January 24, 2022

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 World Health Organization says the newest variant of the coronavirus behind COVID-19 is showing up around the world and spreading fast. BA.2  was first discovered in December and is proving difficult to detect. Norwegian health authorities said:

A variant of SARS-CoV-2, so far defined as an omicron sub-variant, BA.2, is increasing rapidly in Norway. From seven detections on 4th January to a total of 611 detections on 19th January (mainly in Oslo), this variant of the omicron virus is growing strongly compared to the original omicron virus, BA.1. The properties of the virus are not known other than that it is more contagious than BA.1 and is also increasing in Denmark and Sweden and may appear to be taking over BA.1 already.

India is reporting more than 500 BA.2 infections. Early reports suggested that is where the variant may have emerged.

We do not yet know how effective vaccines are against this new variant.

12 states are distributing antibody drugs that federal health officials say do not work against omicron

A nurse enters a monoclonal antibody site, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, at C.B. Smith Park in Pembroke Pines, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Maybe this week, the Food and Drug Administration will consider following the lead of the National Institutes of Health in telling the public to stop using two monoclonal antibody treatments for the omicron variant.

Federal health officials say that the two treatments (produced by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Eli Lilly) are not likely to work against omicron. But Kaiser Health News says “many hospitals and clinics are still infusing the costly treatments — often charging hundreds of dollars a session — that public health officials now say are almost certainly useless.”  Kaiser listed the states where the drugs are widely used:

Michigan, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Louisiana, California, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Ohio, New York, and Mississippi used the most courses of the Regeneron and Lilly treatments from Jan. 5 through Jan. 18, KHN’s analysis showed.

In Florida, which used more than 5,200 courses of the outdated treatments during that two-week period, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he is not convinced that the Regeneron and Lilly products don’t work against omicron. In Florida, omicron accounted for 97% of cases as of Jan. 20; delta accounted for 3%.

Kaiser points out that Regeneron said there is no reason to keep using its antibody to treat people infected with the omicron variant, which accounts for 95% of COVID-19 cases in the United States.


The Hill reports:

On Dec. 16, Regeneron announced its antibody treatment had “diminished potency against omicron.” In a statement to a local Fox News station, Eli Lilly confirmed that its antibody treatments showed “reduced neutralization activity,” against omicron.

Kaiser Health News said providers in some states use the antibodies out of desperation on the chance that they might help or that the patient might be one of the few infected with the delta variant.

The antibody treatment now most recommended is sotrovimab, from GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology. It’s in short supply.

COVID-19 hospitalizations drop

I am not sure how useful it is to count new cases as a way to measure the pandemic’s spread, but new cases are dropping nationwide. Of course, home testing and spotty state reporting likely undercount many people who are infected.

But hospitalizations are dropping, too. And still, when you look at the latest data on intensive care unit capacity, a lot of the country’s hospitals are under a lot of pressure.

(The New York Times)

But notice how many of what were once red (full) ICUs are turning more yellow (50 to 75% full). You will also notice how much data is missing across the country. The national average ICU occupancy usually runs at about 67%, although the time of year, location and other factors can come into play. Click on the map to zoom in.

Generally, a drop in new cases results in a drop in hospitalizations a couple of weeks later. COVID-19 related deaths begin to decline a week or two after that. But that means even a positive trend takes a month or more to show up where it counts most.

The New York Times summarizes:

In New York, cases are falling sharply even as deaths continue to increase, with more fatalities being announced each day than at any point since the first months of the pandemic. Around Cleveland and in Washington, D.C., fewer than half as many new infections are being announced each day as in early January. And in Illinois and Maryland, hospitalizations and cases have started to decline.

“We are very encouraged by our substantially improving situation,” Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland said Thursday, “but the next 10 days to two weeks are really going to be critical.”

More states in more regions continue to show signs of improvement, with Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania among those now reporting several days of sustained case declines.

But the progress is not yet universal.

Reports of new infections continue to grow in North Dakota, which is averaging four times as many cases a day as at the start of January, and in Alabama, where hospitalizations have roughly doubled over the last two weeks. Utah is averaging about 11 times as many cases a day as it was a month ago, and hospitalizations have reached record levels.

The truth behind COVID-era prison releases

A new slug of data from the Department of Justice shows that yes, prison populations declined in 2020, the first year of the pandemic.

The decrease was not because of prison releases, but instead because there was a dramatic drop in prison and jail admissions. (You can look at your state’s data here. Go to Table 9 on page 19.)

The Prison Policy Initiative summarizes the data:

Nationwide, states and the federal government actually released fewer people from prison in 2020 than in 2019. The decrease in the incarcerated population was not related to releases, but rather the 40% drop in prison admissions and 16% drop in jail admissions.

In eight states, at least 2% of “releases” were, in fact, deaths (many from COVID-19).

Even under the pressure of the pandemic, local jails held a larger share of unconvicted people than ever and continued to hold far too many people for low-level offenses and technical violations.

State and federal policy responses to the threat of COVID-19 to incarcerated people varied widely, with a few states appearing to basically ignore the pandemic altogether.

PPI says a survey of 400 local jails around the U.S. shows most have returned to near pre-pandemic levels of incarcerated people and one in 14 local jails still house more people than they were designed for.

Governing.com also looked at the data and observed:

As the pandemic took hold of the nation, thousands of prisoners were released early for health concerns, sparking debates about criminal justice efficacy, reform and public safety. Between March and June 2020, eight percent of the nation’s total prison population was released from state and federal prisons.

However, a September report from The Council of State Governments’ (CSG) Justice Center surveyed departments in all 50 states and found that the dramatic drop in prison populations resulted from fewer prison admissions, not COVID-related releases. Approximately one-third can be attributed to a decrease in supervision violations, which were found to have a significant impact on prison admissions and populations. Reducing the supervision violations population by 57,000 each year could collectively save states $2.7 billion annually.

Rising food prices for jails and prisons

You might want to check on what rising food prices are doing to jail and prison food costs. I am starting to see stories about counties that are trying to figure out how they will absorb rising costs of 7% or more for food. Of course, some counties and states will force incarcerated people to pay higher costs. But keep in mind that most people in county jails have not been convicted of a crime.

Barely half of murder and homicide cases are ‘cleared,’ a new low

On those TV crime dramas, police clear homicide cases every time. But the newest data from the FBI shows that 54% of murders and homicides in 2020 ended with a “cleared case.” In other words, almost as many homicides were unsolved as solved. We will have the 2021 figures later this year but, whatever they are, they won’t be close to the 70%+ rate from the 1980s.

The Marshall Project notes that while rising were rising, the clearance rate wasn’t:

(The Marshall Project)

Rape and robbery clearance rates were even lower. About 30% of rape cases and about 27% of robbery cases were “cleared” in 2020. 12% of car theft cases were cleared.

The Marshall Project explains that “clearing” a case can mean different things in different places. It may mean making an arrest, or it may mean just naming a suspect. And the FBI complicates the data because, “At the national level, the FBI uses blunt math to calculate a clearance rate, dividing the number of crimes that were cleared — no matter which year the crime occurred — by the number of new crimes in the calendar year. By clearing old and new cases, a department’s rate in any given year could exceed 100%. This leaves the numbers prone to statistical “noise,” but they can be useful for examining trends over the long term.”

There is one way to look at the lower clearance rate as a “positive.” It could be, experts say, that police raised their standards for what they needed to prove to make an arrest. And Marshall points out that the newest data shows that more homicides are committed by people who were not known to the victim. Plus, more homicides involve guns, meaning the crime might not have involved close face-to-face encounters that might have led to more leads.

How much money would it take to make you move to Tulsa, Stillwater or Bloomington?

Since so many people are working remotely now and may continue to do so after the pandemic lifts, some of America’s shrinking towns are offering big dollar incentives to get you to move there.


The Atlantic reports:

More than 40 places in the United States are giving people money to relocate, according to the website MakeMyMove. The Shoals, Alabama, will pay you $10,000. Northwest Arkansas will also give you $10,000—plus a free bike. Topeka, Kansas, offers up to $15,000 and $1,000 worth of Jimmy John’s sandwiches. Morgantown, West Virginia, has received a wave of media attention by making what may be the most generous offer: a combination of cash grants, free outdoor-gear rentals, complimentary ski tickets, and other perks collectively valued at $20,000.

Mostly, however, towns have not seen a rush to take them up on their offers. Tulsa, Oklahoma, is an exception.

Over the past three years, roughly 47,000 people have applied to a program, called Tulsa Remote. Between those who were accepted and the families that came with them, more than 1,000 people from all over the country have moved to the city. Tulsa’s success is one of the biggest reasons so many other communities have created their own incentives.

Pew’s Stateline website reports:

Fifty-three communities in 24 states and Puerto Rico are trying to lure new residents by offering cash, covering moving costs or providing other incentives, according to makemymove.com, an online directory of such programs. They largely seek remote workers from expensive coastal areas. Though the idea started before the pandemic, COVID-19 fed the movement by quintupling the number of remote workers and dampening some of the conviviality millennials sought in big cities.

A program, Remote Shoals in the Muscle Shoals area of northwestern Alabama, has drawn 66 remote workers and family members with a total income of $6.3 million, starting before the pandemic in mid-2019, said Mackenzie Cottles, marketing specialist for the Shoals Economic Development Authority.

Topeka, Kansas, in the eastern part of the Kansas City metro area, has drawn 54 families with incentives since 2020, including two tech workers from California who now run start-ups in the city, said Bob Ross, a vice president of Greater Topeka Partnership. The newcomers weren’t dissuaded by a hot housing market where homes sell above asking price.

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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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