January 25, 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.

An October Kaiser Family Foundation poll found one of the key reasons that parents cite for not vaccinating their children against COVID-19 is the concern that the vaccines might, someday, affect the child’s fertility. The poll found:

Parents of 5–11-year-olds cite a range of concerns when it comes to vaccinating their children for COVID-19, with safety issues topping of the list. More than seven in ten parents of 5–11-year-olds say they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned that not enough is known about the long-term effects of the COVID-19 vaccine in children (76%) or their child might experience serious side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine (71%).

Additionally, two-thirds say they are concerned the vaccine may negatively impact their child’s fertility in the future, despite the CDC stating there is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines cause fertility problems.

Epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina dedicated her newsletter this week to exploring the scientific research about the false notion that vaccinations cause or could cause infertility.

She points to two large new studies that show rumors about vaccines causing fertility problems are not grounded in science. One study of more than 2,000 women found no significant difference between the percentage of women who were vaccinated and got pregnant and those who were unvaccinated and conceived. Those who had second vaccines also tracked right along with those who were not vaccinated.

The same study tracked whether vaccines affected the male partner’s fertility and found very little difference in the fertility of vaccinated and unvaccinated subjects. But it is true that men who got infected by COVID-19 were more likely to lose some fertility.

Jetelina cites a lot of other data — which I edited below but you can explore in detail — and she points to three more factors that add to worry over vaccines and fertility:

There has yet to be any scientific data to suggest this is remotely true. Rumors and myths about COVID-19 vaccine effects on all aspects of reproduction and sexual functioning have stemmed from three specific things during the pandemic.

  • In December 2020, dis-information originated with a blog post that claimed vaccine-induced antibodies might also attack another human protein needed for embryo implantation and impair placental function. Since then, there have been 3 peer-reviewed studies showing this is not the case (here, here, here). The dis-information did considerable damage by planting a seed of doubt in millions of people around the world before vaccines were even available.
  • In Spring 2021, fear was further amplified by a number of anecdotal reports of irregular menstrual cycles following COVID19 vaccination. We didn’t see this in clinical trials because there’s the unfortunate, long history of not doing a great job at studying women’s health in research studies. We hypothesized this was a temporary side effect (like a fever) because the immune system impacts almost every organ, including reproductive organs. But we needed to wait on real world studies to confirm. We finally have the science. (See this link for details.)
  • Anti-vaxxer movements, which drive mis/disinformation online and take advantage of this fear.

There is no evidence that COVID19 vaccines impact any aspect of reproduction and sexual functioning. We do have mounting evidence that COVID19 infection does, though, especially among males. And, once people do get pregnant, there are dire consequences of not being vaccinated.

How omicron may lead to global COVID-19 stabilization

A man wearing a protective mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks in front of a public awareness notice on the omicron coronavirus variant Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

The World Health Organization issued what may sound like a surprising statement that said that while we are still officially in a pandemic, so many people have been infected by the omicron variant of the virus that the pandemic may soon stabilize. That would happen because of the combination of vaccines and the normal immune response from when a person recovers from having been infected with the virus.

Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said, “The pandemic is far from over, but I am hopeful we can end the emergency phase in 2022 and address other health threats that urgently require our attention.” Kluge added:

This pandemic, like all other pandemics before it, will end, but it is far too early to relax. With the millions of infections occurring in the world in recent and coming weeks, coupled with waning immunity and winter seasonality, it is almost a given that new COVID-19 variants will emerge and return.

But with strong surveillance and monitoring of new variants, high vaccination uptake and third doses, ventilation, affordable equitable access to antivirals, targeted testing, and shielding high-risk groups with high-quality masks and physical distancing if and when a new variant appears, I believe that a new wave could no longer require the return to pandemic-era, population-wide lockdowns or similar measures.

Why doesn’t Medicare pay for COVID-19 rapid tests?

One of the great headscratchers these days is how a president can order private insurance companies to pay for rapid COVID-19 tests but cannot order the federal government’s own agency, Medicare, to pay for the at-home tests. Kaiser Health News explains why:

It turns out that the laws governing traditional Medicare don’t provide for coverage of self-administered diagnostic tests, which is precisely what the rapid antigen tests are and why they are an important tool for containing the pandemic.

“While at this time original Medicare cannot pay for at-home tests, testing remains a critical tool to help mitigate the spread of covid,” a statement from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said. Medicaid and CHIP cover at-home covid tests, with no cost to beneficiaries, based on a 2021 Biden administration mandate.

Medicare patients are left to seek free tests other ways, including through the administration’s new website, covidtests.gov, and at community centers. The Medicare program does cover rapid antigen or PCR testing done by a lab without charging beneficiaries, but there’s a hitch: It’s limited to one test per year unless someone has a doctor’s order.

Four tests is a far cry from the eight monthly tests that people with private insurance can be reimbursed for. But it’s better than nothing, experts say, especially when preventing the spread of covid requires repeated testing over a period of days.

“Four tests is not a lot of tests,” said Juliette Cubanski, deputy director of the program on Medicare policy at KFF. “This is one of the most at-risk populations, and to not have the opportunity to buy at-home tests and get reimbursed puts this whole population on their back foot.”

COVID-19: Enough to make you grind your teeth

Early on in the pandemic, dentists said they were seeing more patients grinding their teeth so much they were chipping their chompers. Almost two-thirds of dentists say it is still happening. One in five dentists said they have raised rates during the pandemic to stay financially stable.

The average used car is now just under $27,000

A dealership sign is seen outside of Honda certified used car dealership in Schaumburg, Ill., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Used car prices have risen 44% since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Kelley Blue Book. That means, depending on what you bought and how much you paid a couple of years ago, your used car could be worth more today.

A big reason that used cars are worth so much is the shortage of new car inventory. New car prices have risen to an average of $43,000, which is up 15% from the start of the pandemic. Car prices are a big factor in the national inflation rate.

Jonathan Smoke, the chief economist at Cox Automotive, which owns Kelley Blue Book, told Insider that he does not expect used car prices to return to 2019 levels but that the red-hot price increases will slow down this year. But Insider found another opinion:

Other industry watchers see things differently. The consulting firm KPMG released a report in December suggesting that “a 20 to 30 percent plunge in used-vehicle prices is in the cards” as new cars become more widely available.

Used-car costs may be heading toward some sort of normalcy, but the car market overall will remain off-kilter for years.

Although carmakers are expected to churn out more vehicles in 2022 than 2021, the supply of new cars available at US dealers will stay tight for quite a while. That means consumers shouldn’t expect big discounts or deals anytime soon.

Here is a figure that surprised me. CNN reported, “Buying a car is not only a major purchase for most Americans, it’s also a surprisingly frequent one. About 40% of US households buy a car every year.”

Nurses say it is not just COVID, but hospital ‘greed’ causing them to quit

This is a one-sided opinion piece, so take it as that. But it is an interesting take on why so many nurses are so frustrated. This video makes the case for mandatory nurse-to-patient ratios that a couple of states have passed but hospital associations strongly oppose. The New York Times video contains some strong language, so headphones might be a good idea.

A key reason for empty grocery shelves: COVID-19 sickness

The pandemic reminds us how many people are involved in getting food from the field to our homes. And COVID-19 illnesses can interrupt deliveries anywhere along the production line. While we focus on what is not on grocery shelves, “in-stock” rates are mostly not far off from pre-pandemic levels. One report from market researcher IRI said the week of Jan. 16, food retailers were at about 86% “in-stock” while the pre-pandemic norm was 90%.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

In Arizona, one in 10 processing plant and distribution workers at a major produce company were recently out sick. In Massachusetts, employee illnesses have slowed the flow of fish to supermarkets and restaurants. A grocery chain in the U.S. Southeast had to hire temporary workers after roughly one-third of employees at its distribution centers fell ill.

Food-industry executives and analysts warn that the situation could persist for weeks or months, even as the current wave of Covid-19 infections eases. Recent virus-related absences among workers have added to continuing supply and transportation disruptions, keeping some foods scarce.

Nearly two years ago, Covid-19 lockdowns drove a surge in grocery buying that cleared store shelves of products such as meat, baking ingredients and paper goods.

Now some executives say supply challenges are worse than ever. The lack of workers leaves a broader range of products in short supply, food-industry executives said, with availability sometimes changing daily.

You can illustrate this story anywhere there is a packing plant, trucking company, produce distributor or food processing plant, which is just about everywhere. A dairy section manager at the store where I shop told me she expected two deliveries last week that didn’t arrive because they were diverted due to the weather north of us. When we understand the complexities at work — which are invisibe to most of us — we may have more patience, and more appreciation for stocked grocery shelves.

(The Wall Street Journal)

States are sitting on $800 billion from the American Rescue Plan

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan was meant to aid the country through the pandemic by supplying billions for schools to open safely, assist local and state governments in paying for COVID-19 testing and help renters pay for overdue rent and homelessness. But 15 states still have only sent out 20% of the rental assistance they got from the federal relief. By some estimates, around $800 million of the $6 trillion that the federal government allotted for relief has not been spent. The Daily Beast reports:

Nearly a year after that legislation passed, however, the vast majority of the almost $200 billion allocated to K-12 schools has not been spent. The same goes for half of the $195 billion sent out to state governments. And most city and county governments have not spent much of the $130 billion they collectively received, either.

In some cases, there are understandable reasons behind the tight purse strings. Federal government agencies took time to develop specific rules for what the money could and could not be used for. Beyond that, many state and local governments had to wait to incorporate the funds into their long-term budget plans.

The Daily Beast found that it may not be a bad thing that schools have not yet spent all of the money because there is a lot of work ahead to help students make up for what they missed during COVID-19 interruptions:

The roughly $190 billion for K-12 schools in the Rescue Plan—roughly $2,800 per U.S. student on average—has largely not been spent, said Anne Hyslop, director of policy development at All4Ed, a nonprofit education advocacy group. She said that few in the education world expected the Rescue Plan’s funds to hit quickly and emphasized that funds from the legislation can be used through the 2025 school year.

In prior COVID relief efforts, like the $2.3 trillion CARES Act of April 2020, the focus was on the “immediate short-term needs of schools,” Hyslop said. “When you get to ARP, the thinking shifted to long-term needs that students and school districts would be facing.”

That’s necessary, Hyslop added, given the growing evidence that educators will have to work overtime in coming years to make up for how far many students fell behind during two years of remote or inconsistent learning.

Today is National Plan for Vacation Day

People lounge at a rooftop swimming pool at the 1 Hotel South Beach, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in Miami Beach, Fla. Cooped-up tourists eager for a taste of Florida’s sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and warmer climates are visiting the Sunshine State in droves, topping pre-pandemic levels in recent months. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Today is the day that the U.S. Travel Association declares to be National Plan for Vacation Day. Just remember, U.S. Travel says, to use your vacation days, because lots of you didn’t last year.

“American workers left an average of more than four days or 29% of their paid time off on the table last year, but the majority of Americans (64%) say they desperately need a vacation,” the travel association reports, along with these points:

  • More than nine in 10 (91%) Americans say it is important to use their paid time off to travel
  • Nearly eight in 10 (79%) believe vacations are important to their overall health and well-being
  • Nearly six in 10 (59%) agree that travel is more important than ever and 61% plan to make travel a top budget priority in 2022

This is just a note reminding you that St. Petersburg, Florida, is a nice place to come and spend your vacation days and money. And remember that we can’t miss you if you don’t leave.

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