November 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.

From Utah to South Carolina and Kentucky, hospitals and charities are asking for gently used crutches, canes and walkers. Supplies are getting harder to come by thanks to — let’s all say it together — supply chain problems. The main issue seems to be the unreliable supply of aluminum, which is used to make the products.

In Bluffton, South Carolina, Beaufort Memorial Hospital put out a plea:

“The impacts of the global pandemic continue to affect so many aspects of healthcare,” BMH president and CEO Russell Baxley said in a news release. “We’re hopeful that there are plenty of used crutches gathering dust in closets that can be put to good use for our patients.”

Spectrum News in Kentucky reports that after vendors to the Shriners Children’s Hospital in Lexington said they were having problems getting crutches, a community plea from the hospital produced 90 sets quickly.

“When we heard we were needing crutches and we tried to order them, our supplier said there’s an aluminum shortage and we just can not get them there,” Jessica Kazee, a physical therapist at Shriners Children’s Hospital explained.

Amid a global shortage of aluminum, physical therapists at the facility said crutches are now in short supply.

“Just because it’s something that we’ve always had a surplus of and then it got down to having zero of certain sizes, so it really just put us in a bad situation,” Kazee said.

It’s hard to imagine trying to get around after fracturing a bone without the aid of the devices. Kazee said not only is this medical equipment crucial for the mobility of a patient, it’s also an essential step in the recovery process.

“It’s so important to have crutches to offer to these kiddos and safely use so they can stay mobile, keep their strength up so they can continue to progress, continue to gain their strength, and continue to get healthy again,” said Kazee.

Similar issues are arising in Canada, too. Here is a story from CTV that reported that at one hospital “about half of the patients who would normally be sent home with crutches aren’t receiving them right now. One reason is that there aren’t the right sizes for some younger patients.”

The Salt Lake Tribune reports on a donation program to alleviate the issue:

The donation program, called LeanOn Utah, is designed to fill a gap in the availability of crutches, walkers, canes and non-motorized wheelchairs.

Supply-chain issues are creating a shortage for such equipment, and the aluminum used to make them, said Don Williams, supply chain manager for Intermountain Medical Center in Murray — one of the 11 locations that was taking donations Saturday.

“We sent out a message to the community, to say, ‘Hey, if you’ve got extra items in your homes, if it’s just decorating your garage or basement, bring them in. Donate them back to the community,’ ” Williams said.

Axios reports the 2021 version of the 2020 respirator shortage:

  • The FDA is investigating allegations that used medical gloves were washed and resold as new gloves.
  • Blood tubes and Foley catheters are also among some of the products in short supply at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, ABC 33/40 reported.
  • There are shortages of raw materials for manufacturing, including semiconductors, or chips commonly used in electronics, and plastic resins that can be used to make everything from car parts to heart valves.
  • The chip shortage hit ResMed, a company that creates ventilators, sleep apnea machines, and other respiratory equipment, San Diego Union-Tribune reported last week.

Drug supplies getting tight, too

Around the country, stories are popping up about some pharmaceutical drugs getting harder to find. Axios lists:

  • Hundreds of drugs are in shortage at hospital pharmacies, including the anti-inflammatory drug tocilizumab, which is given to both cancer and COVID-19 patients, CBS News reported.
  • A pharmacy in Michigan said inhalers are one of the most difficult items to get, ABC 12 News reported. A South Carolina pharmacy said there are a few blood pressure medications they can’t get in stock, News 19 reported.
  • And a Nashville pharmacy said they were even having trouble getting prescription vials to put the medication in, News Channel 5 Nashville reported.

US COVID-19 cases plateau. What’s next?

(Our World In Data)

New COVID-19 cases have hit a plateau in the United States. What happens from here may determine what our next few pandemic months look like. When this happened a year ago, it was the start of a new winter spike as families gathered for holidays.

In one week, starting Nov. 8, international travelers will be flowing back into the United States.

Case counts in Ireland, Greece, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Russia are all increasing. The latest spike in the United Kingdom is dropping, but still very high. The U.K. surge was driven largely by infections of children 5 to 14 years old.

In the U.S., the newest hot spots are in western states, where most of the infections are among the unvaccinated.

Alaska continues to be the case leader (89 cases per 100,000). Montana (71 per 100K), North Dakota (68 per 100K) and Wyoming (68 per 100K) closely follow in case rates.

Cases are increasing fastest in Arizona (up 43% in 14 days), New Mexico  (up 31%), California (up 27%), Utah (up 23%) and Colorado (up 17%).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advisory committee, ACIP, meets today and will likely approve protocols for vaccinating 5- to 11- year-olds with the Pfizer vaccine. Watch the meeting here.

New data: Third dose of Pfizer shot produced 50x more antibodies

A new Israeli study shows a third shot of the Pfizer vaccine reduces the chances of hospitalization by 93%, serious illness by 92% and mortality by 81%. The study found 50 times more neutralizing antibodies in health care workers who received their booster shot eight months after their second dose.

The researchers just published the results of their work in the medical journal Lancet. The study, once again, used a small sample of fewer than 400 people, so keep that in mind. The study did not include seniors, children, immunocompromised or long-term nursing care patients. All of the people in the study were, themselves, health care workers who were considered to be healthy,

The Israelis have been important researchers because that country is significantly ahead of the U.S. in administering vaccines, including boosters, to seniors and children.

Why have so few seniors gotten boosters?

If you want the best immunity for Thanksgiving gatherings, get your booster shot no later than Nov. 11, two weeks before families and friends gather indoors.

KGO in San Francisco reports:

New data released from the health department shows only 19 percent or one in five seniors in San Francisco have been vaccinated with a COVID-19 booster shot.

“It’s not where we want to be,” said SFDPH’s Deputy Director of Health, Dr. Naveena Bobba. “We want those percentages to be well above 50 percent.”

“The research is showing months out immunity might even decrease below 30 to 60 percent,” said Bobba. “I mean there’s a range there, but bottom-line immunity does go down.”

As of this weekend, 18.6 million booster doses have been administered in the U.S., which is less than 10% of the population.

Pentagon will not immediately dismiss unvaccinated military

The National Guard departs McGee Tyson Air National Base in Knoxville, Tennessee, for the Inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (SGT Arturo Guzman/STAR MAX/IPx)

The first deadline for mandatory vaccinations in the military comes today. Roll Call says the Pentagon does not plan to get rid of vaccine holdouts quickly, but instead will keep trying to prod them into compliance:

The first of them arrives Nov. 2, for active-duty Air Force personnel, and official service figures show that some 4 percent of the active-duty Air Force is still not fully vaccinated.

Three administration officials in the last couple of days have described the deadlines not as the dates when an axe will fall but rather as the start of an education process designed to convince those who are resisting vaccination to reverse course.

Administration officials seem to be straddling a line — sending a strict signal that the U.S. government will vaccinate its people on the one hand, while reassuring Americans that enforcement will not come so hard and fast as to harm U.S. military readiness or the broader economy.

Other military branches appear to be ready to take a harder stance. The Navy and Marines, for example, have sent no signals that they intend to show leniency to Marines or sailors who refuse vaccination. Roll Call says, “The Army, Air Force and Space Force meanwhile, have been less precise on how enforcement will play out.”

Steven Morani, the Pentagon’s acting assistant secretary for sustainment, told a House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee hearing last week that even on Nov. 22 — the deadline for Defense Department civilians to be fully vaccinated — there will not be mass firing for people who have not complied. “Nobody is going to be fired on the 22nd. Education is critical in this space — to educate people about the safety of it and the risk of not having it,” he said. Roll Call reports:

Likewise, Ashish Vazirani, the president’s nominee to be the Pentagon’s deputy undersecretary for personnel and readiness, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday he supports the mandate but believes it will be sensitively enforced.

“It’s my understanding that there is an administrative process that allows for exemptions, whether they’re medically necessary or due to religious belief, and then progressing administrative actions to address a servicemember who may decline a vaccine,” Vazirani said.”

Marines loosening tattoo policy

The Marines begin this week with a new policy on tattoos. The new policy says:

Marines may have tattoos on any area of the body, excluding the head, neck, and hands in accordance with this Bulletin. Marines are advised there are future career implications regarding the application of tattoos. A tattoo that is not specifically prohibited may still prevent future duty assignments.

Tattoos that are prejudicial to good order and discipline, or that are of a nature to bring discredit upon the naval service, are prohibited. Examples include, but are not limited to, tattoos that are drug-related, gang-related, extremist, obscene or indecent, sexist, or racist.

How strictly do employers, including police, enforce tattoo restrictions while they are trying to hire people these days? Tattoo studios would be one place to start asking.

School boards cutting off public comment because of violence and threats

One school board president in Louisville left a meeting with this understated observation of the obvious: “It’s not clear to me that the public comment sections of our meetings are fruitful at this point.” Now, school boards are asking parents to email their comments rather than standing up at meetings and shouting.

Employers in the uncomfortable role of detecting fake vaccine cards

A stack of COVID-19 vaccination record card are shown, Thursday, April 15, 2021, at the Christine E. Lynn Rehabilitation center in Jackson Memorial hospital in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

A vaccine card is a federal document and so carrying a fake card is a federal crime. Still, Yahoo Finance reports:

According to Lindsay Ryan, a lawyer at Pulsinelli specializing in COVID-19 employment issues, businesses are increasingly having to address employees caught forging vaccine cards and many bosses don’t know how to legally hold them accountable.

“We are starting to hear more and more about companies who have questions about what to do if they suspect that a vaccine card is fake. And it’s not always clear,” she said on Yahoo Finance Live.

Ryan tells Yahoo Finance some businesses are still working through the appropriate level of vetting to ensure employee vaccination statuses. Interestingly, she notes that the law is pretty clear when it comes to forging federal documents like vaccine cards, but a minority of company policies could possibly leave enough wiggle room to make terminating employees caught in the act more difficult.

“Employers should be aware and should make sure that their employees are aware that presenting a fake vaccine card to their employer could result in legal liability and probably violations that range from a fine of up to $5,000 or even imprisonment,” she said. “Most employers do have some type of company policy in their employee handbook that prohibits dishonest acts … and so for most employers, they would be in the right to terminate or to discipline an at-will employee for presenting a false vaccine card in connection with their vaccine policy.”

Prisons and jails are COVID-19 hotbeds. Why are states not reporting deaths of incarcerated people?

Stateline weighs in on the sorry job that some states are doing tracking and reporting COVID-19 deaths in jails and prisons. Since the pandemic began, that data has been hard to surface. Now, it is worse:

At least a half-dozen states, including Florida and Georgia as well as Texas, provide even less information than they once did, according to researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles’ COVID Behind Bars Data Project, which collects and analyzes data on the pandemic in corrections settings.

In an online post in late August, the project noted that while prison reporting had been “plagued by deep inadequacies” since the start of the pandemic, corrections systems cut back even more on public data in recent months. This happened even though prisons, like nursing homes, have been particularly susceptible to deadly outbreaks of the virus.

Agencies “had begun to roll back basic data reporting on the impact of COVID-19 in their facilities,” the authors wrote of a trend they detected beginning last spring. They characterize the drift as “a deliberate cloaking of the reality on the ground.”

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin say a few states have done a good job reporting deaths behind bars. California, Minnesota, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin got the highest grades. But even they got a “B.”

‘Stop telling kids they will die from climate change’

Climate protestors hold a vigil on the steps of the Royal Exchange, near the Bank of England in London, England, Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. People protested in London ahead of the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26), which started Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Hannah Ritchie at Wired offers an essay that advises us to quit telling our kids that climate change will kill them and start offering solutions and hope. Ritchie points to recent surveys of young people who say they buy into the “we are doomed” messaging, which reminds me of growing up in the ’60s when nuclear war seemed inevitable and we were ducking and covering and counting our civil defense crackers as if that was going to work.

This essay does not underplay the danger of climate change. Not at all. But it does offer this:

One of the most recent and alarming examples of this doomsday mindset came from a group of young activists before the German elections. The group, who call themselves the Last Generation, went on hunger strike for almost a month. Several ended up in hospital. One told his parents and friends that they might never see him again. Another told a journalist that the hunger was “nothing compared to what we can expect when the climate crisis unleashes a famine here in Europe in 20 years.” I couldn’t work out where this claim was coming from. Not from scientists. No credible ones have made this claim. Climate change will affect agriculture. In some regions — particularly across some of the world’s poorest countries — this is a major cause for concern. It’s why I spend so much of my time working on it. But famine across temperate Europe? Within 20 years?

The essay argues that we misunderstand the 1.5-degree Celsius goal that world leaders agreed to in the Paris accord. That was not a tipping point, but a level that scientists generally agreed would cause bad things to happen. But even when the Paris agreements were signed, not exceeding a 1.5-degree increase was fairly unlikely. So, consider this:

Doomsday scenarios play into the hands of climate skeptics. When the world doesn’t end in 10 years, the whole field of climate science takes a hit. People assume this message came from scientists — which it didn’t — and their reputation becomes tarnished. The public loses trust in them. This is perfect for those who want to stop us from taking action.

Finally, I am skeptical that this mentality is effective in driving change. It often makes us feel like any effort is futile. That we’re already out of time. Anger can, for short periods of time, be useful in kickstarting action. But it sometimes comes at the cost of clear thinking on how we actually make progress. And once anger transitions into hopelessness, we struggle to achieve much at all. Hopelessness is no better than denial.

An old boss of mine used to advise our investigative unit to “investigate right-doing, too.” By that, he was urging us to find things that work as well as things that are broken.

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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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