July 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.

Let’s start with some very good news. New data published in the New England Journal of Medicine says one of the vaccines in use in the United States is just as effective at protecting against the delta variant of the coronavirus as it was against the original virus.

These studies come from India and involve both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. Remember, the AstraZeneca shot is not approved in America.

But, and pay attention to this, these newest studies say one dose of either of the vaccines is not terribly effective against the delta variant. The study says one dose of the Pfizer vaccine was just 36% effective, while a single shot of the vaccine from AstraZeneca offered 30% effective protection.

It is right to point out that this new data does not line up with an Israeli study that said the vaccines are not as effective against the delta variant.

Do immunocompromised people need additional vaccine shots?

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel heard testimony Thursday about the 2 to 4% of U.S. adults who have suppressed immunity, a population that includes organ transplant recipients, people on cancer treatments and people living with rheumatologic conditions, HIV and leukemia. Physicians on the panel said they know of immunocompromised patients who, on their own, have chosen to get additional COVID-19 vaccinations to try to increase their protection against the virus.

The panel did not make any recommendations about whether compromised patients should get booster shots. Pfizer said recently that it will formally ask the Food and Drug Administration to approve boosters that could be targeted at immunocompromised and elderly patients.

There is reason to believe a booster shot would be helpful for immunocompromised people. The New England Journal of Medicine published results of a French study that said people who had organ transplants who got a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine saw a much higher level of protection against the virus.

The CDC panel cannot recommend a third dose unless the FDA changes its approval for a booster shot. Currently, the FDA approval is for two doses. Israel already is administering a booster shot dose and other countries are considering it.

New data about whether the J&J vaccine is linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome

The CDC advisory panel also explored the latest data investigating whether there is a link between a rare neurological disorder and the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

12.8 million shots have been administered and, among those vaccinated, the CDC is looking at 100 cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome. One of those patients died. He was 57 years old and has a long history of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have no known connection to the inflammation and the CDC panel said, considering the benefits of the vaccines, the panel still supports all three.

The businesses near you that landed mega federal COVID-19 contracts

ProPublica is doing what it does so well: compiling searchable databases, this time to help us find out which companies near us landed mega contracts during the pandemic. These contracts do not suggest anything other than good business, but it is also useful for journalists to know what companies in their areas are doing so much pandemic-era work. Here is a sample of the biggest contracts:

(ProPublica)

You can dive right into the data to find out the top vendors in every state. Click on a state to see the top vendors in that state. I just pulled the states that are home to the biggest contract totals:

(ProPublica)

As you dive in, it is sometimes interesting to see which ones are listed as “women-owned” or “minority-owned.” Over the years, I have seen useful investigations into whether those companies are actually owned by minorities and women or whether they are really owned by white men using fronts to land contracts. In fact, in a recent audit by the Small Business Administration, 50 out of 56 contracts given to minority and women contractors were not in compliance with the contract terms.

(ProPublica)

When will hospitals allow regular visitation again?

Some in the medical field argue that the COVID-19 restrictions on patient visitation are more harmful than necessary these days. Hospitals say that, unlike restaurants, they have mostly vulnerable people in their buildings, so they have to be significantly more cautious about opening up to the public. An increasing number of hospitals demand that workers all be vaccinated but, so far, have been cautious about demanding that all visitors be vaccinated, too.

Japan has its highest new case count in months

Here is the newest data just as the Olympic Games open: This morning, the figure is near 1,200 new cases of COVID-19 a day in Tokyo. Experts said Tokyo would need to drop to around 100 new cases a day to be safe.

(Johns Hopkins)

In one study of the public’s attitudes toward vaccines in 15 countries, Japanese citizens showed the lowest trust in vaccines. “Faith in Covid vaccines is highest in the UK, with nearly nine in 10 saying they trust the jabs, a survey of people in 15 countries suggests,” the BBC reports. “Israel, where 83% expressed faith in vaccines, came next. Japan reported the lowest levels of trust at 47%.”

The roll call of Olympians who have tested positive for COVID-19

Members of the Argentina and India women’s field hockey team scrimmage during a training session at Oi Hockey Stadium ahead of the the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/John Locher)

We are now up to five members of the U.S. Olympic team that have tested positive for COVID-19. I count seven other athletes from other countries that are either out of the games or in quarantine because they were in close contact with somebody who tested positive. See the list.

Eric Clapton says he won’t play anywhere people are required to be vaccinated

Rocker Eric Clapton, who has publicly raised medically unsupported concerns over COVID-19 vaccines, pushed back on England’s requirement that beginning at the end of September, people would have to show proof of vaccination in order to enter a crowded venue. Clapton said, “I wish to say that I will not perform on any stage where there is a discriminated audience present.”

Clapton blamed the vaccines for neurological problems after he got his second injection, but he also had the condition before the vaccination, and the condition he describes was reasonably common in the general population prior to the pandemic.

InsideHook smartly points out:

It’s worth noting a couple of things here. First of all, research suggests that people who have previously had COVID-19 are more likely to have strong side effects to their first dose of the vaccine than people who haven’t had the virus, and while we obviously can’t say for certain, it seems entirely possible that Clapton previously contracted COVID at some point given his well-documented aversion to masks. Beyond that, the musician also suffers from peripheral neuropathy, and there have been instances of the vaccine temporarily exacerbating neuropathy symptoms. (Though it’s important to point out that experts still recommend that people with peripheral neuropathy get vaccinated.)

France dials back strict COVID-19 passport rules for bars, restaurants and malls

The French government is backing off what it said would be strict enforcement of COVID-19 passports that would be necessary to get into bars, restaurants and malls. The government wants people to carry a “Green Pass” to show proof of vaccination. The government also announced all medical workers would have to be vaccinated.

The government is responding to protests across France by reducing fines for noncompliance and, next week, a constitutional council will look at whether the government overstepped its authority.

Should ‘shark attacks’ instead be called ‘shark encounters?’

An Australian official in Queensland says sharks are getting a bad rap and, instead of referring to “shark attacks,” we should use phrases like “shark encounters” or “shark incidents.” The Sydney Morning Herald says the locals are concerned that people are too alarmed when they hear about “shark attacks.” The experts say most interactions between sharks and humans result in minor bites or no injuries at all.

Shark advocates say people generally understand there is a difference between dog bites and dog attacks. They say we should be similarly sensitive when we are reporting about sharks. The Morning Herald included this passage:

The terminology can also be important especially if words such as “attacks” prompt people to demand culls of what are already often protected animals. Shark numbers are globally in decline because of over-fishing, pollution and the increasing impacts of climate change, including around Australia.

Grandparent revenge: Baby Shark gets renewed

Pinkfong and Baby Shark cheer on the Washington Nationals with fans of all ages in Washington on Oct. 25, 2019. (Rodney Choice/AP Images for Pinkfong Baby Shark & WowWee)

Every parent who endured the Teletubbies and other ridiculous mindless TV blather now can laugh at their children, who have to endure at least one more season of “Baby Shark” that the grandkids are addicted to. As an added punishment, a Baby Shark movie is in the works.

The Baby Shark song is the most viewed video in YouTube history with 8.9 billion views. I hate that song so much … but not as much as the one that asks people to donate cars to charity.

My kids grew up in three distinct musical genres: The Backstreet Boys, New Kids on the Block and Raffi. Once, we had a family of possums take up residence in our house’s crawl space. I tried everything to drive them out. I finally put a boombox under the house and played Backstreet Boys loudly on a nonstop loop. The creatures could not take it and left.

We’ll be back Monday 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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