. Similarly, on July 10th, the sheriff of Jefferson County, Alabama, announced that the jail would limit admissions to only “violent felons that cannot make bond.”

That effort was quickly abandoned when the jail resumed normal admission operations just one week later. The increasing jail populations across the country suggest that after the first wave of responses to COVID-19, many local officials have allowed jail admissions to return to business as usual.

Like county jails, state and federal prisons drew down their populations and now are seeing the numbers rise again, although not yet as sharply as jails.

(Prison Policy Initiative)

Nobody wants to say ‘canceled’ when it comes to the 2021 Olympics, but …

A banner of Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games is seen though tree branches of Canoe Slalom Course, one of the venues of Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games, in Tokyo Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

The Times of London reported what others are whispering but won’t confirm: The Olympics in Japan this summer may be toast. Mark your calendars for March 25, which is probably the last day to make a go or no-go decision. COVID-19 cases are rising again in Japan, where there is a shortage of tests and where public opinion is running hotly against holding the games this summer.

(Johns Hopkins’ COVID-19 dashboard for Japan)

The International Olympic Committee is sort of saying “keep it moving, there is nothing to see here.”

Don’t you just feel for those athletes who have waited and sacrificed a lifetime for this opportunity? Several months ago, FiveThirtyEight crunched the figures on how many athletes in different sports only really get one shot at an Olympic appearance.

Let’s start with ‘where’ and ‘when’ to get shots

The Kaiser Family Foundation just released a study that found six out of 10 Americans have no idea where or when to get a COVID-19 vaccination. I am only surprised it is not a higher figure. Here are two findings that journalists might be able to help with:

Two-thirds of adults say they are confident that the COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. are being distributed fairly, including most Black adults (58%). However, about half of Black adults say they are “not too” or “not at all” confident that the vaccine distribution efforts are taking into account the needs of Black people (52%).

Majorities of the public who have not yet gotten vaccinated (94% of all adults) say they do not have enough information about when people like them will be able to get the vaccine (60%) and about where they will be able to get the vaccine (55%). Notably, about six in ten Black and Hispanic adults say they do not have enough information about where to get the vaccine, compared to about half of White adults who say the same. Among adults 65 and over — a group that has higher priority for the vaccine — about six in ten say they do not have enough information about when (58%) and where (59%) they will be able to get the vaccine.

(Kaiser Family Foundation)

Scientific American notes:

About 3% of Americans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine so far. But in 16 states that have released data by race, white residents are being vaccinated at significantly higher rates than Black residents, according to the analysis — in many cases two to three times higher.

If the rollout were reaching people of all races equally, the shares of people vaccinated whose race is known should loosely align with the demographics of health care workers. But in every state, Black Americans were significantly underrepresented among people vaccinated so far.

“My concern now is if we don’t vaccinate the population that’s highest-risk, we’re going to see even more disproportional deaths in Black and brown communities,” said Dr. Fola May, a UCLA physician and health equity researcher. “It breaks my heart.”

Mississippi state health officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs says when states who deliver more vaccines get rewarded with more supplies, it encourages the drugs to go to drive-thru mega-sites but not rural clinics. Even in cities, people with computer connections can book appointments while those who are not connected get left out.

By the way, one source you might consider is the National Medical Association. You likely know the American Medical Association but the NMA is the oldest and largest voice of Black physicians. NMA President Leon McDougle told me recently that his group is busy sharing data and information to people of color who distrust government health agencies.

Pay attention to COVID-19 cases among workers who make the economy run

When I read that 700 dockworkers in Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, have gotten COVID-19, it caught my attention. Port authorities say they have more cargo than skilled labor — not what the country needs right now to kickstart the economy.

You have similar stories to explore all over America, whether they involve railroads, warehouses, docks, ports, barge lines or trucking companies. As one expert explained, when we do not travel, we buy stuff, and that stuff moves through these shipping channels.

In 2020, lots of small trucking companies went bankrupt because of worker shortages, government restrictions on movement and low oil prices that meant fewer oil shipments.

Where do these workers fall on the list of priorities for vaccines in your state?

How a mild cold and flu season is costing jobs

My friend Jim Sweeney spotted this story for us. A Canadian lozenge plant in Prince Edward Island has laid off 30 workers, citing an “almost nonexistent” cold and cough season amid COVID-19 restrictions.

CTV reports:

Island Abbey Foods said Friday sales of its Honibe cough and cold lozenges have declined in 2021, forcing the Charlottetown company to cut 30 temporary positions from its production operation.

Measures aimed at curbing the pandemic such as masks, frequent hand washing, physical distancing and working from home appear to have lessened the prevalence of seasonal viruses.

The apparent drop in winter colds across the country seems to have weakened demand for medicine and natural remedies aimed at soothing sore throats and nasal congestion.

This story reminds me of a lesson I got early in my career when a guy called the newsroom screaming at me for saying something about a “bad winter storm” on the way. He said he was in the liquefied petroleum gas business and his business depended on cold weather. So, my “bad” was his “great.”

There is an old Paul Simon song, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor,” and so it is.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. 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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