January 27, 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided the strongest data yet to reopen schools to in-person learning if — and that is a BIG if — there are precautions in place.

Look at this CDC quote: “There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

The CDC data was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Here is an example from the data:

… in a report released by CDC on January 26, 2021, with data from 17 K-12 schools in rural Wisconsin with high mask adherence (4876 students and 654 staff), COVID-19 incidence was lower in schools than in the community.

During 13 weeks in the fall of 2020, there were 191 COVID-19 cases in staff and students, with only 7 of these cases determined to result from in-school transmission.

This line adds some context:

The preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring insofar as the type of rapid spread that was frequently observed in congregate living facilities or high-density worksites has not been reported in education settings in schools.

There is one significant area of concern: the reopening of athletics and other gatherings. The JAMA post said:

Nonetheless, some school-related activities have increased the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission among students and staff. Numerous media reports of COVID-19 outbreaks among US high school athletic teams suggest that contact during both practices and competition, and at social gatherings associated with team sports, increase risk.

Margaret A. Honein, the lead author of the JAMA report, summarizes the data:

The conclusion here is with proper prevention efforts … we can keep transmission in schools and educational settings quite low. We didn’t know that at the beginning of the year, but the data has really accumulated.

We need better masks

Face protection masks for sale are displayed in a shop in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Anna Stern is one of my favorite readers of this column. She’s a retired policy analyst and has sent me more great story ideas than any other reader. For some time, she has been sending me research and data about how lousy our one-layer homemade masks are and how we need to get serious about using masks that will offer reliable protection.

Europeans are really concerned about the new variants of the virus and now, France, for example, is saying homemade masks, alone, are not sufficient. The country’s health minister said people should stop wearing homemade masks to the workplace. Not everybody agrees.

The Guardian says:

Only three types of masks will be recommended: surgical, the FFP2 and fabric masks made to category 1 standards.

The recommendation has been criticized by the French Academy of Medicine that says there is a lack of scientific proof that homemade masks do not offer sufficient protection if worn properly.

The French authorities have admitted the new decree will be difficult to enforce.

“I don’t imagine the police are going to be asking people the protection level of their mask,” a spokesperson for the prime minister said.

To be clear:

  • Category 1 masks filter 95% of 3-micrometer particles
  • Category 2 devices filter 70% of 3-micrometer particles
  • Surgical masks filter 95% of 3-micrometer particles
  • FFP2 masks filter 94% of even smaller 0.6-micrometer particles

(The Guardian)

Germany is taking it further. Again, let’s turn to the Guardian:

Angela Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states agreed on Tuesday that either single-use surgical FFP1 masks or more protective FFP2 filtering facepiece respirators should be worn in the workplace, on public transport and in shops.

Should you wear TWO masks?

It has been hard enough to get people to wear one mask, much less two. But Dr. Anthony Fauci says yes, wearing two masks is “common sense.” I already wear two every time I go out. I wear a mask and a double-layer gaiter.

Business Insider notes:

US health officials have long been advising people to wear a cloth mask with three layers of protection, or a surgical or N95 mask, to protect against the novel coronavirus. For example, it’s better to use a double-layered cloth mask for the outside layer and a disposable surgical mask for the inside, rather than using two single-layered masks together.

The three layers each serve an individual purpose: the outside layer protects against splashes and droplets, the middle layer filters, and the bottom layer absorbs things like saliva and sweat.

Another way to double layer could be using a two-layered cloth mask with a face shield on top, though there is some evidence that masks may be more protective than shields.

How COVID-19 increases deaths among Alzheimer’s patients

More than a quarter of a million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease die in the U.S. each year. But the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Association says deaths among Alzheimer’s patients in 2020 were 16% higher through November. By the time the December figures are in, it may be more like 20%. The question is why.

The Detroit Free Press explored the story and came up with three possible explanations:

-They say it’s possible some people died from undiagnosed cases of COVID-19. Heavy concentrations of dementia patients live in congregate care facilities, settings that have been hot spots for COVID-19.

-It’s possible they weren’t tested — especially during the beginning of the pandemic when tests weren’t widely available. Just as it’s possible they were tested but the results came up as false negatives.

-It’s possible the level of care they received declined with the pandemic. Dementia patients tend to require a great deal of care and many have other health issues or comorbidities. The already overworked ranks of caregivers in at-home as well as in professional settings were stretched even further when they became sick with COVID-19. Keeping up with the patients may have become difficult.

The Free Press also points out that dementia patients fare best when they have dependable routines and COVID-19, as we all know, has interrupted every routine. When an Alzheimer’s patient is used to dining with others and then suddenly is having food passed to them to eat in their room, it upends their life.

One reason it is so difficult is that people living with Alzheimer’s or dementia often don’t understand the reasons why visits have stopped, Lori Smetanka, executive director at the nonprofit National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, told the Wall Street Journal.

The Alzheimer’s Association gives this advice:

Most likely, dementia does not increase risk for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, just like dementia does not increase risk for flu. However, dementia-related behaviors, increased age and common health conditions that often accompany dementia may increase risk.

For example, people with Alzheimer’s disease and all other dementia may forget to wash their hands or take other recommended precautions to prevent illness. In addition, diseases like COVID-19 and the flu may worsen cognitive impairment due to dementia.

Even so, researchers are digging in to find out more about how COVID-19 affects the brain and launched a new study to see if there is a more direct connection between the virus and brain diseases.

Experts say the rise in Alzheimer’s deaths underscores the need for caregivers and loved ones to do all they can to establish and keep new routines, like phone calls and even distanced visits.

J&J data coming next week; Pfizer exceeds production goals

Vaccine watchers are excited by the news that Johnson & Johnson is promising to produce drug trial data next week. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is big news because it is easier to store and is a single-dose vaccine (which somehow reminds me of Miller Lite’s “great taste, less filling”).

Here is the bonus, via CNN:

“J&J has committed to producing and deploying at least a billion doses of vaccine during this calendar year, including at least 100 million doses for the U.S. population,” said Dr. Dan Barouch of Harvard Medical School, who helped develop Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine.

While Wall Street got excited about all of this news, we will await the efficacy data. (See the next item in this column about what “efficacy” really means.)

Also on the vaccine beat, Pfizer says it will hit the 200 million dose production level two months earlier than expected, partly because there is one more dose per vial than it predicted. Pfizer had promised to hit the 200-million mark by July 31, and now it will meet that by the end of May.

What does all of that mean to actually getting the vaccines to you? In the U.S., Pfizer and BioNTech told shareholders it will deliver 120 million doses in the first quarter, 20 million more than initially promised. To which we all say “thank you” and “mazel tov” to the scientists and factory workers who make this stuff.

What exactly does vaccine efficacy mean?

The more you cover vaccines, the more you come to understand the complexities of describing how much a vaccine might or might not protect you. When the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines emerged with 90%-plus efficacy, everyone got rightfully excited by the news because it was so much better than anybody dared hope for.

But what does it all mean?

In a column for the Association of Health Care Journalists, veteran health reporter Tara Haelle explains:

Vaccine efficacy of 50% means that a vaccinated person is half as likely to get sick as someone unvaccinated — or someone unvaccinated is twice as likely to get sick as someone vaccinated. More precisely, a 50% chance refers to the likelihood of infection when both people are exposed to enough virus for infection.

But it gets a little more complicated. Some viruses may not make you sick, but you can have the virus inside you and pass it along to another who then gets sick. Haelle explains:

Efficacy isn’t just about preventing infection. That’s just one type of efficacy, one that offers sterilizing immunity — complete immunity such that no infection takes place at all.

There’s also efficacy to prevent disease, which means you might become infected — the virus might replicate in you — but you never develop symptoms or the disease. (Evidence suggests this can happen with the acellular pertussis vaccine, for example, where the bacteria can still colonize in a vaccinated person — potentially being contagious — but the person never develops the disease.)

Do we really need another stimulus check for everybody?

Polls show that Americans like the idea of more stimulus money even though a lot of households are not struggling to survive the pandemic. President Joe Biden wants another $1.9 trillion dollar stimulus, of which $465 billion would go to stimulus checks.

With the president’s party controlling Congress, you might see a check by as early as late February or early March.

About 10 million Americans have lost their jobs since the pandemic began and, after a brief rebound, the jobs picture went sour again over the last couple of weeks. But the people who have not lost their jobs (statistically most Americans) are better off financially than they were when the pandemic began, and they have shown a propensity to save the money they get in stimulus payments.

(The New York Times)

Yahoo Finance reports:

The first $1,200 relief payments Americans received last spring were largely spent on expenses for just getting by, including groceries and rent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has said.

A bureau survey also found some people invested the cash or used it for various other purposes. Those may have included buying affordable life insurance — sales of policies have surged amid the pandemic.

But the Democrats’ new majority in the Senate is as thin as can be, and even a few Democrats may balk at parts of the Biden COVID plan, including his call to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15.

Some members of the party are already talking about a potential plan B if there’s a struggle to pass the president’s entire aid package. They say the $1,400 direct payments and money for vaccine distribution could be pulled out into a separate bill that might win quick approval, maybe with support from Republicans.

Some are suggesting that instead of sending blanket payments to everyone, the Biden administration should think instead of a public works program that gives people jobs and pays them for work that, by the way, needs to be done. (Think the Works Progress Administration under President Franklin Roosevelt, for example.)

A bipartisan group of senators is also wondering if there is a better way to target a new round of payments, perhaps by just boosting unemployment payments.

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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