June 28, 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 Food and Drug Administration’s expert advisers on vaccines start an important round of hearings today that will determine whether there will be a new generation of COVID-19 vaccines formulated to fight against variants that are moving quickly around America and the world. (Monitor the meeting online here.)

A couple of days ago, Pfizer said it had a new formula that does a better job protecting against newer variants, and that it could be ready as a booster dose before the fall, when COVID-19 is expected to pick up strength again. Moderna also has a booster dose that it says is effective against omicron variants.

NPR gives some background on this issue:

Pfizer and its partner BioNTech studied two different ways of updating their shots — targeting just omicron, or a combination booster that adds omicron protection to the original vaccine. They also tested whether to keep today’s standard dosage — 30 micrograms — or to double the shots’ strength.

In a study of more than 1,200 middle-aged and older adults who’d already had three vaccine doses, Pfizer said both booster approaches spurred a substantial jump in omicron-fighting antibodies.

“Based on these data, we believe we have two very strong omicron-adapted candidates,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement.

Pfizer’s omicron-only booster sparked the strongest immune response against that variant.

But many experts say combination shots may be the best approach because they would retain the proven benefits of the original COVID-19 vaccine while adding new protection against omicron. And Pfizer said a month after people received its combo shot, they had a 9 to 11-fold increase in omicron-fighting antibodies. That’s more than 1.5 times better than another dose of the original vaccine.

And importantly, preliminary lab studies show the tweaked shots also produce antibodies capable of fighting omicron’s genetically distinct relatives named BA.4 and BA.5, although those levels weren’t nearly as high.

Half of America should be wearing masks indoors, or at least considering it

I am doing a lot of traveling as I teach these days. No matter where I go, hardly anybody is wearing a mask on trains and planes, or at conventions and restaurants.

A fourth of Americans live in counties that have high enough COVID-19 cases that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people should be wearing masks indoors. And another one-third of the American population lives in counties that have enough cases that people should at least consider wearing masks indoors, especially if a person is at severe risk from COVID-19.

A fourth of Americans do not get enough sleep

New data from the National Center for Health Statistics says over a quarter of adults do not meet the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society’s recommendation of seven hours of sleep per day. And more than one in 10 people have trouble falling asleep almost every night.


The study said, “The percentage of adults who had trouble staying asleep increased as family income decreased and as place of residence became more rural.”

(National Center for Health Statistics)

Is it a little surprising that city folk sleep better than people living away from the city? And people living smack in the middle of big cities sleep the best? What’s up with that?

Thursday deadline for National Guard troops to be vaccinated or dismissed

40,000 unvaccinated Army National Guard soldiers have two days to get their first COVID-19 vaccine or risk being booted out of the Guard. That number is more than one in 10 members of the Guard. Nearly 14,000 of them have flat-out refused to be vaccinated.

The Associated Press says, “between 20% to 30% of the Guard soldiers in six states are not vaccinated, and more than 10% in 43 other states still need shots.”


Seven governors (representing Alaska, Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Mississippi, Iowa and Nebraska) have asked the Pentagon not to enforce this week’s deadline, but to no avail. Even with so many soldiers unvaccinated, Guard soldiers are vaccinated at a higher rate than the rest of their state’s population in almost every state.

Army relaxes tattoo policy

Stars and Stripes notes:

Soldiers can now sport ink on their hands, behind their ears and on the back of their necks, according to an updated Army tattoo policy published Thursday aimed largely at helping recruiters avoid the lengthy waiver process to bring recruits with body art into the service.

Army officials said the new policy would better align the service with social norms on tattoos and make the enlistment process simpler for recruits with tattoos in some areas of their bodies that were previously banned. The updated policy was issued this week by Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and went into immediate effect for soldiers and incoming recruits.

Army is far short of recruits

One of the motivations behind the new tattoo policy is that the armed forces, like private-sector employers, are having a problem recruiting.  Typically, high unemployment figures are good for recruiting, while low unemployment rates, as we have now, make military recruiting tougher. Stars and Stripes pulled the figures for us:

The Army — and the other military services — face one of the most difficult recruiting environments in years, Pentagon officials have said in recent months. Army Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, the service’s personnel chief, told House lawmakers last month that the service had only reached about 23% of is active duty recruiting goal through the first five months of fiscal 2022. Nonetheless, Brito said he believed the service would make its recruiting goal.

As part of its efforts, the Army announced this month that it would provide $35,000 bonuses to new recruits willing to sign a four-year contract and ship out to boot camp within 45 days.

Retailers are considering ‘returnless’ returns by saying ‘keep it’

This is so 2022. Supply systems are so out of whack right now that retailers are thinking about telling customers who return items “just keep it and we will still refund your purchase.” CNN Business reports that retailers are so overstocked that they can’t afford to take stuff back and restock it.

Mass transit facing massive problems

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of coronavirus waits for the subway train at a Metro station, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

Governing.com, a news site for local and state government officials, warns:

None of the largest cities have seen ridership return to even close to pre-pandemic levels. They are in dire need of new funds to avoid collapse, with gaps too large to be made up for with minor service cuts or fare increases.

As federal operational support dries up, three of the six largest transit agencies are facing a so-called “fiscal cliff” next summer. Other agencies will face a reckoning a few years later, if present trends continue.

“We can’t let our agencies go over the financial cliff,” says Steven Higashide, director of research for TransitCenter. “Look at the big picture. The cost of driving is punishing Americans right now. Transit offers relief, if people can take advantage of it.”

TransitCenter analyzed the numbers for the transit agencies in the regions with the most transit ridership and talked with Governing about the different challenges facing them. Overall ridership statistics come from the website TransitRecovery.com, which draws on data from the National Transit Database.

New National Bridge Inventory lists decaying bridges near you

The newly updated National Bridge Inventory is loaded with story leads. It is going to be an important list as the U.S. government works with local and state governments to fund $1.2 trillion in infrastructure upgrades through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Governing.com reports:

The U.S. National Bridge Inventory maps the location and other details of all bridges in the nation 100 years old or older. The interactive map offers data around the age of the bridge, its condition and daily traffic.

The bridge condition data comes from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Bridges are ranked as good, fair or poor. Some 68.3 percent of the 1,430 old bridges included in the map are ranked as fair, with 16.7 percent of them receiving a good rating, and 15 percent receiving a poor rating. The average age among the bridges is 116.2 years, with a daily traffic count of more than 28.3 million vehicles.

A ‘safe’ way to get 9% interest on your investment

Everyone is looking for a way to earn some money on investments without the stock market risks. That’s why I-bonds are getting so much attention.  You probably have not thought much about savings bonds since your grandmother bought them for your birthday. But these I-bonds are different from the old savings bonds.

These have a return keyed to the Consumer Price Index. That means they return an interest rate that is set by the rate of inflation. The current return on I-bonds is 9.62% through October 2022. That is a record-high return that stock market investors would love to replicate year after year. If you believe high inflation is here for a while, this might be a worth a look for both you and your audience(s).

There are some things to keep in mind when buying I-bonds.

  • The bonds are backed by the U.S. government.
  • The return is a variable rate, which means when inflation cools, your return will drop.
  • You can’t cash in the bond for one year.
  • If you cash in before five years, you’ll lose the previous three months of interest.
  • Your interest income is taxable.
  • You can buy bonds in denominations from $25 to $10,000 each year.
  • You can buy electronic bonds or get paper bonds, like the old days.

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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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