November 4, 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.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss the upcoming game against Kansas City. But the bigger question is whether Rodgers lied when reporters asked him if he had been vaccinated.

On Aug. 26, a reporter asked Rodgers, “Are you vaccinated and what is your stance on vaccinations?” Rodgers said, “Yeah, I’ve been immunized.” (Watch the video here.) Also in August, he said, “There’s guys on the team that haven’t been vaccinated. I think it is a personal decision. I’m not going to judge those guys.” (Watch the video here.) Notice he says those guys, as if he is not among them.

Reporters followed up by asking if he got the shot for competitive reasons. He did not say, “Oh, I didn’t get the shot.” He said, “I think I like to learn about everything that I’m doing”

ESPN reports that Rodgers petitioned the NFL to have an “alternative treatment” count as vaccination. The NFL said no and has considered him to be unvaccinated.

Under NFL rules, unvaccinated players who test positive must quarantine for a minimum of 10 days, meaning the soonest Rodgers can return if he remains asymptomatic is Nov. 13.

There are so many open questions. If the NFL considered Rodgers unvaccinated, then why was he not required to wear a mask at press conferences? Unvaccinated players are required to wear masks “at all times when inside the Club facility,” according to league rules. The rule also applies to working out in the weight room, and unvaccinated players have to stay six feet away from other unvaccinated players while traveling or eating. USA Today quotes an unnamed source who says Rodgers was subjected to daily PCR tests as the NFL requires of unvaccinated players.

USA Today reports, “Video has circulated on social media of him attending a Halloween party over the weekend with other Packers players. In the brief footage, Rodgers is not wearing a mask.”

This word game that Rodgers played in which he called himself “immunized” is similar to what some anti-vaxxers say when they claim “natural immunity” because they were infected with the virus at some point and are relying on an immune response from the infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says while most healthy people do produce an immune response when they are infected with COVID-19, the level of the response varies, and so it does not provide the reliable protection that a vaccine produces in most people.

Fill in the blank to get a vaccine exemption

Health care giant Kaiser Permanente says it is turning down lots of requests for COVID-19 vaccine exemptions because it appears that people loaded a fill-in-the-blank form from the internet with similar or identical wording to state their firmly held religious objections to vaccines. By the way, 93% of the Kaiser Permanente workforce is vaccinated.

The Associated Press reports that the Alabama legislature is working on a bill that would allow workers to just check a box on a form to get a religious exemption for mandatory vaccinations.

The Alabama Senate voted 26-5 for the bill by Republican Sen. Chris Elliott of Fairhope (that) would mandate businesses requiring COVID-19 vaccinations to distribute a form where employees could claim a religious or medical exemption by checking a box. An employee submitting the form could not be fired over not getting the vaccination unless the business appealed and got permission from the Alabama Department of Labor.

The drug pricing deal that affects nearly everybody

George Dean, 74, gives himself an insulin injection as Meals on Wheels driver Jim Stotler brings him a meal at his home in Cumberland, R.I, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

We are in a news cycle that involves so many huge issues that some stories affecting nearly everyone don’t get as much coverage as they might in normal times. This is one of those.

A week ago, President Joe Biden said the White House was abandoning its drug pricing plan because Congress was too far apart to reach a decision. One in four Americans say they struggle to pay for prescription drugs, and both Biden and Donald Trump promised to do something about drug prices.

Then, Tuesday, the White House and Congressional Democrats seemed to resurrect a drug plan.

Three big parts of the bill include:

  • Seniors’ out-of-pocket costs would be capped at $2,000 per year. The White House statement on the new plan says, “Today, there is no cap on how much seniors and people with disabilities have to pay for drugs, and millions of seniors pay more than $6,000 a year in cost-sharing. This proposal puts an end to this burden, and ensures that seniors never pay more than $2,000 a year for their drugs under Medicare Part D.”
  • Insulin prices per dose will be capped. The plan would lower insulin prices so that Americans with diabetes don’t pay more than $35 per month.
  • Medicare would be allowed to negotiate drug prices for both drugs dispensed at the pharmacy counter and those administered in doctors’ offices for drugs older than nine or 12 years, depending on the type of drug. The plan would phase in, so don’t expect prices to drop overnight. Medicare will negotiate up to 10 drugs per year during 2023, with those prices taking effect in 2025, increasing to up to 20 drugs per year. Drug companies claim this will cost them the money they need to research new drugs.
  • Drugmakers will have to pay tax penalties if they hike prices faster than inflation, including for employer-sponsored insurance plans. Starting when and if this bill becomes law, future drug price increases will be compared to their current prices.

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins reacted to the new plan saying, “Allowing Medicare to finally negotiate drug prices is a big win for seniors.” She added, “Preventing prices from rising faster than inflation and adding a hard out-of-pocket cap to Part D will provide real relief for seniors with the highest drug costs.”

Journalists, there are very few issues that you can cover that will resonate more with the public than health care and prescription drug costs. Look at this 2019 survey (keep in mind Trump was in office) and see how much both Democrats and Republicans agree when it comes to drug prices:

(Kaiser Family Foundation)

A recent Kaiser survey found:

  • Three in ten (29%) of all adults report not taking their medicines as prescribed at some point in the past year because of the cost.
  • This includes about one in five who say they didn’t fill a prescription (19%) or took an over-the counter drug instead (18%), and
  • About one in 10 (12%) who say they cut pills in half or skipped a dose.
  • Three in ten of those who report not taking their medicines say their condition got worse as a result (8% of the public overall).

Breast implants are not ‘lifetime devices’

The Food and Drug Administration just issued a strongly worded statement that warns, “Breast implants are not lifetime devices.” It is part of a headline on the FDA’s “What to Know About Breast Implants” website. The updated statement on implant safety says:

The longer you have breast implants, the greater the chances are that you will develop complications, some of which will require more surgery.

The life of breast implants varies by person and cannot be predicted. That means everyone with breast implants may need additional surgeries, but no one can predict when.

The Health Care Journalists Association offers help covering this story, which affects about 4% of all women in the U.S., and that is a lot of people.

The resurgence of meth

In this undated photo released by Combined Maritime Forces, British royal navy vessel, HMS Montrose’s boarding team pose with the 450 kilograms of methamphetamine after they seized the drugs from a traditional cargo ship at the Arabian Sea. (Combined Maritime Forces via AP)

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra says during the pandemic, the use and deaths from methamphetamines rose, again.

In recent days we have seen stories in San Antonio about a woman with $2.5 million worth of meth in her car, a record-breaking meth bust in North Carolina, and a Wyoming traffic stop that produced 600 pounds of meth, also a record.

KATU in Portland, Oregon, reports:

Over the past few years, methamphetamine use has gone up 180% across the United States, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Dr. Todd Korthuis with Oregon Health & Science University is an expert on addictions and treatment. He says not only is meth use up but so are overdoses.

“Fentanyl is also sometimes contaminating the methamphetamine supply. So even when someone thinks they’re doing methamphetamine, they may actually be exposed to the synthetic opioid Fentanyl, which has a much higher risk of overdose, and this is why we’re seeing a much higher spike in overdoses, not only from opioids but from stimulant use in the United States.

And the problem doesn’t stop there.

“The potency of methamphetamine has increased, and the purity of methamphetamine has increased,” says Korthuis.

KATU explains that the “new meth” is different than the stuff that was once cooked up in homes using the cold medication ephedrine as the foundation of the drug. Now, more meth is imported. Authorities in Laos recently captured the biggest Asian meth stash, worth $250 million.

WDIV in Detroit reports:

Officials with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said meth has made a major comeback in Metro Detroit. They said there’s more of it and it looks different than before. They are making record busts of pills that look exactly like Xanax, Adderall, Vicodin, and more. Instead, the drugs are made from chemicals sent from China and produced in Mexico.

Around 42% of the pills seized so far are a mix of meth and fentanyl. The DEA said the meth and fentanyl pills are in the suburbs and in Detroit and that the fear of overdose deaths is a major concern.

New data from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows:

(Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)

An antidepressant might be useful in treating COVID-19

The antidepressant drug fluvoxamine, commonly used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, may also reduce COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations. And since fluvoxamine is already an FDA-approved drug, it could be prescribed for treatment even while the proof of its usefulness for COVID-19 patients is unproven. The Washington Post explains:

In use since the 1990s, the drug is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor that helps restore the balance of serotonin in the brain. Researchers said they decided to study its possible use in treating covid-19 because of its anti-inflammatory and possibly anti-viral properties. It was also identified early in the pandemic as capable of reducing what’s known as cytokine storms, in which the body attacks healthy cells and tissues.

The study, published in the Lancet journal, found that giving high-risk covid-19 patients fluvoxamine — 100 mg twice daily for 10 days — early in their treatment reduced the need for hospitalization.

The clinical trial took place from January to August and included roughly 1,500 people at 11 sites in Brazil.

The tests show that for every 20 people who were treated with this drug, one person could benefit. It may not sound impressive to you, but researchers were impressed.

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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