March 23, 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 newest widespread strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is called BA.2. It is a subvariant of the omicron variant that swept through the U.S. and other countries last year.

Genomic sequencing company Helix estimates that in some parts of the U.S., BA.2 accounts for up to 70% of new COVID-19 cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest data shows about one out of three new cases nationwide are BA.2.

In some European and Asian countries, that rate is much higher. The Washington Post reports:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday reported that BA.2 accounts for 35 percent of coronavirus infections nationally, up from 22 percent a week ago. In New England, the CDC reported, BA.2 accounts for 55 percent of new infections, compared with 39 percent last week. The Helix data is more up to date and includes samples from many states, including California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan and Texas, Helix chief scientist Will Lee said.

“I think cases are going to start going up again. I think I’m not going out on a limb too much in saying that,” Lee said.

In two or three weeks, “everything in the Northeast is going to be BA.2,” predicted Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Natalie Dean, a biostatistics expert at Emory University, noted that Britain had only a brief lull between its omicron wave and a surge from BA.2. That surprised her, and she suspects it could be repeated in the United States.

The new variant arrives at just the time when states are trying to get past the pandemic, in many cases shutting down testing and vaccinations sites and shuttering daily and weekly case reporting. Health experts warn that without vigilant testing and data tracking, the new variant can become widespread before we see cases showing up at hospitals, which is where the CDC is placing most of its focus; hospitalizations.

Money gone for fourth vaccine doses, testing, treatment

Other countries are administering fourth COVID-19 vaccine doses. If the U.S. decides a fourth dose is needed later this year, the White House says there is not enough federal funding to produce and distribute it. The funding ran out this week and Congress has, so far, been unable to agree on a new funding bill.

There is enough money to produce fourth-dose vaccines for people aged 65 and older and for children under age 5 if the Food and Drug Administration and CDC approve a pediatric vaccine. White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said it is dangerous to wait until there is a new emergency to begin producing massive amounts of vaccines.

Another budget line is also running out. The White House says that free COVID-19 testing for the uninsured will end soon. This month, the payments to doctors and medical providers who provide free COVID-19 testing to uninsured people are scaling back and will end completely next month. It means that uninsured people who want tests will have to find a way to pay for them, and such tests can cost more than $100. The danger, of course, is that people who should be tested and then isolate if they test positive will not test at all while spreading the virus.

COVID makes a run through the White House

White House press secretary Jen Psaki has been reinfected with COVID-19. She also tested positive last fall. She said she credits her full vaccination for the mild symptoms she is experiencing now.

In the last week, Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband and Ireland’s prime minister, who was in the nation’s capital last week for a series of in-person celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day, both tested positive for the virus.

School transportation budgets take another hit with high diesel prices

A school bus is driven in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Marketplace notes:

Every school day, roughly 26 million kids board about 500,000 school buses, according to the National School Transportation Association. And the vast majority of those buses have diesel engines.

That’s turning out to be an issue now that the price of diesel fuel is up 50% from a year ago.

Schools are spending more than they thought they would on fuel, which comes on top of the struggle to find bus drivers in this tight labor market.

Just to put things in context, one school system, in suburban Minneapolis, expects to pay $100,000 more to run its buses this school year.

Alcohol-related deaths rose during the pandemic

Alcohol consumption rose during the pandemic. Now we have the data to show that alcohol-related deaths rose, too. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported the sharp increase:

  • The number of deaths involving alcohol increased between 2019 and 2020 (from 78,927 to 99,017)
  • Rates increased for all age groups, with the largest increases occurring for people aged 35 to 44 years

A significant factor in the overall increase was a 40% increase in opioid deaths that also involved alcohol.

Reporting system inadequate: We do not know how many people are dying in jails and prisons

Over the four years I have led Poynter’s Covering Jails and Justice Reform seminars, we have been vividly reminded again and again how inadequate state and federal reporting systems have become on important issues, such as how many people die in custody. You would think that would be a basic statistic that is recorded and reported routinely. It isn’t.

For example, this is the Justice Department’s data on mortality in correctional institutions. Notice it is “inactive” and the latest data is from 2017.

The Vera Institute (which is a partner in our workshops) just published a report saying the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s data contains big holes:

This has resulted in wholly inadequate reporting, with states collecting flawed data based solely on media reports or unverified information provided by law enforcement agencies. Some states didn’t provide BJA any data at all, with no consequences.

The limited data provided to BJA suggested that mortality in state prisons was rising. In 2018, the number of deaths (4,135) and the mortality rate (344 deaths per 100,000 incarcerated people) in state prisons were the highest they had been since the federal government started collecting mortality data in 2001.

This was no time to stop collecting data for the Mortality in Correctional Institutions program, but last March, that’s exactly what happened. This backward step, and the federal government’s decades-long refusal to properly implement DCRA, points to a greater problem. In the United States, people who are in police custody and in jails and prisons are dehumanized and devalued. The lack of urgency around data collection for in-custody deaths sends a clear message: the safety of incarcerated people and people who are in police custody is simply not a federal priority.

We started to realize the inadequacy of the reporting when tried to nail down how many people were dying of COVID-19 while in jails and prisons.  Keep in mind most people in jails have not been convicted of anything. They are awaiting trial.

By the way, our next Covering Jails and Justice Reform session will be in-person, here at Poynter in St. Petersburg, Florida, June 2-3. U.S.-based journalists who cover (or want to cover) justice and jails can apply here. The tuition is covered by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation and we also have funding to pay for hotel rooms for out-of-towners. We welcome journalists of all media, all markets and freelancers and college journalism educators, too.

The state of faith

These kinds of polls and front-page stories are fairly common around Easter. A new poll from the Deseret News and Marist finds:

  • The share of Americans who pray regularly is high and holding steady.
  • Especially among Black Americans, religious disengagement is the exception, not the rule.
  • The vast majority of Americans still believe in a higher power, and a majority believe in the biblical God.
  • Despite the common assumption that Democrats are godless, nearly two-thirds of members of the party believe in God and 24% attend church at least once a week.
  • Most people continue to see faith as a good thing. Nearly 7 in 10 U.S. adults think the country would be better off if Americans prayed for each other.
  • 37% say it’s hard for people who don’t believe in God and people who do believe in God to get along.

As I looked through the polling for insight, I noticed that the majority of Americans say they pray daily. And one in 10 Americans say they look to Oprah for moral guidance.

(The Deseret News/Marist polling)

(The Deseret News/Marist polling)

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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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