February 17, 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may issue new guidelines for mask-wearing within the next week, including new metrics that will inform whether or when masks are needed.

You might be asking why it is taking so long, since cities and states around the country are dropping mask orders one after the other. Isn’t the pandemic almost behind us?

If “behind us” means more than 2,000 people a day still are dying of COVID-19, then yes. In fact, our death rate, while falling, is still about where it was a year ago. It is difficult to see that as progress, since a year ago we had barely started delivering COVID-19 vaccinations.

(CDC)

More than 16,000 people are in hospital intensive care units with COVID-19. The CDC’s current guidelines still show practically every county in the United States has a high rate of community transmission.

(CDC)

Despite all of those realities, mask orders are falling out of favor in state after state. But schools, nursing homes, hospitals, airports and train stations all fall under different regulations. As CNN puts it:

“With the rising use of at-home tests and the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, it might be time to shift Covid-19 measurements from case counts and test positivity to metrics on serious illness and death,” Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive officer of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, told CNN.

“When you think about what the local and county health departments face in local decision-making and the metrics that are in place on current case rates and test positivity, those are community leading indicators that were defined a long time ago,” Freeman said.

The new guidelines are an attempt to make the current patchwork of guidelines more uniform and even predictable. They will be more localized than the sweeping mask orders of the past, based on the severity of the virus outbreak and how many hospitalizations a community has recorded.

A recent Harvard study said it is too soon to drop mask mandates in schools. The researchers said schools have some basic (and common sense) questions to ask before dropping masking policies:

“It is critical that communities have a conversation about their goals for in-school mitigation measures,” said Andrea Ciaranello, MD, investigator in the department of Infectious Diseases at MGH and senior author of the paper. “Do they want to prevent all in-school transmissions? Or do they want to keep the number of cases among students, staff, and families low enough that no one is likely to be hospitalized? Or do they want to minimize absences due to isolation and quarantine so students could take advantage of in-person learning, a goal which also requires keeping overall cases low? These are all valid goals, and once they are clearly articulated, we can use a systematic, mathematical approach to estimate the level of mitigation needed to meet them.”

NBC News says new guidelines will likely be in place before President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech on March 1. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, “We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing when these metrics are better and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen.” She said, “We are looking at an overview of much of our guidance — and masking in all settings will be a part of that.”

Texas AG sues to end mandatory masking on airlines

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Biden administration to try to end the mask mandate at U.S. airports, on airplanes and on other transit modes. (Read the brief here.)

The current mandates, which have been in place since February 2021, are due to expire March 18, but the deadline has been extended over and over.

Texas is becoming practiced at suing the federal government over COVID-19 mandates, including a legal battle against mandatory vaccinations for health care workers and federal contractors. The state is also suing local governments over mask requirements in schools.

Coachella and Stagecoach festivals relax restrictions

The Coachella and Stagecoach festivals will no longer be put up any COVID-related barriers to entry. They will not ask for proof of negative tests and not require masks. This is a pretty big deal as the spring and summer concert calendar rolls closer.

NBC summarizes, “Coachella will take place over two successive weekends, April 15-17 and 22-24, and will have as headliners Harry Styles, Billie Eilish and Kanye West (if the latter artist was not bluffing when he said he would “need” to get an apology from Eilish before he would make good on his contract). The headliners for Stagecoach April 29 through May 1 are Luke Combs, Carrie Underwood and Thomas Rhett.”

Countries around the world are relaxing restrictions, with some concerns, especially in Asia

The Guardian is tracking restriction developments around the world. Here are excerpts to give you an idea of the trends. Most countries are loosening restrictions, but others are still seeing spikes in new cases and deaths:

Germany will ease Covid-19 restrictions as a wave of infections from the Omicron coronavirus variant seems to have passed its peak, the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said on Wednesday, but he warned that the pandemic was not over yet.

France has reported 98,735 new coronavirus cases, Reuters reports.

Switzerland will lift almost all its coronavirus pandemic restrictions today.

Spanish sports grounds will be able to return to 100% capacity for the first time since the pandemic next month, health chiefs said.

The UK has reported 54,218 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, and a further 199 people have died within 28 days of a positive Covid test. That is an increase on the 46,186 cases reported on Tuesday but down on the 68,214 cases reported on Wednesday last week.

The number of new coronavirus cases globally fell by 19% in the last week while the number of deaths remained stable, according to the World Health Organization.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, told Hong Kong’s leaders that their “overriding mission” was to stabilize and control a worsening Covid outbreak. Infected patients lay in beds outside overwhelmed hospitals.

South Korea reported a daily record of 90,443 new coronavirus cases for Wednesday, as numbers nearly doubled within a week.

Sending vaccines to countries that can’t use them

We do not have a lot of detail for this item except that the White House said the U.S. has shipped close to a half-billion doses of vaccines to other countries and is ready to send more, but some foreign countries can’t handle the shipments. As you know, the vaccines require ultra-cold storage and have a fairly short shelf life. The White House is not naming the countries that have rejected shipments.

The very tight avocado supply ahead

Avocados are displayed in a box at Michoacán market in Mexico City, Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

The day would not be complete without you having something new to worry about, so let’s add avocados to the list of things that are about to be in short supply.

Last weekend, The U.S. Department of Agriculture suspended avocado shipments from Michoacán, Mexico. That is important because 80% of the avocados purchased in the United States are from Michoacán and, this time of year, the figure can go higher. The USDA has designated Michoacán as the only Mexican state to send avocadoes to the U.S. since 1997. When an inspector found a shipment that came from the state of Puebla heading for the U.S., the inspector stopped the shipment and said he was threatened on his official cellphone. The USDA stopped all shipments from Mexico until it could investigate.

The suspension came as avocado prices were already double the price from one year ago. The Washington Post reports:

“In a few days, the current inventory will be sold out and there will be a lack of product in almost any supermarket,” said Raul Lopez, Mexico manager of Agtools, which conducts market research of agricultural commodities. “The consumer will have very few products available, and prices will rise drastically.”

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is working with Customs and Border Protection to allow avocados that were inspected and certified for export on or before Feb. 11 to continue to be imported.

Brokers are scrambling, retailers will have shortfalls, and consumers will feel further pain at the checkout line, according to Michael Swanson, Wells Fargo’s chief agricultural economist.

The two biggest U.S. celebrations that rely on avocadoes are the Super Bowl and Cinco de Mayo. Fruit brokers say they have about six weeks to ship supplies for the latter’s celebration, so they want to get the current problems resolved fast.

In the U.S., growers in Florida and California also supply avocadoes. Each state provides around 10% of the avocadoes consumed in the U.S. Americans consume almost a million dollars’ worth of avocado toast each month. The people behind the credit card processing tool Square say they looked at their data and found the highest avocado toast consumption seems to be taking place in San Francisco, Honolulu, Nashville, and Portland, Oregon, with some places in California charging $18 a slice.

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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,…
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