April 13, 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.

Vaccines have slowly made their way into some of the most infected hot spots, but not until more than a third of the people in jails and prisons became infected. In some cases, these institutions were the worst superspreaders — with infections spreading between the people who are incarcerated and the guards and staff who worked there.

The New York Times built an interactive map with every known COVID-19 case in a state or federal prison.

(The New York Times)

As busy as this map is, it is only part of the story. It does not include local jails, which would include virtually every county jail in the country.

In Michigan, prisons had nine times the COVID-19 case rate compared to the general population outside prisons. Arkansas, Kentucky and Colorado saw between six-and-a-half to seven times the rate inside prisons compared to those outside. Wisconsin, Utah and South Dakota also had several times more cases in prison than outside.

And yet, the Times discovered, even though states knew this emergency was coming, and even when the COVID-19 outbreak infected a third, then half then three-quarters of the people in prison, some states rarely if ever tested for the virus.

(The New York Times)

There are so many stories that could come out of this data, along with the rich data that The Marshall Project collected for more than a year.

(The Marshall Project)

You could explore:

  • How much testing is going on in jails and prisons now? Who sees the data and how much of a response does it generate?
  • Do jails and prisons have the personal protective equipment they need, even a year later?
  • How has the pandemic increased the costs of running prisons and jails?
  • To what extent did states and counties release people early in response to the pandemic?
  • For those people who were released from jails, what did we learn about whether they showed up for trials and hearings? Is there anything we could learn about whether we should rethink who we put in jail pending court hearings?
  • Prisons and jails already had a hard time attracting security workers. Is it worse now?
  • How often did an incarcerated person get released and die sooner after release? I have seen anecdotal stories of jails releasing sick people that died at hospitals, and who were not counted as jail deaths.

The language we use covering jails and prisons

I want to point you to a free webinar I am hosting with the help of The Marshall Project. Marshall just published a collection of articles about the language that journalists use when we cover jails and prisons. You may not give it a second thought when you use words like “inmate” or “prisoner” or “convict,” but maybe you should.

For the last three years, I have led workshops around the country to help journalists cover our justice system and Marshall has been a partner in that effort. Recently, Marshall, which advocates for “decarceration” and often works with local governments to examine their jail policies, did a self-examination to rethink the words it uses in the stories it reports.

This free live webinar on April 21 will take you through Marshall’s decision-making process and I hope will start your wheels turning about how your newsroom might consider how you cover people who are accused, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.

And yes, we know that there will be pushback over being “too correct” or “using too many words” to say something you have always said. But we have confronted these conversations about all sorts of populations that we cover, from people with disabilities to people who are navigating the immigration system.

Is America about to hit a ‘vaccine wall?’

Cristela Martinez, left, helps people with their forms as they wait in line to receive the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic held by Healthcare Network, Saturday, April 10, 2021, in Immokalee, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Soon, perhaps very soon, the supply of COVID-19 vaccines will meet demand in the United States. Axios reports:

On average, states have administered 76% of the doses they’ve received from the federal government. New Hampshire has administered the largest share of all states, at 89.8%, while Alabama has administered the smallest — only 61.4% of its doses.

A survey by Surgo Ventures, a nonprofit organization dedicated to solving health and social problems, says considering how many people intend to get vaccines compared to vaccines that are available, “The supply-demand shift for the vaccine will happen earlier than expected — as early as the end of April — and before the nation reaches the 70-90% threshold for achieving herd immunity.”

The survey indicates that pretty much everybody who wants a vaccine will have gotten it by the end of July and we may top out with only 52% of the population having been immunized. If you add in the number of people who caught COVID-19 and developed an antibody as a result, it would still only be two-thirds of the population that has some level of protection. Axios adds:

“This analysis shows that despite the general vaccine enthusiasm we are seeing now in the United States, things are going to get really difficult really soon,” said Sema Sgaier, Surgo’s CEO.

“Without significant investment in addressing people’s barriers and making vaccines available to those below 18, reaching herd immunity will be a real challenge.”

The pandemic word for the day is ‘detritus’

A discarded face mask is shown on a street in San Francisco, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

I have to back into this one with a little story. My Poynter colleague Roy Peter Clark said to me recently, “I walked around the mile track at our local park not long ago and saw detritus I would never have seen a year ago:  seven medical masks.” As sometimes is the case when I talk to Dr. Clark, I had to look up the word to understand what he was saying.

“Detritus” means waste, debris or rubble that may be the product of being rubbed away or disintegrated by use.

Roy’s point is we now have a new type of trash. Since he said that, I have seen it myself now that I am looking for it: masks dropped in a parking lot or tossed near, but not into, the trash.

Which brings me to the story pitch. Scientists are starting to measure how our medical trash produced in the pandemic is hurting wildlife. Atlas Obscura reports:

Humans have now been living alongside COVID-19 for more than a year — and that means other animals have, too. For months, scientists have suspected that animals are affected by the disposable masks, plastic gloves, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) that people lost or discarded around parks, waterways, and other public spaces. Now researchers have pulled together observations from several countries to see how creatures are grappling with our castoffs.

The Ocean Conservancy, a Washington, D.C.–based environmental nonprofit, regularly hosts the International Coastal Cleanup, a blitz of trash-picking events around the world. Last July, the organization added “PPE” as a category of trash that participants could log in an app.

The Ocean Conservancy followed up with a survey in early 2021, and found that 94 percent of respondents had observed PPE pollution at cleanup events the previous year. (In all, volunteers hauled in nearly 107,220 pieces of PPE — largely masks and gloves — across 70 countries.) Most of this trash was found on sand, grass, or sidewalks, but more than a third of participants reported PPE in oceans or other bodies of water. Just over half of the respondents also noted that they saw rogue pieces of PPE in their home communities every day.

Bird experts say they are seeing nests that include PPE trash as ingredients, including latex and masks. To limit the toll on wildlife, snip the straps of any masks you discard.

Why can’t we have a COVID-19 vaccine pill?

Think of all of the issues that would be diminished if scientists could find a way to turn the COVID-19 vaccine into a pill. Shipping and storage would be easier, you would not have to have vaccination lines and people who fear shots would be at ease.

It is a lot more difficult than it might seem to produce a vaccine pill, as Stat explains.

Drug companies and the Biden administration are interested in pushing this technology that may, one day, develop an anti-viral drug, maybe a pill, that you could take if you test positive for COVID-19 that would lessen the symptoms. This antiviral research is the next big frontier for you to keep your eyes on.

The FDA sends a warning about ‘leafy green’ farms near livestock farms

The Food and Drug Administration just completed a national investigation into multiple outbreaks of bacteria in leafy green vegetables. The good news is the outbreak is over after 20 people around the country were hospitalized. The FDA found a lot of sources for the bacteria, including a cattle farm that was uphill from a vegetable grower. The bacteria from the cow manure made its way to the vegetables. And that is one of the big outcomes of this investigation. If you have an animal farm near a farm growing food, you have to be a lot more careful.

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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