October 14, 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 archbishop for the U.S. military says Catholic troops can be exempt the COVID-19 vaccine if it goes against their conscience.

“No one should be forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if it would violate the sanctity of his or her conscience,” Archbishop Timothy Broglio announced.

But he adds that the Catholic Church considers the vaccines to be morally permissible, with this background:

The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines were tested using an abortion derived cell line. That type of a link has been for centuries considered remote material cooperation with evil and is never sinful. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was developed, tested, and is produced, with abortion-derived cell lines. That vaccine is, therefore, more problematic. If it were the only vaccine available, it would be morally permissible, but the faithful Catholic is to make known his or her preference for a more morally acceptable treatment.

The archbishop says that a religious exemption need not be logical, understandable or even consistent. Here are his words:

Individuals possess the “civil right not to be hindered in leading their lives in accordance with their consciences.” Even if an individual’s decision seems erroneous or inconsistent to others, conscience does not lose its dignity. This belief permeates Catholic moral theology as well as First Amendment jurisprudence. As stated by the United States Supreme Court, “(R)eligious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.”

Politico puts this in a much larger context, pointing out that people nationwide are applying for religious exemptions to the vaccine mandates:

The question of religious exemptions is being raised across the country as states and businesses institute Covid vaccine requirements, falling in line with Biden’s new requirements for millions of American workers. A federal judge on Tuesday ruled that New York couldn’t impose such mandates on health care workers without allowing employers to consider religious exemption requests — an early test case as challengers oppose vaccine mandates.

New federal vaccine mandates could go into effect next week

Employers will soon get a look at the federal mandate that will force private businesses to order employees to get vaccinated or regularly tested.

President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate falls on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to enforce under workplace safety rules. OSHA first had to write those rules. They are now almost ready to go into effect.  NBC News says the mandate could go into effect as early as next week, although that would be faster than the process normally takes.

OSHA sent its proposed rules to the Office of Management and Budget for review. NBC News explains the process ahead:

Once OMB concludes its review, the full regulation will be published in the Federal Register, where employers will be able to see for the first time the details of what will be required of them. Under law, OMB has 90 days to complete its review or ask for an extension.

OSHA’s proposed fines will be hefty. If businesses don’t comply, the government will “take enforcement actions,” which could include substantial fines of up to nearly $14,000 per violation, according to officials. That means an employer could be fined $14,000 for every employee it allows to work unvaccinated or untested regularly.

FDA is not impressed with J&J booster application

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, once again, is not convinced that vaccine manufacturers have the definitive proof that a COVID-19 booster shot is necessary. This time, the statement comes in reaction to Johnson & Johnson’s request for the FDA to approve its booster. The FDA staff said there were lots of holes in Johnson & Johnson’s data:

Areas of missing information include the following: use during pregnancy; use in breastfeeding women; use in immunocompromised patients; use in patients with autoimmune or inflammatory disorders; use in frail patients with comorbidities (e.g., chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, chronic neurological disease, cardiovascular disorders); interaction with other vaccines; long-term safety; use in pediatric age groups.

People vaccinated with J&J shot may benefit more from a Pfizer or Moderna booster

A pharmacist fills a syringe from a vial of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at the Vaccine Village in Antwerp, Belgium, on April 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

The National Institutes of Health just published a study that adds some weight to the idea of mixing vaccines. The study says people who got vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine might be better protected if they got a booster shot with the Moderna or Pfizer’s mRNA doses. But there are some questions about this study, too.

First is the study size; only nine groups of 50 people. But the results were impressive.

  • People who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and a Moderna booster produced a 76-fold increase in antibodies within 15 days.
  • People who got the Johnson & Johnson shot and a Pfizer booster saw a 35-fold increase in antibodies within 15 days.
  • People who took a second Johnson & Johnson shot also benefitted but only got a four-fold increase in antibodies.

Johnson & Johnson goes before the FDA advisory committee Friday. 15 million Americans received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Farmers desperate for tires, tractor parts

A tractor tears dried dirt on land that was unplanted this year due to the water shortage on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, in Tulelake, Calif. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

This Reuters story caught my eye:

New Ag Supply in Kansas is pleading with customers to order parts now for spring planting. And in Iowa, farmer Cordt Holub is locking up his machinery inside his barn each night, after thieves stole hard-to-find tractor parts from a local Deere & Co dealership.

Farmers say they are scrambling to find workarounds when their machinery breaks, tracking down local welders and mechanics. Growers looking to buy tractors and combines online are asking for close-up photos of the machine’s tires, because replacements are expensive and difficult to find, said Greg Peterson, founder of the Machinery Pete website which hosts farm equipment auctions.

“As harvest ends, we will see farmers at equipment auctions not for the machinery — but for parts,” Peterson said. “We’re already hearing from guys talking about buying a second planter or sprayer, just for parts.”

Social Security plans biggest raise in 40 years

Social Security benefits for 70 million Americans will rise 5.9% in 2022, the most in four decades. The raise is based on the inflation rate, which has been growing as the cost of food, rent and other essentials rises.

(Social Security Administration)

This is probably more than you need to know, but here is the history of how they calculate cost-of-living — or COLA — increases. It changes over time:

  • The first COLA, for June 1975, was based on the increase in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) from the second quarter of 1974 to the first quarter of 1975.
  • The 1976-83 COLAs were based on increases in the CPI-W from the first quarter of the prior year to the corresponding quarter of the current year in which the COLA became effective.
  • After 1983, COLAs have been based on increases in the CPI-W from the third quarter of the prior year to the corresponding quarter of the current year in which the COLA became effective.

What does the Consumer Price Index show?

This is the data just released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:


Let’s look closer at food and energy prices:

The food index increased 0.9 percent in September, following a smaller 0.4-percent increase in August. The food at home index increased 1.2 percent over the month as all six major grocery store food group indexes rose.

  • The index for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs rose 2.2 percent over the month as the index for beef rose 4.8 percent.
  • The index for other food at home increased 1.1 percent in September after rising 0.6 percent in August.
  • The index for nonalcoholic beverages increased 1.2 percent in September, its fourth consecutive monthly increase.
  • The index for fruits and vegetables rose 0.6 percent in September, a larger increase than the 0.2-percent increase reported in August.
  • The index for cereals and bakery products increased 1.1 percent over the month.
  • The index for dairy and related products rose 0.7 percent.

Airline fares fell more than 6% last month. Clothing prices also dropped in September. The index for used cars and trucks increased 24.4% over the span. The index for new vehicles rose 8.7%, the largest 12-month increase since the period ending September 1980.

And with winter coming, this will concern you: Energy prices are rising fast. The CPI shows the energy index rose 1.3% in September, its fourth consecutive monthly increase. Here’s more:

  • The gasoline index rose 1.2 percent in September after increasing 2.8 percent in August.
  • The electricity index increased 0.8 percent in September following a 1.0-percent increase the prior month.
  • The index for natural gas also increased in September, rising 2.7 percent; this was its eighth consecutive monthly increase.

Woman feeding ‘skinny’ bears fined $60,000

A woman in British Columbia is facing a $60,000 fine for feeding what she says were “skinny bears.” She fed them a lot: 10 cases of apples, 50 pounds of carrots and pears and up to 15 dozen eggs, all on a weekly basis.

This is not a light story. Conservation officers killed the momma bear and two cubs because they were posing a “grave risk.”

In order to avoid the public stink that will arise over the bears’ deaths, the prosecution suggested a $10,500 fine. The judge refused the suggestion and let the larger fine stand.

The fine would be the biggest ever under Canada’s Wildlife Act.

That story reminded me to check back in with the Salmonella deaths of lots of birds this summer that led to wildlife authorities telling people to stop feeding birds. The problem has apparently passed and you are all good to feed birds again.

Biologists are interested to learn the long-term effects of the pandemic on animals. Some wildlife thrived on the quiet from less traffic, both human and automotive.

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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