March 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 and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may approve a “permissive recommendation” for another round of vaccinations for people over age 50 as early as this week, both The New York Times and CNN report.

Call it a second booster or a fourth dose but, if the FDA does act this week, it will be short of a straight-out recommendation. Instead, it will tell people who might want to get a boost to their booster that it is fine to do so.

The FDA can issue a permission recommendation without going through the special review panels that you now know so well after two years of the pandemic.

The review panel that approves the efficacy and safety of drugs does not meet until April, when it is scheduled to take up the issue of who should get a fourth dose in 2022.

The main issue about any booster is timing. If a person took the second booster now and there is a fall/winter 2022 resurgence of the virus, then the booster would lose much of its protection about the time it is needed most.  The New York Times expands on that notion:

Major uncertainties have complicated the decision, including how long the protection from a second booster would last, how to explain the plan to the public and even whether the overall goal is to shield Americans from severe disease or from less serious infections as well, since they could lead to long Covid.

Much depends on when the next wave of Covid infections will hit, and how hard. Should the nation be hit by a virulent surge in the next few months, offering a second booster now for older Americans could arguably save thousands of lives and prevent tens of thousands of hospitalizations.

But if no major wave hits until the fall, extra shots now could turn out to be a questionable intervention that wastes vaccine doses, deepens vaccination fatigue and sows doubt about the government’s strategy.

Health experts now consider a fall 2022 surge to be “highly likely,” but who knows at this point if it would involve a strain we already know or some new variant. Drug companies are working on vaccine formulas that might be effective against multiple variants.

Unless POTUS acts, 40 million people will start repaying student loans in May

37 million Americans who have outstanding federal student loans will start repaying those loans again on May 1 unless the Biden administration again extends the freeze on repayment.

Student loan borrowers have not been required to make payments on their student loans since March 2020. The federal government says most borrowers from federal loan programs (97%) have not voluntarily kept up the payments during the relief period. Interestingly, students who borrowed from private lenders kept up their payments for the last two years and were not eligible for forbearance.

A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York says if student loan debtors have to start repaying their combined $195 billion in loans, it will be a big strain on many of them at a time when other essentials like rent and gasoline are stretching budgets. Student loan debt is bigger than credit card or car loan debt.

The Biden and Trump administrations have frozen federal student loan repayments during the pandemic six times and Democrats in Congress are pushing Joe Biden to issue a seventh delay, or even to forgive some of the debts completely. 40 Democrats sent a letter to the president asking for a further delay. The Hill reports:

The letter’s signatories included Reps. Conor Lamb (Pa.) and Tim Ryan (Ohio), who are running for the Senate, and progressive Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).

But some of Biden’s allies are urging him not to stop there.

Many progressives — and even some top Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) — are further urging Biden to cancel student loan debt altogether.

“Without action, student loan payments will resume on May 1. President Biden can act now by using his existing legal authority to #CancelStudentDebt,” Schumer tweeted on Tuesday.

Cnet reminds us that Biden promised during his campaign that he would support canceling some student debt:

While on the campaign trail, Biden said he’d support legislation canceling a minimum of $10,000 of federal loans per borrower. However, the White House has been largely silent on the issue since Biden took office, though the US Department of Education did extinguish $1.7 in loan debt after revamping its Public Service Loan Forgiveness program in October 2021.

Whether Biden has the legal authority to unilaterally cancel student debt through executive action, without legislation from Congress, is still unclear. The Department of Education released a memo on this issue last year, but the highly redacted document offers little information for public eyes.

Florida no longer reports COVID cases for tourists and visitors

Orlando Magic entertainers wear face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 as they leave the court after performing during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Florida stopped reporting weekly COVID-19 cases and stopped counting out-of-state visitors who get COVID-19. So, because they only count Florida residents, it is difficult to make any sense of the state’s newest figures. But even those figures, which undercount cases in Florida by definition, show there were 16,741 new cases over the last two weeks. And you can add in 1,167 more fatalities involving Florida residents.

The financial cost for unvaccinated workers

Now that COVID-19 cases are dropping in most (but not all) places, will employers keep charging unvaccinated workers more for their health insurance? Reuters points out that at mega-companies like Bank of America and J.P. Morgan, unvaccinated workers may pay more for insurance or get fewer health benefits. But will this practice continue once the pandemic subsides?

Other companies have extended an insurance premium surcharge for unvaccinated spouses or family members of employees if they want to be insured as a dependent under an employee’s health plan.

And after global life insurance providers were hit with a higher-than-expected $5.5 billion in claims during the first nine months of 2021, insurers will be looking to calibrate premiums more closely to COVID mortality risks going forward, Reuters reported.

Vaccination status and other health risks – such as obesity or smoking — are metrics life insurers can probe when customers seek coverage. Under the U.S. Affordable Care Act, individuals seeking health insurance can’t be denied for pre-existing conditions, including COVID, or charged more for not being vaccinated. But companies who cover some of employees’ health insurance costs can pass along higher costs to unvaccinated employees.

Delta Airlines said last year it would charge employees who didn’t vaccinate an extra $200 a month for health insurance. The airline said the extra charge reflected the higher risk of COVID hospitalization for those employees and noted that employee hospitalizations for COVID had cost $50,000 each so far, on average.

Hotels stop daily housekeeping

Over the last couple of years, hotels stopped offering daily housekeeping service as a COVID-19 safety measure. But now hotels are continuing the no-housekeeping service practice largely, it seems, as a cost-cutting measure. The Associated Press checked around to see what different chains are offering:

Marriott’s policies vary by property, but housekeeping is usually offered only upon request, with all rooms cleaned automatically every sixth night. Hilton’s default is no more daily cleanings at most properties unless requested. Walt Disney World reduced service to light housekeeping every other day. That entails towel replacement and trash removal but doesn’t necessarily include services you might expect, like getting your bed made.

The nationwide labor and materials shortage has hit hotels particularly hard. For instance, the leisure and hospitality industry lost 8.2 million jobs in March and April 2020 which is an employment decline of 49% , according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While there has certainly been rehiring hope (travel-related jobs are now among the fastest-growing sectors lately), the industry is still about 1.5 million jobs short of its pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, supply chain and inflation issues are ongoing. Hotels reported a 79% cost increase of cleaning and housekeeping supplies, according to a November 2021 American Hotel & Lodging Association survey of about 500 hotel operators.

The AP found that the highest-priced hotels are not jumping on this bandwagon. And even where daily housekeeping is not automatic, you can usually ask the front desk.

10 ways to save gasoline

A man checks gas prices at a gas station in Buffalo Grove, Ill., Saturday, March 26, 2022. U.S. gasoline and diesel prices declined slightly the week after their March 14 peak. Since Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, increases in retail gasoline and diesel prices are mostly due to increasing crude oil prices. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Popular Mechanics is here to help your car get the best gasoline mileage, given the high price at the pump. One of the tips that caught my eye is to use your air conditioning and not lower your windows. The report says the old advice that AC drains your car’s engine is outdated. The advice also includes turning off your car’s engine if you are stopped for more than a minute and to read your car’s manual closely to be sure you are using the right octane gasoline. If the manual says a higher octane is “recommended” but not “required,” Popular Mechanics says to skip the higher-octane fuel and go for the less expensive grade.

Charging time is the new MPG for autos

Have you noticed that electric vehicles are bragging about their “charging time” the way car companies used to brag about miles per gallon? The new 2022 Lucid Air Dream Edition Performance was Car and Driver’s fastest charging vehicle yet, faster than Tesla. But then again, they cost $170,000, so there’s that. They hope to offer a “cheaper” $77,000 model later.

What is the origin of ‘walk back,’ as in, ‘They walked back the president’s statement?’

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, front right, looks toward U.S. President Joe Biden, front left, at a group photo during an extraordinary NATO summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, March 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

One phrase filled news coverage of the weekend. Every five minutes, some pundit or anchor mentioned the White House trying to “walk back” President Biden’s statement that Putin “should not be allowed to stay in power.”

Where in the heck did we come up with this phrase “walk back?” Did it mean something else at one time? Maybe it has roots in the phrase, “Walk back the cat?”

20 years ago, New York Times columnist William Safire explained the term this way:

“Intelligence analysts have a technique to reveal a foreign government’s internal dissension called ‘walking back the cat.’ They apply what they now know as fact against what their agents said to expect. In that way, walkers-back learn who ‘disinformed’ or whose mistake may reveal a split in a seemingly monolithic hierarchy.”

So, the phrase may originally have meant to work backward to find the source of some misunderstanding or mistake. It is not how we use the phrase today, which is sort of like “take it back” or “clarify” in order to change your understanding of what somebody said. The Word Detective column suggests that the phrase may have held some meaning if you accept the notion that cats wander random paths to get from one place to another and double back on a path even if that is not the shortest route.

OK, maybe so. The Globe and Mail found another attempt to explain the phrase:

On his Word Spy website, Paul McFedries cites a use by Cullen Murphy in a 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly: “Intelligence analysts, who often have to second-guess themselves after defections and other failures, have a phrase to describe this kind of diagnostic deconstruction: ‘walking back the cat.’ ” The phrase surfaced in diplomatic talk in the 1970s and in espionage circles in the 1980s, but it isn’t clear how the metaphor originated. Getting a cat to do anything, let alone walk back, is next to impossible; that’s why herding cats means trying to corral people who have no interest in being corralled. A colleague suggests that the cat was a Cat, from the Caterpillar tractor with two articulated steel treads, which might have been “walked” back by powering each tread in alternating bursts. But there is no paper trail I can find to suggest a mechanical cat rather than a live one.

So not only are we misquoting the original reference to “walking it back,” but we are misusing the original meaning. I suggest we drop unclear and cutie phrasing like “walk back” and even “regime change” and say what you mean.

Within minutes, Biden’s assistants told reporters the president didn’t mean the U.S. intends to push Putin out of office, or demand the Russians remove him.

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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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