December 2, 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 first confirmed case of the omicron variant in the United States involves a vaccinated Californian who recently traveled from South Africa. The patient reports mild symptoms. More concerning is the fact that the traveler arrived in San Francisco on Nov. 22, meaning the virus may have been spreading in the U.S. for more than a week. The variant was first discovered in South Africa on Nov. 25.

The U.S. is now one of more than a dozen countries to detect the new variant, which researchers believe may evade vaccines. The patient in California was fully vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine but had not gotten a booster, according to San Francisco public health director Grant Colfax.

The traveler detected symptoms shortly after returning to the U.S., got tested, quarantined and began notifying people who might have been exposed to the virus. “They did the right thing and got tested,” Colfax said.

The variant has been discovered in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Ghana, Hong Kong, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Portugal, Réunion, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and now, the United States.

What does the US omicron case mean for travel?

Today, the White House may announce a new round of travel restrictions. Politico, The Washington Post and others say new restrictions for travelers flying into the United States may include a negative COVID-19 test just one day prior to travel regardless of whether the person has been vaccinated.  The new requirements would likely be enacted quickly to catch travelers during the busy holiday travel season about to ramp up.

It was only Nov. 8 that many journalists did stories about how the United States lifted international travel restrictions. You covered airport celebrations as families reunited, and hotels and tourism promoters who were thrilled to see people arriving.

Now, 56 countries, at least, have put new travel restrictions in place because of the omicron variant. The U.S. is barring most foreigners who have been in one of eight southern African countries, but U.S. citizens and permanent residents can come home.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters, “The objective is not to punish, it is to protect the American people. … This is not going to prevent, this is going to delay. And that delay is going to allow us to have the necessary time to do the research by health and medical teams and to get more people vaccinated and more people boosted.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is asking airlines to hand over information about passengers who traveled through southern African countries to the United States since Nov. 29. The government wants travelers’ names, addresses while in the United States, phone numbers, email addresses, dates of birth and flight information, including seat numbers.

The World Health Organization criticized countries that restrict travel from South Africa. “Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread of omicron, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general.

Starting Friday, New York will be under a state of emergency. Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency to allow New York to get additional health care workers into hospitals and collect emergency supplies. Hospitals may also delay elective procedures, including surgeries.

Will you need a fourth COVID shot to protect against omicron?

It is possible, but not set in stone, that you will need another booster vaccination early next year to protect you from omicron and other variants.

“We may not need a variant-specific boost; we’re preparing for the possibility that we need a variant-specific boost,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said. “And that’s what the companies are doing. We have been — the administration has been in contact with the pharmaceutical companies to go ahead and take the steps in case we need it. But the mistake people will make is to say, ‘Let me wait and see if we get one.’ If you’re eligible for boosting, get boosted right now.”

But WHO’s director of emergencies, Dr. Mike Ryan, repeated WHO’s criticism of developed countries urging people to get boosted when people in poor countries have still gotten no vaccines. WHO officials have said for months that variants will keep developing as long as the virus can find unvaccinated hosts anywhere in the world.

Countries mandate vaccines, fine people who refuse

A man wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus walks in Athens, Greece, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

You might want to read this Bloomberg piece about how Greece is making vaccinations mandatory for all Greeks over age 60. People who refuse will pay a 100-euro ($113) fine every month they go without being vaccinated.

The story says Germany and Israel are also moving closer to mandating vaccinations for virtually everyone. Singapore’s government says anybody who refuses to get vaccinated and catches COVID-19 will have to pay their own medical bills.

School systems suddenly cancel classes citing teacher shortages and burnout

In system after system, public schools from North Carolina to Michigan to Washington State have canceled days of classes because they didn’t have enough teachers or because the schools said the teachers were burned out. The cancellations send parents scrambling for child care.

US News and World Report found:

More than 2,298 school closures occurred last week – up from just 413 school closures the week prior to Thanksgiving, according to Burbio, an organization that’s been tracking school closures and the effect of the coronavirus on school learning.

Until recently, school closures this academic year have been driven almost entirely by COVID-19 outbreaks. But with staffing shortages straining school systems and burnout mounting among both staff and students, many school districts are adding early dismissals to the school calendar or closing early for planned holiday breaks.

Public schools in Richmond, Virginia, for example, are set to close Dec. 20 and 21 to give students and staff “a full two weeks of Winter Break to rest and recharge – physically, mentally, and emotionally,” Superintendent Jason Kamras said in a letter to the school community last week.

In an effort to stave off closures and worsening shortages in the run-up to the holiday season, a slew of school districts announced incentives for staff to tough it out, including retention bonuses. At least three counties in North Carolina are offering staff anywhere from $500 to $2,000 in bonuses.


Burbio says:

In the mental health driven disruption category on November 17th Detroit Public Schools preemptively shifted to virtual learning on Fridays in December “after listening and reflecting on the concerns of school-based leaders, teachers, support staff, students, and families regarding the need for mental health relief …”

The Detroit Free Press heard from virus experts who said “deep cleaning” won’t do much to prevent infections:

As Michigan case rates reach record levels, schools are looking to mitigate the number of cases in any way they can. And more are closing or switching to virtual learning on certain days of the week, some in an effort to clean more vigorously.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District, the largest in the state, is among several districts promising to deep clean and sanitize during virtual days. The district’s school days will be held remotely on Fridays. In addition to deep cleaning, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the off days were also meant to help ease stress on educators, many of whom are feeling exhausted by another pandemic school year.

But there is skepticism among virologists around deep cleaning. Surface spread of the coronavirus is rare, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends handwashing and hand-sanitizing as the best way to prevent contracting the virus.

NPR reports that school systems increasingly are closing for four-day weekends under the guise of deep cleaning. But, as NPR points out, “in April the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its previous guidance on disinfecting buildings in recognition of the evidence that COVID-19 is rarely spread through surfaces.”

This interactive map provides an idea of how this school year has been interrupted time after time:


The global syringe shortage

Syringes ready to be filled with doses of vaccines against COVID-19 at a vaccination center in Lisbon, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

The pandemic has taught us that to control the coronavirus, we cannot just concern ourselves with matters of our own country. That is why a growing global syringe shortage should concern us all.

Experts say this shortage will primarily affect low- and middle-income countries, threatening to stall not only COVID-19 vaccinations but also life-saving childhood immunization programs — efforts that were already interrupted by the pandemic.

A United Nations report said, “Based on a scenario where around seven billion people need two doses of coronavirus vaccine between now and 2023, the UN health agency said that a shortage of at least one billion syringes ‘could occur,’ if manufacturing does not pick up.”

The World Health Organization says the deficit of syringes could top 2 billion in 2022. The Washington Post explains:

Industry estimates are that 40 billion to 50 billion medical syringes are manufactured in a typical (non-pandemic) year globally. Yet most of these syringes are used for therapeutics such as insulin or cancer drugs, not vaccines. Only about 5 to 10 percent of all syringes are the smaller, specialty versions designed for vaccines. Vaccine syringe manufacturers have privately forecast collective production increases in vaccine syringes for 2022 that total nearly 5.5 billion annually, significantly increasing current capacity.

Stay alert to federal budget talks. The government shutdown deadline is midnight Friday

Congressional leaders say there probably will not be a federal government shutdown, but time is running out. The best guess is that Congress will find a way to keep things running into February.

If you want employees to stay, tell them you are thankful for their work

A new poll by Gallup found that 52% of people who left their job during the pandemic said their employer could have done something to make them stay.

There is no better time than right now, this instant, for you to tell your bosses and co-workers how thankful you are for what they do. Now, more than any time I can recall, journalists need to hear that.

The pandemic showed us new ways to work and reorganized our priorities. A recent Gallup analysis showed that nearly half of U.S. workers (48%) are actively job searching or watching for opportunities. Employers have been crying about how many people are leaving their jobs. News executives tell me high turnover is their No. 1 worry right now.

Here is my first advice: Tell the people that you want to stick around that you want them to stick around.

Gallup found:

One of the best ways to outmaneuver turnover is to have frequent, meaningful conversations with employees. Now more than ever, leaders need to enable supportive conversations with employees about their wellbeing, job expectations, development goals and more — factors that influence employees’ willingness to stay.

Stay conversations are one-on-one conversations designed to learn more about the employee, including their passions and career goals, what they value in life, and what they need to be more successful in their role. Effective stay conversations are two-way exchanges that get to the heart of the individual’s needs, motivations and engagement drivers.

How many journalists who left their job in the last year needed the flexibility to manage children’s schooling, care for parents and deal with COVID-19 concerns but had a boss who was clueless about these pressures?

I put out a call to journalist friends of mine to get their experiences. One photojournalist in a middle market said after more than 40 years on the job, he has not ever been told directly that the TV station wants him to stick around. He said, “Once a year or so the chief photographer indirectly suggests in a spur of the moment opportunity that he’s glad I’m still around.” He added, “It means I’m taken for granted and still have some use to them until they decide I’m no longer cost-effective to keep around.”

You may have picked up on the hints that these are not one-and-done conversations. Stay conversations should be nonstop. When newsrooms lose employees and didn’t know the person was looking, it tells me that the boss didn’t effectively communicate how valuable the employee is and didn’t provide a safe and open channel for the employee to talk about the future.

Gallup’s newest research also shows a third of managers are suffering burnout. The study found that managers are more burned out than the people they manage, and the gap is continuing to grow.

Gallup said:

  • Stress and anxiety levels remained high for managers — but declined for individual contributors and leaders — in 2021.
  • Diagnosed depression increased for managers in 2021 but was relatively unchanged for individual contributors and project managers and declined for leaders.
  • Only one in four managers in 2021 strongly agree that they are able to maintain a healthy balance between work and personal commitments.

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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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