August 6, 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.

Yahoo News listened to the front-line restaurant and retail workers who say they dread having to put up with guff from customers who do not want to wear masks again and produced an interesting story.

These are the same people that we called “heroes” a year ago and whose employers kicked in a little extra pay … for some. Here are a couple of passages from the story:

A Massachusetts-based Walmart worker said enforcing mask mandates will be more difficult now that some people dropped masks over the summer and had a “taste of freedom.” Walmart recently said it would require vaccinations for corporate employees and reinstated mask-wearing for vaccinated associates in high-transmission areas.

“People are getting tired of contradicting information and uncertain levels of precaution toward minimizing the outbreak,” the Walmart worker said. This employee, along with several others, asked to remain anonymous so they could speak freely on the topic. Insider confirmed their identities.

An Ikea worker, based in California, said they don’t want to have to enforce mask-wearing, even though they support the practice. Ikea allowed vaccinated shoppers to remove masks in stores in May, and has not since changed that policy.

“I think having a mask mandate again will make those difficult customers elevate to new levels of rebellion and anger,” the worker said. “The first time around I was scared every time I told someone they had to wear a mask because I wasn’t sure if they would comply, or if they would cuss at me and spit at me.”

Churches are in a bind, too. They hoped to get people back in the pews, but now they are getting blowback from parishioners who don’t want to wear masks again. Chris Davis, a Southern Baptist pastor in Fairfax County, Virginia, told The Washington Post, “We’ve had people visit and scream at us because they say we’re trusting masks and not Jesus but then they just don’t come back.”

Outdoor superspreader suspicions

A general view of the crowd on day two of the Lollapalooza music festival on Friday, July 30, 2021, at Grant Park in Chicago. (Photo by Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP)

The health commissioner for the city of Milwaukee says the 100,000 Bucks fans gathered to watch their team win the NBA championship may have spread COVID-19 to at least 500 people. Commissioner Kirsten Johnson is encouraging anyone who attended the Deer District party to get tested for COVID-19. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that there are likely many more cases linked to the gathering.

One local health department in Illinois is asking everyone who attended Lollapalooza in Chicago to get tested. 385,000 people gathered there for the four-day event. The Chicago Tribune reports cases in the region are rising fast but that it will be a while before we know what extent the music event was at the center of the newest spread:

Festivalgoers were required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within the previous three days, and city officials said more than 90% of attendees were vaccinated, though there were some reports of people being waved without a thorough document check.

And in Sturgis, South Dakota, everyone expects the motorcycle rally that starts today to be even bigger than the superspreader event there last year.

NPR reports:

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally’s defenders argue open air is plentiful on the meandering highways and in the campgrounds where many bikers stay, but contact tracers last year reported 649 virus cases from every corner of the country linked to the rally, including one death. A team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded in a published study that the 2020 rally “had many characteristics of a superspreading event.”

Amazon delays return to office until 2022

Amazon hoped to have 60,000 workers back in the office next month but now it will be at least Jan. 3. The Seattle Times says:

Unlike crosstown rival Microsoft, Amazon will not mandate employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine before they return to the office. The Redmond-based software company announced earlier this week that it was pushing back its office reopening to October and will require employees to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus to enter the company’s U.S. offices and other worksites.

Likely today, the US military will require vaccinations. This affects 1.3 million people. Some bases require masks.

In this Dec. 16, 2020, file photo, Staff Sgt. Travis Snyder, left, receives the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine given at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, south of Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

As soon as today, the Pentagon will announce that COVID-19 vaccines are mandatory for members of the military. CNN and Fox News say Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will seek authority from President Joe Biden to mandate vaccines and then will announce the decision.

About 64% of active-duty forces are fully vaccinated.

Rear. Adm. Bruce Gillingham, the Navy surgeon general, said he favors a mandate. “We are seeing an uptick in cases that mirrors what we’re seeing nationally. And it makes sense to me that since we have such a safe and effective tool against the virus in general that we do move out as quickly as possible to make it mandatory.”

Military.com reports:

  • Most U.S. bases are reverting back to mask mandates, including Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Carson, Colorado; and Fort Hood and Fort Bliss in Texas. All of those installations are in parts of the country the CDC has identified as having high risk of COVID-19 transmissions and death, which includes all states where the rate of vaccination is below the national average.
  • In Texas, which is home to Fort Bliss and Fort Hood, at least 239 people have died from COVID-19 in the past week, according to CDC data. Fort Hood is mostly in Coryell County, where only 37% of the population has received one dose of the vaccine, far below the national average. As of Monday, 57% of the U.S. has received at least one dose.
  • Fort Bragg, North Carolina, one of the Army‘s largest bases and home of the 82nd Airborne Division, implemented a strict mask policy for all civilians and service members, regardless of vaccination status, in all the installation’s buildings, including gyms and childcare centers.

The proportion varies across military services. 77% of the Navy, 70% of the Army, 61% of the Air Force and 58% of the Marine Corps is vaccinated.

Members of the military already must take other vaccines, but all of those required shots were fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration, while the COVID-19 vaccine is still under “emergency use.” The Atlantic explains why, to order the military to be vaccinated, the DOD must first get a presidential order:

More than a dozen vaccines are mandatory for service men and women, including annual flu shots. Those who decline to be vaccinated for COVID-19 face no penalties, but they remain responsible for their duties and deployments. As the journalist and Navy veteran Andrew McCormick has pointed out, the leaders of a hierarchical organization have been left pleading with subordinates to follow their example.

So far, the Pentagon hasn’t required service members to be vaccinated because the vaccines have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration only under an emergency-use authorization. Service men and women have to give their “informed consent” to receiving a medical intervention that has not yet received full approval. Removing that legal requirement would take a presidential waiver. And Biden has previously said he did not believe that COVID-19 vaccines should be mandatory for anyone.

The federal law prohibiting mandatory military vaccination before full FDA approval is designed to prevent the military from being used as a test bed for medical treatments before their use in the general population. In the current situation, though, civilians are already being vaccinated, so the military isn’t being asked to do something to prove the case for general use. Moreover, the operational readiness of military units would be compromised by coronavirus outbreaks. Finally, many service men and women live among civilian communities and could be vectors for spread of the disease.

Why people who have had COVID still need vaccinations

New research that followed 254 people who were infected with COVID-19 found that some emerged from their bout with the virus with “durable and broad-based immune responses” for up to eight months after they were first infected. That is a pretty strong argument that people who do not want to take the vaccines often use for their position. You can read the research here. But do not stop there.

The single best reason that researchers make about why previously infected people should still be vaccinated is that so-called natural immunity that comes from having been infected acts differently in different people.

Some people’s immune response is strong even after a mild COVID-19 case. For other people, the response quickly fades. On the other hand, vaccines provide a strong immune response nearly universally. We do not know yet exactly how long protection lasts, but the first test patients are still showing strong immunity a year after their doses were administered.

How is a vaccine different from natural immunity? Let’s turn to National Geographic. The key is how an antibody attaches to a virus protein.

The researchers found that both groups generated antibodies that targeted the receptor binding domain, or RBD. As its name suggests, this part of the SARS-COV-2 virus helps it stick to and ultimately gain entry to human cells, causing an infection. If antibodies attach to the RBD instead, they can neutralize the virus.

The research revealed that the antibodies of recovered COVID-19 patients stuck mostly to an area of the RBD that includes the site E484—a portion of the virus that has mutated in some variants. By contrast, the antibodies in vaccinated people bound more broadly across the domain, allowing them to target areas that are still present in some variants, including Beta, Gamma, and Delta.

In short, the vaccines target the RBD and, as a result, produce a more robust immunity.

It makes sense that people would believe in natural immunity. After all, people who catch chickenpox almost never get reinfected. Still, it makes sense to get the chickenpox vaccine since that childhood disease once sent 10,000 children a year to hospitals.

I started researching this after Sean Hannity said on his Fox News show Wednesday night that the Cleveland Clinic says you do not need a COVID-19 vaccine if you have been infected. As you might expect, it is not true. I clipped this from the Cleveland Clinic’s website.

(Cleveland Clinic)

Moderna now says we will need boosters this fall

Moderna told market analysts Thursday that, like Pfizer, it agrees that people who got its COVID-19 vaccine will need booster doses this fall. So far, the FDA has not agreed with that. Moderna says there is reason to believe that immunization drops six to eight months after the second dose is administered.

This is where we should also point out that this vaccine is Moderna’s first and only vaccine and that booster doses would be worth millions to the company.

Moderna says a first booster dose would probably be a half dose of the original shot but, in the future, there could be concoctions that are specifically made to fight off variants of the virus.

People are chasing unapproved third doses

San Francisco’s department of public health and Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital are allowing people who got the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to get a “supplemental” shot, even though the federal government is not recommending a booster dose to people who got any of the three approved COVID-19 vaccines. KGO TV reports:

San Francisco health officials were clear — they’re not recommending the extra dose, but rather accommodating special requests.

“In terms of a policy, the recommendation was to accommodate these individuals. How each individual entity does this is according to them,” said Dr. Naveena Bobba, Deputy Director of Health of SFDPH.

KGO explains why experts in that city do not call what they are administering booster shots:

“It’s not a booster because it’s not specific for some of the variants, which the booster ultimately will be,” said Dr. Chris Colwell, chief of emergency medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General.

“Potential benefit, no downside. To me, as we look at the future of this virus and now we’re facing a fourth surge, it does make sense,” he explained.

Stat has a story about how people are trying to make an end-run around government guidelines and score a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as a booster.

Some anxious patients are nonetheless trying to get them — either by asking a health care provider willing to prescribe an extra shot, or by lying about their earlier vaccination.

That puts the onus on hospital systems to make prescribing policies, on vaccination sites to check people’s vaccine records, and insurers to decide whether they will cover vaccines outside of the Food and Drug Administration’s authorization.

Many vaccination sites, including those at Walgreens and CVS, have explicit policies not to give additional shots to people who have been fully vaccinated. But they may not always be checking to ensure that that’s the case.

When patients arrive at vaccination sites, they usually have to fill out a consent form that asks whether they have been vaccinated before. In an ideal world, vaccinators would check the information on those forms against state vaccine registries to validate that patients are telling the truth.

The New York Times picked up on the story, too:

They are going to local pharmacies, other states or even other countries — anywhere where there is no record of them having been vaccinated — to get extra doses out of concern about the Delta variant or because they are worried their protection may be wearing off. The news on Thursday that Israel would give them to some older people seems likely to spur the trend.

“You can’t get enough, that’s my feeling,” said Ida Thompson, a retired geology professor who got a Pfizer shot a few weeks ago in the United States, months after receiving two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Britain. “Bring it on.”

It is still unclear whether anybody needs a third shot except for Pfizer and Moderna, both of which would stand to sell a lot of vaccines if governments change their recommendations to include boosters.

People who know a lot about vaccines worry that too much talk about booster shots might send a false signal that there is something lacking with the approved vaccines. But the latest polling from Kaiser Family Foundation shows most people do not see it that way:

(KFF)

Who is to blame for the newest COVID increase? The unvaxxed blame travelers.

Who is to blame for the current increase in COVID-19 cases? Axios and Ipsos asked that of people who have been vaccinated, people who have not and people who are thinking about it.

The vaxxed blame the unvaxxed, and the unvaxxed blame travelers. I do not know about you, but that is a new one for me.

(Axios-Ipsos)

The unvaccinated cited as their top five targets of blame people from other countries traveling to the U.S. (37%), mainstream media (27%), Americans traveling internationally (23%), Biden (21%) and the unvaccinated (10%).

The inside story of the Provincetown outbreak from a victim

Joel Rozen is a journalist and also is one of the hundreds of people who was part of the COVID-19 outbreak last month that alerted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the need to advise people to wear masks again when they are in crowds and indoors in highly infected areas.

For Slate, Rozen details how a gathering of gay men around July 4 on Cape Cod sent shockwaves among the celebrants. The contact tracing that the infected people provided allowed remarkable documentation of how the virus spreads among vaccinated people.

Here is a passage I found worthwhile:

Being in quarantine can be a lonely endeavor, and yet as I recuperated, I found myself part of a growing cohort of friends who were also in recovery from Provincetown. In my gay networks on social media, I kept hearing more and more stories: the guy who hadn’t left his bed since his return to Boston; the couple who had reported to the testing clinic in P-Town and been greeted by a long, long line. In two days, I could count on both hands the number of positive, vaccinated cases I’d heard of. In three, I estimated that I knew — no exaggeration — at least two dozen people, all vaccinated, all sick with COVID.

“What on earth?” I wondered aloud online, as we all contacted one another about new breakthrough cases and compared our symptoms at virtual book club meetings. What did it mean, I asked the contact tracer who called me two days after I first presented symptoms, that I’d come down with COVID and my partner, also vaccinated, hadn’t? For months, the CDC had advised us that breakthrough cases among the vaccinated were rare events, that even if sickened by delta, we should be only mildly symptomatic—“mild,” of course, losing its meaning when you can’t taste your food for more than a week. If I’d known the truth of how awful a breakthrough infection could be, I might have thought twice about hitting the cape in the first place.

Still, if being at the center of this latest chapter of the COVID story had chipped away at my trust in the CDC’s ever-evolving guidelines, it had also offered us gay men a glimpse of an important facet of our history, exemplified most powerfully in the legendary self-advocacy of ACT UP: playing armchair scientist when institutional and social knowledge isn’t there for us, when it breaks down.

Should athletes be allowed to wear ‘super shoes?’

One of the newest controversies in athletics is the Olympic debut of the Nike “super spikes” which is a spike shoe that track runners are praising while setting records. This is just the latest in an ongoing heated debate over athletic shoes that include a small piece of metal in them that adds a responsiveness that runners find helpful.

Others are talking about the very fast track at the Japan venue.

We’ll be back Monday 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,…
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