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.
Halfway through 2022, is the United States’ national plan to just give up and accept that everyone will get infected with COVID-19 over and over?
I know more people who have COVID-19 infections now than I did at the height of the pandemic a year or two ago. None, fortunately, are deathly ill, thanks to vaccines. Virtually every newsroom I talk with lately has some COVID-19 cases.
The map below shows how we start the week, with virtually the entire county in red on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s transmission map. It shows 87% of U.S. counties are at a high level and 95% of U.S. counties are at a “substantial” or higher level of COVID-19 transmission.
And yet news coverage is thin, and we seem determined to keep the pandemic running for another year. If we get a new vaccine targeted toward omicron variants, there is no assurance it will be effective against a quickly changing virus. And new studies just published in Lancet question whether booster after booster will offer the protection you would expect, especially for people who are considered high risk.
Know this: BA.5, which is moving across the globe as the new predominant variant, is severe. In Italy, for example, hospitals report they are increasingly having to use ventilators again to save patients. So far, in the U.S., where cases are rising, severe illness and hospitalizations are stable and well below the worst days of the pandemic with pockets of rising cases.
The newest wave of COVID infections and reinfections, fueled by more transmissible subvariants of the Omicron strain including BA.4 and BA.5, continues to grow across the U.S. As countless Americans gather(ed) over the July 4 holiday weekend, it’s entirely possible that there are more new daily infections happening in the country than at any other point in the pandemic other than the Omicron wave. And as the worrisome BA.5 subvariant rapidly rises to what will likely be global dominance, the U.S. isn’t the only country experiencing a surge.
Last week, the U.S. test positivity rate — which is now a more reliable indicator of case surges than official case counts — reached a seven-day average of over 15 percent for the first time since February 3.
Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, tweeted this weekend:
The danger of transmission is not just that people will get sick. Every new infection is an opportunity for the virus to evolve. COVID-19 needs a host to live in and find new ways to survive. Even if the host does not get deathly ill, they keep giving the virus a fighting chance to keep infecting. Intelligencer explains:
Against these new subvariants, vaccines and prior infection are proving less and less effective at preventing infections and reinfections. They also appear to be at least somewhat less effective at preventing hospitalizations as the coronavirus evolves — particularly among the many un- and under-boosted seniors. A big wave of cases will be at best disruptive, will increase the risk of a lot more people developing long COVID, and will give SARS-CoV-2 many more opportunities to evolve. The impact of multiple COVID reinfections, which many Americans already have or soon will experience, remains unclear. Most importantly, BA.5 may be the worst COVID variant yet.
Its unique mutations make it the best equipped major variant to date at avoiding antibodies, which means it can likely reinfect people who recently had other Omicron subvariants. There is still a lot that scientists don’t know about the strain, and the threat of other even worse variants emerging remains very real. (BA.2.75, an Omicron subvariant recently detected in India, is the newest one to rapidly attract scientists’ attention.)
‘Significant (COVID) transmission ahead’ — health warning
Los Angeles County Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer warns, “All of the information to date points to the need for us to prepare for the likelihood of significant transmission in the upcoming weeks.” In Los Angeles County, new case numbers are rising day after day.
The elevated daily test positivity rate “likely represents the higher rate of transmission that’s associated with the highly-infectious Covid sub variants and also the decline in routine testing at schools,” which was much more comprehensive than in the community-at-large and so included many who wouldn’t normally be tested.
The 7-day average number of new Covid-related hospitalizations is now 109 per day. Ferrer called that “a stunning increase” from the 84 new cases per day reported last week. Today’s new hospitalizations average is also 78% higher than what it was just a month ago.
There is now concern again about increasing stress on the healthcare system.
The raw number of Covid-related new cases at area hospitals has risen to what’s effectively a four-month high (since February 3) at 808.
Virtually all of the West Coast looks like Florida, listed as “high risk.”
IRE and journalism conferences
Investigative Reporters and Editors sent out a note to all of us who attended the conference a week and a half ago in Denver to say:
We have had about 48 people report testing positive, most of them after the conference ended Sunday. That is a low number considering we had more than 1,400 people attending the conference in person and other conferences were going on at the same time as ours at the Gaylord Rockies.
I can tell you that most people did not wear masks, and there was a lot of close contact socializing and seating at the conference. But who knows whether the cases came from the conference as opposed to airports, Ubers, restaurants and bars, where they were loudly cheering the Stanley Cup playoff games.
Clarifying Justice Clarence Thomas’ mention of aborted fetal cells and vaccines
Some news organizations accused U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of endorsing a misunderstood claim about fetal cells being used to develop COVID-19 vaccines. The claim was part of Thomas’ dissent in an opinion involving religious objections to the vaccines.
But if you closely read what Thomas wrote, you could argue that he is not agreeing that there is a legitimate link between aborted cells and the vaccines, but that the people involved in the case the court was considering believe there is an objectionable connection. Thomas wrote:
Petitioners are 16 healthcare workers who served New York communities throughout the COVID–19 pandemic. They object on religious grounds to all available COVID–19 vaccines because they were developed using cell lines derived from aborted children.
The justice does not say if he agrees with the claim, but he does not refute it either, before going on to say he thinks the court should consider whether state laws should be allowed to require vaccinations for health care workers without offering a religious exemption.
Axios wrote, “Clarence Thomas suggests COVID vaccines are created with cells from ‘aborted children.’”
USA Today columnist Michael Stern tweeted:
Several GOP members of the Supreme Court have gone full MAGA. They are detached from truth and reality.
Clarence Thomas just wrote that Covid vaccines are developed from aborted children.https://t.co/Oh64L9lcMg
— Michael J. Stern (@MichaelJStern1) June 30, 2022
Others were factually correct but still do not point out that the citation repeated the claim from the plaintiffs.
NBC reported, “Justice Thomas cites debunked claim that Covid vaccines are made with cells from ‘aborted children.'”
Politico reported, “Clarence Thomas cites claim that Covid vaccines are ‘developed using cell lines derived from aborted children’”
Now, about those fetal cells. I have mentioned this before — but it has been a while — but since both abortions and COVID-19 are involved in this matter, it is worth exploring again. It is true that human cells are used in research for drugs of all sorts. But those cells were obtained decades ago from a 1985 voluntary abortion. As PolitiFact explained, while six Catholic bishops (out of 434) raised concerns over the vaccine’s origins, the U.S. Catholic Bishops said the vaccine’s links to abortion are “very remote”:
The vaccine is made using a modified cold virus called an adenovirus, which trains the body’s immune system to recognize the coronavirus. These adenoviruses are grown in a cell line called PER.C6, which was originally derived from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985. To create the cell line, scientists isolated a cell from the fetus and cloned it to produce cells of the same genetic makeup. After the adenovirus grows in the cells, the cells themselves are purified away, essentially removed, to create the vaccine.
To some Catholics, the vaccine’s link to abortion, however distant, raises strong moral objections.
Pfizer and Moderna use mRNA technology, which gives the body instructions to identify the virus. The companies also made use of human fetal cells to test the safety and efficacy of their vaccines. This makes their use more acceptable U.S. Catholic bishops, who said in December that “the connection is very remote from the initial evil of the abortion.”
“I believe that morally everyone must take (a) vaccine,” Pope Francis said in a Jan. 10 interview for an Italian news program. “It is the moral choice because it is about your life but also the lives of others.”
Record low number say they are proud to be American
Here is something to reflect on post-July 4. Gallup found:
While the current 38% expressing extreme pride is the historical low by four percentage points, the combined 65% reading for those who are extremely or very proud was two points lower in 2020 than it is today. The current readings are well below the trend averages of 55% extremely proud and 80% extremely or very proud.
Before 2015, no less than 55% of U.S. adults said they were extremely proud. The highest readings followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when patriotism surged in the U.S.
However, extreme national pride in the U.S. has been trending downward since 2015, falling below the majority level in 2018; it is nearly 20 points lower now than it was a decade ago.
As you read this chart, it is useful to know when the data was collected. Gallup explains:
These data are from a June 1-20 poll that was conducted after mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, claimed 31 lives, including 19 children. Bipartisan gun legislation in response to the shootings was passed shortly after the poll ended. The polling also preceded the U.S. Supreme Court’s highly anticipated and controversial ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.
Maybe this would be a good time to point you to an essay that The Atlantic just published written by Republican Sen. Mitt Romney. Here is an excerpt:
Bolstering our natural inclination toward wishful thinking are the carefully constructed, prejudice-confirming arguments from the usual gang of sophists, grifters, and truth-deniers. Watching angry commentators on cable news, I’m reminded of H. L. Mencken’s observation: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
When entire countries fail to confront serious challenges, it doesn’t end well. During the past half century, we Americans have lived in a very forgiving time, and seeing the world through rose-colored glasses had limited consequences. The climate was stable, our economy dwarfed the competition, democracy was on the rise, and our military strength made the U.S. the sole global hyperpower. Today, every one of those things has changed. If we continue to ignore the real threats we face, America will inevitably suffer serious consequences.
In the last few weeks, I have done a lot of teaching for journalists from Brazil, China, Russia, Georgia and beyond. Those conversations help me to contextualize America’s current struggles and give me deep gratitude for our press freedoms. I do not know if I call what I feel “pride” as much as I call it gratitude for our freedom to report good and bad news, and gratitude for centuries of people who fought for that freedom and defended it.
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.