June 22, 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 medical experts on TikTok and Facebook have been so helpful in scaring women who may have noticed small lumps in their armpits after being vaccinated. Some women, worrying it may be breast cancer, rush to get mammograms.

Dr. Laura Esserman, director of the University of California San Francisco’s Breast Care Center, says her office is getting an influx of calls from vaccinated women who are confusing swollen lymph nodes for signs of cancer.

ABC7 in San Francisco reports:

Most people get their vaccine in the shoulder area and it turns out we have 20-40 lymph nodes in that region. But why is the vaccine triggering them?

“The lymph nodes when they get swollen, if you have an infection, are just doing their job. In the case of a vaccine they are manufacturing the antibody for your body which is what you want,” said Dr. Esserman.

The Society of Breast Imaging reports that 11.6% of patients who received Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine had swollen lymph nodes after the first dose, and 16% after the second dose. Women who got the Pfizer vaccine also experienced these side effects.

Vaccines, and not just COVID-19 vaccines, often cause lymph node swelling.

Let’s be clear, Johns Hopkins says:

There is no connection between the COVID-19 vaccine and breast cancer. But what should women know about how the COVID-19 shots might affect the results of their mammograms?

Lisa Mullen, M.D., a radiologist who specializes in breast imaging, offers some perspective and answers your questions. She says getting the COVID-19 vaccine can cause temporary lymph node enlargement and result in a “false positive” mammogram.

You may get a request to return for further testing — a call-back — which can be unsettling.

Not all vaccines cause swollen lymph nodes, but ones that cause a more intense immune response, such as the COVID-19 vaccine, some shingles vaccines, and others, are more likely to affect them. “The COVID-19 vaccine is a new type of vaccine, and people are reacting strongly to it,” Mullen says. “That heightened immune response is normal and expected.”

Your lymph nodes will return to normal size a few weeks after your vaccination regimen is complete.

Thieves are hitting construction sites to steal high-priced lumber and copper

It was totally predictable that when the price of lumber skyrocketed, thieves would move in on construction sites. Sometimes the same construction site gets hit two or three times until it is cleaned out.

Bloomberg says in some countries, thieves don’t even wait for the materials to reach the construction sites — they steal the materials right off rail cars.

I see local stories about this issue unfolding all over the country.

KOMO-Seattle, KUSA Denver, KLRT Little Rock, KCNC Denver, FOX5 Atlanta and WTVF Nashville all did pieces on high-tech security being called in for construction sites.

What COVID-19 does to your brain

A new study from the United Kingdom sheds some light on why COVID-19 is robbing some people of their sense of smell and taste. This new study finds that COVID-19 can cause some actual brain loss.

“In short, the study suggests that there could be some long-term loss of brain tissue from COVID, and that would have some long-term consequences,” said former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. He added that if you lose those sensory functions because of brain loss, they may be damaged forever.

The study began with a database of 40,000 people for whom researchers had brain scans before the pandemic. They found around 400 of those patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 and rescanned their brains.

It is noteworthy that in most cases in which people lose their sense of smell or taste, they regain the sensations within five months. Also note that the study is a preprint, meaning it still must undergo peer review.

Why did the J&J vaccine fail to live up to hopes?

Empty vials of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine sit in a tray on a table at the Vaccine Village in Antwerp, Belgium, Friday, April 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

When you think of it, the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine had all the makings of a superstar breakthrough. It was really effective, it was one dose and it could be stored at normal refrigeration temperatures — all elements of the perfect vaccine. And yet.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine never broke through as the go-to shot. The New York Times explores what happened. And the story explores why the one-shot dose has not helped to vaccinate people in rural and hard-to-reach areas where getting two doses might be more difficult. The story says:

Between the small number of doses distributed and the lack of interest in them, public health experts say, the United States missed a critical opportunity to address health disparities with a vaccine that should have been ideal for reaching vulnerable populations. Dr. Chip Riggins, a regional medical director who oversees vaccine events in south central Louisiana, said that few organizers requested the shot anymore, even in a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

There is a direct link between the popularity of this vaccine and the precautionary pause of its distribution while researchers looked into some safety concerns:

“In the early days of J&J, working with the African American community and the churches, the faith community here, it was a very, very popular option,” Dr. Riggins said. “It pains me that it isn’t being accepted like it was before the pause.”

Dr. José R. Romero, the Arkansas health secretary, called the shot’s fast decline a “lost opportunity” for reaching the vulnerable in his state.

“This is a vaccine that was very well-suited for populations where we have problems getting into,” he said. “We’re now at the point where it’s five people or three people; it doesn’t matter, we’ll open a vial.”

40% of pandemic-related GoFundMe campaigns didn’t raise a dime

A new research project provides some interesting insight into why online fundraising like GoFundMe didn’t help as many people as you might have thought during the pandemic. The research found:

  • Americans created over 175,000 COVID-19 related campaigns on GoFundMe in the first half of 2020.
  • More than 40% of COVID-19 related campaigns raised no money at all.
  • With high levels of inequality among campaigns, the top 1% of campaigns earned nearly 25% of all money raised. We find significant evidence of growing inequalities in outcomes for campaigners. We find that crowdfunding provides substantially higher benefits in wealthier counties with higher levels of education. People from these areas are more likely to initiate campaigns in response to adverse health and economic impacts of COVID-19, and they also receive more funding compared to people living in areas with lower income and education.
  • Areas with high levels of education, rather than highest needs, had more campaigns.
  • Crowdfunding was most effective in areas with both high levels of education and high incomes.

The pandemic cost on college enrollment

The data for the just-finished spring semester is coming in and the National Student Clearinghouse has the grim details. Graduate schools held steady and community colleges were hit the hardest. You can go here to see state-by-state data. The overall trends are:

  • Overall spring enrollment fell to 16.9 million from 17.5 million, marking a one-year decline of 3.5 percent or 603,000 students, seven times worse than the decline a year earlier.
  • Undergraduate students accounted for all of the decline, with a 4.9 percent drop or 727,000 students. In contrast, graduate enrollment jumped by 4.6 percent, adding more than 124,000 students.
  • While every institution sector saw undergraduate enrollment dip this spring, community colleges remain hardest hit (-9.5% or 476,000 fewer students). Over 65 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment losses occurred in the community college sector.
  • Among all age groups, traditional college-age students declined the most (-5%, age 18-24), largely attributable to their steep losses at community colleges (-13.2%). Adult students (25 or older), on the other hand, show a 2 to 3 percent gain at public four-year and private nonprofit four-year colleges.
  • Enrollment among male students continued to fall more steeply than female students (400,000 fewer male students and 203,000 fewer female students compared with last spring).

The question now is still whether we will see these trends continue into the fall.

Are ticks worst this summer?

This undated photo provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows a blacklegged tick — also known as a deer tick. (CDC via AP)

Maybe we say this every year, but it seems that some of the country is having a worse than normal tick problem. And here is some news: A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study estimates that the average number of people diagnosed with Lyme disease each year in the U.S. from 2010 through 18 was 45% higher than those diagnosed in 2005 through 10.

THV11 in Little Rock reports:

“They are ferocious this year,” Dr. Suzanne Parsel-Dew said.

Dr. Parsel is a vet at Green Mountain Animal Hospital in Little Rock. She is seeing more pets than normal coming in with ticks, and some even with tick-borne diseases.

Canada’s Globe and Mail says climate change is adding to the tick problem.

Are we over shaking hands?

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and U.S President Joe Biden shake hands during their meeting at the ‘Villa la Grange’ in Geneva, Switzerland in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

A year ago, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the pandemic may be the end of handshaking forever. But was it? Axios reminds us that among fully vaccinated people, handshaking poses very little threat of transmitting the coronavirus.

The Indian news site FirstPost pointed out that while G7 leaders were elbow-bumping, President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin shook hands, and it made quite a picture.

Jack Caravanos, a professor at New York University’s School of Global Public Health, said wariness of handshakes does not exactly match the evidence.

Covid-19 “is poorly transmitted by surface contact and is essentially an airborne virus, (so) the scientific basis for no skin contact is moot,” he said.

“However, the common cold, influenza and a host of other infectious diseases are transmitted by touch, therefore eliminating handshaking will overall have a positive public health impact.”

But “so much will be lost if we didn’t shake hands,” mourns Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, founder of The Etiquette School of New York.

“You can tell a lot about a person by their handshake. It’s part of body language — people have lost jobs in the past because of bad handshakes.

“When you touch someone, you’re showing you trust them, you’re saying ‘I’m not going to harm you.’”

In an especially sad idea, a Wisconsin store is offering color-coded bracelets that you can wear to signal if you are ready to shake hands or if you are still elbow bumping.

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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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