June 23, 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.

Faced with the fact that America will not hit his goal of vaccinating 70% of U.S. adults against COVID-19 by July 4, President Joe Biden is rolling out a new goal. The goal is now to get 70% of adults age 27 and older vaccinated by July 4.

It is a stark recognition that younger people are not getting vaccinated at near the rate needed to hit the original goal.

NPR notes the administration will likely miss the target by a narrow margin:

Currently, 65% of the adult population has gotten at least one shot and 56% are fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At current rates, the U.S. is on track to get to about 67% people with at least one shot by July 4.

The coronavirus has been shown to affect older people worse, on average and 87% of those 65 and older have had at least one dose, while 77% are fully vaccinated.

Demand for vaccinations has slowed dramatically, leaving scientists to be concerned about the rise of the Delta variant and the potential for another moderate surge in pockets of the country with low vaccination rates.

In case there was any doubt that there is a connection between a state’s political leaning and its COVID-19 vaccination rate, look at this chart.

(NPR)

It shows the states that Biden and Donald Trump carried in the 2020 election compared to the states that have the highest and lowest vaccination rates. All of the states with the most vaccinations are states Biden carried.

College students sue over mandatory vaccines

Eight Indiana University students opposed to the school’s policy of rejecting unvaccinated students and firing unvaccinated employees filed a lawsuit against the school, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Don’t be surprised if this is just the first of many lawsuits filed by college students who do not want universities to enforce mandatory COVID-19 vaccine requirements this fall. 

The Indianapolis Star, which has been covering the controversy over the mandatory vaccines since they were first imposed, reports:

In the complaint, the students say they feel they’re being coerced into vaccination under “the threat of virtual expulsion from school.”

IU’s vaccine requirement came from recommendations put forth by the university’s “restart committee,” charged by IU President Michael McRobbie with getting campuses back to pre-pandemic operations.

But the mandate has been embroiled in controversy since it was announced last month. State officials have called on the university to rescind the mandate; others have asked Gov. Eric Holcomb to block it. Attorney General Todd Rokita issued a public opinion that it violated state law.

In Indiana, at least, students will not have to show a vaccination passport or proof of vaccination. They will just certify their status on an online form. Some IU students have asked for and been granted exemptions based on religious beliefs, but they still complain that they have to wear masks on campus if they are not vaccinated.

Bestcolleges.com has a running list of colleges and universities that will require COVID-19 vaccinations this fall.

The big camp counselor shortage

Ahead of campers’ arrival in June, counselors at the Glorieta Adventure Camp train in tree rappelling on Friday, May 21, 2021, in Glorieta, N.M. The 3,000-bed camp outside Santa Fe opened up at a third of its normal capacity under pandemic restrictions after being closed last year. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

By now there have been a lot of stories about restaurants and other businesses that need workers. Add to that list summer camps, which relied — more than you probably know — on international college students. They usually come over on what are known as J-1 visas, which are part of a cultural exchange program.

But those visas are hard to come by. The U.S. Embassy in London issued 52 J-1 visas in April. Compare that to 4,094 issued in April 2019. And good luck to anybody trying to get an appointment to score a J-1 visa. The appointments are “extremely limited.”

And then there’s the U.S. ban on travel for most people coming from 33 countries, including the United Kingdom.

Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association, says 25,000 camp counselors come from other countries in a typical summer.

I have been seeing stories lately about camps that could not reopen this summer because they could not find enough workers. The Indiana Gazette gives an example:

The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago is having trouble hiring enough overnight counselors — and camp starts next week. The shortage is leaving camp directors worried about ensuring enough staff to welcome more kids to sleepaway camps, where children stay overnight and do activities like fishing and kayaking.

Bobby Thomas, executive director of several YMCA camps, said they have been spending months assuring parents about the safety of summer camps after many were unable to operate last year. Now, they are fielding challenges with securing international camp counselors; usually, they have young adults come in to work at camps from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Mexico.

“It’s down to the wire,” he said.

The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago operates five overnight camps: two in Illinois, two in Wisconsin and one in Michigan. Camp Pinewood, the Michigan camp, is experiencing the biggest shortage. It usually hires 16 seasonal camp counselors and has secured only six. Camp begins June 20.

USA Today says this staffing problem could sink some camps that were hoping to dig out of the hole they found themselves in when they had to close for the summer in 2020. By one estimate, 900,000 camp workers lost their jobs last year. And there was plenty of interest from campers, USA Today reports:

The staffing woes are complicating what would otherwise be a booming year for summer camps. With the pandemic on the wane in the U.S., families are eager to send their children to in-person opportunities again — and many have the money to do it, after a year of saving on activities.

There’s also new federal money in the pipeline to support sending more children to summer learning experiences. And parents are looking for a break after 15 months hunkered down with their children.

“We’re going to see more camps that can’t open or have to cut capacity,” said Scott Brody, the director of Camps Kenwood and Evergreen in New Hampshire. Brody is missing about 20 camp counselors because of the J-1 visa backlogs. And he has another two dozen former counselors who aren’t returning this year because they must catch up on schoolwork missed during the pandemic.

Camp directors have been urging President Joe Biden’s administration to speed up the visa processing, Brody said.

We gave airlines billions of recovery dollars. Why are they raising prices and cutting flights?

American Airlines customers were stranded at Charlotte Airport after American Airlines cut 1% of its flights to alleviate pressure on operations due to labor shortage and increased travel on June 20, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (mpi34/MediaPunch /IPX)

Few industries have gotten as much taxpayer support during the pandemic as airlines, and yet they are cutting flights. And have you checked ticket prices lately? The Consumer Price Index tells us that airfares increased 7% in May after already increasing 10% in April.

The Federal Reserve Board tracks the data:

(FRED)

While prices are rising, they still are not at pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, while passengers are lining up more than they were, we are still below pre-pandemic levels. But at 2 million daily passengers, which is what airlines booked last week, we are not far from 2019 levels.

(FRED)

NBC News says airlines were not ready for the surge of people who were ready to fly:

American Airlines canceled over 400 flights over the weekend, according to flight data tracked by FlightAware, and the airline says it will cancel 50 flights per day until mid-July, over 1,200 in total, or 1 percent of its total schedule.

The airline cited staffing shortages, maintenance issues, and inclement weather, and said it was trying to minimize passenger disruption.

In fact, American Airlines blamed “unprecedented weather” for hundreds of flight cancelations through mid-July. But we have not had unprecedented weather. There was a tropical storm and some heavy summer storms but nothing unprecedented that would explain cutting so many flights. Airlines are simply severely understaffed, NBC News reports:

Airlines were already struggling with a pilot shortfall going into the pandemic to replace a swath of pilots and mechanics, hired during the 1980s boom, who had reached mandatory retirement age. They also reduced training events and flying rotations needed to maintain proficiency, said Bob Mann, industry analyst with R.W. Mann & Co., an aviation sector consulting firm.

As Gizmodo points out:

Turns out American let go or furloughed 19,000 of them when federal paycheck protections ended in October, on top of losing a combined 23,500 employees to voluntary exoduses. It almost furloughed another 13,000 employees earlier this year, though it rescinded the order at the last minute once more bailout money came through. While the company said storms made it hard to position the more limited staff it has in time, that it could take until mid-July to sort it out points to a deeper issue. Labor “reserves,” as it calls them, are running low.

American got $5.8 billion from the federal bailout. It aggressively added flights back to the schedule but did not have enough crews to fly.

Airlines traditionally find pilots who come from the military. Delta hopes to hire more than 1,000 pilots by this time next year. But United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said that the military turns out far fewer pilots than it used to, so airlines must find new pipelines for seasoned pilots.

And, get this, people are already locking in their travel plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas 2021. Adobe Analytics data shows airline bookings are already 30% higher than at this time in 2019.

Why does sticky stuff make it harder to hit a baseball?

Cleveland Indians relief pitcher James Karinchak holds onto the ball between throwing in the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

This week, umpires started looking for foreign substances on baseballs. You may still be wondering what the big deal is.

“Major League hitters are striking out this season nearly one in every four times they step to the plate, compared with one in six times in 2005,” says John Eric Goff, professor of physics at the University of Lynchburg, in a report for The Conversation. As a sports physicist, he explains how a little change in a pitcher’s grip can make a huge difference for people playing at an elite level.

Goff makes it easy to understand what is going on here by comparing it to how we grab a cloth or rubber gripper when we struggle with opening a jar lid. When pitchers use sticky substances like Tyrus Sticky Grip, Firm Grip spray, Pelican Grip Dip stick and Spider Tack — which is a glue intended for use in World’s Strongest Man competitions — they are making it easier to grip the ball and give it a twist as they throw it. That makes the ball more difficult to hit. Goff says:

Unless a pitcher throws a knuckleball, which has very little spin, all baseballs are spinning at well over 1,000 revolutions per minute when they leave pitchers’ hands. That spin creates a force — let’s call it the spin force — that causes baseballs to move and curve in ways that can throw off hitters.

He adds:

A good pitcher can throw a curveball at 85 mph with a spin rate of 2,400 rpm with about 20 pounds of friction force between the pitcher’s fingers and the ball. Freely available pitch data shows that some pitchers have increased their spin rate by about 400 rpm on curveballs compared with previous seasons. That’s a 17% increase in spin rate and requires a 17% increase — or an additional 3 pounds — of friction force coming from sticky substances.

Once you start to understand the physics of all of this, you may appreciate the difference between the sandlot player and the pros, where the smallest advantage is a game-changer.

Which brings me to the history of the “spitball,” a similar controversy from 100 years ago. The spitball, which was exactly what it sounds like, became illegal in 1934. As Sports History Weekly explains, 100 years ago, things looked a lot like what we are seeing today:

The spitball thrived after 1900 and was partly responsible for the low scoring games that were associated with the ‘Deadball Era’.

Pitchers developed their spitball techniques because it won matches. The only two American League hurlers to win 40 games in a single season were both spitballers: Jack Chesbro of the New York Highlanders (1904) and Ed Walsh of the Chicago White Sox (1908). But for baseball team owners, gate receipts at the ballpark was the main goal. They were looking for more excitement on the field to draw in the crowds. There were other reasons cited to discontinue the spitball: it was unsanitary, hard to control, difficult to field, stressful on a pitcher’s arm, and even too dangerous.

But in the end — and again, this may sound familiar — the main reason they stopped the spitball is that it had become a boring pitcher’s game with few hits. Fans were not buying tickets.

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,…
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