April 7, 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’s expert panel of advisers on vaccines is trying to decide how often you should get a COVID-19 booster. It directed the FDA to come up with a plan for an annual booster that would provide 80% protection against severe illness and death.

The panel, called the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, or VRBPAC, made it clear that it would not be in favor of any plan that includes a booster shot every four months or so.

The panel questioned the FDA’s decision last week that tells people age 50 or older who want to get a booster four months after their last shot to go ahead. Advisory panel members said the FDA acted without enough data, relying too heavily on Israeli data.

The European Medicine Agency and European Center for Disease Prevention and Control also met on Wednesday and said it is too soon to administer second-dose boosters. The European agency looked at the same Israeli data that the FDA used. Andrea Ammon, the ECDC director, said in a video statement, “There is no clear evidence at the moment that vaccine protection against severe disease is waning substantially in adults between 60 and 79 years of age with a normal immune system, to support the need of a fourth dose.”

Trevor Bedford, who models how diseases emerge at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, told the FDA panel that we can expect a major new strain of COVID-19 as often as every year and a half. But it could be as long as a decade between major strains, he said. He warned the panel that we need a system that constantly monitors emergences of the virus.

The panel also heard a recommendation from the FDA’s Peter Marks who said that if there is a new formulation to protect against new variants, then all vaccines would need to be overhauled and not just boosters.

The trick, experts said, is that if there is to be a reformulation available by fall, the decision has to be made within a month or two. There are a number of drug trials underway, but it is not likely that they will produce enough reliable data to be the basis for a new vaccine formula by May.

Full FDA approval of Pfizer’s vaccine did not dramatically increase acceptance

How many times did we hear vaccine skeptics say they would wait until the FDA gave “full approval” to the COVID-19 vaccine before taking the shot? The vaccine initially had emergency use approval. Then, last summer, the FDA said it had enough long-term clinical evidence to give it full approval.

All of that was good news because some studies found that a third of people who had not been vaccinated said they would step up if the FDA gave full approval. But new data published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that even after full approval, the number of people who got first doses of the vaccine was 16% lower than predicted.

High-level Democrats are testing positive

Attorney General Merrick Garland takes a question from a reporter during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Wednesday, April 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

More high-level democrats have tested positive for COVID-19. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo both tested positive. Add them to the list that includes White House press secretary Jen Psaki; Jamal Simmons, the vice president’s communications director; and three Democratic members of the House: Reps. Joaquin Castro of Texas, Adam Schiff of California and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida. In March, Hillary Clinton and the vice president’s husband, Doug Emhoff, tested positive for COVID-19.

The Washington Post reports that the infections may be linked to attendance at Saturday night’s Gridiron Club event. The Post reports, “A-list guests were asked to show proof of vaccination but not negative tests, and many mingled freely without masks at the dinner at the downtown Renaissance Washington Hotel.” The story adds:

The Washington Post has learned of about a half-dozen journalists as well as members of the White House and National Security Council staffs who said they tested positive after the event. Their names are being withheld because they have not announced their status publicly.

Tom DeFrank, a contributing columnist for National Journal and president of the Gridiron Club, said that as of Wednesday afternoon, the group knew of 14 guests who had tested positive.

Why are pregnant women more vulnerable to COVID?

A new study that examined 14 million medical records found that pregnant women who are vaccinated against COVID-19 are still more than twice as likely to get infected as other vaccinated people. In fact, pregnancy is the highest of the comorbidity factors that the study found. It’s even higher than being a recent organ transplant patient which, of course, involves lowering immunity to prevent organ rejection.


The study does not offer clues as to why pregnant women are so much more likely to test positive, but one guess is that they may be tested more often because they are in contact with medical caregivers more frequently than others. So perhaps they are not so disproportionately infected, but might instead just be tested more often. One other guess is that people who are of childbearing age might also be in surroundings where they come in contact with more people than seniors, for example.

This research underscores the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s push for pregnant women to get vaccinated. The latest surveys say about 70% of women who say they are pregnant have been vaccinated.

Why do some people seem ‘unable’ to catch COVID?

We all know people who have taken next to no precautions during the pandemic and still didn’t catch COVID-19. How did that happen? Researchers would love to know, but so far all they can come up with is “dumb luck.” USA Today reports that British researchers who pay thousands of dollars to volunteers who are willing to be exposed to the virus have found that it appears a tiny portion of humans have a “genetic fluke” that makes them less susceptible to getting sick, but mostly it seems to be a matter of how much they are exposed.

Average mortgage interest is now above 5% for the first time in a decade

This headline is accurate except for a few days in 2018. This number could affect all sorts of things, including home sales. But it could also affect home prices because people who have to pay a higher interest rate on a loan might not also want to pay a sky-high price for a house.

Right on cue, the Mortgage Bankers Association reports that applications for new mortgages are down 6% from a week ago. The number of applications for refinanced loans also dropped 10% from the previous week and was 62% lower than the same week one year ago.

“As higher rates reduce the incentive to refinance, application volume dropped to its lowest level since the spring of 2019. The refinance share of all applications dipped to 38.8 percent, down from 51 percent a year ago,” said Joel Kan, MBA’s associate vice president of economic and industry forecasting.

Some experts are predicting 6% interest rates in the foreseeable future.

Analyzing 8,717 hate-filled Instagram messages to women

In a new study, the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that Instagram failed to act on 90% of abusive direct messages sent to women. This study is worth adapting locally, talking with high-profile women in your audiences who endure endless abuse online. I suspect they have similar stories.

The CCHD study included messages received by women with large Instagram followings. The report added, “Further, Instagram failed to act on 9 in 10 violent threats over DM reported using its tools and failed to act on any image-based sexual abuse within 48 hours.” The study included messages received by these women, who have a combined 4.8 million followers on Instagram:

  • Amber Heard, actress and UN Human Rights Champion
  • Rachel Riley, broadcaster and CCDH Ambassador
  • Jamie Klingler, co-founder of Reclaim These Streets
  • Bryony Gordon, award-winning journalist, and mental health campaigner
  • Sharan Dhaliwal, founder of South Asian culture magazine Burnt Roti

“New research shows that 1 in 15 Instagram Direct Messages (DMs) sent by strangers to high profile women contain content that violates Instagram’s own Community Standards,” CCDH says. “To assess the overall scale of abusive content that strangers have sent to these women via Instagram DMs, we combined the findings found in all audio, image and video messages sent to participants, all text messages sent to Klingler and Dhaliwal and a representative sample of messages sent to Riley.

This analysis of 8,720 text, audio, image, and video messages found 567 (6.5%) contained misogyny, image-based sexual abuse, other hatred and graphic violence.”

Results of a survey of 8,720 hate messages sent to high profile women on Instagram. (Center for Countering Digital Hate)

The Washington Post reports:

Instagram strongly rebutted the report.

“While we disagree with many of the CCDH’s conclusions, we do agree that the harassment of women is unacceptable. That’s why we don’t allow gender-based hate or any threat of sexual violence, and last year we announced stronger protections for female public figures,” Cindy Southworth, Facebook’s head of women’s safety, said in a statement.

Major League Baseball’s opening day is today

Members of the grounds crew roll up the tarp before baseball workouts at Nationals Park, Wednesday, April 6, 2022, in Washington. The Washington Nationals and the New York Mets are scheduled to play on opening day, Thursday. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Opening day is a good time to make bold predictions, so here is a collection.

Here are the pre-opening day power rankings, which put the Dodgers and Blue Jays at the top of the heap … for now.

There are several rules changes this year. The most often mentioned is a change to the designated hitter rule.

You may have heard that the Players Association and MLB agree to last week keep the (absurd) automatic runner rule, which starts each team with a runner on second base during extra innings for the 2022 regular season.

7,000 steps is the new 10,000

How many times have you heard that you should walk 10,000 steps? It turns out, there is scant research to back that figure up. A new study in the Lancet medical journal says the number of steps you should aim for depends on your age, sex and more. Make no mistake, the study says, walking is a good way to improve your health, but you may not have to go 10,000 steps to achieve the best results.

For example, for women aged 62 and older, there was no discernable benefit to walking more than 7,500 steps a day.

For people 40 and older, somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 steps a day produce the greatest health benefits. For younger adults, the benefits tend to round off around 9,000 steps.

But for older adults who walk 3,000 steps can reduce their mortality risk by half if they up that number to 7,000 steps a day.

Vehicles crash into buildings way more than you might think

WTOP radio turned a car crash into a real enterprise piece. The station found that vehicles crashing into restaurants and storefronts is not as rare as you might think. In fact, vehicles crash into a store or business in the U.S. somewhere 60 times a day.

In March, two people were killed and 13 were injured when vehicles were driven into two different restaurants and one storefront in three separate incidents in D.C. and Virginia.

Rob Reiter, co-founder of the Storefront Safety Council, said that many people believe that instances of drivers crashing into buildings are rare; but the data his organization has collected shows otherwise.

(Storefront Safety Council)

It is especially interesting since even after the pandemic, many restaurants are asking cities to allow them to continue serving at sidewalk tables. Safety experts say retailers are increasingly placing safety barriers outside their stores to keep shoppers safe inside their buildings.

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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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