June 10, 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.

Liz Essley Whyte from the Center for Public Integrity battled long and hard to get the Trump White House to publicly release the weekly COVID-19 briefings that the feds send to every governor. I explained before in this column how some governors didn’t want to share the information, especially while the numbers were trending badly.

This week, the Center’s editor published some insight into what has been happening behind the scenes. It is a story that many of you know too well:

In recent months, Liz has been asking a lot of questions about who is behind the conspiracy theories and misinformation about COVID-19 vaccination. Her investigation, published this week, found that a handful of people are making millions of dollars stoking doubt and fear about vaccines that could save lives, while selling seminars and herbal supplements that certainly won’t.

While working on that story, Liz published her own firsthand account of trying to decide whether to get the vaccine while pregnant and the questions she asked about safety and risks, informed by what she knows as a reporter covering health care and the pandemic.

But something else happened during the course of Liz’s reporting on vaccine misinformation peddlers that she and Public Integrity have quietly been dealing with over the past month: a coordinated campaign of harassment and threats.

So I urge you to take a look at Essley Whyte’s latest work. It focuses on a Tennessee couple that Essley Whyte’s report says took in millions of dollars — first by raising questions about chemotherapy for cancer patients and then pivoting to the vaccine skepticism cash cow. Here is a passage:

For the Bollingers and a network of similar influencers, speaking out against vaccines, including the coronavirus shots, is not just a personal crusade. It’s also a profitable business.

The Bollingers, for example, sell documentaries and books; other influencers hawk dietary supplements, essential oils or online “bootcamps” designed to train followers in anti-vaccine talking points. They frequently share links to each other’s content and products. Although the total value of anti-vaccine businesses is unknown, records indicate that the top influencers alone make up a multimillion-dollar industry. In 2020, the Bollingers told a court their cancer business had raked in $25 million in transactions since 2014.

Essley Whyte reports that before finding their way to the COVID-19 misinformation business, the couple spread rumors about everything from chemtrails to fake claims about HIV treatments. They also falsely claimed that bombings in Oklahoma City and Boston and the 9/11 attacks were inside jobs to make the government more powerful.

The unsettling story is a reminder that disinformation is harmfully persuasive and frightfully profitable for people who have the stomach to traffic in it.

No, COVID-19 shots do not magnetize people

A doctor from Cleveland, Ohio, told a state legislative panel that she had spent 10,000 hours (416 days) studying vaccines during the pandemic. Tyler Buchanan, a reporter for the Ohio Capital Journal, fact-checked that claim and found some problems.

Buchanan calculated that it has been almost 11,000 hours (456 days) since Ohio declared a state of emergency, which means that the doctor would have had to have spent 22 hours per day, every day, doing research for that statement to be accurate.

The doctor, Sherri Tenpenny, also mesmerized lawmakers with outlandish claims of vaccinated people who are so “magnetized” that they can stick spoons and forks to their body.

The Columbus Dispatch included this passage from the hearing:

Joanna Overholt, a registered nurse from Strongsville, defended Tenpenny’s testimony and placed a key and a hairpin against her chest and neck.

“Explain to me why the key sticks to me. It sticks to my neck too. So, yeah, if somebody could explain this, that would be great,” she said as the key failed to stick to her neck. (Watch the video)

This whole magnetic vaccine thing has circulated enough that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even put out a statement:


PolitiFact, Snopes and others have all explored the claims and found them to be false. Snopes dove in fairly deeply to explain:

Edward Hutchinson, a lecturer with the Centre for Virus Research at Scotland’s University of Glasgow, told us via email:

“(You) would need to introduce a large lump of magnetic material beneath the skin to get the action through the skin that the videos claim to show (if you want to give this a go, try getting a fridge magnet to pick up anything, particularly tiny bits of metal, through the skin between your thumb and index finger).”

Furthermore, Al Edwards, an associate professor in biomedical technology from the University of Reading in England, said the human body is comprised of the same type of biological materials in the vaccine formulas.

“There is nothing magnetic in vaccine formulations, most of what is injected is extremely pure water, plus some simple salts to make the injection less painful, and an absolutely tiny amount of vaccine,” he wrote Snopes. “Most food is made of similar molecules, and eating food doesn’t make people magnetic.”

In sum, while the videos did not depict authentic effects of COVID-19 vaccines, the reasons for why the alleged “magnets” seemingly stayed on people’s arms were unclear. More plausible than the microchip conspiracy theory were the possibilities that people positioned their arms in a way to avoid the items’ gravitational pull downwards or used items that stuck to people’s skin for reasons other than a magnetic pull.

Just so we can say we said it, the lists of ingredients in the COVID-19 vaccines, which are publicly available, do not include any metallic materials.

I can see that it would be handy to be able to put screws and nails on the back of my hand while doing woodworking, but I am vaccinated and cannot make it happen. Which leads me to my favorite response to the doctor’s testimony:

By the way, that 10,000 hours of research claim stuck in my head. I knew I had seen it somewhere before. It was a theory from Malcolm Gladwell that to become great at anything requires 10,000 hours of practice. The Guardian later explained the 10,000 hours is a guideline, not a rule:

The seed for the 10,000-hour rule was a 1993 study of violinists and pianists which found that accumulated practice time rose with musical prowess. On average, top-ranked violinists had clocked up 10,000 hours of practice by the age of 20, though many had actually put in fewer hours. In the study, the authors rejected an important role for natural talent and argued that differences in ability, even among top musicians, were largely down to how much they practiced. Gladwell seized on the round number to explain the success of notables from Bill Gates to the Beatles.

And still, “10,000 hours” of research can still lead a doctor to believe shots turn you into a giant magnet. It reminds me of something an old golf coach told me. Practice does not make perfect if you keep practicing a bad golf swing. In that case, practice just makes a bad habit.

How are your local schools tracking all of those computers they handed out a year ago?

I saw this San Antonio story about a school system IT guy who was selling school-owned iPads out of this pickup truck and it makes me wonder how many of the computers that schools handed out to help families with remote learning are now unaccounted for.

In Nashville, about 124 school-issued laptops are still missing.

Maybe the real story is that the overwhelming majority of computers are accounted for and became a lifeline for kids who needed it.

The jails once emptying during the COVID-19 crisis are now refilling

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, cities and counties found ways to keep people out of jail, send them home to await trial and even reduce arrest rates to cut the spread of COVID-19. But new data from the Vera Institute of Justice shows old habits die hard. Jails are filling up again.

(Marshall/Associated Press)

The Marshall Project and The Associated Press explore the data:

By the middle of last year, the number of people in jails nationwide was at its lowest point in more than two decades, according to a new report published this week by the Vera Institute of Justice, whose researchers collected population numbers from about half of the nation’s 3,300 jails to make national estimates.

According to the report, shared with The Marshall Project and The Associated Press, the number of people incarcerated in county jails across the country declined from 758,000 by roughly one-quarter, or 185,000, as counties aggressively worked to release people held on low-level charges, dramatically reduced arrest rates and suspended court operations.

But in most places, the decrease didn’t last long: From mid-2020 to March 2021, the number of people in jails awaiting trial or serving short sentences for minor offenses climbed back up again by more than 70,000, reaching nearly 650,000.

“Reducing the incarcerated population across the country is possible,” said Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute of Justice and author of the new report. “We saw decreases in big cities, small cities, rural counties and the suburbs, but the increase we see is troubling.”

The report addresses the question of whether the pandemic-era release of people from jails and prisons is connected in any way to a rise in crime in some communities:

Police leaders and union officials in places like New York City and Philadelphia have blamed policies freeing people from jail, though there is little evidence that people on release are behind the surge of new crimes. Some lockups were back at pre-pandemic levels even before vaccines were ready last winter.

While some violent crimes have been increasing, the number of people accused of shootings and homicides makes up a sliver of the jail population. The most common crimes, such as theft and drug crimes, decreased during the pandemic.

Fake COVID-19 vaccine cards are everywhere

A man holds his vaccination reminder card after having received his first shot at a pop-up vaccination site next to Maximo Gomez Park, also known as Domino Park, Monday, May 3, 2021, in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Here in the United States, you do not have to show proof of vaccination to fly on an airplane. Elsewhere around the world, you do. As a result, fake vaccination cards are growing in popularity and, because they are becoming so common, the drumbeat for some sort of government-issued proof of vaccination card is becoming louder.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

The documents are often the Covid-19 test results required by many countries on arrival. The International Air Transport Association industry body says it has tracked fake certificates in multiple countries, from France to Brazil, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Border control authorities and police forces have also reported arrests of people selling documents in the U.K., Spain, Indonesia and Zimbabwe, among others.

The problem is hitting international flights more than domestic ones, which typically don’t require certification at the moment. Airlines that are more dependent on cross-border travel, particularly those operating in Europe, are growing increasingly alarmed as they look to the summer, when they still hope demand will start to return.

Airlines say their staff aren’t equipped to handle and police all the new health certifications needed and worry the problem will be exacerbated when some countries also start to ask for vaccination certificates.

NPR says it is pretty easy to find believable fake vaccine cards online.

A vendor on Amazon was discovered selling a pack of blank COVID-19 vaccination cards this week. The post has since been removed, but photos reshared online showed a 10-pack of blank cards going for $12.99.

Other vendors selling fake vaccine cards have cropped up on Etsy, an e-commerce site focusing on handmade and vintage items; on pro-Trump forums; and on the dark web, according to recent reports.

Fake vaccine cards not only have a negative impact on public health, the FBI said, but they’re against the law — unauthorized use of an official government agency’s seal can be punished with a fine or up to five years in prison.

The FBI said earlier this year, “By misrepresenting yourself as vaccinated when entering schools, mass transit, workplaces, gyms, or places of worship, you put yourself and others around you at risk of contracting COVID-19.”

This week, Amazon removed an ad for fake vaccine cards.

Understanding the cybersecurity risks for police and fire departments

Greg Friese, the editorial director for the website police1.com, sent me a note about something that will interest journalists. On June 24, you can join a free webinar for police and fire departments to understand the cybersecurity threats that are waiting for them. The session will include how to understand the legitimacy of a ransom request and how to respond to it.

Thanks to Greg for this. Journalists need this background to cover a story we know is coming at us.

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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