November 1, 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 Office of Management and Budget may release the details about the Biden administration’s mandate for employers with 100 or more workers to require COVID-19 vaccinations, Bloomberg says.

Here’s what we expect to learn:

  • How big the fines will be for ignoring the order.
  • How quickly the government will enforce the rule
  • Whether the employer must pay for COVID-19 tests for workers who are not vaccinated. If employers have to pay for twice-a-week tests, the cost alone could be enough to force them to make vaccination a requirement, not a choice.

Meanwhile, some of the country’s biggest labor unions are pressing the Biden administration to provide even more protection to workers, beyond mandatory vaccinations. CNBC reports:

Three of the biggest labor groups, specifically the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, told CNBC they asked the administration to expand employee protections, requiring employers to improve ventilation and enforce mask rules and social distancing.

At the same time, business leaders are asking the government to delay enforcement until after the holiday season because they say the mandates would worsen labor shortages.

The newest Kaiser Family Foundation polling shows about 5% of unvaccinated workers have quit their job rather than comply with a mandate. One in four workers (25%) now say their employer has required them to get a COVID-19 vaccine, up 16 percentage points since June.

Today we will find out how much of a standoff New York City government still has with city workers over mandated vaccinations. Around 4,000 fire department workers and 8,300 police department employees risk being sent home today. Some city departments have seen a significant increase in vaccinations in the last few days.

The police department’s vaccination rate rose to 84%, which is up from 79% on Thursday. The sanitation department rose to 79%, a three-day increase of 12%. The Department of Correction has the lowest vaccination rate with barely half of workers (54%) vaccinated as of Friday.

In Oregon, some employers, including rural governments, are granting blanket exemptions to people who claim a religious issue. Oregon Live found:

Oregon has granted religious exemptions from Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate to at least 11% of state executive branch workers, nearly double the rate of faith-based exemptions approved for state workers in Washington.

At last report, 11% of Oregon state workers had applied for and gotten religious exemptions to avoid vaccinations. Just 2% of Washington state’s government workers have gotten such an exemption. Oregon Live says 19% of employees at the Oregon Department of Corrections and 14% for Oregon State Police applied for religious exemptions.

16 states sue or plan to sue over federal vaccine mandates

Governors and attorneys general in 10 states have filed or plan to file lawsuits challenging the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for federal contractors. And leaders in six more states plan to file similar lawsuits.

Attorneys general from Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming joined the lawsuit, which was filed in a federal district court in Missouri.

Georgia is planning to file a similar federal lawsuit to block the requirement for contractors. That suit will include complaints from Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, West Virginia, Utah and South Carolina.

To remind you, the mandate is for federal employees and contractors to be vaccinated by Dec. 8 and there is no option to get regularly tested instead.

The states have a lot at stake because so many industries in so many states have federal contracts. It is also a political play for Republican leaders who want to take a stand against federal government mandates. You can go here to see a spreadsheet list of federal contractors. It will give you an easy way to think through how many workers would be affected by a federal contractor vaccine mandate. (The directory includes the name and location of the vendor, the contracting agency’s name, the contract’s product/service code [PSC] and North American Industry Classification System [NAICS)] code; the state the contract will principally be performed in; the contract number [PIID]; the contract’s performance start date and completion date, and the total contract value. The directory is displayed by the government’s fiscal year [Oct. 1 through Sept. 30]. Filter the results by selecting the drop-down arrows on any cell of the directory.)

Vaccinated people can be as infectious as unvaccinated people, but for less time

I want to explore a controversial and important study that could easily become fodder for people who oppose vaccinations. At the same time, the study tells us a lot about why it is important for fully vaccinated people to remain vigilant about mask-wearing and distancing indoors.

The study, just published in British medical journal The Lancet, says fully vaccinated people can contract and pass along the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2. The study does not end there and the rest of what it found is equally important. Vaccinated people pass along the virus at lower rates than unvaccinated people.

The study also found that vaccinated people clear the infection faster and are infectious to others for a shorter period of time than unvaccinated people. That means that vaccinated infected people may infect people in their household but not be as much of a threat to people with who they are not in protracted close contact shortly after being infected.

Here is the part of the study that may raise questions about vaccination effectiveness: The study found that “viral load,” which is essentially how much virus a person has in their body, was not lower among vaccinated people compared to unvaccinated people. Both are equally infectious. But the vaccinated people’s viral load dropped faster, meaning they were not infectious to others for as long.

The scientific way of saying what I just told you is:

Vaccination reduces the risk of delta variant infection and accelerates viral clearance. Nonetheless, fully vaccinated individuals with breakthrough infections have peak viral load similar to unvaccinated cases and can efficiently transmit infection in household settings, including to fully vaccinated contacts. Host–virus interactions early in infection may shape the entire viral trajectory.

This study was a year in length and involved 621 people. So, while it is a long-term study, the sample size was not huge.

Of course, people who question or oppose vaccines will point to this study to say vaccines do not prevent infections and do not prevent you from infecting others, so why get vaccinated?

Fortune provides a perspective that I found clear and useful:

The results go some way toward explaining why the Delta variant is so infectious even in nations with successful vaccine rollouts, and why the unvaccinated can’t assume they are protected because others have had shots. Those who were inoculated cleared the virus more quickly and had milder cases, while unvaccinated household members were more likely to suffer from severe disease and hospitalization.

“Our findings show that vaccination alone is not enough to prevent people from being infected with the Delta variant and spreading it in household settings,” said Ajit Lalvani, a professor of infectious diseases at Imperial College London who co-led the study. “The ongoing transmission we are seeing between vaccinated people makes it essential for unvaccinated people to get vaccinated to protect themselves.”

Canada starts its new vaccine passport this week

Over the weekend, Canada began Smart Health Card — its vaccination passport program that travelers will need to get on flights. The paper and digital certificate will have a QR code for scanning at airports, train stations and other entry points. The card includes the person’s name, date of birth, COVID-19 vaccine history and notes on which doses a person received and when they were inoculated.

Daily Hive reports:

Passengers aged 12 and up travelling on federally regulated flights, trains or cruises must be fully vaccinated beginning October 31. A grace period until November 30 will allow passengers to show a negative COVID-19 molecular test taken within the last 72 hours. This applies to both international and domestic travel.

The Vancouver Sun explains:

The federal card uses the SMART Health Card standard, which is recognized by many top travel destinations for Canadian travelers, although the card does not guarantee entry to another country.

Details about the card have been shared with “international partners” and “may” be accepted by international travel destinations, according to information published on government websites.

Canada also allows individual provinces to have vaccine cards. But Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and all three northern territories will now allow the national card to stand in for the provincial cards. Al Jazeera adds this bit of background that makes the tiered system a little more understandable:

In Canada, healthcare is largely delivered by provincial governments and mostly financed by the national government, sometimes leading to political squabbles about jurisdiction and who pays for what.

Natural immunity is less effective than vaccines

Natural immunity, which is the immunity that your body builds after you have been infected by COVID-19, certainly gives you some protection. And plenty of people who had COVID-19 avoid vaccines because they (falsely) think that since they have been infected and have natural immunity, they do not need to be vaccinated. But a new study just published by the Centers for Disease Control and Infection says people in the study who were not vaccinated were 5.49 times as likely to test positive for coronavirus as those who had been vaccinated within the past three to six months — even if they had a recent COVID-19 infection.

It is fair to point out that this study says the opposite of what an Israeli study found. The CDC’s study says the Israeli study looked at people who had been vaccinated six months before or longer, and as you will recall, that drop-off of protection was a reason that the Food and Drug Administration and CDC recommended booster shots.

Declassified report: Where did COVID-19 begin?

If the newest information was conclusive, I obviously would not have buried it. The newly declassified report says there still is no solid proof whether it came from nature or from a lab in China.

Supreme Court hearing cases on guns and abortion this week

The Supreme Court is seen during sundown in Washington, Friday afternoon, Nov. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Today, the Supreme Court will hear back-to-back cases involving the Texas abortion ban. On Wednesday, the court will hear arguments having to do with Second Amendment rights, focused on a person’s right to carry a weapon in public.

The Texas cases are Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson and United States v. Texas. They are focused on Texas’ restrictive law called S.B. 8, which litigants say violates the court’s rulings in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

S.B. 8 bans the procedure after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, which occurs as early as the sixth week of pregnancy.

The legal question in both lawsuits focuses on the unique nature of Texas’ law. The state passed the enforcement of such a law to the public. S.B. 8 gives private citizens the power to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion, including Uber or taxi drivers, friends or family members who drive the patient to a clinic, or clinic workers themselves. United States v. Texas is a second attempt to block the law from being enforced while the Whole Women’s Health case is aimed at S.B. 8 itself.

Axios points out that many other states will be watching the Texas case:

If the court were to ultimately overturn the precedents that established the constitutional right to an abortion, a patchwork of state laws would govern the procedure.

Oklahoma (today) becomes the 12th state with a “trigger law” — an abortion ban that would kick in right away if the court overturns its precedents. Four states have even amended their constitutions to prohibit any protections for abortion rights.

Several other states don’t have trigger laws, but would likely move quickly to ban or tightly restrict the procedure if the court clears the way. Florida, Indiana, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming would be prime candidates, according to new analysis from the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research organization.

As you listen to the hearing today, pay attention to the questions asked by Chief Justice John Roberts. He sided with liberal justices when the court was asked to freeze the enforcement of the Texas law just before it took effect. The majority voted to allow the law to be enforced and Justice Roberts dissented, saying “the statutory scheme before the court is not only unusual, but unprecedented.”

RollCall points out that critics of the Texas law claim that if the statute stands, other states will use similar tactics to attack all sorts of rights, including gun ownership:

Whole Woman’s Health and other abortion providers told the court abortion is the target today, but the “possibilities are limitless” for copycat laws that target other rights.

“Tomorrow, it might be gun buyers who face private, civil liability for firearm purchases. Same-sex couples could be sued by neighbors for trying to obtain a marriage license,” the providers wrote in a petition. “States could give citizens a right to sue any newspaper that criticized the incumbent government. Unpopular political groups could be barred from gathering under threat of vigilante lawsuits.”

And the Justice Department pointed out that states could ban possession of handguns in the home, contrary to the Supreme Court’s ruling from 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller, or prohibit independent corporate campaign advertising, contrary to the Citizens United v. FEC decision in 2010.

The gun case that comes up Wednesday involves a nearly century-old New York law that requires people to show “proper cause” to be allowed to carry a concealed handgun in public. Two men, Robert Nash and Brandon Koch, applied for concealed carry permits citing “self-defense” as the purpose. The state turned them down. Their lawsuit directly questions what the words of the Second Amendment mean. The plaintiffs argued that when the Second Amendment mentions securing “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” — it refers to two separate rights. To “keep” arms is to be able to own them, while to “bear” arms is to be able to carry them, they say.

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.

Clarification: Several articles attributed to The Seattle Times were originally published by Oregon Live and republished by The Seattle Times. We have updated the attribution to provide more accurate credit. 

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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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