August 11, 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.

This is a study in how to report a story that is both accurate and true. Accurate means you get the facts right. True is when you get the right facts, too.

Look at the below headlines from yesterday. The TV stations focused on deaths after vaccinations while the newspaper websites put the figures in context. The Boston Herald was especially thoughtful.

(Screenshots/Google)

The below headline jumps out, but the real news, unfortunately, is a few paragraphs below it. The headline from Modern Healthcare says:

(Screenshot/Modern Healthcare)

It is factual and real. I give them that. But the real news, the context that matters comes after you have consumed the alarming headline and opening paragraph, is this:

(Screenshot/Modern Healthcare)

Look, friends, we are in a pandemic. People are scared and doubtful. This is not the time to play games with SEO and headlines.

Nursing home infections are low, but so is the vaccination rate among nursing home workers

Nursing homes, with their high rate of vaccination among residents, are so far faring fairly well in this new COVID-19 outbreak. But everyone is nervous. And for good reason.

During the pandemic, 133,000 nursing home residents died of COVID-19.  They accounted for nearly one-third of the nation’s pandemic fatalities. Seniors now have the highest vaccination rate of any demographic in America, with more than 80% of nursing home residents fully vaccinated, but the newest data from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services shows a big gap between patients and staff vaccinations:

  • National percent of vaccinated residents: 81.8%
  • National percent of vaccinated staff: 59.3%

You can get local easily using the government’s vaccination tracker for nursing homes. Here are instructions from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services website:

Search for a nursing home map: Click the map below to search for a nursing home and view data for the individual nursing home, including recent resident and staff vaccination rates.

(Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services)

Listing of vaccination rates for individual nursing homes: Click to see a list of every nursing home with recent resident and staff vaccination rates. There’s also a separate tab for nursing homes with a staff vaccination rate of 75% or more.

I want to walk you through a few charts that tell some interesting stories about nursing home patients and staff. First, the good news: New infections among patients is low and not moving much:

(Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services)

Now, the less encouraging news: The people taking care of the nursing home patients are getting infected because, as I told you, a large percentage of them is not vaccinated. The increase in new cases is not as bad as we see in the general population … yet. Keep your eye on this.

(Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services)

The next two charts will help you to get local and ask questions. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why Florida, a nursing home capital, has one of the lowest percentages of vaccinated nursing home residents. Other lower-vaccinated states on the chart reflect the overall vaccination rate, I suppose.

(Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services)

Again, it is odd that states that have large nursing home populations would have such low vaccination rates among employees. You wonder when or if states will require more of these workers to get vaccinated and how many workers would refuse and quit, which nursing homes cannot afford.

(Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services)

You can also see the positive test rate for every nursing home in America here.

The New York Times did a deep dive into this topic recently, which is worth a look.

Why US mask-making companies are going broke

Used protective masks are prepared for disinfecting at the Battelle N95 decontamination site in Somerville, Mass., on April 11, 2020. Although it will take years for researchers to understand why the pandemic was disproportionately worse in the U.S., early studies that compare different countries’ responses are finding that U.S. shortages of masks, gloves, gowns, shields, testing kits and other medical supplies indeed cost lives. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

American mask-making companies say they can’t make a go of it, even with demand for masks rising again, because Chinese-made masks cost so much less. The Hill reports:

“With the virus getting worse, and we’re not even into the cold months, we’re really worried that this industry won’t be here to help when it’s needed most,” said Brent Dillie, managing partner at Premium-PPE and chairman of the recently formed American Mask Manufacturer’s Association (AMMA).

Premium-PPE, like many companies in the small U.S. mask industry, began manufacturing face coverings at the onset of the pandemic as the nation faced a mask shortage driven by China’s export restrictions. The Virginia Beach, Va., firm steadily ramped up its production to 1 million masks per day earlier this year, but it has since laid off most of its employees.

“The industry is in a situation where we are needed, there are shortages of masks, but we’re all laying off our employees and sitting on huge inventories of products that we can’t sell,” said Luis Arguello Jr., vice president of DemeTech.

DemeTech was the largest surgical mask manufacturer last year before governments stopped buying American masks. The Miami company has since laid off 1,500 workers in its mask division and built up a stockpile of nearly 200 million masks.

This is an interesting story considering how we made such a big deal a year ago about how our essential supplies were all imported and how we needed to get more American manufacturers producing the things we need in an emergency. You can read more from the mask industry itself here.

Can we expect a peak in delta variant virus cases soon? Maybe.

This is by no means certain, but we could see a peak of this latest COVID-19 surge within weeks. There are several reasons why … and some reasons why not.

The United Kingdom saw a rapid surge of COVID-19 delta variant cases followed by a steep and fast decline in cases after a peak.

There is no shortage of experts who say the U.S. and the U.K. are different enough that the data may not apply. Close to 90% of the U.K.’s population has at least one dose of the vaccine. And so many Brits have been exposed to the virus that there may be a high percentage of people who have developed a level of immunity in addition to the vaccines. So when they got infected recently, they recovered faster.

Look at these projections from the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation:

Data from Aug. 9, 2021. (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation)

The group, which has been a clarion for what’s ahead in the pandemic, says we could be in for a sharp and horrific increase or a decline, depending on whether we wear masks and keep getting vaccinated.

The Hill reports:

Justin Lessler, an infectious diseases epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, said so far, the contagious variant has increased faster than any of their models, calling it “a little bit scary.”

“Given the rate is going up, it’s either going to peak earlier than we anticipated or peak much, much higher than we anticipated,” Lessler said. “I think probably both are going to be true.”

Many Americans have quit wearing masks, and travel is at a peak since the pandemic took grip of the country in March 2020.

Charging unvaccinated college students for testing and supplies

The Associated Press reports, “West Virginia Wesleyan College says it will charge a $750 fee to students who aren’t vaccinated for COVID-19 for the fall semester.” The school says unvaccinated students who come down with the virus will be charged $250 for quarantine space if they do not have a place off campus. The $750 pay for the testing and resources that the school says will be needed to keep the place safe. Unvaccinated students will also have to take weekly tests. We will see if this catches on.

Will you earn less if you work from home?

Reuters has an interesting piece about how some companies are toying with the notion of a stratified pay rate according to where you work. The story includes this passage:

Screenshots of Google’s internal salary calculator seen by Reuters show that an employee living in Stamford, Connecticut — an hour from New York City by train — would be paid 15% less if she worked from home, while a colleague from the same office living in New York City would see no cut from working from home. Screenshots showed 5% and 10% differences in the Seattle, Boston and San Francisco areas.

A Google spokesperson said the company will not change an employee’s salary based on them going from office work to being fully remote in the city where the office is located. Employees working in the New York City office will be paid the same as those working remotely from another New York City location, for example, according to the spokesperson.

It seems to me it would make sense if people who worked from home were paid more, not less. Think of the money the company would save in office space costs. Heck, even water and electricity use add up if you spread it across a bunch of employees. And I don’t know about you, but I do not use a company printer or office supplies when working at home. I just buy my own.

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,…
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