January 4, 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 people who received Pfizer vaccines on Dec. 14, the day vaccinations began in the United States, are due for a second dose today, 21 days later. It’s possible that some may not get it.

Journalists, you did lots of stories heralding the spectacular achievement of drug companies producing a COVID-19 vaccine in blazing speed. But the delivery system for those drugs is badly flawed and the country and world must demand something better or the pandemic will drag on for another year.

The Trump administration says the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations will jump this week. It has a long way to go. Millions of doses of the vaccine may expire before they are used. As New York Magazine put it, “We were promised 100 million doses by the end of the year. We got 40 million. We set 20 million aside to be second doses. And we have only administered 2 million — ten percent of available first doses.”

In the world of logistics, planners refer to these as the “last mile” needs. When building water lines, expanding internet connections and even delivering parcels, we have ways to get stuff from handler to handler. But delivering it to the final user — getting from the road to the house, from the regional post office to your door — that is the hang-up. And that is where we are now with this vaccine.

At first, we asked hospitals, health clinics and nursing homes, the busiest and most overworked places in our communities, to take on vaccinating, too. And remember, those places have a captive audience of patients, the easiest vaccines to administer. The New York Times notes that so far, three weeks after the vaccine arrived, something around 1% of the city’s population has been vaccinated. By contrast, Israel is vaccinating about 1% of its population each DAY.

The New York Times writes:

The pace is worrying some experts. “I do feel concern,” said Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiology professor at Columbia University. Despite months to prepare, there still seemed to be a steep learning curve when it comes to “the nitty-gritty of how do you get it from the freezer to the arm as quickly as possible,” she said. “I think there are growing pains as people are picking up how to do this.”

The first phase should have been the simplest, she added. “We’ve started out with the easiest populations, an almost captive audience: nursing homes and hospital workers — you know who they are and where to find them.”

Meanwhile, states are left to come up with their own “last mile” plans, and they are not going so well. CNN reports:

Florida has put in place a county-by-county plan for vaccinating its elderly population, leading to hours-long lines at vaccination sites in a southwest Florida county that was distributing on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Texas has only distributed one-third of the vaccines it has received so far, according to numbers released on the state’s vaccine dashboard. And in Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine said he is not satisfied with the number of vaccines that have been administered in his state, as well as the compliance of those in priority groups electing to receive the vaccine.

Several states have also said it’s been difficult to plan a vaccine rollout when their supply numbers from the Trump administration are constantly changing and they are only receiving information on vaccine supply on a week-to-week basis.

“There is no federal organization, no federal rollout, there is no coordination between the federal government and state governments,” Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat, said.

In one illustration of the “last mile” confusion, health officials in Chattanooga, Tennessee, opened a drive-thru vaccination program for seniors. People lined up in lawn chairs and cars for miles. When it appeared there would not be enough vaccine to go around to the waiting crowd, they turned some people away, only to discover they miscalculated how many vaccines they had. They are supposed to get more vaccines today and are going to give it another go tomorrow.

The government is promising “real-time tracking” so we can see where the vaccine has been administered. We do not have a good answer for why it was not being built at the same time the vaccines were being tested.

The government is also considering not holding back second shots for people who have received their first and vaccinating more people right now, then using future shipments for second doses in a few weeks. The downside is that if there is a delay in future shipments, patients may not get the second dose in time to be effective.

Sen.Mitt Romney said Friday that the government should come up with a plan in which “every medical professional, retired or active, who is not currently engaged in the delivery of care” is trained to administer the shot, with states establishing vaccination sites throughout their borders. A schedule could then be established based on patient risk and birthdate.”

The status of the variant virus

An ambulance drives of a hospital in London, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. Reports say that pressure on the United Kingdom’s National Health Service is rising, especially of the new variant of this virus that transmits so much faster.
(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

While COVID-19 cases are rising, so too is the number of an even more infectious COVID-19 variant.

“The variant, known as B.1.1.7., is believed to be more than 50 percent more contagious. But surveillance of it is limited here. Less than half of a percent of confirmed virus cases in the United States are examined for variants, a far smaller fraction of cases than in a number of other countries,” the Washington Post reports.

We may know more this week about how long the virus’ variant strain(s) have been circulating in the U.S. It could be that it began in October. It has now been found in at least 17 countries.

The problem is that you do not see what you do not look for. At the moment, there is little tracking or testing for the new variants of the COVID-19 virus, so it is not possible to say for sure how widespread it is. That might seem like a familiar theme from a year ago, StatNews says:

Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute (Seattle), told STAT he doesn’t believe the new variant, which is called B.1.1.7, is widespread yet. There are 250 genetic sequences of SARS-2 viruses from December cases in the U.S. that have been logged into an international virus sharing database known as GISAID; there isn’t a B.1.1.7 among them, Bedford said. But he believes it may just be a matter of time.

One way to test for virus movements is to test a community’s wastewater.

There are efforts afoot to try to figure out how widely the new variant is spreading — one of them led by Michael Worobey’s evolutionary biology lab at the University of Arizona. StatNews reports:

His team is trying to develop an assay that could be used to test for variant viruses in wastewater from community sewage systems. If the test works, he said, the lab will ship testing materials to other laboratories, test samples in their own lab, or share the recipe for making the primers and probes to get the test into wide use.

“I do think that wastewater is going to be the best way in the very near term to get a better handle rather than waiting for the odd lab like Colorado that comes across one of these in an individual patient sample,” Worobey said.

I first read about Worobey’s work when the University of Arizona began studying wastewater from school dorms to detect COVID-19 outbreaks among students and caught a potential outbreak before it started.

This is not helpful

This post grabbed my attention:

But when you open the story, you see it is not that the vaccine is ineffective, it is that vaccines do not protect you instantly. The real story from KGTV San Diego is both contextual and informative.

(KGTV San Diego)

The KGTV story includes an interview with a vaccine expert who points out that the nurse may have been infected before getting the shot. And the story reminds us the first shot is about 50% effective, while the second dose boosts immunity to around 95%.

I know KGTV’s headline was longer than you might like but, especially in a pandemic, clarity wins.

Paid leave for COVID-19 is now optional

Some federal mandates, including a stay on evictions, have been renewed, but an important protection for workers expired Jan. 1.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, or FFCRA, required some employers to offer paid leave during the coronavirus pandemic. It required some public employers and private employers with fewer than 500 employees to offer 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave and/or 10 weeks of expanded family leave for specific reasons related to COVID-19. Employers in return could take a payroll tax credit for employees who use the leave. The tax credit is still in place for three months, but there is no longer a mandatory requirement to grant the leave.

The Kaiser Family Foundation explained that even the (now expired) federal rules left out a wide range of employees:

The emergency paid family leave benefit only applies to employees covered by Title II of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA); therefore, most federal employees are not eligible.

Neither emergency paid leave provision applies to employees of private businesses with more than 500 employees.

Health care workers, emergency responders, and certain federal employees in the Executive Branch may also be excluded from receiving these benefits.

Workers employed by a business with fewer than 50 employees may also be excluded from receiving these benefits if their reason for missing work is due to their child’s school or daycare closure.

The loss of federal protection for paid leave means that states may choose to impose the rules. You can see cities and states that imposed their own rules.

(Kaiser Family Foundation)

Shootings and killings spike even in a pandemic and lockdown year

In cities big and small, shootings rose in 2020. The total number of gun deaths in the U.S. topped 19,000 in 2020. And once again, there were more suicides than homicides in 2020. How did that happen in a year in which we were more likely to stay home? The Associated Press reports:

Crime in parts of the U.S. dropped during the early weeks of the pandemic when stay-at-home orders closed businesses and forced many people to remain indoors.

University of Pennsylvania economics professor David Abrams said crime began to spike in May and June when initial orders in some states were lifted.

Some people “may have been a little stir crazy,” Abrams said. “At the end of May, George Floyd’s killing led to protests and looting. That led to police reform movements. Any of that could have potentially affected individual behavior and also the police response to that.”

Calls for some cities to reduce funding for police departments may have led some officers to take a less aggressive approach to policing, he added.

(Gun Violence Archive)

Also from the Gun Violence Archive

Mass shootings rose again in 2020. No matter how you define a mass shooting, the Gun Violence Archive, Mother Jones’ gun violence data and Mass Shooting in America databases agree on the upward trend.

(Gun Violence Archive)

2020 in a single graphic

Did you lose unused 2020 vacation days?

I don’t know about you but I didn’t take my vacation days in 2020 and I will lose a bunch of them. I don’t mind, really. I think part of the reason I didn’t take off is that I had no place to go and not much to do in a pandemic. Maybe it sounds familiar.

Some people say they saved vacation days in case they had to quarantine more than once in 2020. Typically, employers covered one quarantine, but other ones might count against sick days and vacation days.

Which brings us to an interesting debate going on as we begin a new year: how employers see vacation days. Are they primarily a form of compensation or are they important to workers’ mental health? The answer may determine how the employer thinks about the use-it-or-lose-it rules when it comes to unused vacation days. This New York Times story says:

Several experts said a philosophical question loomed over vacation benefits: Is the point to ensure that workers take time off? Or are vacation days simply an alternative form of compensation that workers can use as they see fit, whether to relax away from the job, to supplement their income or to drag around with them until the end of time, as a monument to their productivity?

An employer’s policies can reflect its views on this question: For all their drawbacks, use-it-or-lose-it rules can help ensure that workers take time off, said Jackie Reinberg, who heads the absence and disability practice of the consulting firm Willis Towers Watson. By contrast, rollover and cash-out options imply that vacation is an asset they are entitled to control.

Some states do not allow use-it-or-lose-it rules. You can see a state-by-state list of state laws here.

Could Congress adopt gender-neutral pronouns?

Axios’ Kadia Goba reports that this week, the U.S. House of Representatives will take up the issue of adopting gender-neutral pronouns. Goba writes,” “The U.S. House of Representatives is poised to rewrite its rules — swapping out male and female references like ‘he’ and ‘she’ for gender-neutral terms — in a diversity and inclusion push by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats that’s drawing scorn from Republicans.”

The gender-neutral issue is tucked inside revised House rules revisions that include whistleblower protections for people who report abuse. The new rules would also require more diversity on witness panels that come before the House, make it a violation for a member of Congress or staff to share “deepfake” misinformation and require bills to go through a process of markup before going to the floor for a vote. It also requires members to have time to read bills before they have to vote on them. But the gender-neutral pronoun issue will get the headlines.

Goba reports, “‘He’ or ‘she’ would become ‘Member,’ ‘Delegate’ or ‘Resident Commissioner.’ And ‘father’ and ‘mother’ would become ‘parent’ while ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ would be ‘sibling.’”

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. 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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