January 20, 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.

Let me fire off a quick take on a brand new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study before I dive in. I suspect the study will be used as the foundation for disinformation that claims that if you get COVID-19, there is no reason to get vaccinated.

That would miss the point of the study, which instead found, “Vaccination protects against COVID-19 and related hospitalization and that surviving a previous infection protects against a reinfection.”

I include this item because, in some limited ways, it validates what a lot of people who have resisted getting vaccinated have claimed. The new CDC data shows so-called “natural immunity” that follows being infected by a virus is strong. That is, no doubt, all that vaccine doubters will hear from this study, but there is more to the findings than just that one point.

The new large-scale CDC study shows that while “vaccination remains the safest strategy for averting future SARS-CoV-2 infections,” people who got vaccinated and also survived a COVID-19 infection had the most immunity to new infections.

The study found that “before Delta became the predominant variant in June (2021), case rates were higher among persons who survived a previous infection than persons who were vaccinated alone. By early October, persons who survived a previous infection had lower case rates than persons who were vaccinated alone.” The study said:

Case rates were initially lowest among vaccinated persons without a previous COVID-19 diagnosis; however, after emergence of the Delta variant and over the course of time, incidence increased sharply in this group, but only slightly among both vaccinated and unvaccinated persons with previously diagnosed COVID-19.

Across the entire study period, persons with vaccine- and infection-derived immunity had much lower rates of hospitalization compared with those in unvaccinated persons. These results suggest that vaccination protects against COVID-19 and related hospitalization and that surviving a previous infection protects against a reinfection. Importantly, infection-derived protection was greater after the highly transmissible Delta variant became predominant, coinciding with early declining of vaccine-induced immunity in many persons.

A few significant caveats to the study:

  • The study did not consider the benefits of boosters.
  • The study started before the delta variant and ended before the omicron variant and so it may not apply to the situation we face today in which omicron is the dominant virus variant in the U.S.
  • The so-called natural immunity that follows infection in most people is unpredictable in that it may not last long and may not be strong in some people.

Can omicron decline without hitting rural America hard?

One theory is that the omicron variant of COVID-19 might fall faster than it rose, and there are some reasons to think that it may nnow be peaking in big cities. But in a country as big and geographically diverse as the United States, we may instead see again what happened in previous waves: that some parts of the country see cases fall while others see it peak.

NBC News points to some rural counties that already have no open intensive care unit beds and still have yet to feel the full brunt of omicron:

(NBC News)

Mayes County, Oklahoma, has a rate of only 477 new weekly cases per 100,000 population — less than a third of the national figure — but only 42 percent of its residents are fully vaccinated. In Clay County, Nebraska, the new weekly case rate in 467 per 100,000 and only 40 percent are fully vaccinated. In Lewis County, Tennessee, the figures are 440 per 100,000 and 35 percent vaccinated. In Big Horn County, Wyoming, it’s 204 and 37 percent. And in Stillwater County, Montana, it’s a rate of 176 per 100,000 and 41 percent vaccinated.

None of those counties have ICU beds in them and hundreds of rural counties are in the same boat.

As it often is with Covid, none of this certain. There are a lot of unknowns. How much of omicron’s “milder” symptoms are due to vaccination and how much are due to the nature of the variant? Could the more spread-out nature of rural places offer an additional defense against omicron?

But there are also some knowns here. Many of the nation’s rural counties have far lower vaccination rates than their urban counterparts. And if there is massive spread in rural communities, there simply are not a lot of rural hospitals to serve people, never mind ICU beds.

Add in the fact that many rural communities tend to be home to older populations and the situation only looks more troubling.

Much of the hopes about omicron rest on the pattern it has shown in other countries — cases spike and then quickly fall off. That still may be the case in the United States, but for some communities it may not hold much comfort. The timing, size and impact of those spikes will likely vary dramatically with rural communities taking a hard hit in what could be a long hard winter.

Truck-driving teens could help ease the pandemic driver shortage

Student driver Luis Barrientos, left, gets on a truck as instructor Daniel Osborne watches at California Truck Driving Academy in Inglewood, Calif., Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The federal government is considering a new way to ease the critical shortage of truck drivers. The idea is to create a training program that would allow 18- to 21-year-olds to drive semi-trucks in an apprenticeship. They would, at first, not be able to haul hazardous materials or have passengers onboard. The trucking industry says we need about 80,000 truckers. CBS News reports:

The program must first get approval from the Office of Management and Budget before it can open applications for truck driver positions on its website, according to deputy administrator of FMCSA Meera Joshi. While seeking approval for the three-year program, the public can comment on the proposal.

While several agencies, including American Trucking Associations — the largest national trade association for the industry — and the Commercial Vehicle Training Association, support the FMCSA proposal, it did face opposition.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, and other safety organizations noted younger drivers are more distracted and have higher rates of crashes. They also cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says that teenagers are unable to correctly analyze dangerous situations.

The pandemic tightened church finances

Rev. Meredith Mills delivers a sermon from the pulpit for some 30 attendants during the second service of the day in the sanctuary at Westminster United Methodist Church Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Houston. Attendance for the two Sunday services is only about half of the average pre-pandemic turnout of about 160 or 170, Mills says. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

Attendance at most mainstream churches was already dropping before the pandemic. More than two years in, some churches have been gutted of attendance and the contributions that come with it. Churches are selling off property and renting out unused space to stay afloat. Two stimulus payments helped churches stave off layoffs but 2022 looks direr.

At the same time, some churches have seen increased contributions during the pandemic. Keep in mind, this graphic from Lifeway Research, which studies Protestant churches, compares 2021 giving to 2020 giving, which was also a pandemic year.

Lifeway’s survey of 1,000 pastors found that evangelical churches tended to return to in-person worship sooner than mainline churches and also reported less of a financial impact from the pandemic.

(Lifeway Research)

Lifeway’s research also found:

In recent years, African American pastors have been more likely to say the economy was having a negative impact on their congregation. In 2021, they were less likely than their white counterparts to say the economy was a neutral force for their church (39% to 51%).

African American pastors are also more likely than white pastors to say their giving in 2021 was lower than budgeted (43% to 25%). Specifically, they are 3.5 times more likely than white pastors to say their offering was down by 25% or more (21% to 6%).

“Churches where the financial news is bad, it tends to be really bad,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “Among churches with offerings below 2020, the declines are typically steep, double-digit declines in year-over-year giving. These churches are having to radically rethink their ministry.”

Baptist News says the pandemic also brought a big change in how people support churches:

One thing pastors and other church leaders know for certain now is the essential nature of online giving. Giving through automatic bank withdrawals, church websites and giving apps already was on the rise in the years leading up to the pandemic, but COVID-19 may have been the death knell for the traditional church offering plate. As churches reopened for in-person worship throughout 2021, many stopped passed a physical offering plate and turned to other methods of promoting giving.

Subsplash is one of several companies that specialize in digital giving platforms specifically for churches. It reports that “online giving is now the No. 1 way people tithe and donate to churches.”

Hundreds of millions of vaccine doses will go to waste in a matter of weeks

Bloomberg is tracking how hundreds of millions of doses of unused COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S., Japan, Canada and the U.K. will expire in March and will go to waste while other countries cannot get vaccines at all.

The real reason people who test positive don’t self-isolate

The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan provides some common-sense realistic views on why so many people do not stay home from work when they get sick. Their employer makes no provision for it and they simply cannot afford it.  Here are three passages (but read the whole thoughtful piece):

The federal government offers no services for or payments to people in isolation and has no one checking in with the sick. Most local and state governments don’t do anything for people in isolation either. Most important, millions of Americans still don’t have paid sick leave, so taking any time off work—five days, 10, or two—can be financially ruinous.

About a fifth of all U.S. workers don’t get paid sick leave, and the lowest-paid workers—those who serve food, clean hotels, or stock groceries—are least likely to have it. Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., plus about two dozen cities and counties, have paid-sick-day laws, but approximately 75 million private-sector workers live in jurisdictions not covered by those measures, according to the paid-leave-advocacy group A Better Balance. Some states expanded paid leave during the pandemic, but many of those programs have since expired. Some employers also began offering paid leave, but it’s not clear how long they’ll continue to do so. Already, Walmart, taking a cue from the CDC, has cut paid leave for workers who get COVID down to one week from two.

The emergency paid-sick-leave law passed by Congress in 2020 prevented about 400 COVID cases per state per day. That provision has since expired, as has a second one granting tax credits to employers that offered paid leave voluntarily. Even when the 2020 measure was in effect, it didn’t cover every worker; only half of all workers knew about it; and about 15 million Americans a month still lacked sufficient sick leave, a study found. Since then, there’s been nothing. “We’re allergic to imposing new regulations on workplaces in this country,” says Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid-leave policy at the think tank New America.

China’s strange suspicion about infected mail

Chinese authorities say the first case of omicron in China may have come from a piece of mail that originated in the U.S. and traveled through Canada before arriving in China. The claim goes against the widely accepted evidence that the virus is airborne and not likely to spread by touching objects like a package.

The Winter Olympics start in two weeks and China has recently reported new cases in Beijing, which has everyone there worried.

Share these DIY air filters with your audiences

Maybe you saw this photo making the rounds on Twitter this weekend. It shows high schoolers who made a COVID-19 filter for their classroom and now are building them for every classroom in their school.

You can show your audiences how to do this. Watch this 120-second video to learn how to build a COVID-19 filter using four air filters, a box fan and duct tape.

I have been seeing some amazing DIY creations to filter air without paying for an expensive HEPA filter.

The creator of this concept, Dr. Richard Corsi, dean of engineering at the University of California, posted, “When applied to a 200 square foot dorm room w/ a 9 ft ceiling, the corsi-rosenthal box yields a respiratory aerosol reduction equivalent to 20 to 27 air changes per hour, much more than commercial airliners or isolation rooms in hospitals.”

An army of students at one California school built 200 filter boxes for classrooms and labs around a college campus. (See video.)

Corsi says this creation is ideal for dorm rooms, classrooms and offices. The bigger the room or the more people that are in the room, the more of these boxes you might put in to keep the air circulating and filtering.

We’ll be back tomorrow 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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