December 16, 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.

COVID-19 deaths among pregnant people rose sharply in the last two months. More than two dozen deaths were reported in both August and September. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning women to get vaccinated right away if they are or plan to be pregnant.


The CDC lists pregnancy as one of the “underlying conditions” that makes COVID-19 especially dangerous because a woman’s body already throttles back its immune response while supporting a fetus.

ABC News points out:

COVID-19 is especially dangerous in pregnant people because their immune systems are already less active as they are supporting their growing fetus. For the same reason, their hearts and kidneys are working harder, Dr. Laura Vricella, a maternal fetal medicine physician at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, told ABC News in August, as her hospital and others experienced a spike in pregnant patients with COVID-19.

Pregnant people must also keep their oxygen levels higher in general to support their fetus, which can be a herculean task to do when COVID-19 is in the body, according to Vricella.

And in addition to pregnant people with COVID-19 being more likely to deliver prematurely, Vricella said her hospital also saw more COVID-positive pregnant patients deliver stillbirths, even with mild COVID cases.

The CDC says of the 248 deaths among pregnant people recorded since the pandemic began, 40% have occurred since August, which is around the same time that the delta variant became the dominant version of the virus infecting Americans.


More states are offering free COVID-19 tests

The list of states offering free COVID-19 tests is growing. New Jersey, New Hampshire and Washington send free test kits to people who ask for them.

Pew Stateline says:

Massachusetts announced today that it will send 2 million free rapid test kits to 102 cities and towns in the state that have the highest proportion of families living in poverty, so officials can distribute them to residents.

Unlike those states, New Jersey is sending lab tests that residents must mail back.

New Jersey has experienced a steep rise in cases since early November and an accompanying increase in hospitalizations, particularly among older residents. State health officials said new hospitalizations have climbed by 81% in the last two weeks.

ProPublica asked why at-home COVID-19 tests are expensive and hard to find in the U.S. when some countries offer them for free or nearly free.

Pushing booster doses while 90 million Americans are not yet eligible

The CDC is pushing people to get vaccine booster doses but new CDC data shows that there are more people who have had two shots and are not yet eligible for a booster than there are people who have not been vaccinated at all. Axios made the data easier to understand with this chart:


Immunologists say they do not want people to be in too big of a hurry to get their booster shots because the immune system needs six months to build antibodies that the vaccines jumpstart. The booster vaccine is supposed to reignite the antibody-building process once it starts to wear down after some months. One person described it to me like a rocket with stages. The big rocket gets you off the launchpad and the booster rocket puts you in orbit. (I realize that a fair number of you were born after we stopped using rockets with stages, so maybe I need to get a new illustration.)

The great pandemic ‘closet purge’

A new survey by CivicScience found “that 40% of Americans are ready to part with much of their wardrobes or have already recently done so” as they contemplate shedding their pandemic sweatpants for real clothes again. Three-fourths of the people who responded to the poll and who work in a “physical location” like an office said they should do a closet purge but probably won’t. Men also were more likely to say they should offload clothes but probably won’t.


The poll said the older people are, the more likely they want to purge their pandemic-era closet.

Kroger cuts emergency leave and imposes insurance fees on unvaccinated workers

Giant grocery chain Kroger said starting Jan. 1, unvaccinated workers who become infected will no longer be eligible to receive up to two weeks of paid emergency leave. It began offering that leave last year when the pandemic was new and the public hailed grocery workers as “essential.”

Kroger has a half-million employees. About two-thirds of them belong to a union. The company says it will charge unvaccinated non-union employees a $50 monthly fee for insurance, while people who get vaccinated get a $100 incentive.

Massive ProPublica project details industrial pollution in 1,000 hot spots, local journalists join the investigation


ProPublica has augmented its massive investigation of the nation’s communities with the most toxic air pollution with more than a thousand interviews. The journalists’ work shows:

… how for the first time just how much toxic air pollution they emit — and how much the chemicals they unleash could be elevating cancer risk in their communities.

ProPublica’s analysis of five years of modeled EPA data identified more than 1,000 toxic hot spots across the country and found that an estimated 250,000 people living in them may be exposed to levels of excess cancer risk that the EPA deems unacceptable.

But the agency has never released this data in a way that allows the public to understand the risks of breathing the air where they live. Using the reports submitted between 2014 and 2018, we calculated the estimated excess cancer risk from industrial sources across the entire country and mapped it all.

ProPublica says as a result of its reporting, it has documented, “Most (people living near hot spots) never got a warning from the EPA. They are rallying neighbors, packing civic meetings and signing petitions for reform.”  ProPublica wanted to speak to people in every hot spot and put out a public appeal a month ago. Responses poured in from around the country when local journalists took on the investigative project, too.

ProPublica passes this along to local journalists who want to use the data:

On community-based subreddits, moderators allowed us to share our work and invite people to participate in our reporting. At a virtual event with over 100 attendees, residents living in hot spots asked questions of our reporters, and during a separate event for journalists, our team shared tips on how to best investigate the impacts of toxic industrial pollution. More than 60 local TV stations nationwide aired segments on the facilities in their viewers’ neighborhoods, often demanding answers from local officials and regulators; at least 13 local newspapers did the same.

Across the country, residents have been mobilizing, using ProPublica’s analysis to push the issue at civic meetings and circulate a petition demanding federal reform that has now been signed by more than 88,000 people.

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.

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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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