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.
There is a lot of pandemic news today. State after state is lifting mask and crowd size rules even while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says not to. So once again, medical experts and politicians are sending different signals. President Joe Biden moved up the target date for having enough vaccines for every adult and then pushed to vaccinate every educator this month. Even so, the president says things could “get worse” and not to let up on prevention efforts.
Texas and Mississippi lift their COVID-19 mask mandates
Even while the head of the CDC warns states not to lift mask and crowd restrictions, Texas became the largest state so far to ditch mask mandates and crowd restrictions on businesses including bars and restaurants. It is the first time in eight months that Texas has been without a mask mandate.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves also announced Tuesday that he is lifting all mask mandate restrictions in Mississippi except for K-12 schools and indoor arenas. The governor signed an executive order recommending but not requiring that people wear masks. Like Texas, Mississippi is allowing businesses to operate “at full capacity.”
“The governor’s office is getting out of the business of telling people what they can and cannot do,” Reeves said.
Arkansas is also adopting the “recommendation” rather than mandate route. Mask mandates there could end this month. Starting Friday, the governor is leaving it up to businesses to decide how many customers they can safely serve.
This leveling off comes as states across the country, led by Democrats and Republicans alike, have eased restrictions, from stringent measures put in place during the surge, like stay-at-home orders in California or shutting down indoor dining in New York, to reverting to the loosest rules since the pandemic began, like in Montana and Iowa, where the governors have lifted mask mandates and rolled back restrictions on businesses.
“Businesses don’t need the state to tell them how to operate,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said. The state currently has a 9% positivity rate, meaning 9% of COVID-19 tests come back positive. If the rate rises to 15%, the restrictions could come back in place in affected localities. Data from Johns Hopkins show Harris County is recording an average of 1,100 new daily cases and Dallas County is recording more than 600 new daily cases.
The move comes less than one day after CDC director Rochelle Walensky warned states not to loosen restrictions. The United States currently is recording 67,000 COVID-19 cases and 2,000 deaths per day — only one-third of what we recorded after the post-holiday peak but about what it was last summer.
“With these new statistics, I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19,” Walensky said. “I understand the temptation to do this — 70,000 cases a day seems good compared to where we were just a few months ago — but we cannot be resigned to 70,000 cases a day, 2,000 daily deaths.”
President Biden on Tuesday warned “things may get worse again,” if new COVID-19 variants keep spreading at their current speed. “Now is not the time to let up,” he said.
“Make no mistake,” Texas’ governor said, “COVID-19 has not disappeared. But it is clear from the recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations and safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed.”
And while the governor touts the state’s vaccine program, the state ranks last in the country in doses administered per person, according to the CDC.
I suspect that as states back away from mask mandates, businesses will feel more pressure when they attempt to enforce their own requirements that customers wear masks. And, of course, they will still be able to set their own rules, just as they can require shoes and shirts.
Biden says there should be enough vaccine for every American adult by the end of May
President Biden says there should be enough vaccines to give COVID-19 shots to every adult by the end of May. (Note he is talking about supply, which is different from administering the shots.)
Still, the announcement is a big change from the previous estimate that that threshold would not be reached until sometime in July. After that, the attention will focus on younger people. The president said pharmaceutical giant Merck will join Johnson & Johnson in producing the vaccine that the Food and Drug Administration just approved. By some estimates, the partnership between normally fierce rivals will double Johnson & Johnson’s production.
Biden: Every educator should get at least one COVID-19 shot this month
President Biden says every educator (including school and child care workers) should be able to get at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March. It will, largely, be up to the states to make teachers a priority.
“I am directing every state to prioritize educators for vaccination,” Biden said. “We want every educator, school staff member and child care worker to receive at least one shot by the end of this month. It’s time to treat in-person learning like the essential service that it is.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says Georgia teachers are so frustrated that they are going out of state to find vaccines. Other states — including South Carolina, Florida, Connecticut, New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania and Vermont — just moved educators up on the list of professions next eligible for vaccines.
About half of the states currently do not make teachers a priority for vaccines. NBC explains why this is a state and not a federal decision:
Under the Constitution, the powers of the federal government are far-reaching but not all-encompassing. States have always retained control over public health and safety, from policing crimes to controlling infectious disease, including distribution of coronavirus vaccines that Washington helped create and whose supply it controls.
That the U.S. has the world’s highest death toll from the pandemic has renewed criticism of the federalist system that has allowed the states to do as they please, with very different approaches and very different results.
“There’s a pretty strong argument that the confusion we’ve created has, in fact, cost human lives,” said Donald Kettl, a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and author of “The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn’t Work.” “We pay a pretty high price sometimes for letting states go their own way.”
He added: “The founders were very conscious of the fact that it was a collection of states that had succeeded in winning the Revolutionary War. If you roll that forward, you end up with this patchwork of different vaccine priorities, mask mandates and lockdown rules, because the federal government cannot force states to do things.”
Should your local school be open? A district-by-district examination
Only 4 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren live in counties where coronavirus transmission is low enough for full-time in-person learning without additional restrictions, according to the guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an analysis of the agency’s latest figures.
The data is equally discouraging for full-time in-person learning for middle and high school students. It is discouraging because everyone wants to get students back in classrooms, but the standards mostly say not to.
Police still waiting on vaccines. 439 have died.
The National Fraternal Order of Police reports that 439 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty due to COVID-19. The Officers Down website lists information on each officer. 105 officers have died from COVID-19 in Texas, which has the highest death toll of officers in the country.
Sports teams make plans to get back to in-person games
Athletic Director Greg Byrne said Monday that the school was “moving forward with plans to have a full stadium in the fall” as the University of Alabama system announced plans to return to in-person learning without restrictions for the fall semester.
Bryant-Denny Stadium has a capacity of 100,077.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot says when the official opening of baseball season starts in a month you will not see the usual crowds of fans in the White Sox and Cubs’ stands. WBBM quoted the mayor:
“I think there will be a point sometime this season where you’ll see fans in the stands at both Wrigley (Field) and Guaranteed Rate Field, which I still call Sox Park,” Lightfoot said Tuesday afternoon as she announced the easing of COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants, bars, and other businesses.
All 30 teams in Major League Baseball are allowing fans at their spring training facilities in Arizona and Florida, though capacity will be severely limited. The Chicago Cubs are welcoming the most fans (3,630 per game) while the San Francisco Giants will have the fewest (1,000 per game).
Some teams in MLB already have announced plans to allow limited attendance at their stadiums this season.
The Washington Nationals got word yesterday that they will play in Washington, D.C., but will not have fans in the seats right away.
Wearing masks doesn’t affect oxygen levels in people with asthma (or anyone else)
There is a persistent false notion that wearing a mask somehow affects oxygen saturation in people with asthma. Not only is it not true, but it is not true for non-asthmatics, either. If you need a study to say that, there is one now. It was just presented at the virtual annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
Medscape reports the study looked at the blood oxygen levels in 200 mask-wearing asthma and allergy patients:
The study also looked at SpO2 with 3 different types of masks: fabric, surgical, and N95.
The mean SpO2 for a fabric mask was 98% (119 patients), for a surgical mask it was also 98% (83 patients), and for the N95 mask it was 99% (3 patients).
Masks do not cause oxygen saturation levels to decline. Period. Wear a mask.
The vaccines also do not affect fertility
While we are knocking down rumors and suspicions, let’s take a look at this story in The Guardian which says a significant number of young people are concerned about taking the COVID-19 vaccine because of unfounded concerns that the vaccine might affect fertility.
Concern about fertility is one of the major drivers of vaccine hesitancy, despite explicit reassurances from doctors and scientists. The suggestion that Covid vaccinations could affect fertility was “nonsense,” Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said on ITV’s Good Morning Britain last week. There was “no evidence at all that there are any issues in relation to planning a family or fertility,” he added.
The Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RCOG) have issued a joint statement about misinformation on the effect of Covid vaccinations on fertility. “There is no biologically plausible mechanism by which current vaccines would cause any impact on women’s fertility,” said Edward Morris, president of the RCOG.
The British Fertility Society and the Association of Reproductive and Clinical Scientists also published guidance saying there was “absolutely no evidence, and no theoretical reason, that any of the vaccines can affect the fertility of women or men.”
Incredible security surrounds vaccine delivery
Bloomberg has an engaging piece about the high-stakes security around COVID-19 vaccines, where a single shipment is worth millions of dollars on the black market.
And if today’s highly profitable black markets for drugs treating, say, cancer and arthritis are any guide, it will be relatively easy for thieves to unload their loot. On the dark web, Covid-19 vaccines of unknown origin and authenticity are already selling for $200 per dose. That’s spurred freight companies to adapt a playbook developed to fight the $40 billion in theft from shippers every year of goods such as 5G handsets, $500 sneakers, and $5,000 handbags — employing methods ranging from added manpower to newfangled digital spycraft worthy of 007.
The pandemic has already sparked an upswing in thefts of related products. Last year millions of respiratory masks were taken from an aviation facility in Kenya, $1 million worth of medical gloves were pillaged from a container in Florida, and almost 200 respirators headed for Colombia were stolen. Even toilet paper has been targeted: At the height of the panic-buying frenzy in 2020, 130,000 rolls were lifted from trailers in Britain.
CO2 levels rise to pre-pandemic levels
Axios notes that the short time when the world was producing less climate-changing CO2 is over and we are back to doing what we were doing to the environment pre-pandemic. The data to make this claim comes from the International Energy Agency.
CO2 levels dropped briefly last year when we all were driving less and industry cut back on production worldwide. IEA says China, which of course experienced the coronavirus first, also recovered quickly and by late spring was producing more CO2 than before the pandemic began.
We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.