January 5, 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.

The U.S. and U.K. governments are considering ways to extend vaccine supplies. The U.S. might allow half doses to be given to younger patients. The U.K. has approved the allowance of more time between the first and second doses to allow more people to get partially inoculated with the first shot. Germany may soon do the same thing.

In the U.S., at least, no decisions have been made, partly because there is not much data on which to base a decision like this.

U.S. officials are also floating the idea of using a lesser dose. Operation Warp Speed chief operating officer Dr. Moncef Slaoui said during the drug trials, a lower dose produced the same immune response for patients who were between 18 and 55 years old.

Dr. Anthony Fauci outright dismissed the idea of foregoing the second shot because there is not enough data to know what the effect of that might be. He is similarly unwilling to commit to the idea of a lower dose without data showing it would provide enough immunity.

The U.K. is feeling a lot more pressure to get the vaccine in the field, partly because it is facing high levels of transmission of an apparently more infectious form of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that is behind COVID-19. The variant viruses are also showing up in the U.S. but not as widely, so far, as in Europe.

Pfizer warned that there is no data to support delaying the second shot of its vaccine. “The safety and efficacy of the vaccine has not been evaluated on different dosing schedules as the majority of trial participants received the second dose within the window specified in the study design,” the company said in a statement.

There may be a danger if we space out or drop the second shot altogether. Virus experts say it could give the virus a chance to essentially regroup and adapt and find ways to evade the antibodies that the vaccine builds up. Paul Bieniasz of The Rockefeller University in New York City said the strategy is similar to what he has done in his lab to study vaccine-resistant viruses.

StatNews took a dim view of the United Kingdom’s efforts:

 …But they are also effectively turning that country into a living laboratory. The moves are based on small slices of evidence mined from “subsets of subsets” of participants in clinical trials, as one expert described it for STAT, and on general principles of vaccinology rather than on actual research into the specific vaccines being used. If the efforts succeed, the world will have learned a great deal. If they fail, the world will also have gained important information, though some fear it could come at a high cost.

And the British Medical Association said it is “grossly unfair” not to give the second shot to elderly people who got the first one and now are due for the booster.

The U.K. approved expanding the window to get the second shot from three weeks to 12 weeks, but with some stipulations, including requiring the government to produce a “detailed and convincing strategy” to increase the vaccinations and develop a “rigorous evaluation process” to be sure the delay in giving a second shot is not compromising protection. Residents of the U.K. will be restricted from traveling internationally and the country is limiting access from other places as well.

At the moment, the issue is partly due to supply, but also partly due to a congested distribution system. Many states have distributed around half of their doses.

(The New York Times)

(The New York Times)

Since the federal government does not have a dashboard that shows us how many doses have been shipped and how many people have been vaccinated, The Washington Post compiles state-by-state data.

In an attempt to kick the vaccine program in the pants and get it moving fast, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened to fine hospitals up to $100,000 if they do not use their current supplies of vaccine by the end of the week. He went on to name what he says are the state’s 10 fastest and 10 slowest hospitals dispensing the vaccines.

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca, a drug company with a vaccine in the trial stage in the U.S. (but approved in the U.K.), says it appears its vaccine can be spaced out up to 12 weeks. The AstraZeneca vaccine is different from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in that the AstraZeneca drug is based on older technology that uses an inactivated virus.

By the way, India and Argentina both approved the AstraZeneca vaccine yesterday, and India also approved a vaccine from Bharat Biotech. Argentina is also allowing a drug from Gamaleya that only has been approved by one other country, Russia.

It’s a new year and legislatures face big tax shortfalls, cuts and battles

Legislatures are going to face some of the toughest sessions in memory. The pandemic snapped a decade of economic (and tax income) growth for most states. “Total tax revenue shortfalls for all 50 states fell by about $75 billion during the last four months of FY20 and will decline by $125 billion in FY21,” The Brookings Institute reports.

The Tax Policy Institute says the amount of revenue lost is related to what the states taxed:

Forty states reported declines in overall tax collections, with 10 states reporting double-digit declines. But eight states reported growth in receipts, and in two states revenue growth was essentially flat. (Note that DC is not included in this data release.)

The steepest revenue declines were in states with a relatively high reliance on tourism and hospitality activities (e.g., Hawaii, Florida, and Nevada). States that depend heavily on the oil industry (e.g., Alaska and Wyoming) also experienced deep reductions in tax collections.

At the other end of the spectrum, the states that have seen some growth (or a smaller rate of decline) included those that: levy sales taxes on grocery food purchases (e.g., Idaho, South Dakota, and Utah); did not experience as many COVID cases in the spring or summer or did not mandate statewide lockdowns (e.g., Idaho and South Dakota); or enacted tax rate increases for fiscal year 2020 (e.g., New Mexico).

(State and Local Finance Initiative)

That is what happened so far. Now let’s look at what is forecast for the coming budget year. It is a very different story for some states as COVID-19 rates increased and significant tax revenue-producing sources hit on harder times.

These states expect the biggest drops in tax income:

(Fiscal Note)

Fiscal Note, which tracks state spending forecasts, reports:

In planning FY22 budgets, however, state fiscal managers face myriad uncertainties in preparing the revenue projections that lawmakers will use when they convene 2021 sessions early this year. Only one thing is sure: revenues will decline while costs related to unemployment, Medicaid, social services, and other assistance programs are unlikely to substantially decrease until the pandemic subsides, and a full economic recovery can begin.

Nearly every governor in the country has ordered across-the-board spending reductions, ranging from 3-to-15 percent, for state agencies in submitting FY22 budget requests. A projected 4-percent growth in personal income and sales tax revenues — states’ two largest sources of revenues — in FY22 are now forecast by the Tax Policy Center to each decline by more than 6 percent. Corporate income taxes, the third-largest revenue source for most states, are also expected to decline.

Will local governments reform policing in 2021?

A person confronts a police officer during a protest after the Nov. 3, general election, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

It has only been seven months since police killed George Floyd, and yet what was once a national moment that sent protestors to the streets has taken a back seat to other pressing matters. 2021 will likely include efforts to revive police reform. Fiscal Note summarizes:

In 2020, lawmakers in 34 states filed bills related to policing policy, resulting in nearly 600 new bills, 50 of which were adopted.

In Colorado, lawmakers became the first in the nation to pass a bill that eliminates qualified immunity for law enforcement.

Iowa adopted a similar law that emphasizes racial bias and de-escalation training requirements for officers.

The New York Legislature reconvened to pass a package of reform measures that included a repeal of a state law that kept police disciplinary records secret and enacting a statewide ban on chokeholds.

And in Georgia, lawmakers passed a series of bills to allow voters in Glynn County to decide in a November referendum whether to abolish their police department. A state judge ruled the referendum unconstitutional, but lawmakers are expected to address it again in 2021.

Covering jails and police reform: a free virtual Poynter workshop series

To help you cover the story mentioned above, I want to encourage you journalists to consider applying now for a serious deep-dive virtual training series that I am leading starting Jan. 12. You and your class will explore police reform and local jail reform.

This is the 2021 version of training that Poynter and our partners at the MacArthur Foundation, The Marshall Project and the Vera Institute of Justice have taken to more than a dozen cities and trained hundreds of journalists with in the last three years. We will hold hourlong twice-a-week sessions in January. You can see the schedule and our list of expert guest instructors and apply.

It is my belief that local journalists should cover local jails much more closely. They are COVID-19 hot spots that feed prisons, which are even worse COVID-19 hot spots. More than 70% of people in jails are not convicted of a crime and most are not accused of violent crimes. Our graduates are aggressively covering the police and jail/prison reform stories that will come into full bloom in 2021 in the Biden administration’s first year.

The training is free, and I ask you to only apply if you intend to be with us for the whole series. We will record sessions for those days when news gets in the way, but we want your voice in our conversations as we learn together. We invite all journalists regardless of media, market size or experience. We also invite serious college journalism students and their professors.

March Madness will take place in Indiana and San Antonio

Photo cutouts are displayed during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game between Gonzaga and Northwestern State which was played with no fans in attendance due to the coronavirus pandemic in Spokane, Wash., Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

All 67 games of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament will be played in Indiana. Most of the games will be in Indianapolis, with other games in West Lafayette or Bloomington. The women’s games will all be played in San Antonio.

While this will be a bonanza for those towns, it has to sting a lot financially for what was to have been regional tourney spots.

Record retail returns and deadlines for stuff shipped in the last three months

Yes, retailers broke online sales records during the pandemic Christmas season. They are also setting records for the amount of stuff that people are trying to return. But in some cases, The Associated Press says, retailers are telling people who want to return clothing to just donate the item they do not want and the retailer will replace it. The AP included this:

On average, people return 25% of items they buy online, compared with only 8% of what they buy in stores, according to Forrester Research’s online analyst Sucharita Mulpuru. For clothing it’s even higher, about 30%.

Optoro, a return logistics company, estimates the value of fashion apparel depreciates by 20% to 50% over an eight-to-16-week period. That’s why it’s so critical to get rejected items back and on sale again quickly.

Returns are also complicated this year because retailers pushed people to buy holiday gifts early to avoid shipping delays and crowded stores, meaning the return window may be closed by the time Christmas rolls around.

Amazon is allowing customers to return items until Jan. 31 for items shipped between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, giving customers more time to decide. Last year, the policy didn’t include items shipped in October.

Looking for work in a pandemic: the big changes

Looking for a job in 2021 will require a lot of changes from the old norm. Fast Company says the 2021 job search begins with boosting and cleaning up your online presence:

Clean up your social accounts, curate or create relevant content, and develop content — such as a blog post, introductory video, or contributed piece — that will demonstrate your thought leadership and give you an edge, Hari Kolam, CEO of Findem says. “Sure, a résumé is a nice-to-have and required for some applications, but it’ll just be table stakes in the 2021 job market and not enough to outshine a competitor,” he says.

Internal candidates will have a big edge in a pandemic. It may be the single biggest hiring trend of 2021.

Where you live probably won’t be as important this year since we will be working remotely for a lot of it.

When you do get interviewed virtually, you will need to up your production quality, meaning buy some additional lighting, pay attention to your background and get a pro-quality microphone. Just as your physical presence matters in a face-to-face interview, the quality of your Zoom production makes an impression, too.

Owning a home is out of reach for the ‘average’ family in most U.S. counties

Property data firm Attom Data Solutions just produced a study that looks at average weekly wages for two-income families in the last quarter and compares them to housing costs in counties around the country.

The study finds in most of the country, housing costs exceed 28% of income, which is the standard for what you can afford to spend on housing. Using that calculation, owning a home is only “affordable” in 41% of counties nationwide.

A new copyright small-claims court where journalists can protect their work

This little item is tucked inside the 5,593 pages of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 that included almost $1.5 trillion in COVID-19 relief and other spending.

You now have The Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement (or CASE) Act, which PetaPixel explains:

…establish(s) a copyright small claims system that allows copyright creators to take action against infringers on a smaller scale than filing lawsuits in federal court.

Since the vast majority of copyright infringements in the United States are of relatively lower value (i.e. in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars), the small claims system would allow photographers to have an alternative to hiring pricey copyright attorneys, who generally prefer to take on cases with relatively larger monetary payouts.

Rather than file a federal lawsuit, photographers will be able to bring their infringement claims before a Copyright Claims Board within the US Copyright Office — a three-member panel of experts in copyright law. This panel would be able to award photographers up to $15,000 per work and $30,000 per claim, assuming the works are registered with the office.

For unregistered photos, photographers would only be eligible for $7,500 and $15,000, respectively.

In addition to monetary penalties, the board could also simply send the infringer a notice to cease the infringement.

In case you didn’t know, this is how you register a photo. You can register all kinds of works, including blogs, writings, videos, movies, illustrations, lyrics, stage plays and even selfies.

The National Press Photographers Association has pressed for the CASE Act for years on behalf of news photographers who had little recourse to protect their work since copyright battles, until now, have involved lawyers and legal expenses that make such battles implausible.

Not only will it protect freelancers’ work but do not be surprised when artists and photographers go after those who use copyrighted work and don’t pay for it, including news organizations.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. 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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