February 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.

COVID-19 infections and deaths are declining but there is a lead lining to this seemingly silver cloud.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota (and a member of President Joe Biden’s pandemic response team), says the more infectious strain of the virus that was first detected in the United Kingdom will become the dominant strain in the U.S. in the next six or eight weeks.

“We saw our health care system literally on the edge of not being able to provide care,” Osterholm said. “Imagine if we have what has happened in England, twice as many of those cases. That’s what we have to prepare for now.”

The problem is severe enough that starting today, there will be door-to-door testing in parts of England. Just imagine the freak-out you would feel if somebody came to your door wanting to test you for COVID-19!

Let me give you an idea of how fast this variant is spreading there. It was first detected in September. In November, around a quarter of cases in London were the variant. This reached nearly two-thirds of cases in mid-December.

You can see how the variant has come to dominate through genome test results from some centers, such as the Milton Keynes Lighthouse Laboratory pictured below. The orange part of the line is the variant.

(COG-UK Consortium)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the variant may be up to 70% more transmissible. That does not mean it is more deadly — that we just don’t know yet. But it does seem to spread faster, which makes making vaccines available quickly even more important.

And as if to underscore the danger of the variant virus, Israel — which has already vaccinated a fourth of its population, way ahead of most everyone else — just ordered an extension to its national lockdown because cases there are rising again. The Washington Post reports:

… factors driving infections include repeated violations of lockdown measures by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, a key constituency of conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that makes up around 11 percent of Israel’s 9.2 million people. The minority, however, has recently accounted for about 40 percent of new coronavirus cases, according to the Associated Press.

The BBC explains how variants have spread. Keep in mind, there are about 17 known variants right now.

The virus that was first detected in Wuhan, China, is not the same one you will find in most corners of the world.

The D614G mutation emerged in Europe in February and became the globally dominant form of the virus.

Another, called A222V, spread across Europe and was linked to people’s summer holidays in Spain.

An initial analysis of the new variant has been published and identifies 17 potentially important alterations.

European Union countries, which are slower than the U.S. and U.K. in rolling out a vaccine program, worked out a deal Monday to get more vaccine doses from Pfizer and AstraZeneca, but the faster production is still a couple of months away.

Winter storm interrupts vaccinations

A woman tries to protect her face from blowing snow while walking in white-out conditions in Jersey City, N.J., Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

A number of states — including Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia, plus New York City — halted COVID-19 vaccinations Monday because of a big winter storm. Massachusetts pulled off vaccinations at Fenway Park but the snow is interrupting vaccinations there today.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the seven-day average for vaccine production is rising. For the last seven days it was 1.3 million doses per day. New CDC data says 63% of people who have been vaccinated so far are women, 55% were 50 years old or older and 60.4% were non-Hispanic white.

But the data has some holes. The 19th* points out:

There is no data on race or ethnicity for almost half of the people so far vaccinated, and the report breaks down sex but not gender identity.

Still, the available numbers are striking, if unsurprising. The first rounds of COVID-19 vaccinations were targeted toward health-care workers and older people who live in long-term care facilities. Both groups are overwhelmingly made up of women: About three-fourths of the nation’s health-care workers are women, as are 65 percent of nursing home residents.

Amongst people whose race and ethnicity data were collected, about 60 percent of the people who have gotten a vaccine listed as White. That also makes sense, the CDC analysis (says) 60% of health-care workers and 75% of nursing home residents are White.

The COVID-19 baby bust

Those predictions that a COVID-19 lockdown might lead to a 2021 baby boom were wrong. In fact, my friend Noah Pransky at NBCLX says that if you look at December births, eight months after the pandemic lockdowns began, you will find lots of places where there not only was no boom: Birth rates went down in Florida, Arizona and Ohio. The Brookings Institute estimates that there could be 300,000 fewer births in the U.S. this year.

This was an interesting insight from Brookings:

One way to gauge individual behavior is to examine what they search for in Google; these data are available through Google Trends. A study by Joshua Wilde, Wei Chen, and Sophie Lohmann based on these data supports our prediction of reduced fertility. The authors report that searches for pregnancy-related terms, such as “ClearBlue” (a pregnancy test), “ultrasound,” and “morning sickness” have fallen since the pandemic began. Based on the reduced searches for pregnancy-related terms, the authors of that study forecast a reduction of births on the order of 15 percent, an even larger drop than what we forecasted.

HuffPost reports:

“The economic fallout, persistent health concerns, uncertainty about the safety and availability of medical care and the closure of schools all combine to make this a very unappealing time for couples to start or expand their family,” said Emily Smith-Greenaway, an associate professor of sociology and spatial sciences at the University of Southern California.

Will we see a baby boom once the pandemic abates? With fewer singles dating because of lockdowns and the already historically low rates in marriage, researchers have their doubts.

“We certainly anticipate there to be a rebound, but we’re not so sure about an overshoot — a boom that helps to offset the bust,” Smith-Greenaway said. “The longer this economic and public health crisis persists, the more likely these births aren’t just delayed, but will be averted entirely.”

The COVID-caused home appliance shortage

The pandemic has appliances in short supply. This situation has been driving home builders and renovation contractors crazy.

Yahoo Finance explains:

The appliance industry has been hammered by a crush of demand throughout the pandemic, reflecting two factors.

First, with people quarantined in their homes they have decided to upgrade appliances to more energy efficient or better-looking ones.

Second, the pandemic has caused people to flee cramped city apartments for larger homes out in suburbia. That has meant buying a new home or an existing home — in either case, it likely has equated to some form of orders for appliances.

Taken together, the dynamics have forced consumers to wait for weeks to receive their orders as factories ramp back into gear. Some popular models (as this writer could attest from a summer kitchen remodel) have simply been out of stock with no projected availability date.

The shortage includes all kinds of major appliances: dishwashers, dryers, dehumidifiers and even some microwaves. NPR explains:

Turns out, when people are stuck at home — constantly reheating leftovers and baking bread — things start breaking. Even more so, unable to splurge on trips and outings, people began obsessing over their immediate surroundings, moving to new homes and going wild with home improvement.

Furniture buyers are finding similar delays for similar reasons.

Biden funds at-home test production

The Biden administration just awarded $231 million for the first over-the-counter antigen COVID-19 test. The White House COVID-19 response team says it is about  95% accurate, you can use it at home, and it will give you test results in 15 minutes.

The federal dollars will be used to build a factory to produce kits that you will be able to buy for about $30 each. The tests use a nasal swab that you stick into an analyzer which sends the results to your phone.

Back when the Food and Drug Administration approved the test, Jeff Shuren, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said, “This test, like other antigen tests, is less sensitive and less specific than typical molecular tests run in a lab. However, the fact that it can be used completely at home and return results quickly means that it can play an important role in response to the pandemic.”

COVID-19 treatments have not moved as fast as COVID-19 vaccines

We have focused so much attention on COVID-19 vaccines that another big need, new medications for treating COVID-19 patients, has taken a back seat. More than $18 billion of research has produced a host of vaccines, but the U.S. government spent less than half as much on treatment drugs. We are going to have millions of COVID-19 patients and survivors who will need better options, perhaps for a long time. The New York Times says drug trials for potential treatments have had problems recruiting volunteers.

Pandemic alcohol sales are flowing

Liquor store worker Mario Valle puts on protective gloves behind a sign requiring face masks in the Vermont Square neighborhood of Los Angeles, Thursday, May 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The biggest liquor producer in the world, Diago (which owns Smirnoff vodka and Johnnie Walker scotch, among many other brands), says retail sales are pretty good. Annual sales are up 15% from a year ago and buyers are trending toward super-premium labels.

In the U.S., retail liquor sales went up 24% between March to October last year. Wine and beer sales rose, too.

But those figures are retail sales and do not include bar sales, so you cannot say for sure that people are drinking more, just that they are drinking at home more. The New York Times explains:

They’re certainly drinking more at home. “At the end of February, 14.8 percent of all wine volume was sold through a restaurant or a bar,” said Dale Stratton, an analyst at SipSource. “By the end of this year, that number is likely to be about 7 percent. That 14.8 percent number is normally a wildly solid number.”

(Danelle) Kosmal at Nielsen said that sales volume would be higher if people were drinking as much as they did when restaurants and bars were open. She calculated that sales would have to increase by 22 percent in retail channels to match the amount from when people were going out to eat and drink.

One of the surprises in the end-of-the-year alcohol sales reports is the sharp increase in interest in nonalcoholic beer. EaterChicago says:

Nonalcoholic beer may finally be having a moment as between the pandemic and presidential election, jokes about getting blitzed at home have become commonplace. Sales numbers show nonalcoholic beer sales in the U.S. were up 38 percent in 2020 with $188 million in sales, according to market research company IRI.

While a number of factors, including a cultural fixation with wellness-related products, contribute to the surge in interest, chief among them is that nonalcoholic beers are better and more interesting now, the Tribune reports. Non-drinkers are no longer limited to O’Doul’s — companies ranging from craft operations like Athletic Brewing Co. to heavy hitters like Heineken are putting out booze-free IPAs, coffee stouts, Oktoberfests, and more.

Though this spike in popularity is exciting for non-drinkers looking to scratch the beer itch, nonalcoholic options constitute less than one percent of industry.

Lululemon and Levis are pandemic hits

It seems that while you are drinking at home you are wearing your Lulus and Levis. Both reported big sales rebounds in the last half of 2020, both making up a lot of the loss from the first half of the year while still not hitting 2019 profits. Levis says it has seen the future and it is not so much in jeans as it is shirts, shoes and other stuff. In a decade, the company says only half of its revenue will come from jeans.

More concussions in football practice than in games

I wanted to be sure you saw this study about football concussions. The Journal of the American Medical Association just published a study saying that more concussions occurred in football practice than in games, which makes sense to me since players spend a lot more time in practice and there are no referees stopping dangerous hits.

Concussions also happen more often in the preseason than the regular season. That is a little odd since preseason training accounts for only one-fifth of the time researchers were watching, but it added up to half of the concussions they measured. But the preseason is a time when there is more contact as players try to make the team and coaches evaluate them. Once the season begins, teams protect players and are less likely to have full-contact practice.

The big recommendation that comes out of this is for schools to pay a lot more attention to injuries that happen during practice.

What Andy said

In yesterday’s column, I identified Andy Slavitt as the acting head of the CDC, which is wrong. He is the senior adviser to the White House COVID-19 response team and, of course, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky heads the CDC. That makes Slavitt the SAWHCRT, which does not have much of a ring to it. Bonus points for the ONE person who caught this and sent me a note.

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,…
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