January 18, 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’s answer the headline’s question fast with a big fat no.

One of the doctors and vaccine experts who you may see a lot on CNN, Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said the idea of intentionally trying to catch omicron is “all the rage.”

The (bad) reasoning behind people getting infected on purpose goes like this: “I’m healthy. If I get infected, I probably won’t get very sick. I’ll get over it, and then I’ll be immune.”

CNN reports:

“It’s caught on like wildfire,” agreed Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of the Havey Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“And it’s widespread, coming from all types of people, the vaccinated and boosted and the anti-vaxxers,” he added, with a warning. “You’d be crazy to try to get infected with this. It’s like playing with dynamite.”

Experts are urging people not to roll the dice by intentionally getting infected. Here are some reasons why:

Reason No. 1: “Going out and intentionally seeking this infection does not serve the purpose of getting it over with,” said Dr. Amber D’Souza, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It doesn’t protect you long term from infection, because those antibodies from getting COVID don’t last that long. You will be susceptible to infection again, and you put yourself at risk for having some illness or long-term symptoms.”

Reason No. 2: When you are infected, you can spread the virus to others who didn’t make the choice to be infected. You are imposing your decision on others who might be immunocompromised or have existing conditions that make them more vulnerable than you.

Reason No. 3 You cannot know if you will be one of the people who does not get a “mild” version of omicron. NBC News reports:

“There’s an individual, social, public health responsibility of everyone to not get sick because they tend to get other people sick,” including those who could have deadly complications or those not eligible for vaccinations, such as children under 5, said Dr. Robert Havey, the deputy director of the Havey Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Plus, he added, there is still a degree of unpredictability as to who might be hospitalized or develop long Covid.

“You don’t know if you’re going to get unlucky,” Havey said.

Reason No. 4: Every person who gets infected could be the host in whom the virus finds a new way to survive by becoming a new variant. Make no mistake, COVID-19 is still changing in ways that could assuredly become the next Greek letter that you do not want to know. At least 20 cases of the new omicron sub-variant BA2 have been detected in Israel. It has shown up in India, Denmark, Australia, Canada, China, and the United Kingdom. This BA2 variant is being called the “stealth variant” because the tests we have now do not detect it.

Reason No. 5: If you get infected and get really sick, you put even more pressure on an overburdened health care system.

Reason No. 6: If you want protection against COVID-19, a vaccine is a much more predictable way to get it without making you infectious while your body develops an immune response.

Those of us of a certain age are familiar with this line of logic. It is similar to chickenpox parties, in which a kiddo catches chickenpox and parents let all of the kids in the family — or beyond —catch it to start an immune response and get it out of the way. And, the reasoning went, it is better to get chickenpox as a kid than as an adult. Parents magazine explored the concept of those chickenpox parties:

“You definitely want to be immune to chickenpox before you become an adult, when it’s much worse, so parties were a good idea before the vaccine was introduced,” says Rodney E. Willoughby, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and a member of the AAP’s committee on infectious disease.

Today, it’s a bad idea, yet in our era of social media, it’s not unheard of to see a “pox playdate” posted online welcoming parents to bring their little ones to a home where a child has the chickenpox. In Boulder, Colorado, parents who fear there could be dangerous side effects of the chickenpox vaccine are even organizing “pox parties” in private Facebook groups.

But unlike the Internet and Facebook, we have something now that didn’t exist years ago — a safe, effective vaccine for chickenpox. Which means an invite to a chickenpox get-together is now an invitation you should definitely turn down according to the experts.

Time provides a reasonable approach. Yes, the article says, if you are infected with the coronavirus, you will probably develop some immunity to reinfection. But:

Other studies suggest that people who get sick after they’re vaccinated also see immune perks. A recent research letter found that a small group of fully vaccinated (but unboosted) people experienced an antibody surge after recovering from breakthrough infections, and another small, not-yet-peer-reviewed study found that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people who had an Omicron infection also gained some protection against the Delta variant.

These benefits are silver linings for people who accidentally get sick, but Iwasaki says it’s unnecessary to seek out infection for an immune bump; you can get similar benefits from vaccines and a booster, which are proven to be safe and effective. Plus, natural immunity wanes over time, and there’s no guarantee that getting Omicron will protect you from the next unknown variant that could be around the corner. “We know that the booster induces quite robust antibodies, even against Omicron,” Iwasaki says. “Why not get your immunity that way?”

Stanford Children’s Health produced this graphic:

(Stanford Children’s Health)

CDC advises against ‘high-risk’ sports and extracurricular activities in high transmission areas

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidelines. Since most of the U.S. is still experiencing high levels of COVID-19 transmission, the updated guidelines would affect wrestling, football, band and chorus performances in schools across the country. This is the chart:


A CNN analysis of the guidelines said:

The CDC gives football and wrestling as examples of high-risk sports and says that “high-risk extracurricular activities are those in which increased exhalation occurs, such as activities that involve singing, shouting, band, or exercise, especially when conducted indoors.”

Paul Imhoff, president of The School Superintendents Association, told CNN while schools have gone to great lengths to curb the spread of Covid-19, he doesn’t know of any schools that have cancelled activities such as football or band or choir. Such activities, he said, are “important to students’ mental health.”

The CDC’s confusing guidance: after self-isolating, avoid 80% of the population

The CDC recently issued guidance that says that after a person recovers from COVID-19, they can stop isolating after five days but should avoid people with certain health conditions. But once you look at the list of health conditions you should be alert to — including people who are pregnant, people who are obese, people who are or have been smokers, people who have diabetes, and so on — you pretty quickly figure out that you would have to avoid 80% (a real number) of the population. CNN arrived at the 80% figure after showing the list to health experts. All of this underpins why so many immunologists have been critical of the CDC’s decision to relax the former 10-day self-isolation guideline that infected people were supposed to observe.

Federal government opens portal for free COVID-19 tests tomorrow

Starting tomorrow, the federal government will open its web portal to allow you to order free COVID-19 tests. Nobody will be surprised when the crush of people who go onto the site rivals a rush to buy Adele concert tickets.

The website promises, “Every home in the U.S. can soon order 4 free at-⁠home COVID-⁠19 tests. The tests will be completely free—there are no shipping costs and you don’t need to enter a credit card number.” The Department of Health and Human services promised a phone number that people who do not have internet access can call, but that number is not yet available. HHS says tests are expected to ship within seven to 12 days of being ordered. The U.S. Postal Service will handle the shipping.

This means, best case, after you order your tests — if you can — it will be at least a couple of weeks before you get them and, depending on where you live, the worst of the omicron outbreak may have peaked by then.

There is no one brand of tests. The government bought 420 million Food and Drug Administration-approved test kits.

People are going to have a ton of questions about this. Journalists have to stay alert to scams. You just know somebody will try to hoard tests and offer them fraudulently somehow. It would also be helpful if you spend some time explaining how to make the best use of these kits, when to use them and how to correctly apply the swabs. Explain why some experts say it may be useful to swab the throat and not just the nose. And explain that one negative test may not be enough since people may not show up as positive if they are infected but take the test too early. Experts say people who are symptomatic should test “right away.”

I hope the website performs well on Wednesday but the last comparable national website signup attempt that comes to my mind was when the feds launched the Affordable Care Act website back in 2013 and it collapsed when 2.8 million people tried to use it. Maybe nine years later we will be better at this.

Remind people that starting this week, insured people should be able to buy test kits and have their insurance cover the cost. But some insurance companies say it may be a while before they have the instant approval up and running so you may have to pay and then try to get reimbursed.

Trash piles up as sanitation workers call in sick

A woman walks past trash that is sitting out for collection in Philadelphia, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. The omicron variant is sickening so many sanitation workers around the U.S. that waste collection in Philadelphia and other cities has been delayed or suspended. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

I am seeing stories around the country of trash piling up and cities calling off recycling efforts because so many sanitation workers are off the job due to COVID-19. The Associated Press reports:

The slowdowns have caused recycling bins full of Christmas gift boxes and wrapping paper to languish on Nashville curbs, trash bags to pile up on Philadelphia streets, and uncollected yard waste — grass clippings, leaves, branches — to block sidewalks in Atlanta.

“It’s just a shame,” said Madelyn Rubin, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where officials have halted recycling.

“You know that they could find the money to do it if they wanted to,” she said. “If it was a business that wanted to come in here, they would dump money in to make it happen.”

Cities including Atlanta, Nashville and Louisville are so shorthanded they have temporarily stopped collecting things like recyclable bottles, cans, paper and plastic, yard waste or oversized junk to focus on the grosser, smellier stuff.

Waste Dive, a publication that covers the solid waste industry, keeps track of local media coverage of that industry and compiled links to local news stories. Here is a roundup:

Atlanta: Public Works Commissioner Al Wiggins Jr. said last week that COVID-19 was impacting half of the department’s workforce, and the city was working with temp agencies to bring in up to 50 new workers this week. In surrounding Gwinnett County, Republic Services has temporarily suspended recycling, bulky and yard waste pickup, telling customers that about 20% of its workforce is quarantining. (WSB-TV, CBS46, Gwinnett Daily Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Detroit: COVID-19-related staffing issues are resulting in one- to two-day trash and recycling pickup delays for residents on the West side of Detroit. (ClickOnDetroit)

Louisville: Due to a “drastic staffing shortage,” the Kentucky city’s public works department is suspending curbside yard waste collection until further notice. (WDRB)

Miami and South Florida: Miami-Dade County’s Department of Solid Waste Management last week warned residents of delays to waste collection stemming from “higher than normal employee absences due to the recent rapid spread of COVID.” (News Release, South Florida Sun Sentinel, TCPalm)

Minneapolis and St. Paul: Some residents in Minnesota’s Twin Cities region, served by Waste Management, are facing trash and recycling pickup delays amid a COVID-19 outbreak among drivers. (FOX 9 KMSP)

New Jersey: Solterra Recycling Solutions’ workforce is “severely impacted by COVID” and is warning its customers across Middlesex, Monmouth and Mercer counties that pickup schedules may be delayed. The company says it has reached out to subcontractors for assistance in the coming weeks. (centraljersey.com)

New Orleans: After a months-long hiatus from curbside recycling following Hurricane Ida, the city was planning to restart service in some areas on the first Monday of the new year. That restart was pushed back after more than 30% of drivers being unable to work. (NOLA.com, News Release)

New York City: Department of Sanitation Commissioner Edward Grayson said Monday the agency has recently been seeing 20% to 25% of workers call out sick, which it’s been combating by expanding shifts and canceling days off. (PIX11)

Philadelphia: The Streets Department warned collection delays will continue in the coming weeks as COVID-19 infections and quarantines affect its workforce. (Streets Department)

Tempe: The Arizona city is telling residents they may experience late trash, recycling or organics pickups as illness-driven absences compound existing staffing challenges. (FOX 10 Phoenix)

Texas: Recycling pickup routes in Dallas may function at least a day behind schedule the next few weeks, according to city sanitation officials, citing worker COVID-19 infections. In the Houston area, the Waste Management-serviced Woodlands Township is forecasting trash and recycling pickup delays that could extend into this week due to staff shortages. Meanwhile, Community Waste Disposal, which serves nearly 30 North Texas cities, said garbage pickup is delayed by one or two days in some areas as COVID-19 infections limit its workforce. (The Dallas Morning News, Community Impact Newspaper, NBC DFW)

The Solid Waste Association of North America wrote a letter to the City of Baltimore that says:

Just in the past few weeks, collection delays and/or suspensions of certain collection services (e.g., recycling, yard waste) has been reported in Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, New York City, Philadelphia and much of south Florida. According to Waste Dive, a leading solid waste trade publication, “unlike previous case surges, which were more regional, this latest wave has been felt across the country.”

SWANA CEO David Biderman noted in an email this week that some sanitation departments are reporting up to a 25% absentee rate. He said, “The current thinking is that omicron will decline rapidly starting in late January, and if that is correct, we expect operational changes to be temporary.”

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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