April 7, 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.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that the Biden administration does not support asking Americans to carry COVID-19 vaccine passports to prove they have been vaccinated.

“Let me be very clear on this. I know there’s been lots of questions,” Psaki said. “The government is not now, nor will we be, supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential.”

Some sort of passport might make it easier to travel internationally or enter sports venues or concert halls. But opponents have raised privacy concerns and questioned whether it would penalize people with underlying health issues who cannot take the vaccines. But, Psaki said, “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”

New York is trying its own sort of passport called the “Excelsior Pass.” The state promotes the pass by saying:

Attend sporting events, arts performances and more! Excelsior Pass supports a safe reopening of New York by providing a free, fast and secure way to present digital proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test results. Think of it as a mobile airline boarding pass, but for proving you received a COVID-19 vaccination or negative test.

Businesses and venues can scan and validate your pass to ensure you meet any COVID-19 vaccination or testing requirements for entry. Along with your Pass, you’ll be asked to show a photo ID that shows your name and birth date to verify that the Pass belongs to you. Adults may hold passes for accompanying minors.

UK residents will test out vaccine passports

Keep an eye on the United Kingdom starting April 12 as it launches a vaccine passport program and loosens a national lockdown. Britain is way behind getting people vaccinated and now hopes to give all adults at least one shot of a vaccine by July. Brits are still currently banned from traveling abroad on vacation and that will not change in the next month.

Time to end COVID-19 ‘hygiene theatre.’ CDC says you can relax surface cleaning, fogging and spraying

A worker at T-Mobile Park wears a mask and uses a sanitizing device to spray the rail in the Seattle Mariners’ dugout as a precaution against COVID-19 before a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox, Monday, April 5, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says you can let up on wiping down everything you touch and focus on the main way COVID-19 spreads, which is through the air. The new advice may change the way businesses and schools focus their energy and resources and make it easier to reopen classrooms, workplaces and churches.

The CDC says:

The principal mode by which people are infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is through exposure to respiratory droplets carrying infectious virus. It is possible for people to be infected through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects (fomites), but the risk is generally considered to be low.

While the statement is stronger than what the CDC has said in the past, it is not a change of heart. A year ago, as people rushed to buy wipes and disinfectants, the CDC kept telling us to socially distance and wear masks. CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told COVID-19 Response Team members, “Disinfection is only recommended in indoor settings, schools, and homes where there has been a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 within the last 24 hours.”

The CDC followed up with new wording that says cleaning once a day is usually enough unless you have someone in your household with COVID-19:

Surface disinfection has been shown to be effective for preventing secondary transmission of SARS-CoV-2 between an infected person and other people within households. However, there is little scientific support for routine use of disinfectants in community settings, whether indoor or outdoor, to prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission from fomites.

In public spaces and community settings, available epidemiological data and QMRA studies indicate that the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission from fomites is low — compared with risks from direct contact, droplet transmission or airborne transmission. Routine cleaning performed effectively with soap or detergent, at least once per day, can substantially reduce virus levels on surfaces. When focused on high-touch surfaces, cleaning with soap or detergent should be enough to further reduce the relatively low transmission risk from fomites in situations when there has not been a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 indoors.

In situations when there has been a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 indoors within the last 24 hours, the presence of infectious virus on surfaces is more likely and therefore high-touch surfaces should be disinfected.

The CDC says techniques such as fumigation and fogging may present their own risks.

There have been increases in poisonings and injuries from unsafe use of cleaners and disinfectants since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some types of disinfection applications, particularly those including fogging or misting, are neither safe nor effective for inactivating the virus unless properly used.

The CDC’s new guidance also reminds us that a virus can hang in the air for minutes or even hours after an infected person has been in a room. It all depends on air circulation, temperature and humidity.

Yahoo News distilled the story well:

Despite scientists’ growing certitude about how the pathogen is transmitted, many establishments have continued to insist on strict sanitization protocols. In some school districts, for example, classrooms close for full-day “deep cleaning.”

The persistence of such practices has led to the advent of a derisive term — “hygiene theater” — to describe rituals that appear to do little to stop the virus from spreading. It is not clear if the CDC’s new guidance will lower the curtain on those theatrics, given how entrenched some of those practices have become.

“If we took half the effort that’s being given to disinfection, and we put it on ventilation, that will be huge,” University of Colorado atmospheric chemist Jose-Luis Jimenez told the scientific publication Nature for an article published last month.

This adds another chapter to the ever-changing guidance that health authorities have given about preventing this virus. At first, we heard there was no need to wear a mask. Then the advice changed. A year ago, the World Health Organization told us that the virus did travel by touching hard surfaces that had been exposed to it. Then the evidence grew that infections rarely came from hard surfaces.

But, as Yahoo News’ Alexander Nazaryan pointed out, the CDC’s new guidance leaves businesses and schools in a bit of a bind. Without widespread COVID-19 testing, they cannot know whether an infected person passed through their space, so they have to assume the worst and continue with their expensive and labor-intensive constant cleaning.

European Medicines Agency updates AstraZeneca safety investigation results today

A senior official with the European Medicines Agency said Tuesday that there is a link between the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine and reports of 44 blood clots among the 9.2 million people who have gotten the vaccine.

Marco Cavaleri, chair of the vaccine evaluation team at the EMA, told the Italian news organization Il Messaggero, “In my opinion we can now say it, it is clear that there is an association with the vaccine. However, we still do not know what causes this reaction.” He also did not say how he reached that conclusion or if there is clinical evidence to underpin it.

AstraZeneca and the World Health Organization say there is no connection between the drug and cases of blood clots.

Several countries — including Canada, France, Germany and the Netherlands — suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for younger people.

Some investigations are underway to zero in on whether the vaccine causes an increased risk for women using birth control pills or whether it triggers an unusual antibody in rare cases.

Small business’ pandemic recovery

The U.S. Census Bureau says there is real evidence that small businesses are making a comeback, but nearly half of small businesses have not yet seen any of the latest stimulus money.

From March 22 through 28:

13.2% of U.S. small businesses experienced an increase in operating revenues/sales/receipts in the last week. For responses collected 3/15 – 3/21, this statistic was 11.9%

9.0% of U.S. small businesses have experienced an increase in the total number of hours worked by paid employees in the last week. For responses collected 3/15 – 3/21, this statistic was 8.4%

7.6% of U.S. small businesses experienced an increase in the number of paid employees in the last week. For responses collected 3/15 – 3/21, this statistic was 7.4%

And what about the federal government’s promise to help small businesses? For almost half of those businesses, the latest round of stimulus money has not arrived.

49.1% of U.S. small businesses have not received financial assistance from any source since December 27, 2020 based on responses collected 3/22 – 3/28 from the SBPS

As you look at the chart below, the more you move to the right of the chart, the worse the pandemic’s economic effect grows. Click on the chart to interact with it and get local data.

(U.S. Census Bureau)

Schools expect a record number of teacher retirements

Chalkbeat Detroit reports teacher retirements in Michigan have risen 44% since August:

K-12 schools in Michigan are already experiencing critical shortages of teachers across all subjects, particularly math, science and special education.

“It didn’t pop up overnight during COVID,” said Tina Kerr, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators. “This is certainly a problem that’s been very alarming to us in the past.”

But the pandemic may have exacerbated an emerging crisis.

While mid-year retirements have risen considerably, some superintendents expect this summer’s retirements and resignations to level off or decline because of earlier-than-planned departures.

“We’ve probably had more teachers resign/retire, more staff members resign/retire in the middle of the year than we’ve ever had before,” said Gary Niehaus, superintendent of Grosse Pointe Public Schools.

EdSurge tells a similar story about schools in California:

This year, leaves of absences in Long Beach increased by 35 percent, and fewer than half of its 1,100-member substitute pool signaled a willingness to work, Assistant Superintendent David Zaid told researchers from the Learning Policy Institute, which recently published a report on the teacher shortage in California. “When you think about going from 1,100 all the way down to 450, that was a significant amount,” Zaid said.

Long Beach’s experience tracks with a nationwide shortage of substitutes. In an Education Week survey conducted at the end of last year, nearly three-quarters of school and district leaders cited it as a major problem, with most saying they’ve had difficulty covering classes as a result.

But the country’s teacher shortage runs far deeper than substitutes. It has morphed into a serious, existential threat for the profession. And there are indications it may be getting worse.

40 states report some level of teacher shortage. You can go here to see the shortages by state and by teaching area. As you can imagine, the greatest shortages are for math and science teachers.

Pension funds buying houses at sky-high prices

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting story about how pension funds are in competition with individuals who are trying to buy a house. The competition is driving home prices through the roof.

About those airline vouchers and change fees

I mentioned on Monday that airlines are going back to the way things were pre-pandemic by reinstituting their old policies on changing flights. Most airlines issued vouchers to people who needed to change travel plans last year, but now they want you to use those vouchers up. Different airlines have different deadlines on when you can use them.

United Airlines contacted me and wanted me to be clearer about their change policy. Last year, United issued vouchers even to people who were holding their Basic Economy tickets. But starting in May, the Basic Economy tickets are not changeable. The airline says you can try to fly standby on the same day to the same destination using your Basic Economy ticket.

The best advice is to check your vouchers to see when they expire and just keep in mind that airlines will soon be operating under the less charitable rules.

Mosquitoes, rats and termites among invasive species causing at least $1.3 trillion of damage

A crew from the East Middlesex Mosquito Control Project spray to control mosquitos from a pick-up truck on Wednesday, July 8, 2020, while driving through a neighborhood in Burlington, Mass. Officials then were preparing for another summer with a high number of cases of eastern equine encephalitis, a rare but severe neurological illness transmitted by mosquitoes that hit the state particularly hard last summer. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

It is not a stretch to connect this story to how we have watched the coronavirus spread around the world. In a global economy, biological invasions are happening with astonishing speed and causing all sorts of problems. Nature just published the new estimates of global invasions. These invaders cause massive problems in the United States. It is worthwhile for you to explore the problems that farmers, fishermen, foresters and pest control experts see all the time.

The Guardian gives us a short list of examples:

Mosquitoes from the Aedes genus, such as the tiger mosquito, spread Zika, dengue, yellow fever, and other viruses, and were responsible for the biggest recorded costs. Invasive rodents such as the black rat, grey squirrel, coypu and house mouse also cause severe damage to human health, crops and food stores and to native wildlife.

Formosan termites, voracious consumers of wood, are a particular problem in the US, while the red fire ant has spread from its South American home to Australia, New Zealand, several Asian and Caribbean countries and the US. The fall armyworm, which can destroy many crops, arrived in Africa in 2016 and has now invaded dozens of countries.

Best tweet of the day

This one is from my friend, WXIA investigative reporter Brendan Keefe.

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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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