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.
Depending on how much further the line on the graphic below continues to grow, somewhere between 50,000 and 300,000 more people will die from COVID-19 in the United States before spring. It is possible that we could count a million pandemic deaths by mid-March.
This week, deaths from COVID-19 are tracking at a rate of 1,700 Americans per day. That is below the 3,300 per day high in this pandemic, but deaths are rising in nursing homes and among other vulnerable populations. The sheer number of people hospitalized with the virus makes the higher death toll inevitable.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which has been at the vanguard of pandemic forecasting, has updated its forecast to show the U.S. tracking toward 886,000 deaths by May.
IHME forecasts hospitalizations from COVID-19 to keep growing for another month, then possibly drop quickly in early March.
Morgues are starting to run out of space in Johnson County, Kansas, said Dr. Sanmi Areola, director of the health department. More than 30 residents have died in the county this year, the vast majority of them unvaccinated.
But the notion that a generally less severe variant could still take the lives of thousands of people has been difficult for health experts to convey. The math of it — that a small percentage of a very high number of infections can yield a very high number of deaths — is difficult to visualize.
“Overall, you’re going to see more sick people even if you as an individual have a lower chance of being sick,” said Katriona Shea of Pennsylvania State University, who co-leads a team that pulls together several pandemic models and shares the combined projections with the White House.
The wave of deaths heading for the United States will crest in late January or early February, Shea said. In early February, weekly deaths could equal or exceed the delta peak, and possibly even surpass the previous U.S. peak in deaths last year.
The spokesperson for World Health Organization said Tuesday, “The pandemic is nowhere near over, and with the incredible growth of Omicron globally, new variants are likely to emerge.”
The encouraging data hidden in discouraging trends
If you want reasons for optimism in the newest COVID-19 data, there are things to see — but you would be wise not to get too enthusiastic. Let me give you both the good and not-so-good news about the data.
On the East Coast, new cases are dropping fast. They are still way above pre-omicron levels, but they are dropping.
The positive testing rates may be a precursor for what is to come but, for now, hospitals are packed and deaths are rising. You will notice a tiny drop in new cases Monday. Do not overreact to that. Some states did not report data on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Let’s go back to good news again. If you look at the viral load data collected in the Boston wastewater system, you will see that omicron is bowing out of Boston sooner than expected.
And now, the bad news again. Epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina warns us that just as in previous outbreaks that bloomed first in New York and then the East Coast, everyone will have to deal with omicron in their own time. It is spreading west now. These are areas where omicron is most likely to find a home because more people are unvaccinated:
States in the West are now growth leaders, with cases in Alaska (+610%), Texas (+428%), Utah (+414%), Oregon (+402%), and Montana (+394%) exponentially increasing in the past 2 weeks. While some of these cases are among the vaccinated, cases are still dominated by unvaccinated people.
Federal government’s free test kit site opens a day early
I have to say, it is impressive when the federal government launches a project as big as mailing out a half-billion COVID-19 test kits a day early. And I have to say, the signup process takes maybe 30 seconds. You can say it should have happened a year ago, but the website is up and running.
Now we just need the phone number for people without internet access.
Supreme Court rejects request to overturn mask mandate for airplanes
This was not a full Supreme Court decision that followed a full-blown hearing, but the effect of this ruling is that you still have to wear a mask when you fly on commercial airplanes.
A father of a 4-year-old boy with autism filed an emergency application to stay the executive order requiring everyone on commercial airlines to wear a mask. The request said the father and son were medically incapable of wearing masks for long periods of time. The family lives in Sanford, Florida, and the father, Michael Seklecki, says his son needs to travel to Boston for medical care.
Interestingly, the request was filed with Justice Neil Gorsuch, who recently refused to wear a mask while on the bench, despite being asked to do so by Chief Justice John Roberts.
A week ago, Gorsuch voted against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s requirement for private employers to vaccinate or test employees, and he voted against requiring health care workers to be vaccinated.
Gorsuch referred the case stay on the Transportation Safety Administration’s mask rule for airlines to the full court, which turned down the request without comment.
It is worth noting that the current mask mandate for airlines includes this passage: “Exemptions include travelers under the age of 2 years old, those with a disability who cannot wear a mask, or cannot safely wear a mask because of the disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Roberts denied a similar request in December in which the plaintiffs said Congress never gave TSA the power to “regulate health.” The rambling 80-page filing made the unproven claim that, “Lack of oxygen explains why the airlines are having thousands of customers and flight attendants who become agitated or violent and need to remove their masks. These people are experiencing hypoxemia due to oxygen deprivation from having their nose and mouth covered.” Much research has shown that while masks can filter particles containing the virus, they do not inhibit oxygen intake.
Despite the evidence, the hypoxia claim is one that seems to keep finding oxygen on Facebook. Some experts say that people who are not used to wearing a mask may feel like they are having trouble breathing, but the oxygen levels in their bodies do not change.
The current mask mandate on airplanes runs through March 18 and, of course, could be extended as it has been several times before.
How deployment of 5G cell service may interrupt airline travel
It is beyond my comprehension how we could get down to the day before AT&T and Verizon were to deploy 5G cell service only to find airlines begging for last-minute action to keep 5G networks from causing interference with airline communications. But here we are.
AT&T and Verizon, late Tuesday, said they would delay the launch of 5G in some areas to address concerns.
The phone companies paid $68 billion to get their hands on C-Band frequencies for 5G, which are fairly close to the frequencies that airlines use for their altimeters (which tell them their altitude).
The frequency is particularly important during severe weather when pilots cannot see runways on approach to land. So, the airline industry asked the phone companies to turn off the 5G transmissions within a couple of miles of major runways.
To be clear, this debate over frequency interference has been going on for years and 5G service launched in France and Great Britain with no problem. But, The New York Times points out, the 5G carriers plan more powerful signals in the U.S.:
The F.A.A. has noted, however, that there are technical differences in how 5G is being carried out in other countries. In the United States, planes would be protected from 5G interference only in the last 20 seconds of flight, compared with 96 seconds in France, for example. The temporary power limits that U.S. wireless companies agreed to are still about 2.5 times higher than the permanent limits used in France, according to information the agency posted online.
Last week, the F.A.A. started issuing hundreds of notices to airlines providing updated guidance on how to land planes safely in low-visibility conditions where 5G service is of concern. On Sunday, the agency said it had cleared an estimated 45 percent of the U.S. commercial plane fleet to perform such landings safely, opening up runways at as many as 48 of the 88 airports most directly affected by potential 5G interference. The agency did not identify which airports had yet to be cleared.
The planes approved include some Boeing 737, 747, 757 and 767 models, as well as some Airbus A310, A319, A320, A321, A330 and A350 models, the F.A.A. said. Not on the list were the Boeing 777 and 787, which are used for longer, international flights. American and United have dozens of 777s in service.
Don’t try NyQuil chicken
A ridiculous TikTok video in which a guy cooks up chicken breasts in cold medicine is making the social media rounds. It would be funny if there was no chance that somebody would try it. Cooking cold medicine could be dangerous in a few ways:
- Breathing in vapors is like taking the medicine. Too much would be bad for your health.
- Cooking means any water in the medicine might vaporize, leaving you with a more concentrated concoction that could be unsafe.
- Heating cold medications can change the nature of substances in the liquid.
Probably nobody is going to cook chicken in NyQuil as a result of this video. But really. Don’t.
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