October 18, 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.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its ACIP advisory committee will turn their attention to booster shots Thursday and Friday and the decisions that emerge will affect millions of Americans. There is a lot to discuss, including whether people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should get booster shots only two months after getting the first dose.

The Food and Drug Administration’s advisory group for vaccines said Friday that people who got the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine should get a booster two months later. FDA experts and advisers said the data shows the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is not effective enough as a single dose.

If people need a booster after only two months, that means the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a two-dose vaccine, not a one-dose shot with a booster. Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who serves on the FDA advisory board, said, “I think this frankly was always a two-dose vaccine.”

It is fair to ask whether the FDA should have moved faster to address how the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was not protecting people at the same level as the other two vaccines in use in the United States. But we have to remember that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine came online later than the others and the FDA paused its use briefly while it investigated whether the shot was causing unanticipated blood-clotting side effects.

That’s bad news for Johnson & Johnson, which counted on marketing its vaccine as a one-shot dose. But now, of course, it gets to sell a lot more vaccines.

By the way, an expert at The Marshall Project told me last week that many jails and prisons used the single-dose vaccine because it required half as much staff time to schedule as two doses. Journalists should ask how jails and prisons that used the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will make plans for second doses.

Here is an important point: Johnson & Johnson still claims its vaccine had 72% efficacy overall in the United States (compared to the 95% efficacy for  Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.) And Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine has proven to provide 85% protection against severe illness worldwide. So, by modern standards, it is still a very effective vaccine, just not as surprisingly effective as the two-dose mRNA shots.

Assuming the CDC agrees to go along with the FDA ruling, which it usually but not always does, the 15 million Americans who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could soon begin receiving boosters. Unlike the boosters for Pfizer, and likely for Moderna, the boosters for Johnson & Johnson recipients will likely be for everyone 18 and older, not just seniors or people who are vulnerable to the virus.

The CDC will also consider whether people who were vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine should get boosters. The best guess is the CDC will do what it did with the Pfizer vaccine and recommend the vaccine for seniors, people with compromised immunity and people who come in close contact with the public such as health care workers.

It will also consider whether people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should get a booster dose of one of the mRNA vaccines from Moderna or Pfizer. You can imagine that Johnson & Johnson is not happy about that idea because the other drugs are competitors. But the evidence, while still based on smallish studies, is making the experts lean toward recommending mixing booster and vaccine doses.

In small research projects so far, the people who originally got the Johnson & Johnson shot and later got a Moderna booster experienced a 76-fold increase in their antibody levels. A Pfizer booster to a Johnson & Johnson shot produced a 35-fold increase in antibody protection.

But the people who got a Johnson & Johnson shot then a second Johnson & Johnson booster got only a four-fold increase in antibody protection.

As we have learned over the last year and a half, the FDA and the CDC have different roles in the vaccine approval process and the advisory boards for each have proven to be independent thinkers who are not afraid to push back on both the government agency they are advising or the drug company asking for approval. And, at the end of all of this voting and debate, approval and rejection, the final decisions on how to treat vaccinations are up to state health departments.

Pandemic labor shortage gives unions and workers leverage

Workers from a Kellogg’s cereal plant picket along the main rail lines leading into the facility on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Omaha, Neb. Workers have gone on strike after a breakdown in contract talks with company management. (AP Photo/Grant Schulte).

How long has it been since we have seen union workers walking picket lines as we see now from a diversity of employers as wide as John Deere and Kellogg’s? Chicago police are not on strike but feel confident enough in their strength to resist the city’s COVID-19 vaccine order. Nurses are on strike in Pennsylvania, and hospital workers are striking in New York. As Bloomberg put it, “Unions are having a moment.”

The Baltimore Sun reports that union leaders are telling police not to disclose their vaccination status as the vaccination deadline approaches. In California, San Jose city leaders backed down from their mandate and now say unvaccinated officers are to remain employed through the end of the year, with incremental discipline and testing requirements.

The hashtag #striketober is catching on.

Unions have some leverage during a labor shortage to make demands they could not if there were lots of workers eager to step in.

NPR explores an emerging issue in labor talks called “two-tier” pay, in which new hires are paid significantly less and get fewer retirement benefits than people who do the same work but have been on the job longer.

Unions also are gaining some favor because union workers had greater job security during the layoffs early in the pandemic. Even museum workers in Philadelphia are eyeing unionizing because of the insecurity they have experienced during the pandemic.

The Hill put it this way:

Strikes have become less common amid declining union membership. In 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics identified just 11 major work stoppages that year, defined as strikes and lockouts involving 1,000 workers or more. Between 1950 and 1980, the U.S. saw an average of around 300 work stoppages per year.

Workers feel they have more leverage than they did in previous years, knowing that their employers will struggle to find replacements if they walk out given the nationwide labor shortage.

The U.S. had 10.4 million unfilled job openings as of August, according to a Labor Department analysis released Tuesday. That’s slightly down from a record high of 11 million in July.

In a recent interview with The Hill, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said workers are “fed up” with harsh working conditions and stagnant pay amid a pandemic that has worsened income inequality, leading them to demand better contracts.

(Gallup)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says around 11% of American workers are union members now compared to 20% in 1983. A third of government workers are unionized, versus about 6% of private-sector workers. BLS found that in 2020:

  • The highest unionization rates were among workers in protective service occupations (36.6 percent) and in education, training, and library occupations (35.9 percent).
  • Men continued to have a higher union membership rate (11.0 percent) than women (10.5 percent).
  • Black workers remained more likely to be union members than White, Asian, or Hispanic workers.
  • Nonunion workers had median weekly earnings that were 84 percent of earnings for workers who were union members ($958 versus $1,144).
  • Among states, Hawaii and New York continued to have the highest union membership rates (23.7 percent and 22.0 percent, respectively), while South Carolina and North Carolina continued to have the lowest (2.9 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively).

Gallup found:

Gallup’s initial reading of the public’s support for labor unions was 72% in 1936, at the advent of the modern U.S. organized labor movement, and approval peaked at 75% in 1953 and 1957. The lowest ratings to date have been recorded during particularly weak economic times. This includes the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s — when support fell below 60% for the first time — and 2009 through 2012, when it hovered around 50%.

Previous Gallup data have found that while Americans largely think unions help their own workers, they are less inclined to say they are helpful to the U.S. economy overall. As such, support for unions has been weaker during challenging economic times.

Americans’ continued high approval of unions may result from a current focus on issues other than the economy.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says:

Nine states had union membership rates below 5.0 percent in 2020.

South Carolina had the lowest rate (2.9 percent). The next lowest rates were in North Carolina and Utah (3.1 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively).

Two states had union membership rates over 20.0 percent in 2020: Hawaii (23.7 percent) and New York (22.0 percent).

Over half of the 14.3 million union members in the U.S. lived in just seven states (California, 2.4 million; New York, 1.7 million; Illinois and Pennsylvania, 0.7 million each; and Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio, 0.6 million each). However, these states accounted for about one-third of wage and salary employment nationally.

Foreclosures rising but still below pre-pandemic levels

You may be seeing headlines that foreclosures are rising. That is accurate in a lot of places. Foreclosure starts jumped 32% in the third quarter of this year from the second quarter and foreclosures are 67% higher now than a year ago, when there was a federal ban on foreclosures. (See foreclosure rates for all 50 states.)

But here is the rest of the story: Even though foreclosures are rising, the foreclosure rates are still lower today than they were before the pandemic.

As you look at the figures below from Attom Data, keep in mind that the cities and states with the most new foreclosures are also some of the most populous cities and states.

States with the largest number of new foreclosures were California (3,434), Texas (2,827), Florida (2,546), New York (1,363) and Illinois (1,362).

States with the highest foreclosure rates in September 2021 were Florida (one in every 3,276 housing units with a foreclosure filing), Illinois (one in every 3,508 housing units), Delaware (one in every 3,834 housing units); Nevada (one in every 4,009 housing units), and New Jersey (one in every 4,487 housing units).

Cities with the largest number of new foreclosures were New York City (1,456 foreclosure starts), Chicago (1,122 foreclosure starts), Los Angeles (1,102 foreclosure starts) Miami (992 foreclosure starts), and Houston (866 foreclosure starts).

CNBC reports:

“Despite the increased level of foreclosure activity in September, we’re still far below historically normal numbers,” said Rick Sharga, executive vice president at RealtyTrac, an ATTOM company.

September foreclosure actions were almost 70% lower than they were pre-pandemic. Total foreclosure activity is also still 60% lower than it was a year ago.

“Whether the increase is a prelude to a more serious problem, or just a return to normal levels of foreclosure is one of the bigger debates going on inside the industry right now,” said Sharga.

Large numbers of borrowers are now exiting forbearance programs. The biggest weekly decline so far came last week. The number of borrowers in bailout programs dropped 11% week to week, according to Black Knight, a mortgage data and analytics firm.

Put the latest numbers on a chart and you will see the big difference between today and what we might consider the “normal” foreclosure rates in the United States.

(Attom Data)

Some states allow foreclosures to move along must faster than others. Attom compiled those figures, too, but keep in mind the data includes the year and a half where federal, state and some local governments prohibited foreclosures.

States with the longest average foreclosure timelines for homes foreclosed in Q3 2021 were Hawaii (2,070 days), Nevada (1,989 days), Kansas (1,901 days), New York (1,659 days) and Washington (1,611 days).

States with the shortest average foreclosure timelines for homes foreclosed in Q3 2021 were Montana (94 days), Wyoming (102 days), Mississippi (133 days), Missouri (213 days) and Virginia (272 days).

I mentioned on Friday that almost all of the rental eviction moratoriums around the country have ended. A few states still have them in place. In the email version of this newsletter, I said the federal moratorium ended Friday, which is not correct. It ended with the Supreme Court decision a couple of months ago, but some states and cities still had their own moratoriums. Those are expiring one by one. But like the foreclosures, the predicted wave of evictions has mostly not happened as landlords stretch to find ways to hang on with renters until states release federal assistance funds.

Retail sales rebounding as people go back to offices

Retailers have something to be happy (or happier) about these days. As people slowly return to working in offices, retail sales picked up last month.

Some analysts expected the newest federal figures to show a decline in retail sales in September, but the number rose .7%. That means retail sales are up almost 15% from a year ago.

Not only is this good news for businesses and malls, it is good news for local governments that rely on sales taxes.

CNBC summarizes:

“Students heading back to school and workers returning to the office are likely the catalysts for the increased retail sales,” said Natalie Kotylar, national leader of BDO’s retail and consumer products practice. “People who are back to working in a downtown office may be taking more shopping trips on their lunch break or after work. With school back in session and many teens vaccinated, parents may also be more comfortable allowing their teens to take shopping trips to the mall.”

Sporting goods, music and bookstores led the way with a 3.7% increase.

General merchandise increased 2% while miscellaneous retailers rose 1.8%.

As gas prices pushed higher, spending at fuel stations jumped 1.8%, for a 38.2% surge over the past year.

Food and beverage spending increased 0.7%, though restaurants and bars saw a gain of just 0.3%, a sign that fears over the virus may have kept some people at home.

Food and drinking establishment spending is up 29.5% over the past year.

Retail sales might have gone even higher if people could find the stuff they want in stores. IKEA just announced that it expects shortages of some items into next year.

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,…
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