December 15, 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.

With COVID-19 cases rising again, California will impose a new mask mandate starting today that will last until at least Jan. 15. The state’s top health official, Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, says the mask order will apply to all public indoor places and to everyone, regardless of vaccination status.

California also will require people at events with more than 1,000 attendees to provide proof of vaccination or submit a negative COVID-19 test.

“We know people are tired and hungry for normalcy. Frankly, I am too,” Ghaly said. “This is a critical time where we have a tool that we know has worked and can work.”

Washington, Oregon, Illinois, New Mexico, Nevada and Hawaii already imposed new mask mandates.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul imposed a similar statewide mask mandate beginning Monday which, like California’s, will last at least until Jan. 15. Some counties in New York say they will not enforce the new mask mandate. WABC reports:

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would implement the mandate in a “cooperative way” with an emphasis on educating and working with business owners.

“We don’t want to penalize people unless there is overt resistance and unwillingness to cooperate, and that’s very, very rare,” de Blasio said at a news briefing.

Hochul admitted enforcement of the new mask and vaccine mandates are up to the counties and cautioned it is a relatively small number of them that are not complying.

“We have left this to the counties to enforce,” she said. “We hope that counties will enforce it. We expect they will. We hope they will. It’s in the best interest of public health.”

New data: A third of nursing homes have staff shortages

Margaret Choinacki, right, 87, holds the hand of Miami Jewish Health resident care coordinator Anggy Volmar as her friend Frances Reaves drives-by for a visit, Friday, July 17, 2020, at Miami Jewish Health in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

AARP has compiled a database that shows that nearly a third of the 15,000 nursing homes in the U.S. “recently reported a shortage of nurses or aides.” It is the worst staffing shortage since the government started keeping such records related to COVID-19. The AARP report found:

Low staffing levels in nursing homes, particularly among registered nurses, are associated with worse outcomes for residents, including more COVID-19 cases, deaths and a higher likelihood of an outbreak.

Even on (a nursing home’s) best day, if you’re fully staffed, things can still go wrong,” says Lori Porter, cofounder and CEO of the National Association of Health Care Assistants. “But things will definitely go wrong if you’re staffed at a third of what you need.”

AARP produced this map based on its data. The percentages on the map represent the percentage of facilities with a shortage of nurses and/or nursing aides.


The report explained:

Staffing shortages are hitting some states particularly hard. In Alaska, 81 percent of nursing homes reported shortages, the analysis found, the highest rate of any state. In Maine, Washington and Minnesota more than 60 percent of facilities reported staff shortages, while in Wyoming, Kansas, North Dakota, Oregon and Wisconsin, more than 50 percent did.

State Medical Boards see a big rise in complaints about disinformation doctors

The Federation of State Medical Boards says a “staggering number” of state medical boards have seen increases in public complaints about doctors who peddle disinformation about COVID-19.

In 2021, the federation said:

  • 67% (of states) have experienced an increase in complaints related to licensee dissemination of false or misleading information
  • 26% have made or published statements about the dissemination of false or misleading information
  • 21% have taken a disciplinary action against a licensee disseminating false or misleading information
  • At least 15 boards have published statements about licensees spreading false or misleading information and at least 12 boards have taken disciplinary action against a licensee for spreading false or misleading information. Disciplinary actions will continue as more investigations are completed.

“The staggering number of state medical boards that have seen an increase in COVID-19 disinformation complaints is a sign of how widespread the issue has become,” said Humayun J. Chaudhry, DO, MACP, President and CEO of the FSMB. “We are encouraged by the number of boards that have already taken action to combat COVID-19 disinformation by disciplining physicians who engage in that behavior and by reminding all physicians that their words and actions matter, and they should think twice before spreading disinformation that may harm patients.”

Becker Hospital Review notes:

In November, for example, a Maine regulatory board said it suspended a physician’s license to practice after reviewing multiple COVID-19 “exemption letters” signed by Paul Gosselin, DO, as well as provider reports that Dr. Gosselin spread misinformation about the virus.

You may have a tough time finding out about complaints against a doctor until or unless the board takes action. The Des Moines Register says the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that complaint records are closed until the medical board makes a final decision in a case. Sometimes it takes a year or longer for medical boards to take up, consider and rule on a case.

In Tennessee, a powerful lawmaker threatened the medical board into deleting its warning to physicians not to spread false COVID-19 information or risk losing their license.

The one-dose problem

Vox explores what it calls the “one-dose problem,” referring to millions of Americans who have gotten one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine but, for some reason, did not get a second dose. In fact, Bill Hanage, a Harvard University epidemiologist, said there may be as many people who have only had one dose as there are people who got two doses.

“I’m not sure we should regard them as equivalent to unvaccinated people,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, told me. “But they are at higher risk than fully vaccinated and boosted people.”

That was the early consensus among the experts I consulted, and the preliminary data shows, as expected, low effectiveness against omicron after one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The effectiveness against omicron also declines over time after two doses but is restored to high levels (76 percent efficacy against infection) after a third dose. This was a fairly small study out of the UK, and more data will be forthcoming, but it gives an initial picture of how the vaccines are holding up against the new variant.

People who have received only one dose of a vaccine could conceivably be almost as vulnerable to infection from omicron as the unvaccinated. They may still have some level of protection against severe illness because of the multiple layers of immunity induced by the vaccines. But it’s an open question at this point — and may soon become an urgent one for the Americans who fall into this camp.

The Air Force dismisses two dozen for defying vaccine mandate

97% of U.S. Air Force personnel have gotten vaccinated against COVID-19. But, this week, the Air Force discharged 27 airmen for not getting vaccinated. The Associated Press reports that all 27 were in their first term of enlistment and none of them sought religious or medical exemptions. The Air Force says 8,500 active-duty members have asked for religious exemptions from the mandate.

Where are the holiday sales? Blame tight supplies

Piper Cole shops during a Black Friday sale at a Kohl’s store, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Shoppers say that they are disappointed that retailers are not offering the deep discounts that have, in recent years, been commonplace. But supply shortages have tightened the retail market and stores believe shoppers will settle for higher prices as Christmas nears. The Washington Post reports:

It’s a stark reversal from what consumers have been conditioned to expect in the dozen years since the Great Recession. Retailers’ reliance on flashy promotions to attract shoppers quickly became a “race to the bottom,” particularly among mid-tier brands that tried to outdo one another with “40 percent off everything” sales, said Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a consulting and research firm.

Nearly two years into a pandemic that has upended supply chains and made it harder for retailers to secure inventory quickly and cheaply, all of that is changing. Companies “finally see an opportunity to raise prices,” he said. “Brands haven’t had a window like this in a long time, so they’re cutting back on any sort of promotion, discount or reward.”

Analysts say retailers have become more discerning in the types of products they mark down, and by how much. This season’s discounts, which range from 5 percent to 25 percent, are markedly lower than the historical average of 10 percent to 30 percent, according to Impact Analytics and Cowen & Co. Many stores have “the lowest level of clearance goods in five years or more,” Cowen analysts wrote in a recent research note.

At Macy’s, executives said promotions across the industry hit a “historical low” in 2021.

“Consumers have gotten used to deeper and deeper discounts but as we’ve emerged from the pandemic, you’re just not seeing those discounts anymore,” said Nela Richardson, chief economist for ADP. “Demand is so high that they’re just not necessary.”

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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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