July 28, 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.

Many of the most high-profile breakthrough cases involving Olympic athletes, vaccinated Texas lawmakers and vaccinated New York Yankees were detected by PCR tests.

These tests can detect minute amounts of the coronavirus; amounts so small that the carrier might feel nothing or have very mild symptoms. It is not nothing. It is still a virus, and it could spread fast and wide. But once you are vaccinated, your immunity is likely very high. The New York Times adds this clarity:

“You’re going to pick up on these low-grade infections, and the players are going to be quarantined and out of competition,” said John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. “And they’re probably not going to be ill, because they’re young, healthy athletes.”

It raises a real quandary of a question about whether we should be testing asymptomatic vaccinated people at all. I emphasize the word vaccinated here. The New York Times continues:

“Many places are still continuing to asymptomatically screen fully vaccinated individuals, which isn’t something that the C.D.C. guidance recommends,” said Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It lends itself to all of these kind of pseudo outbreaks that you might see with a bunch of asymptomatic infections.”

Testing remains vital for people who have symptoms of Covid-19, he noted. But it no longer makes sense for those who feel fine and have been fully vaccinated, particularly with one of “the big four” vaccines — Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson or AstraZeneca — for which there is the most data, he added.

It might be easier to decide whether to continue testing people who show no symptoms if we knew more about whether vaccinated people were likely to pass the virus along to others. It is one of the great unknowns at the moment.

While breakthrough cases get a lot of attention, they remain a tiny portion of new cases. Here is some new data. It does not give us a national picture, but it’s at least a peek into what Los Angeles County and San Diego are experiencing.

(County of Los Angeles, top, and San Diego Union-Tribune)

We need bus and truck drivers, but the wait list to get a commercial driver’s license is months long

Some people across the U.S. are waiting months to get commercial driver’s licenses. This is going to be a problem if states don’t find a remedy and fast. School systems need bus drivers, and bus drivers need commercial driver’s licenses, or CDLs. But, in Maryland, for example, you might have to wait until December if you try to get an appointment right now.

In Houston, the shortage of CDL drivers is significant enough that garbage truck workers can pocket a $3,000 signing bonus.

The great rental car shortage of 2021

People wait in line to rent vehicles at Miami International Airport Friday, May 28, 2021, in Miami. The shortage of rental vehicles will cause long delays and higher prices thought the summer. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

I am hearing stories as I travel about people who have reserved rental cars only to find empty lots and worthless reservation numbers. Rental car prices are, in some cases, double normal rates. You can easily pay $100 to $150 per day for an economy car.

Lots of people are traveling and rental car companies are short of inventory. In addition, car rental is not a precision business. Rental companies count on a certain number of people not to show up and also count on people to return cars when they say they will. When either estimate is off — and these days they are off pretty often — trouble begins.

I have seen stories from Hawaii to South Carolina about people who cannot find rental cars so they rent Hertz moving trucks instead. Rental car prices in some cases are six times higher than moving trucks.

Others are turning to Turo, which is like Airbnb for cars — you just rent the car from another person. Montana Public Radio tells the story of some people who bought several cars and rent them out to tourists:

Kalispell resident Tasha Powers put her 2019 Toyota Highlander on the car-sharing marketplace to help make some extra money for car payments.

“When I first listed it, I had inquiries, probably within 20 or 30 minutes. It was kind of crazy at the beginning. It’s kind of tapered off now. We’re basically booked through the middle of August,” Powers says.

So far in 2021, Glacier National Park is seeing a 22% increase in visitors over 2019.

Amanda Caldwell, a manager at Hertz/Thrifty car rental at Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell says visitors started arriving early this year during the traditional shoulder season in April. From morning to night her office has been getting around 50 calls per hour from visitors looking for a rental car.

NBC’s Today offers some alternatives:

Getaround: This peer-to-peer option lets you rent a car at an hourly rate and operates in more than 800 cities around the world. Users can book a vast array of vehicles through the Getaround app without meeting anyone in person or coordinating key pickups.

Avail: This service offers free cancellations and no charges for being under 25. As an added bonus, every trip includes full coverage from Allstate insurance, so you don’t have to worry about hidden insurance fees being tacked onto your bill.

Zipcar: Zipcar is available in plenty of cities across the country, including 600 university campuses. Members of the service can rent cars on demand at a daily or hourly rate and joining is easy (you just need a valid driver’s license).

Why you should have PCR tests on the shelf at home this winter

Dr. Michael Mina, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has been saying for months that we should rethink COVID-19 testing. Mina says noninvasive testing, such as sampling wastewater for the virus, seems like an obvious solution. And he told MarketWatch:

Thus far, we haven’t really had dynamic systems set up. They’ve all been like, we’re either doing testing or we’re not doing any testing. That’s just been a terrible, terrible mistake to look at testing in that way. If you have no cases in your community, then why test everyone in your community twice a week? And if you have a lot of cases in your community, then why not just test everyone every day for 10 days and rout it out of the community altogether?

In the future, that’s what we’ll see, hopefully. If cases start to happen in a school or in a workplace, then a workplace would have a stock of rapid tests. Instead of closing down, because we have an outbreak, we can just test everyone, every day for five days. At the end of five days, we will know that we’ve caught everyone that needed to be caught. And we would have routed out the outbreak. That’s this idea of “test to stay.”

Then you can say there’s an outbreak happening, but we don’t have to close the whole school down for a week. That’s extraordinarily damaging to societies when you do that kind of thing. We could keep it open and test everyone. The only reason we close whole things down during an outbreak is because we don’t know who’s positive. But if we do know who’s positive and who’s not, then we don’t have to close down. The next wave of cases that might happen in the fall and winter, it’s going to be “test to stay.” That’s my hope.

Mina says it makes more sense for people to have test kits at home. If somebody near them gets sick, then they can test themselves every day for a week to be sure they are not infected.

Mina gets a lot of ink. Here are a few deeper pieces that explore his notion about the smarter use of COVID-19 tests:

The latter is an especially deep and insightful piece.

To detect COVID early, test the sewers

Researchers of the Rio de Janeiro State University prepare an instrument to sample airborne sewage droplets for the presence of the new coronavirus at the Santa Marta slum, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, July 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Epidemiologists have known for years that wastewater-based surveillance could give them a jump on emerging epidemics. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven the technique to be effective.

One of the frontiers of using wastewater to detect COVID-19 is Guadalupe and Tempe, Arizona, where researchers first used wastewater monitoring to track the opioid epidemic. It was there, in sewage samples, that Arizona State University researchers found the virus moving through sewer lines, having passed through humans first.

Stat reports:

As the pandemic spread, hundreds of U.S. cities, states, prisons, universities, and private businesses leaped, sometimes clumsily, into wastewater surveillance. Federal investments in validating the science and building out a standardized national system followed. With vaccines driving SARS-CoV-2 underground, the question now is, what will governments, schools, and businesses do with all that surveillance infrastructure?

Tempe, operating at an unprecedented level of granularity, represents the leading edge of what’s possible. But while the technology becomes more powerful for answering scientific questions and crafting public health interventions the more finely you slice and dice the sewershed, it also raises more privacy concerns. The American wastewater surveillance revolution might have started with SARS-CoV-2, but there’s no telling yet where it ultimately will lead.

Misinformation is not confined to COVID. Social media gets info about cancer way wrong, too.

Research just published in the Journal of The National Cancer Institute shows us that a third of the most popular articles on social media concerning treatment for common cancers contain factual inaccuracies.

Two cancer experts reviewed 50 of the most popular social media articles on each of the four most common cancers. The study found that misinformation was shared more widely than solid information and a lot of the worst articles were really harmful:

  • Of 200 total articles, 32.5% contained misinformation and 30.5% contained harmful information.
  • Among articles containing misinformation, 76.9% (50 of 65) contained harmful information.
  • The median number of engagements for articles with misinformation was greater than factual articles.
  • The median number of engagements for articles with harmful information was statistically significantly greater than safe articles.

Dr. Skyler Johnson, a physician-scientist and assistant professor of radiation oncology at the University of Utah Huntsman Cancer Institute, led the study. He said:

A lot of the misinformation we identified were claims that the current cancer treatments that we have are ineffective or more toxic than they actually are, as well as statements that there are other ‘cures’ that are basically unproven or disproven that include extreme diets or herbal remedies, folk remedies.

Are high-tech shoes why so many track records are being broken? Or is it something worse?

Runners World recently did another story exploring why so many track records have been broken in the months before the Olympics. One notion that I have mentioned before has to with a controversial shoe called the Nike Vaporfly, which has a little piece of springy metal in them that may act like a catapult to make runners go faster. It is not unusual for shoe companies to launch new “breakthrough” products to get a high-profile use by elite athletes.

The Associated Press reports one other thing that happened at the same time as all of those new records: Drug testing has not been as vigorous during the pandemic.

It’s one of the uncomfortable realities of the Tokyo Olympics. Not a single one of the approximately 11,000 athletes competing over the next 17 days has been held to the highest standards of the world anti-doping code over the critical 16-month period leading into the Games.

Statistics provided by the World Anti-Doping Agency pointed to a steadily improving situation as the Olympics approached, but they do not mask the reality that over the entirety of 2020, there was a 45% reduction in testing around the world compared with 2019 — a non-Olympic year in which the numbers wouldn’t normally be as high anyway.

In the first quarter of 2021, there was roughly a 20% reduction in overall testing compared with the same three months of 2019.

Very tight luggage supplies

Any journalist will tell you that some of their best story ideas come from personal experience. On Sunday night, my wife discovered that her suitcase had sat in the garage unused for so long during the pandemic that a wheel had dry-rotted and disintegrated. So, with two hours to go before even the big box stores closed, we raced around to try to find a suitcase for an early morning flight.

I took these photos of the shelves at Target and Walmart.

Empty luggage aisles in a Walmart in St. Petersburg, Florida.(Al Tompkins)

Empty luggage aisles in a Target in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Al Tompkins)

Travel websites have been warning that this would happen. Supply-chain interruptions coupled with the summer surge of travel seem to be the problems behind the sparsely stocked shelves. Online sellers still seem to have lots to offer.

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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