March 9, 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 disappointed a lot of people when it issued its new guidelines on what fully vaccinated people can now do safely.

The CDC did not change its guidelines on travel, meaning the new guidelines are not a green light for you to climb on a plane or train and live life as you did a year ago. In fact, the CDC says outright that it discourages travel right now.

The guidelines carry a cautious tone even while schools open to in-person learning and states drop mandatory mask laws. The CDC says in most situations, vaccinated people should still wear a “well-fitted” mask and maintain social distance, avoid poorly ventilated spaces, cover coughs and sneezes and wash their hands often.

The CDC may also have disappointed some people who want to go to athletic events, concerts and other gatherings. The new guidelines say vaccinated people should avoid large and medium gatherings, though the agency did not specify the gathering size with numbers.

The CDC says 59 million people have gotten at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot in the United States and that 9.2% of the population — or 30 million people — are “fully vaccinated.” That means it’s been at least two weeks since they received their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two weeks since they received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

With that update, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky says fully vaccinated people can:

Visit other vaccinated people indoors without masks or physical distancing.

Visit indoors with unvaccinated people from a single household without masks or physical distancing if the unvaccinated people are at low risk for severe disease. This would apply, for example, to grandparents visiting their low-risk grandchildren. But the key here is to limit exposure to unvaccinated people. The CDC offers an example:

If fully vaccinated grandparents are visiting with their unvaccinated daughter and her children and the daughter’s unvaccinated neighbors also come over, the visit should then take place outdoors, wearing well-fitted masks, and maintaining physical distance (at least 6 feet). This is due to the risk the two unvaccinated households pose to one another.

The CDC stresses that even when senior citizens are vaccinated, there is a non-zero risk in interacting with unvaccinated people. The CDC says one way to lower the risk is to move gatherings outdoors.

Skip quarantine and testing if exposed to someone who has COVID-19 but is asymptomatic. But it recommends that vaccinated people still monitor for symptoms for 14 days. If symptoms appear, the person should isolate themselves, get tested and speak with their doctor.

And, the CDC’s new guidance says vaccinated people should:

  • Wear a mask and keep good physical distance around the unvaccinated who are at increased risk for severe COVID-19, or if the unvaccinated person has a household member who is at higher risk.
  • Wear masks and physically distance when visiting unvaccinated people who are from multiple households.
  • When fully vaccinated people visit unvaccinated people, there is still some risk to the unvaccinated people. The CDC says fully vaccinated people can visit with unvaccinated people and any unvaccinated people in the household as long as the unvaccinated people are not “at-risk.”

Keep in mind that it is still possible that people who are vaccinated may get infected and we still do not know enough about whether vaccinated people can pass along the virus to others.

As more people get vaccinated, the CDC will update its guidelines, gradually loosening restrictions.

Your car contains something worth more than gold and thieves are coming after it

A close-up look at the inside of a catalytic converter (Shutterstock)

One ounce of a metal called rhodium is worth about as much as a new car. As of last week, it was about 15 times more valuable than gold. Trading Economics describes it this way:

“Rhodium is a silver-white metallic element resistant to corrosion and highly reflective. It is considered the rarest and most valuable precious metal in the world. The main use for rhodium is in catalytic converters designed to clean vehicle emissions. The biggest producer of rhodium is South Africa.”

(The Washington Post)

Experts expect rhodium prices to stay high for at least a few years, which means the thefts are not going to let up.

Your car’s catalytic converter contains just a tiny amount of rhodium, but it is enough to attract thieves to hack off your vehicle’s exhaust pipes to get to it. From start to finish, the theft takes less than a couple of minutes. Just look at this video of a theft in Madison, Wisconsin.

Every time rhodium prices soar, we see a spike in thefts. The Washington Post talks to one mechanic who recently has seen 60 or 70 cars in his shop for this very reason. A stolen converter might bring more than $200.

The converters also contain a small amount of valuable palladium and platinum.

Car and Driver reports that the pandemic seems to be linked to the increase in catalytic converter thefts.

In Wichita, Kansas, thieves stole “more than 500” catalytic converters in 2020 as compared to “fewer than 200” in 2019, according to KAKE ABC.

Thieves in Topeka have targeted vehicles that transport senior citizens, according to WIBW-13, leading to nearly $20,000 in damages.

In Lynchburg, Virginia, police reported 31 thefts since September. Police in South Bend, Indiana, have reported 26 thefts since November.

The cold in Manchester, New Hampshire, hasn’t hampered thieves, either, with 22 thefts since November.

On a repair lot in Milwaukee, one shop owner with repeat thefts over the past few months has resorted to deflating tires to make it tougher for thieves to crawl underneath his vehicles.

Do a search and you’ll find reports everywhere.

If you have comprehensive coverage on your vehicle, it would likely cover the cost of a catalytic converter theft, but most people do not have that level of coverage. Even if you do have comprehensive coverage, your deductible costs are about the price of replacing the device, so people generally do not claim the theft on their insurance to keep rates from increasing after a claim.

Car and Driver explains that there are not a ton of options for cutting costs to replace a catalytic converter (called a cat):

But replacing a cat isn’t cheap. Since it’s a critical emissions component, the EPA forbids the sale and installation of any used catalytic converter that hasn’t been refurbished and certified by an approved manufacturer. Used cats must also match the specific car’s original equipment and can only be installed if the vehicle is past a certain age, if a state inspection requires replacement, or if a car is brought into a repair shop without a converter.

That means it’s illegal to swap a used converter straight out of another identical car, buy one from a junkyard, or fit a converter meant for a different car model. Even a refurbished cat for a 20-year-old Volvo can run $500. New factory cats are usually $1,000 minimum. Add at least an hour of labor, and you’re looking at a big bill — or risk your car being undrivable and awfully smelly.

While valuable car parts like wheels can be fitted with inexpensive locking bolts, there’s not much you can do to prevent catalytic thefts besides parking the most vulnerable, high-clearance vehicles inside a garage and carrying a good insurance policy.

There are converter guards that you can install under your vehicle. They could be more useful if you have a high-clearance vehicle that might be a more vulnerable target. Police say that having the converter welded to the car’s frame could make it harder to steal. They also say you could engrave your vehicle’s identification number on the converter, which I suppose would identify where the part came from in the unlikely event that it is recovered.

You really have to wonder, if the problem is this bad, whether there is enough oversight of the metal recyclers who buy the stolen stuff.

Boomer bike injuries rose, Gen Y/Z ‘massage device’ injuries doubled, youth sports injuries fell during pandemic

The Consumer Product Safety Commission says during the pandemic, product-related injuries have risen sharply. What the heck is a “product-related injury?” Let me give you some examples from the CPSC release:

The largest increases in ER-treated injuries across all age ranges occurred with fireworks and flares (56%), skateboards, scooters, and hoverboards (39%), and severe injuries for all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), mopeds and minibikes (39%).

ER treatment rose sharply for injuries related to cleaning agents (84%) and soaps and detergents (60%).

Although bicycles had a slight increase (1%) in overall injuries, the increase jumped to 21% for users age 40 and above, and 39% for adults older than 70.

And there was one injury category that dropped during the pandemic:

Sports-related injuries dropped significantly, including those that normally occur at schools (as much as 81%).

You can read the whole survey here.

The Washington Post dug around in the data and found:

The biggest increases in severe injuries came from fireworks — which nearly tripled — and home power tools, which more than doubled. Cleaning agents, such as disinfectants, were blamed for almost twice as many severe injuries. Right behind them were “drinking glasses” — most likely from lacerations when the glasses broke.

The pandemic-induced lifestyle changes also presented different age groups with new dangers.

Children younger than 10 years old saw the biggest increase in injuries from skateboards and scooters.

People in their 20s saw injuries from “massage devices,” which includes sex toys, more than double.

People in their 40s and 50s suffered the biggest increase in firework injuries.

People in their 70s saw a doubling in injuries from eye, ear and mouth protection devices — most often the masks that became essential items during the pandemic. Most of these injuries were minor cuts and skin rashes.

Do we need a tax deadline extension?

The IRS says it hears an increasing call for the feds to extend the April 15 tax deadline but, at the moment, is not planning to change the deadline. 

Members of the House Ways and Means Committee are raising concerns that people have less time than usual to file this year and that the pandemic is still causing difficulties in filing. AARP says seniors who need to meet face-to-face with tax experts can’t do so. And some people need more time to figure out how to claim their stimulus payments on their returns.

On top of it all, the General Accountability Office just issued a report that says the IRS itself has a sizeable backlog of returns to process.

AccountingToday, a newsletter for, you guessed it, accountants, reports:

The National Association of Tax Professionals wrote to Rettig last week asking for an extension beyond April 15, citing a poll in which 71 percent support an extension. The American Institute of CPAs wrote to Rettig last week asking for certainty about whether the tax filing and payment deadline will be extended beyond April 15.

COVID-19 long-haulers turn to special clinics and social media groups for support

We do not have reliable figures on how many COVID-19 patients have long-term symptoms. It could be in excess of 8 million people just in the United States. These are people who have lasting and sometimes severe symptoms weeks or even months after they got sick with the virus. Doctors say they do not know if the patients will ever fully recover.

You can scan some social media groups to get a sense of the camaraderie they are building while there is no reliable treatment for their problems. One Facebook group called Survivor Corps has 156,000 members who share their experiences, notes about the loss of some sensory abilities and even the loss of loved ones to the virus.

Facebook says something around 4.5 million people have joined 4,000 U.S.-based COVID-19 support groups, some of which are run by researchers who are tracking symptoms and experiences.

NBC News surveyed nearly 80 “post-COVID” clinics that treat long-haulers.

(NBC News)

NBC News collected some examples of post-COVID clinics’ work:

Dr. Rebecca Keith, an associate professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver, is a co-director of the facility’s post-Covid-19 clinic. The facility puts together a “unique care plan” for every patient, she said. Some may need help with breathing. Others have problems with racing hearts. Many complain of constant stomach illness.

Dr. Carla Sevin, director of the ICU Recovery Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, said: “If you still need oxygen, you probably need a pulmonologist. If you have heart issues, you probably need a cardiologist. But for some of these other symptoms, it’s not really clear who the best person is to see you.”

To help with brain fog, a commonly reported symptom, the Post Covid Recovery Team at Family Health West in Fruita, Colorado, uses speech therapists to help patients find the right words while speaking.

At the post-Covid-19 clinic at University Hospital of Brooklyn SUNY Downstate in New York City patients with ongoing shortness of breath are given typical medications, such as inhaled or oral allergy drugs. Surprisingly, some get relief from eating oranges.

Most long-haul patients seeking treatment at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas benefit from physical therapy to help with breathing, as well as emotional support and counseling, a spokesperson said.

‘Zoom fatigue’ is real

Clarendon Alternative Elementary School fourth-grader Ayla Einhorn works on her computer as students and parents attend distance learning Zoom classes at Midtown Terrace Playground in San Francisco on Feb. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

A Stanford professor, Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, just published “the first peer-reviewed article that systematically deconstructs Zoom fatigue” and found “four consequences of prolonged video chats.”

1) Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is highly intense.

Both the amount of eye contact we engage in on video chats, as well as the size of faces on screens is unnatural.

2) Seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is fatiguing.

Most video platforms show a square of what you look like on camera during a chat. But that’s unnatural, Bailen said. “In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly — so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback — you were seeing yourself in a mirror, that would just be crazy. No one would ever consider that,” he added.

3) Video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility.

In-person and audio phone conversations allow humans to walk around and move.

4) The cognitive load is much higher in video chats.

Bailenson notes that in regular face-to-face interaction, nonverbal communication is quite natural and each of us naturally makes and interprets gestures and nonverbal cues subconsciously. But in video chats, we have to work harder to send and receive signals.

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,…
Al Tompkins

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