June 3, 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.

Cyberattacks are hitting home for Americans. First, many felt the effects of a gasoline pipeline shut down after an attack. Prices spiked and remain high today.

Now, the world’s largest meat supplier, JBS, which supplies about 20% of the nation’s beef, briefly shut down some production because of a cyberattack. JBS said Wednesday that the “vast majority” of its production is back online but there is still work to be done.

JBS accounts for about a fifth of all U.S. pork production and a quarter of all U.S. beef capacity.

JBS, which is based in Brazil, told the U.S. government that it had gotten a ransom demand. Security experts say the attack appears to have come from a ransomware gang named Pinchy Spider which operates out of Russia and uses a malware called REvil. The group has been in operation since at least 2019.

Fox News says:

Other reports, quoting cyber experts, point the finger directly at Russia — and have gone so far as to call it a “war situation.”

And it may only get worse because it’s so profitable. DarkSide, the Eastern European group behind the Colonial Pipeline attack, brought in a cool $90 million in just nine months from an estimated 47 victims, according to a report from Elliptic.

But Hitesh Sheth, president and CEO at Vectra, a San Jose, California-based AI cybersecurity company, said the murkiness of the operations makes it very hard to put a finger on the culprit.

CNBC explores further:

REvil — pronounced like the letter “R” followed by the word “evil” — is mostly comprised of native Russian speakers. It is also believed to be based in a former Soviet state.

The organization runs a site on the dark web, anachronistically known as the “Happy Blog.” If victims don’t comply with demands, the group posts stolen documents on its blog.

“We know that they are protected most likely by Russian intelligence or the Russian government, as are most ransomware groups, which has allowed them to flourish over the last 18 months,” Marc Bleicher of Arete Incident Response, a cybersecurity firm that specializes in negotiations with criminal hackers, previously told CNBC.

There may be a connection between this attack and the attack on the Colonial pipeline in that the code used in the ransomware could come from the same source, according to security firm Flashpoint. The FBI has been warning about the rise of REvil for some time.

Don’t be surprised if meat prices rise, even after a short interruption. April’s pork and beef prices were up 4.8% and 3.3% compared to a year ago due to a range of things, including a labor shortage, summer demand and restaurants starting to reopen.

JBS released a statement saying:

“JBS USA and Pilgrim’s are a critical part of the food supply chain and we recognize our responsibility to our team members, producers and consumers to resume operations as soon as possible,” said Andre Nogueira, JBS USA CEO. “Our systems are coming back online and we are not sparing any resources to fight this threat. We have cybersecurity plans in place to address these types of issues and we are successfully executing those plans. Given the progress our IT professionals and plant teams have made in the last 24 hours, the vast majority of our beef, pork, poultry and prepared foods plants will be operational (Wednesday).”

In the U.S. today, JBS USA and Pilgrim’s were able to ship product from nearly all of its facilities to supply customers. The company also continues to make progress in resuming plant operations in the U.S. and Australia. Several of the company’s pork, poultry and prepared foods plants were operational today and its Canada beef facility resumed production.

Free beer if we hit 70% vaccinated adults by July 4

Budweiser beer cans on ice at a concession stand at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla. on March 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Anheuser-Busch says if America hits President Joe Biden’s goal of 70% of adults getting at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by July 4, there will be free beer. It is being called the “biggest beer giveaway in history.” The company says:

When the nation reaches the White House’s goal of 70% of adults partially vaccinated, Anheuser-Busch will buy America’s next round of beer, seltzer, non-alcoholic beverage or other A-B product* — inclusive of over 100 brands — to enjoy with family and friends. Adults 21+ will simply upload a picture of themselves in their favorite place to grab a beer, whether with friends at their favorite local bar and restaurant or with family in their very own backyard, at MyCooler.com/Beer to enter to receive a beer on A-B.

Free child care while you are being vaccinated

CNN reports:

Four of the nation’s largest childcare providers will offer free childcare from now until July 4 to Americans who are getting their Covid-19 vaccine or recovering from the shot, the White House announced Wednesday. KinderCare and Learning Care Group locations across the nation will offer free, drop-in care to support Americans getting vaccinated, and more than 500 YMCAs will offer drop-in care during vaccination appointments. Bright Horizons will also provide free childcare to support more than 10 million workers employed at participating organizations.

Starting next week, thousands of pharmacies, including Albertsons, CVS, Rite-Aid, and Walgreens will stay open late every Friday in June in order to allow more Americans to get vaccinated.

Free beer. Free child care. 2021 is looking better, huh?

How to reach the ‘moveable middle’ with vaccines

In order to reach the goal of 70% of American adults having had at least one COVID-19 vaccination dose by July 4, we are going to have to get more creative. One answer may be to go to places that people already trust and congregate in and offer vaccines there.

Some time ago, I read about an experiment to train barbers how to take blood pressure readings and warn customers to go get medical care when they spotted something concerning.

The COVID-19 vaccination efforts are now turning to similar trusted sources. At one barbershop, customers could get a shot plus a fried fish sandwich and a coupon for a haircut and shave. President Biden said he wants to recruit 1,000 barbershops and salons. The Washington Post says:

Barbershops in any community will be able to apply to participate in the new program, but priority will be given to those in parts of the country where vaccination rates are the lowest. Webb said the priority will be about 30 cities where there are still significant gaps. Many are in the South, including places such as Atlanta; Charlotte; San Antonio; Greensboro, North Carolina, and Birmingham, Alabama.

Some housing markets have risen 50% since 2017

In the top 10 hot housing markets, the average — read that again: AVERAGE — sale price of a home has risen 57% in the last four years. Realtor.com says:

Manchester-Nashua, NH maintains its hold as the hottest housing market in the country. Concord, NH holds the second-highest spot on the list.

Midwest and northeast housing markets together make up 14 of the 20 hottest housing markets in the country.

The Detroit, MI metro area saw the largest increase in its Hotness ranking among larger metros compared to last year.

Ten states were represented in the top 20 list, including California, Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maine, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

While affordability tends to be a factor in driving homebuyer demand, the hottest markets saw median listing prices 4.4% higher, on average, than the national price of $375,000 in April. This may reflect a willingness of buyers to pursue pricier homes as they aim to lock in favorable mortgage rates, which are projected to climb.

What is a picogram and why does it matter to Bob Baffert?

John Velazquez atop Medina Spirit competes in the 146th Preakness Stakes horse race at Pimlico Race Course, Saturday, May 15, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

As you may know by now, Medina Spirit may be stripped of his Kentucky Derby win because his saliva tests showed he had 25 picograms of betamethasone in his system. I have a personal dislike for the wording that says the horse failed his drug test; I think the trainers failed the drug test.

Back to my question: What the heck is a picogram?

You probably know what a gram is. Think of a package of sugar. A gram is less than half of a sugar pack.

How many picograms in 1 gram? The answer is 1,000,000,000,000, as in 1 trillion.

I turn to TheBetterEditor, who will put it in perspective for us:

One picogram is the average weight of the DNA in one cell of a hummingbird. That’s not the average weight of the whole cell. That’s the average weight of only the DNA in that one cell. That’s small. Really small. But somehow, knowing that each hummingbird cell has just about one picogram of DNA somehow puts the measure into perspective. I still can’t completely visualize it, but I can start to get there: a hummingbird is real; one red blood cell from a hummingbird is something I can see under a microscope (100x was used in the study). It’s not much of a conceptual leap to picture the DNA in that single cell, and from that point to appreciate its tiny, tiny weight.

The actual journal article is here.

Whether Medina Spirit is concerned, the rules are clear in Kentucky. While the state allows betamethasone to be used as a therapeutic, any level of the drug detected on race day is a violation. Baffert knew this back in January when he said he was surprised by another horse’s positive tests.

The Courier-Journal in Louisville talked with Dr. Mary Scollay, the former equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and now the executive director of the Lexington-based Racing Medication and Testing Consortium:

Betamethasone is a corticosteroid, meaning it’s a man-made steroid that resembles cortisol, a natural hormone produced by the adrenal gland. While legal as a therapeutic aid for horses, it is illegal when found in the blood on race day because it’s considered a possible performance-enhancer.

Baffert has called 21 picograms “very minute” and “a level that wouldn’t affect the horse.”

Scollay said there’s no data to support that claim.

A picogram is, indeed, measured as one-trillionth of a gram, but that doesn’t tell the complete story of the 21 picograms of betamethasone found in Medina Spirit’s post-race blood test.

Picograms are measured per milliliter of blood.

“A horse has upwards of 50,000 milliliters of blood in the body,” Scollay said. “You’re also not measuring the medication that may have left the bloodstream and entered the tissues, the muscles, the lungs, the organs, whatever.”

Scollay said a recommended dose of betamethasone in a horse’s joint is 9 milligrams and that studies have shown that dose is “below the limit of detection by 72 hours.”

“Can I tell you what 21 picograms does? No,” she said. “But I can tell you it is consistent with an administration into the joint at less than three days prior to a race. Philosophically, as a regulator, that would be unacceptable.

By the way, this is the first time I have ever written a column that includes beef, pork, horse racing and free beer all on the same day.

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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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