March 30, 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 U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized a second COVID-19 booster shot for people aged 50 and up — but the move falls short of a recommendation. It is more like the FDA saying, “Get one if you want to. It is OK with us.”

It has only been six months since the FDA authorized the first boosters so there is not a ton of data guiding this decision. Usually, such decisions are based on a long and wide experience that shows booster vaccines are waning. Nobody will be surprised if, this fall, the FDA authorizes another booster to protect against an autumn/winter resurgence of the virus.

Here is the FDA’s wording about booters for people who got either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. And note the FDA also authorized boosters for immunocompromised teens:

  • A second booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine or Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine may be administered to individuals 50 years of age and older at least 4 months after receipt of a first booster dose of any authorized or approved COVID-19 vaccine.
  • A second booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine may be administered to individuals 12 years of age and older with certain kinds of immunocompromise at least 4 months after receipt of a first booster dose of any authorized or approved COVID-19 vaccine. These are people who have undergone solid organ transplantation, or who are living with conditions that are considered to have an equivalent level of immunocompromise.
  • A second booster dose of the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine may be administered at least 4 months after the first booster dose of any authorized or approved COVID-19 vaccine to individuals 18 years of age and older with the same certain kinds of immunocompromise.

People who got a J&J vaccination should consider a Pfizer or Moderna booster

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just released data that shows people who got the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine should consider getting a booster shot using the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine. 17 million Americans got the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but long-term studies show the one-dose shot does not provide the lasting protection that the two-dose shots did.

Even combining the Johnson & Johnson shot with one of the other two does not provide as much protection as three doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, according to the new study. One dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine offered just 31% protection against hospitalization for people who were infected with COVID-19.

In December, the CDC told people who got the Johnson & Johnson shot that they should consider getting a booster.

Inflation is hitting food banks hard, and SNAP benefits will drop on April 15

Volunteers Harris Springsteen, left, and Ana Willis, right, fill bags with food items for the backpack program at Feeding America food bank in Elizabethtown, Ky., Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Clubb)

Food banks are facing the same problems that you are at the grocery store. Axios points out that Second Harvest Heartland, which serves Minnesota and western Wisconsin, says that food prices have spiked 9% year-over-year — and that meat donations are scarce.

“We need the community to stick with us — pitching in time or money to help — until we find ourselves on more solid ground,” Second Harvest Heartland CEO Allison O’Toole said.

The Washington Post provides an example of what food banks pay even when they buy food in bulk:

A truckload of canned tuna cost $46,000 in February 2020 and is now $57,000, a truckload of peanut butter was about $34,000 and is now $40,000, and a truckload of diced tomatoes was $15,000 and is now $23,000.

The costs are up while federal COVID-era relief programs expire, which means more people will show up seeking food help. Benefits provided through SNAP — the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, often referred to as food stamps — will be reduced to pre-emergency levels April 15 unless states extend the program. Millions of families will see a drop in their food benefits amounting to about $100 a month. The extra SNAP benefits were allotted to people in states that were still operating under COVID-19 emergency status. As state after state let the emergency designation expire, the additional SNAP benefits expired, too.

As of this week, here is the list of states that will see the drop in SNAP benefits next month: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Guam, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

You can see what that means for Iowa. KCCI-TV explores the effects:

And then last April, the USDA announced the expansion of benefits for people on SNAP. However, when Iowa’s emergency proclamation was not extended in February, it also impacted the federal money coming to Iowa for those expanded SNAP benefits.

“That makes a difference in the Iowa economy of about $27 million per month coming from the federal government,” said Michelle Book, the CEO of Food Bank of Iowa.

Since knowing the emergency proclamation would end, Book says she and other food bank and pantry leaders across Iowa have worked hard to make sure they’re prepared. The Food Bank of Iowa put in additional orders and have doubled up truck routes. They have done this all while dealing with other concerning factors.

“As with everyone else, we’re experiencing inflationary costs on the food we purchase,” said Book. “We’ve also seen double cost for freight to get food from coasts to the state of Iowa.”

Yahoo explains some of the ways SNAP benefits may be used:

SNAP money, regardless of state or territory, is only allowable for purchases of fresh produce, food, and groceries at pre-approved vendors and grocers for each state’s program. This means the extra money is guaranteed to be used on food for families in need — the money is not deposited into a discretionary account to be used at the will of each recipient. Restrictions sometimes go as far as to not allow the purchase of alcohol, hot food, or food that is to be eaten in the store. In many cases, the purchase of pet food, soaps and even paper towels are not allowed with food stamps.

SNAP data that might help detour the social stigma that recipients feel

These data points were collected by SNAP to Health. They might help to fight the false notion that people using SNAP benefits eat steak, buy alcohol and live on the program forever.

  • SNAP eligibility rules require that participants be at or below 130% of the Federal Poverty Level. 130 percent of the poverty line for a three-person family is $2,213 a month, or about $26,600 a year.

(Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

  • Recent studies show that 43% of all SNAP participants are children (age 18 or younger), with more than half of SNAP children living in single-parent households.
  • In total, 39% of SNAP benefits go towards households with children, 21% go to households with disabled persons, and 28% go to households with senior citizens.
  • According to demographic data, 36.5% of SNAP participants are white, 25.8% are African-American, 16% are Hispanic, 3.3% are Asian, and 1.5% are Native American.
  • As of December 2021, 41.5 million persons were participating in SNAP.
  • In 2021, the average SNAP client received a monthly benefit of $216. Keep that number in mind if you were buying groceries for a family for a month.
  • SNAP benefits vary from household to household, depending on the number of people within a household, the employment status of the recipient(s), the age and health of the recipient(s), etc. For most healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 50 (without children), SNAP benefits are limited to a 3-month period, at which point the recipient will have to submit a renewal application. Most households under the SNAP program receive benefits for a 6-month period before requiring renewal. Benefit periods can range from 1 month to 3 years.

More people in food bank lines

The Washington Post reports that food banks nationwide are seeing more people even as COVID-19 rates drop, and unemployment is no longer the issue it was two years ago:

Food bank officials are reporting growing lines at their distribution centers nationwide. Rates of reported hunger have been increasing since early August, when nearly 8 percent of respondents said they “sometimes” or “often” did not have enough to eat, according to data from the Census Household Pulse Survey.

In early February, 10 percent of those polled said their household sometimes doesn’t have enough to eat. That uptick is more significant for households with children, rising to 13 percent, although off from pandemic peaks.

In late January and early February, after child tax credit payments ended, 35 percent of adults living in households with children said they struggled to cover usual costs, according to census data.

CDC does not add destinations to its highest risk travel category, but the list stands at 140 nations

I suppose there is something you could call “good news” in the fact that the CDC didn’t add more countries to its Level 4 “high risk” travel category for COVID-19. To put this in perspective, there have been some months during the pandemic that the CDC added a dozen and a half countries to the list in a single week. Two dozen countries were added as late as January. And yet, look at the map and practically every part of the globe is still “high risk.”

The CDC explains what the designation means: “Avoid travel to these destinations. If you must travel to these destinations, make sure you are fully vaccinated before travel.”

The CDC does not explain why its risk map shows the U.S. as a high-risk country but does not put it on the list of countries that get a travel alert.



State pension funds invested in collapsed Russian assets

Maybe you, like me were surprised to learn that several state pension funds had significant multimillion-dollar investments in Russian assets that now are in the financial tank because of global sanctions. It raises the question of why the funds were invested in Russian interests to begin with.   Several news organizations explored how states like Virginia, Maryland, Minnesota, Massachusetts, California, Colorado and Florida are going to get out (or try to get out) of their Russian investments.

The New York Post reports, “New York’s pension systems want to dump nearly $300 million invested in the Moscow stock market but can’t because Russia has blocked foreigners from selling shares. Since Russia began its invasion and brutal attacks on Ukraine, the trustees of all five NYC employee pension systems have voted to divest from $185.9 million in Russian companies and securities.”

A note from Al: I will be on the road teaching for the rest of this week at the West Virginia Broadcasters conference. I will see you on Tuesday morning.

We’ll be back on Tuesday 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,…
Al Tompkins

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