September 8, 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.

If America’s delta variant behaves in a similar way to how it did in places like the United Kingdom, then the latest charts indicate we may have reason to think the latest wave has peaked. Maybe.

(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Look at a close-up of the trending graph and you will see last week’s positive cases were 157,997, compared to 164,852 the week before.

(CDC)

To put that in perspective, it is still about the same number of weekly cases we recorded in January when hardly anybody was vaccinated. It’s also the same as the rate in November 2020, before there was a vaccine. So, as I say, the good news is not that great, but it is the first time since mid-June that the trend has gotten better, not worse.

For context, Labor Day saw three times as many new cases as the same day a year ago, before the vaccine was available.

If we are indeed peaking, then we will see a break in the horrific deaths in three weeks or so. But deaths will rise for a few more weeks. And even then, it would take until close to Thanksgiving before we get back to the death rate that is filling temporary refrigerated morgue trailers today.

(CDC)

Even though previous hot spots are modestly less hot, there are new hot spot states where COVID-19 cases are still rising.

(Financial Times)

Idaho just started what is called “crisis standards of care,” meaning some people may get care in hospital meeting rooms or hallways because there is no regular hospital bed space available. About 40% of Idaho residents have been vaccinated, which is among the lowest vaccination rates in America.

And then — while you consider there was no vaccine, no escape from the 1918 pandemic — this gut punch:


It turns out a country that chooses not to get vaccinated is not much better off than one that can’t get vaccinated.

COVID spreads, hospitals may close in days in Afghanistan

America promised not to abandon the people of Afghanistan, so here is an update. Reuters reports that 90% of the country’s 2,300 medical facilities may close as soon as a few days from now because they are running out of funding and supplies. The World Health Organization says it is trying to get supplies delivered with the help of Qatar. About 5% of Afghans have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

One bright spot: Indonesia

Among all of the grim news is this bright spot. Indonesia’s positive test rate dropped below the benchmark 5% for the first time in a year and a half. At one point, a third of all tests there were coming back positive. Indonesia was, for a while, the COVID-19 hot spot of Asia.

I just wanted you to see that all of the charts are not stuck at the top. I really do think the public needs to see that it is possible to push infection rates down, it is not easy or even popular, but it is possible.

(Johns Hopkins/Google)

900 pages of government documents about US-funded coronavirus research at Wuhan laboratory

The Intercept filed FOIA requests and got its hands on “900 pages of documents detailing the work of EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S.-based health organization that used federal money to fund bat coronavirus research at the Chinese laboratory.”

The documents do not provide a smoking gun about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic but do include “two previously unpublished grant proposals that were funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.”

The documents describe the work of EcoHealth Alliance president Peter Daszak “to screen thousands of bat samples for novel coronaviruses. The research also involved screening people who work with live animals.”

All of this points to how difficult it is to dismiss the theory that somehow the virus escaped from the laboratory and did not come from a food market in Wuhan. The grants were funded under the last two years of the Obama administration and nearly all of Donald Trump’s term in office. Trump suspended the grant in April 2020 after the virus began spreading.

President Biden has criticized China for slowly releasing data, but the Intercept points out, “The Intercept initially requested the proposals in September 2020.”

School board meetings are getting weird and scary

Every beginning journalist knows that the education beat, where you cover local school boards, is usually the snoozefest of all snoozefests …  usually. Not in a pandemic.

School boards control a big chunk of every community’s spending. They sign massive contracts and their decisions touch lives. But during the pandemic, they also touch off protests, angry outbursts and debates over how to teach difficult issues like race relations.

In truth, school board meetings have always been important. We just don’t usually treat them that way. The New York Times takes us on a tour of the weird outbreaks around the country.

USA Today says a lot of the heat is not just local grassroots concern but the product of organized protests:

Newly formed right-leaning organizations such as Parents Defending Education and No Left Turn in Education have encouraged parents to play more active roles at school board meetings. Conservative think tanks, including the Manhattan Institute and Heritage Foundation, have also increasingly focused on the issue.

Heritage Action, the foundation’s 501(c)(4) lobbying arm, for example, helped organize a rally in Loudoun County, Virginia, to “stop critical race theory.”

Others, like Citizens for Renewing America, a group founded by a former Trump administration official who penned the critical race theory memo, have developed toolkits and how-to’s for parents. The Citizens for Renewing America guide bills itself as “an A-to-Z guide on how to stop Critical Race Theory and reclaim your local school board.”

It might be an interesting time to listen to school board members and understand their lives. There are 90,000 school board members in the United States. Their decisions affect 50 million schoolchildren.

A record number of children are being homeschooled in the pandemic

According to a new report from the Bellwether Education Partners, more than two and a half million children are now being homeschooled. The study includes new Census data that shows homeschooling is becoming more common across races and ethnicities.

(Bellweather Education Partners)

(Bellweather Education Partners)

The study says homeschooling will likely stay robust even when the pandemic ends. Parents watched their children learn at home last year and have decided they want to have a greater influence in schooling. Romy Drucker, the K-12 education director at the Walton Family Foundation, said, “Parents want greater personalization, and this seems like a trend that’s here to stay. Schools will have to earn back the trust of parents.”

See more on this study from Axios.

Are vaccine mandates un-American? Ask George Washington

This week, Congressman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) posted this:


Which raises the question, “What would George Washington do?” In 1777 he — take a deep breath — mandated his troops be immunized against smallpox. (Back then it was called variolation and it was painful and gross. Read about it if you want the details.)

The Library of Congress Resource Center notes:

On the 6th of January 1777, George Washington wrote to Dr. William Shippen Jr., ordering him to inoculate all of the forces that came through Philadelphia. He explained that: “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army . . . we should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy.”

This did not involve sticking a tiny needle loaded with a scientifically studied and government-approved medicine into people’s arms. This involved a risky procedure that infected people with a less deadly form of smallpox in order to build immunity. But it had to be done fast and secretly. The threat of Variola, or smallpox, was so great that volunteers didn’t want to join the military because they were concerned they would get infected. So, on Feb. 5, 1777, Washington ordered the Continental Army to be fully vaccinated.

The Library of Congress Resource Center page picks up the outcome:

Variola raged throughout the war, devastating the Native American population and slaves who had chosen to fight for the British in exchange for freedom. Yet the isolated infections that sprung up among Continental regulars during the southern campaign failed to incapacitate a single regiment. With few surgeons, fewer medical supplies, and no experience, Washington conducted the first mass inoculation of an army at the height of a war that immeasurably transformed the international system. Defeating the British was impressive, but simultaneously taking on Variola was a risky stroke of genius.

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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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