February 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.

To add to Ukraine’s troubles, the COVID-19 infection rate there is sky-high and there are new concerns this week that a flood of refugees into neighboring may bring the virus with them. Only a third of Ukrainians have gotten at least one vaccination.

(Johns Hopkins)

The New York Times notes that the people huddled in shelters are especially vulnerable.

The coronavirus outlook for those fleeing the fighting is grim, according to Dr. Eric S. Toner, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.

“They’re quite vulnerable, and as people huddle together, either sheltering or evacuating in crowded buses, trains and cars, maybe in hotels and refugee camps, it’s going to cause a reversal of the progress,” he said in an interview on Thursday. “They can’t maintain distance and don’t have access to masks.”

Dr. Toner said that he expected Ukraine’s neighbors to see a rise in their Covid case numbers and additional stress on their health care systems from refugees, but those problems will be worse inside Ukraine.

“They’re going to be caring for Covid patients, along with war victims,” he said. “They’re going to be understaffed because of the war, and it’s going to harm their chances of keeping patients in isolation or have social distancing. It’s going to be a mess.”

There is a secondary concern that the invading Russians, who have an even bigger COVID-19 outbreak underway in their country, will spread the virus even further in Ukraine.

(Johns Hopkins)

During a war, data collection takes a distance back seat, which could become deeply problematic for Ukraine in the weeks ahead.

In the blink of an eye, the CDC’s map flips

We start a new workweek largely maskless.

The data didn’t change; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interpretation of the data changed — just in time for President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech tomorrow.

One moment, the CDC’s COVID-19 map of the country had a high level of COVID-19. Everybody from businesses to churches relied on this advice to help determine whether to require masks and more. This is the map that justified the CDC’s recommended restrictions:


But just like that, the CDC changed its threat map. Now it looks like this, showing the majority of counties in the country have low or medium levels of COVID-19:


This is what the new colors mean:


The new map relies less on new cases and more on other factors, including hospitalizations and hospital capacity. Under this new view of the data, a little more than one-fourth of the public is advised to keep wearing masks.

Throughout the pandemic, the CDC has had troubling boiling down its recommendations for a country with a diverse population, including trying to articulate guidelines that work in offices, factories, hospitals, businesses, nursing homes, churches, elementary schools and colleges. Two years ago, when the pandemic began, the CDC said there was no need for masks. Then there was, and now, even while there are a half-million new COVID-19 cases reported in the U.S. each week, and more than 12,000 people are still dying each week from COVID-19. Still, without a doubt, the number has fallen steeply from the worst levels of infection and death.

The CDC explains:

Counties with fewer than 200 new Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people in the past week are considered to have “low” Covid-19 community levels if they have fewer than 10 new Covid-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 or less than 10% of staffed hospital beds occupied by Covid-19 patients on average in the past week.

Levels are “medium” if counties have 10 to nearly 20 new Covid-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 or between 10% and 14.9% of staffed hospital beds occupied by Covid-19 patients on average in the past week. They are considered “medium” if they have fewer than 10 new Covid-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 or less than 10% of staffed hospital beds occupied by Covid-19 patients on average in the past week.

Levels are considered “high” if counties have 20 or more new Covid-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 or at least 15% of staffed hospital beds occupied by Covid-19 patients on average in the past week. They are considered “high” if they have if they have 10 or more new Covid-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 or at least 10% of staffed hospital beds occupied by Covid-19 patients on average in the past week.

Epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina said that it would have been a mistake for the CDC to only rely on hospitalizations to determine if a community had a high risk because, she said, hospitalizations happen weeks after an outbreak grows. She said the CDC smartly included other factors. She added:

The CDC is counting hospitalizations “with COVID” and “for COVID-19” in their hospital metrics. This is also, absolutely, the right call. First, some jurisdictions just don’t have the capacity to differentiate the two. But second, because Omicron showed us that there’s actually a third category that isn’t clearly differentiated: “COVID19 exacerbating medical conditions.”

For example, if a child has diabetes, COVID-19 infection significantly complicates the disease and the child is hospitalized “with COVID” not “for COVID-19”. But, this is very different than a child with a broken bone that happens to test positive. So, I’m happy that the CDC is counting everything because everything does impact supply, staff, and hospital capacity.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said, in all likelihood, the day will come when you will again be told that you need to wear a mask. She said that COVID-19 will be with us for a while and there will be other outbreaks. But, she said, “We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing.”

Gerald Harmon, the head of the American Medical Association, said regardless of the CDC’s new guidelines, he would keep his mask on:

But even as some jurisdictions lift masking requirements, we must grapple with the fact that millions of people in the U.S. are immunocompromised, more susceptible to severe COVID outcomes [us old folks], or still too young to be eligible for the vaccine. In light of those facts, I personally will continue to wear a mask in most indoor public settings, and I urge all Americans to consider doing the same, especially in places like pharmacies, grocery stores, on public transportation—locations all of us, regardless of vaccination status or risk factors, must visit regularly. Although masks may no longer be required indoors in many parts of the U.S., we know that wearing a well-fitted mask is an effective way to protect ourselves and our communities, including the most vulnerable, from COVID-19—particularly in indoor settings when physical distancing is not possible.

At the end of it all, the CDC says if you are unsure about whether you should wear a mask, ask your doctor. Never mind that one in four Americans have no primary care doctor to turn to for advice.

The state of masks at the State of the Union

The CDC’s new mask guidelines also mean that 535 members of Congress won’t have to wear masks on prime-time TV while President Biden gives his State of the Union address. All attendees will be required to take a COVID-19 test before entering the House chamber ahead of Biden’s address.

The Office of the Attending Physician made the decision right after the CDC issued the guidelines. The new CDC chart lists Washington, D.C., as “green” or low risk.  The ruling lowers the chances of a disruption during the speech over mask requirements. Some GOP members face thousands of dollars in fines for refusing to wear masks around the Capitol. The House Ethics Committee lists each fine.

What the new mask guidelines mean for travel

The CDC’s guidelines do not change the mandatory mask rule for airplanes and other mass transit. That order is set to expire next month. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said in a statement that while it is not actively campaigning for an extension of the mask rule, it has “every expectation that it will be extended.”

Two more studies point to Chinese market, not lab, as COVID’s birthplace

Let’s say right off that we still do not know definitively whether the virus that causes COVID-19 originated in a laboratory or a street market in Wuhan, China, but two new studies released this weekend point to live mammals sold in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in late 2019 as the source of the virus that spread to humans who worked and shopped in the market. These two studies, while large in scope, have not been peer-reviewed.

Why boycotting Russian vodka doesn’t necessarily hurt Russia

A display of Stolichnaya Vodka from Russia in a Total Wine and More store in University Park, Fla., on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Officials in Ohio, Utah and New Hampshire are calling on stores to pull Russian branded products from their shelves to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The governor of Utah even issued an executive order ordering state liquor stores to clear the shelves of Russian-made products. But while all of this may be symbolic, most vodka brands that have Russian roots are not made there now. Some are even produced in the United States.

Stoli vodka, for example, has a Russian name but is headquartered in Luxembourg and made in Latvia.

Smirnoff, which once again traces its name to Russia, is owned by British spirits corporation Diageo and manufactured in Illinois.

One popular brand, Russian Standard, is owned by a Russian company, produced in Russia and shipped to the states.

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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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