June 9, 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.

Moderna says by late summer it can offer a COVID-19 booster shot that provides protection against the omicron variant of the virus. The company has reason to believe this booster might last a whole year, not four months or so, which we have come to expect from vaccinations.

The Guardian reports:

Dr Paul Burton, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said the new vaccine raised antibody levels to such a degree that one booster a year could be enough, unless a substantially different variant calls for the vaccine to be redesigned again.

“The data we show today are really important because we get a really strong antibody response against Omicron,” he said. “For the first time, we could really be looking at the potential for just once-yearly boosting, because we can get people to such a high level that they will take longer to decay.”

The new vaccine, called mRNA1273.214, combines 25 micrograms of the original Moderna Covid vaccine with 25 micrograms of vaccine specifically targeted at the Omicron variant. In the phase 2/3 trial, the 50mcg shots were given to 437 people who had already received two primary jabs and a booster of the original Moderna vaccine earlier in the pandemic.

It is important to point out that Moderna has not released all of the data that the Food and Drug Administration will need to evaluate this drug. And 437 test subjects are a small-ish sample.

The FDA’s vaccine advisory panel meets June 28 to talk about how to concoct vaccines for the fall that protect against whatever new variants emerge later this year. The newest technology allows vaccines to protect against two variants of a virus at a time.

The Miami Herald says yet another variant has shown up in Dade County:

Premier Medical Laboratory Services says it has identified the first three cases of the BA.4 strain in Miami-Dade. Additionally, another omicron subvariant, BA.5, has been rapidly growing in the Southeast. Experts say these variants have a higher chance of evading vaccines and booster shots.

By the way, to nobody’s surprise, a new state auditor’s report shows that even though Florida reported some of the highest COVID-19 cases in the country, even that figure was an undercount of the real virus outbreak. The audit spotted millions of cases where state data did not report demographic data of COVID-19 tests that might have helped spot trends of who was being infected and where they lived. NFL training camps in Florida also did not report the data they were supposed to.

Most of Florida is still in the “high” risk category on this week’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map. In the last few days, I have heard from person after person that I know testing positive. But hospitalizations attributed to COVID-19 are still fairly low nationally, and while hospitals are 75% full, they are not bursting at the seams.

(U.S. ​​Department of Health and Human Services)


COVID was the leading cause of police officer deaths in 2020

A new study published in a professional publication called Policing: An International Journal says:

COVID-19 deaths accounted for 62% of all duty-related law enforcement officer deaths during 2020. The national rate of death due to COVID-19 (12.8/100,000 per year) for law enforcement officers was higher compared to all other causes of death combined (8.0/100,000 per year).

The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy summarizes the findings:

Of the 295 duty-related deaths, 182 (62%) were attributed to COVID-19, for a national rate of 12.8 per 100,000 officers per year, higher than that of all other causes of death combined (8.0 per 100,000). Most deaths occurred in spring and summer. The remaining 38% of death were attributed to gunshot wounds, vehicle crashes, other diseases, accidents, drownings, and beatings.

The vast majority of officers who died of COVID-19 (94%) were men, 61.6% were older than 50 years, 54% had more than 20 years of experience, and 50.0% were lower-ranking (patrol and corrections) officers—who are likely at higher risk owing to high rates of infection in crowded prisons—the researchers said. COVID-19 caused 35 of 36 corrections officer deaths (97%), compared with 56 of 130 patrol officer deaths (43%).

The researchers suspect they would find similar results for firefighter and emergency medical technician deaths during the pandemic.

Big apartment companies’ net incomes soar 57% as rents go higher

The price of housing is one of the biggest issues in America, and Friday’s Consumer Price Index will certainly show housing inflation is burning hot. Renters nationwide say they are paying hundreds more per month this year. This new data from government watchdog Accountable.US says the apartment companies are doing very well:

The ten largest publicly traded apartment companies by number of units, raised rent prices and collectively saw their total 2021 fiscal year net incomes soar by 57% to nearly $5 billion. The top executives of these same companies also reported that their total compensation in the same period swelled by nearly 23% to over $66.5 million, helping them maintain lavish homes valued at a total of almost $103 million.

CBS News used the data to conclude:

Property owners that opposed a federal ban on evictions in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic claimed the restrictions would leave them on the hook for billions of dollars in losses. For many corporate landlords, however, 2021 turned out to be a year of record profits, according to a watchdog group.

Take Mid-America Apartment Communities, the largest multifamily housing owner in the U.S., with 100,000 units under its purview. Mid-America’s profits more than doubled in 2021 to $550 million. And Starwood Property Trust, a major real-estate investment company, boasted of a “record” year in 2021, during which time its net income rose by one-third, to $492 million.

Speaking to investors on a call in February, Starwood’s CEO noted that “tenants seem capable and willing to pay these rent increases” and called inflation “an extraordinary gift that keeps on giving” for the company’s affordable housing properties in Florida. (Starwood’s parent, Starwood Capital Group, says it controls 220,000 housing units and 380,000 hotel rooms, among other assets.)

Single-use plastic ban in national parks

A trash can overflows as people sit outside of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial by the Tidal Basin, Dec. 27, 2018, in Washington, during a partial government shutdown. The Interior Department said Wednesday, June 8, 2022, it will phase out single-use plastic products on national parks and other public lands over the next decade, targeting a leading source of U.S. plastic waste such as food and beverage containers, straws and bags.(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

It is going to take a decade to get all of the single-use plastic out of our system, it seems, but the U.S. Interior Department says it will phase out the sale of single-use plastic products in national parks and other public lands by 2032. The Interior Department announcement said that 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year.

The order says:

Less than 10 percent of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled, and recycling rates are not increasing. Plastics, including unnecessary and easily substituted single-use plastic products, are devastating fish and wildlife around the world.

Our oceans are downstream of all pollution sources, so they bear the brunt of the impacts: of the more than 300 million tons of plastic produced every year for use in a wide variety of applications, at least 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and plastic makes up 80 percent of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments. Marine species ingest or are entangled by plastic debris, which causes severe injuries and death, and plastic pollution threatens food safety and quality, human health, coastal tourism, and contributes to climate change.

Target to offer sales

While some retailers have shortages, other shelves are overloaded. Target, for example, says it is going to unload lots of excess merchandise at discounted prices. The buzz around Wall Street is that this will be an opening salvo of retailers loading up the sales racks to reduce inventories.

In some cases, people have changed their spending habits after a couple of years of working at home in sweatpants and leaning against throw pillows. And inflation is forcing consumers focus on buying essentials.

CNBC gives us some examples of what you can expect to see discounted:

Retailers from Walmart to Gap face a glut of inventory as inflation-pinched shoppers skip over categories that were popular during the first two years of the pandemic. Gap, for instance, said customers want party dresses and office clothes instead of the many fleece hoodies and active clothes the company has. Walmart said some families are making fewer discretionary purchases as the prices of gas and groceries rise. Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle Outfitters both reported a steep jump in inventory levels, up 45% and 46%, respectively, from a year ago from a mix of items not selling and supply chain delays easing.

The extreme shift in consumers’ spending habits comes as retailers start to get back to healthy in-stock levels. That means some have an abundance of sweatpants, throw pillows and pajamas just as consumers search for swimsuits and suitcases. Plus, some shoppers are trimming back on spending due to inflation or putting more of their dollars toward experiences like dining out and traveling.

Astonishing 20% increase in drug prices — will Congress act?

A new report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association says, “Prescription drug spending in the US exceeded half a trillion dollars in 2020. Spending is driven by high-cost brand-name drugs, sales for which manufacturers freely set prices after approval. Rising brand-name drug prices often translate to payers restricting access, raising premiums, or imposing unaffordable out-of-pocket costs for patients.”

The AMA report found that the average price for new prescription drug rose 20% per year from 2008 to 2021. That is a tenfold increase in a decade. At the same time, other health care costs rose at about a 3% rate.

During the pandemic (2020-21) the AMA says half of new drugs on the market were priced at $150,000 per year.

There may be ways, undesirable as they might be, to work around higher gasoline prices, grocery prices, electric bills and and rent increases. People can take mass transit, plant gardens, raise thermostats and take on roommates. But what do you do when the pharmaceuticals that you rely on increase in price by 20%?

While journalists are fixated, for good reason, on whether Congress can figure out how to agree on what to do about gun deaths in America, Congress is flat out stalled on doing anything about rising drug prices.

The Washington Post points out that President Joe Biden’s stalled Build Back Better Act included three big reforms:

  • Allowing Medicare to negotiate prices for widely used drugs
  • Once drugs are on the market, price increases would be limited
  • Fix the broken Medicare Part D benefit that saddles some seniors with unaffordable out-of-pocket costs.

There may be some quiet negotiations going on in the Senate to get the president’s plan moving.

For seniors, drug price inflation is a growing concern because pharma prices are rising so much faster than the inflation rate. The Kaiser Family Foundation says:

Among drugs covered under Part D, 17% (567 drugs) had price increases of 7.5% or more between 2019 and 2020; 11% (1,106 drugs) had price increases above the rate of inflation but below 7.5%; 9% (285 drugs) had price increases below inflation; and 41% (1,385 drugs) had price reductions.


A tidal wave of shrinkflation

Bottles of Gatorade are pictured, left, a 32 fluid ounce and 28 fluid ounce, in Glenside, Pa., Monday, June 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Inflation produces two predictable outcomes. One is obviously higher prices, but those are often preceded by manufacturers trying to hide the fact that you are paying more for less. The Associated Press points out:

In the U.S., a small box of Kleenex now has 60 tissues; a few months ago, it had 65. Chobani Flips yogurts have shrunk from 5.3 ounces to 4.5 ounces. In the U.K., Nestle slimmed down its Nescafe Azera Americano coffee tins from 100 grams to 90 grams. In India, a bar of Vim dish soap has shrunk from 155 grams to 135 grams.

Shrinkflation isn’t new, experts say. But it proliferates in times of high inflation as companies grapple with rising costs for ingredients, packaging, labor and transportation. Global consumer price inflation was up an estimated 7% in May, a pace that will likely continue through September, according to S&P Global.

“It comes in waves. We happen to be in a tidal wave at the moment because of inflation,” said Edgar Dworsky, a consumer advocate and former assistant attorney general in Massachusetts who has documented shrinkflation on his Consumer World website for decades.

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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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