February 26, 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.

Military families, in big numbers, are having to turn to food banks for basic supplies. CBS News has been pushing for answers on this story and reports:

The Department of Defense estimates the jobless rate for military spouses is 22%. Other estimates run as high as 35%. In San Diego, families using the food bank at the Armed Services YMCA surged 400% during the pandemic.

Shannon Razsadin, president and executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network, said the pandemic has “exacerbated” the issue for military families.

“What many people don’t know is that military families move, on average, every two-and-a-half years. And every time families move, there’s a complete restart. That means looking for a new job, finding new childcare, getting set up with new schools, finding a new home,” Razsadin said. “And with COVID, families have continued to move. And when you move in a market where you maybe don’t have as many housing options or the employment situation isn’t what it used to be, it has really created additional problems for military families.”

The Military Family Advisory Network can give you more info, including ways to help.

The charity Blue Star Families found:

Military and veteran families reported increased stress and incidence of mental health symptoms — 23% of military family respondents without a pre-existing depressive disorder or anxiety diagnosis now report they have symptoms.

Military families have unmet mental health needs — military families say they need mental health care, yet 25% report that need being unmet.

Military spouse unemployment worsened — 17% of military spouses reported having lost their job as a result of the pandemic (military spouses were already experiencing 24% unemployment prior to the pandemic).

Black and Hispanic/Latinx military families are experiencing greater financial challenges during the pandemic — 40% of Black and 33% of Hispanic/Latinx active-duty family respondents reported relying on savings or credit cards during the pandemic compared to 29% of white active-duty families.

Female service members are carrying more childcare burden than their male colleagues — 72% of female service members reported having to change their childcare plan during the pandemic compared to only 45% of male service members.

One-fifth of essential personnel (e.g., installation medical providers) were unable to access childcare during the pandemic.

Too many military families are food insecure — 6% rely on free or reduced lunch programs were put at risk due to school closures.

More veterans are struggling financially — 7% of veteran families sought emergency food assistance in the last 6 months and 6% were unable to make payments on basic utilities and rent.

If the FDA approves the J&J vaccine this weekend, should you shop for one vaccine over another?

It is hard enough to get in line to get any COVID-19 shot without having people shopping around trying to get the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot over, say, the Moderna vaccine. The best advice right now is to get whatever vaccine you can.

The one exception to the broad guidance to “take what you can get” might be for seniors. While there is more research to be done, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 42% effective at preventing moderate to severe illness among older adults with comorbidities, which is less protection than Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines provide. But still, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is very effective.

New evidence that gyms need more COVID-19 protection

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance to gyms. The CDC now says that gyms should insist on people wearing masks, especially during high-intensity activities. “In addition,” the CDC says, “facilities should enforce physical distancing, improve ventilation, and encourage attendees to isolate after symptom onset or receiving a positive SARS-CoV-2 test result and to quarantine after a potential exposure to SARS-CoV-2 and while awaiting test results. Exercising outdoors or virtually could further reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission risk.”

The CDC’s guidance arose after researchers investigated an outbreak in Chicago:

In August 2020, 55 COVID-19 cases were identified among 81 attendees of indoor high-intensity classes at a Chicago exercise facility. Twenty-two (40%) persons with COVID-19 attended on or after the day symptoms began. Most attendees (76%) wore masks infrequently, including persons with (84%) and without COVID-19 (60%).


A year after the pandemic began, the government launches an ad campaign

I do not spend much space in this column asking “what if.” Yet as I watched the CDC’s new ad campaign that urges people to get vaccinated, I wondered how things might be different if it had not taken a year for the government to tell the public to take COVID-19 seriously, wear a mask and get vaccinated.


The ads are centrally focused on “hesitancy.” There is no shaming or messaging about masks or distancing. They offer a message that shows a lot of people hugging and living the life we all want, close to others. They are a soft sell.

The ads say the vaccines are safe and urge people to go to a website to find more answers. The ads, which mostly show images of people of color, include the line, “You’ve got questions and that is normal.”

I wonder if raising the issue about people having questions only underscores the idea that concerns about vaccines are legitimate. I can hear my wife’s voice in these messages. As a therapist she listens to clients’ problems and, no matter how absurd the problems might seem, she will say something like, “It makes sense to me that you would worry about that.” My instinct is to say, “That’s nuts. It is not true.” These ads take the therapist route.

The messages that will show up online, on TV and on digital video services carry the line, “It’s up to you.” Other messages will include celebrities, scientists and leaders of faith communities. Of course one of the ads includes Dr. Anthony Fauci. They do have Spanish-language versions that are not just subtitled, but the imagery on that ad was fairly generic. The ad that focuses on faith communities may be the most powerful of the lot. It emphasizes that vaccines are a key to getting churches back worshiping in-person.

Nursing home deaths are way down

The New York Times points out that while COVID-19 deaths are declining nationally, the number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes is falling even faster. It is unmistakable that the drop is timed closely to vaccinations. The Times story says, “From late December to early February, new cases among nursing home residents fell by more than 80 percent, nearly double the rate of improvement in the general population.”

It seems like that is the sort of thing that would make a useful ad theme.

(The New York Times)

New COVID-19 phrase of the day: PASC

You probably call people who carry COVID-19 symptoms for months “long-haulers.” But Dr. Anthony Fauci used the phrase “PASC,” which stands for Post-Acute Sequelae of COVID-19. Fauci says the symptoms can last up to nine months and sometimes develop “well after” the initial infection.

When is the ‘pandemic’ over?

A man walks by a sign that is fixed at the window of a COVID-19 test center in Frankfurt, Germany, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Let’s not overreact but also not underreact to the fact that this week, new cases rose at a rate higher than the seven-day average. It could be a minor blip. It could also be a reflection of the fast-spreading variants of the coronavirus.

This week, President Joe Biden officially extended the national COVID-19 emergency declaration into a second year. It raises the question of how we will know when we are no longer in a “pandemic.”

The World Health Organization walked the “pandemic” into our lives in steps. First, on Jan. 30, 2020, WHO called it a “public health emergency of international concern.” But then, on March 11, the WHO said we were experiencing a full-blown pandemic.

In truth, there is no exact definition of what it takes for WHO to call an outbreak a “pandemic,” or to call it off, for that matter. One would suppose that a pandemic is what we have when a “public health emergency of international concern” — which is actually referred to as a “PHEIC” — gets worse.

The global policy institute Chatham House explains:

The term has hitherto been applied almost exclusively to new forms of flu, such as H1N1 in 2009 or Spanish flu in 1918, where the lack of population immunity and absence of a vaccine or effective treatments makes the outbreak potentially much more deadly than seasonal flu (which, although global, is not considered a pandemic).

It is generally accepted that once health authorities call an outbreak a pandemic, public policy should move toward isolating the intruder. On March 13, 2020, President Donald Trump used the WHO declaration as a foundation for calling COVID-19 a “national emergency.”

Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center and an expert in virology and immunology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, offers a baseline for when we might be able to say we are no longer in an emergency.

“We’ll have a much, much lower case count, hospitalization count, death count,” Offit says. He says maybe the threshold could be when the U.S. records fewer than 5,000 new cases daily (we are recording 69,000 new cases now) and records fewer than 100 COVID-related deaths each day (we are at about 1,900 now). Those figures would be on par with the number of people who die from the seasonal flu each day during flu season.

Others are suggesting that we should reach some level of people who have been vaccinated.

However you want to measure our progress, we are substantially far away from that level right now. The Atlantic calculates that we are probably months away from reaching a level that a reasonable person would say we are no longer in an emergency. But we are heading in the right direction.

Cruise lines delay opening again

Disney Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line said this week that they will not set sail until June at the earliest. Disney’s Magic European cruises will not leave port until at least Aug. 11.

But there are glimmers of hope in the hotel industry. Marriott CEO Tony Capuano told stockholders that he expects business to bounce back, but that business will be different in the months to come. In 2019, 60% of Marriott’s reservations were business-related. In the future, the chain expects tourists to lead the way.

When schools reopen, employment will rise

Brian Rose, senior Americas economist at UBS Financial Services, posted something on his blog that piqued Yahoo Finance’s interest. He said when schools reopen, employment rises because parents can go to work. And, he says, women will benefit the most.

“It does seem that a year into the pandemic it’s the younger women who have seen bigger job losses. There’s a lot of anecdotes suggesting that it’s not a coincidence that if someone’s going to stay home to watch kids it’s likely to be the mother, and that if we can reopen the schools, then it’ll open up a chance for women to go back to work.”

When will we vaccinate police?

Here in Florida, ambulance workers got prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines. But firefighters and police officers did not. Our governor says police age 50 and older are “next in line,” but there is no word when that will happen or why they have waited in line so long. Police are often responding to the same call. Granted, EMTs probably work more closely more often than police. But when will police get moved up the priority list?

Less than 40% of Chicago Police Department employees responded “yes” to a department survey asking if they “wish(ed) to receive the vaccine,” according to records obtained by WBEZ.

I have seen similar stories around the country, including in Texas. In San Diego, cannabis workers got higher priority for vaccines than police officers.

Lawn tractor sales — the latest COVID-19 boom

A selection of John Deere lawn tractors sits on display in front of a Lowe’s store in Robinson Township, Pa, on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

First it was bicycles. Then snowmobiles. Now there seems to be a run on small tractor sales. John Deere says it had $1.2 billion in sales in the quarter that ended Jan. 31. Let’s put that in perspective:

That is more than double the $517 million in net income the company reported at the end of the first quarter of 2020.

Worldwide net sales and revenues increased 19 percent in the first quarter of 2021 to $9.112 billion. Equipment operations net sales were $8.051 billion for the quarter, compared with $6.530 billion in 2020.

“John Deere started 2021 on a strongly positive note,” Deere CEO John May said in a news release Friday.

CNBC says that city slickers are moving to the suburbs and countryside and of course they are buying tractors and gardening machines. Smaller tractors are the biggest sales segment. Sales of tractors under 40 horsepower are flying off the lots these days.

Farm tractor sales are way up right now, too.

We’ll be back Monday with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
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,…
More by Al Tompkins

More News

Back to News