May 5, 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 rate of vaccinations is slowing so quickly that experts wonder if herd immunity is even possible. President Joe Biden is changing the national strategy and has directed tens of thousands of pharmacies to offer walk-in vaccinations. The new plan will veer away from the mass vaccination centers we have relied on so far and will create more pop-up and mobile clinics and ship more doses to rural clinics.

The change in plans is a recognition that, while a couple of million people are being vaccinated each day, the rate of vaccination is down by a third from just weeks ago.

President Biden’s new goal is for about 160 million adults to be at least partially vaccinated by Independence Day.

By way of context, about 40% of Americans are fully vaccinated (two shots for the mRNA vaccines, one for Johnson & Johnson) and at least 56% of adults have received at least one shot. The new goal would require 100 million shots in 60 days, which is about half the rate that is being delivered today. But, again, it appears the rush to receive vaccinations is waning.

If the Food and Drug Administration approves vaccine use for young teens this week as expected, the overall vaccination figures should again move up quickly.

Biden administration tells states to ‘use or lose’ vaccine allotments

The Biden administration is also planning a significant change in how it allocates vaccine shipments to states. The change is an attempt to keep states from stockpiling unused doses and get the vaccines to states that still have a strong demand.

The new allocation will still base a state’s weekly allocations on population, but states will not be allowed to carry over doses they do not use week to week. Instead, the supplies will go to states that still have a greater demand than supply.

FAA reports spike in ‘unruly passengers’ on flights, most for not wearing masks

A jet is silhouetted by the rising moon as it approaches Louisville International Airport in Louisville, Ky., on April 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Since Feb. 2, domestic airlines say they have refused service to 2,500 people who refuse to wear a mask. Not all those cases were reported to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Reuters reports:

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Monday that airlines have referred approximately 1,300 unruly-passenger reports since February and the agency has identified potential violations in about 260 cases.

In March, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said he would indefinitely extend a “zero tolerance policy” on unruly air passengers first imposed in January, and said that airlines had reported hundreds of cases since December — most which involved passengers not wearing masks as required on airplanes.

NBC News’ Tom Costello adds:

In a typical year, the transportation agency sees 100 to 150 formal cases of bad passenger behavior. But since the start of this year, the agency said, the number of reported cases has jumped to 1,300, an even more remarkable number since the number of passengers remains below pre-pandemic levels.

The behavior in question includes passengers refusing to wear masks, drinking excessively, and engaging in alleged physical or verbal assault, including what the agency describes as political intimidation and harassment of lawmakers.

The Transportation Security Administration extended the mandate on wearing face masks onboard airplanes and in airports and in other transit modes through Sept. 13. The order was set to expire May 11.

On a related note, The Wall Street Journal says there is a growing demand and market for fake COVID-19 health certificates that international travelers need to cross borders.

Schools are using virtual classrooms as punishment

NBC News ran a story that said schools across the country are using virtual learning as punishment for students who don’t comply with mask and other health rules. Student advocates say sending kids home to virtual classrooms is a way to punish them without having to report suspensions or expulsions.

The story says:

Advocates say the students they’ve seen removed from in-person classes this year are the same ones who’ve been traditionally more likely to be removed from class: children with disabilities, who have a harder time following some rules, and Black or Latino children who are more likely to be punished for their behavior than their white classmates.

More than 200 universities and colleges will require COVID-19 vaccines this fall

The list of colleges and universities that will require COVID-19 vaccines for students and staff is growing. In fact, it is growing fast. Inside Higher Education noted some trends last week when the list was still under 200 schools:

The pattern is unmistakable. Just 15 of 181 colleges with COVID-19 vaccine requirements included in a list maintained by The Chronicle of Higher Education are located in states that voted for Trump in 2020. Of those 15, just one, Cleveland State University, in Ohio, is a public university.

Public and private institutions in the same state are taking different approaches on vaccine requirements. After Duke and Wake Forest Universities, selective private institutions in North Carolina, announced they would require vaccines for all students this fall, the News & Record reported that the University of North Carolina would not.

Similarly, Grinnell College, a private liberal arts college in Iowa, will require the vaccine for students next year, but the chair of the Iowa Board of Regents said that the state’s public universities will not.

Public universities in different states are also making different decisions. The University of Massachusetts campuses at Amherst, Boston and Lowell, along with nine other Massachusetts public universities, are all requiring vaccines for students this fall. The Colorado State University system is also mandating them, as is Washington State University.

Five states — Arizona, Idaho, Florida, Montana and Texas — “have standing executive orders barring government entities from requiring proof of COVID vaccination for access to buildings or services, though the potential applicability of these orders to colleges varies across those states.”

The American College Health Association recommends that schools require vaccines this fall.

Pandemic innovations are ending school snow days

The New York City school system made it official: The invention of virtual learning will mean an end to snow days beginning next school year.

Not everybody is thrilled by the loss of snow days that can come as an unexpected break and the move gives parents one more thing to juggle in addition to child care and figuring out how to work when the weather is rough.

New York City schools also made some changes you do not see everywhere. Election Day will be a virtual learning day and city schools will officially mark Juneteenth as an official off day. Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of the last remaining enslaved people in the U.S. after the Civil War.

128,000 wasted COVID-19 vaccine doses need some context

The raw number of vaccine doses lost for a range of reasons sounds high, but maybe we should look at it as a percentage of the millions of doses delivered so far.

When Americans were scrambling for COVID-19 vaccines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was tracking wasted doses and found 182,874 doses were wasted nationwide. The states that reported their waste blamed broken vials, broken syringes and some storage problems.

Two pharmacy store chains that delivered vaccines lost the most doses.  CVS was responsible for nearly half of the wasted doses and Walgreens was responsible for 21%, or nearly 128,500 wasted shots combined.

Now, put that number into context. By the end of March, which these figures track, Moderna and Pfizer had delivered 189.5 million vaccine doses.

Kaiser Health News reports:

A CVS spokesperson, Michael DeAngelis, in an email blamed wasted doses on “issues with transportation restrictions, limitations on redirecting unused doses, and other factors.”

“Despite the inherent challenges, our teams were able to limit waste to approximately one dose per onsite vaccination clinic,” he added.

Walgreens said its wastage amounted to less than 0.5% of vaccines the company administered through March 29, which totaled 3 million shots in long-term care facilities and 5.2 million more through the federal government’s retail pharmacy partnership.

CVS said nearly all its lost doses occurred during the initial rollout of vaccines to long-term care facilities.

There is this footnote from Kaiser, which collected the data from the CDC: “Data from 15 states, the District of Columbia and multiple U.S. territories are not included in the CDC’s records. And, in general, waste reporting has been inconsistent,” so almost certainly the total doses lost is greater than reported.

The 15 states not included in the CDC’s data are Alaska, California, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Texas. The District of Columbia is also missing. It underpins the need to track these figures more closely.

Big changes coming to the National Flood Insurance Program

Waters overflow the Tittabawassee River, Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Midland, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

This is one of those items that is easy to overlook. But don’t. It involves lots of money and a big government program changing its rules. Some people will soon pay more, and some will soon pay less.

The National Flood Insurance Program is vitally important nationwide but especially for people living in hurricane and flood-prone areas. Most flood claims are not from hurricanes but from people living near rivers. 25% of flood insurance claims reported to the program come from areas with a “moderate to low risk” of flooding. “Everyone lives in a flood zone,” the program says.

WBZ in Boston explored the changes that are on the way later this year to the National Flood Insurance Program, “which is currently over 20 billion dollars in debt.”

The report explains that the current flood rating system, on which flood insurance rates are based, is largely linked to a home or business’s elevation in a flood zone. But the new Risk Rating 2.0 will be more sophisticated in that it will include more factors on which to base an insurance rate.

FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) manages the NFIP. When they updated and expanded Flood Zones in 2012, premiums for many policy holders skyrocketed. Now, another change is coming in October called Risk Rating 2.0.

“Risk rating 2.0, simply is the largest change in the rating structure of the National Flood Insurance Program in its 53-year-old history,” said Joe Rossi, flood specialist for Roger Gray Insurance.

Currently, rates are determined mostly by elevation in a flood zone. Over the last several decades technology has evolved and so had FEMA’s understanding of flood risk.

“This is going to be a transition like we’ve never seen before,” Rossi explains. “A home that is right on the seawall is going to have a much different rate than a home that is even a couple hundred feet back or further… and there are a bunch of other rating factors that will go into risk rating 2.0,” said Rossi.

WBZ said the new ratings that will be used to calculate new rates are “distance from a water source, mitigation efforts, storm surge, coastal erosion, heavy rainfall, river overflow, elevation, cost to rebuild, property value and frequency of flooding.” As a result, some insurance costs will go down and others will rise.

This is the current estimate of how many rates will rise and fall:

(FEMA)

You can go here and see state-by-state estimates of how many policyholders in your state are likely to pay more or pay less. In Florida, just as an example, more than 1.3 million policyholders will pay more while 342,000 will pay less right away. In New York, about 60% of policyholders will see an increase in rates. In North Carolina, the increase will hit about 70% of policyholders.

“Existing statutory limits on rate increases require that most rates not increase more than 18% per year,” FEMA says.

FEMA explains it this way:

Currently, policyholders with lower-valued homes are paying more than their share of the risk while policyholders with higher-valued homes are paying less than their share of the risk. Because Risk Rating 2.0 considers rebuilding costs, FEMA can equitably distribute premiums across all policyholders based on home value and a property’s unique flood risk.

The Flood Insurance Program says the new rating system will roll out this way:

PHASE I

New policies beginning Oct. 1, 2021, will be subject to the new rating methodology. Also beginning Oct. 1, existing policyholders eligible for renewal will be able to take advantage of immediate decreases in their premiums.

PHASE II

All remaining policies renewing on or after April 1, 2022, will be subject to the new rating methodology.

We are a month away from the beginning of hurricane season and in Florida, for example, only one in four homeowners has flood insurance.

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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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