February 22, 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.

COVID-19 cases are surging in both Russia and Ukraine. The Guardian reports that the virus is widespread in Ukraine, with new cases hitting pandemic records there. But within the military, while new positive tests are rising, serious illness is still fairly rare:

Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of the Ukrainian land forces, told the Guardian that from about 150,000 soldiers in his ranks, 2,400 were infected by Covid.

Testing was taking place only before special events or in the case of symptoms, he said, suggesting the real number might be much higher. Ukrainian military bases have been closed to visitors to help prevent the spread.

New COVID-19 cases in Russia (Johns Hopkins)

There is still widespread skepticism about vaccines in Russia and Ukraine, so the vaccination rate in both countries is low. But it is much higher in their militaries. 99% of Ukraine’s army is vaccinated with two doses. 95% of the Russian military is reported to have been vaccinated.  Still, Ukrainian authorities tell The Guardian that they believe that COVID-19 infections are spreading on the Russian battlefront.

Sanctions against Russia become clearer

The White House has started to unwrap the sanctions that President Joe Biden promised if Russia invades Ukraine. The Biden administration is expected to detail these sanctions today. The first sanctions will involve banning new investments, trade and financing by U.S. people and entities in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine. But the announcement today will be aimed at Russians themselves.

The United Kingdom will announce its sanctions today as well.

Severe sanctions against a country as big as Russia would have wide repercussions. It remains to be seen if Russia would respond to countries that join in the sanctions by cutting off natural gas supplies. Meanwhile, cybersecurity experts in Europe and the U.S. are bracing for cyberattacks.

You will, in the days ahead, hear references to cutting Russia off from SWIFT. Let me explain what that is, because it is a big deal.

SWIFT is short for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. This network connects 11,000 banks and financial institutions in 200 countries worldwide and allows users to message each other to move money around. SWIFT could cut the cord pretty fast, and it would make it difficult for Russia to move money around, but it would not make international trade impossible. Various Washington insiders say this might be a measure down the road but perhaps not right away.

Biden may also forbid any bank in the U.S. from doing business with anybody in Russia.

The New York Times compiled a list of other possible actions:

But the real damage to Russia’s $1.5 trillion economy would come from hitting the biggest state banks as well as the government’s Russian Direct Investment Fund, which has prominent Western executives on its advisory board. The Treasury Department would draw from its experience targeting Iranian banks under President Donald J. Trump, though Iran’s banks are much smaller and less integrated into the global economy than Russian banks.

Once the department puts the Russian banks on what officials call its “game over” sanctions list, known as the S.D.N. list, foreign entities around the world would stop doing business with the banks, which would have a big effect on Russian companies.

The United States would also enact sanctions to cut lending to Russia by foreign creditors by potentially $100 billion or more, according to Anders Aslund, an economist and an author of an Atlantic Council report on U.S. sanctions on Russia. Though Russia has taken steps since 2014 to rely less on foreign debt for expenses, such a loss could still devalue the ruble, shake the stock market and freeze bond trading, Mr. Aslund added.

COVID data reporting starting to shut down

One by one, states are ending daily COVID-19 data, going to weekly data reporting and, in some cases, ending public PCR testing and the reporting of positive tests since so many are using home tests now. Here is a roundup of some of the first states to step back from intensive data reporting.

CDC now posts wastewater monitoring online for 13 states

While COVID-19 test data falls out of favor as an indicator of overall infections, one signal that still holds promise is wastewater monitoring. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has opened a COVID-19 wastewater monitoring website that includes data from 13 states. This map gives you an idea of where the monitoring is taking place at 335 locations.

(CDC)

The sewage data comes with a few caveats. CNN explains:

It’s difficult to compare data between sewersheds because different areas use different sampling methods. Some take samples directly from the water with thin cotton swabs encased in 3-D printed submarines, while others collect and sample biosolids. Sewersheds can be very different sizes, which also complicated comparisons. The CDC’s new dashboard shows data at the ZIP code level.

This kind of testing can’t signal when a community is free from the virus because the threshold of detection — how many people have to be positive in an area to show up in a water sample — isn’t known.

As you look at the data for any community, pay the most attention to the “percent change concentration” at that site over the last 15 days. The monitoring website will also give you the number of many detections at any given site over the last 15 days — compare that to overall samples taken to get a percentage of positive cases. If you think you will begin to follow and report any local data, it might be a good idea to talk with the people who are doing the sampling to see if there are other factors you should consider since each collection site may be different.

Hospitals slammed with surgeries backed up by pandemic

I am seeing stories around the country about hospitals that are overrun, not by COVID-19 but by people whose surgeries were delayed by the pandemic. WWMT-TV reports that a Kalamazoo hospital told them, “Our operating rooms are now performing at full capacity and we are diligently working our way through backlogs. These backlogs vary by physician and speciality, but we are doing everything we can to catch up as soon as possible.”

The Cincinnati Enquirer reports:

“As of next week, we will be back to normal scheduling operations to allow for scheduling of all types of elective surgeries,” Christ Hospital spokesperson James Buechele said on Friday.

“We are reaching out to patients who experienced cancellations to reschedule them first, before we open up completely,” said St. Elizabeth Healthcare spokesperson Guy Karrick, “but yes, we are on a slow path towards reopening.”

I am seeing similar stories out of Canada, where hospitals say they are trying to catch up with thousands of backlogged “elective” surgeries.

Another study says ivermectin does not help COVID patients

A box of ivermectin is shown in a pharmacy as pharmacists work in the background, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, in Ga. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

For the better part of a year, the Food and Drug Administration and others have said there is no proof that ivermectin can be effective in preventing or treating COVID-19. But a study out of Malaysia just published by the Journal of the American Medical Association confirms prior studies by suggesting that ivermectin does not effectively prevent or treat the disease. This study is just one in a growing stack of studies saying ivermectin does not help COVID-19 patients.

The new study involved 241 high-risk patients who were infected with COVID-19 and 249 more patients who did not get the drug across 20 hospitals. The ivermectin was administered as a five-day dose. 21.6% of the COVID-19 patients who got ivermectin came down with a more severe disease compared with 17% of those who were not given ivermectin. The researchers see the numbers as not being significantly different.

The FDA approved ivermectin as a parasite treatment but not as a COVID-19 treatment. Still, state lawmakers in Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania introduced bills to prevent action against medical professionals who prescribe ivermectin.

What’s up with Iceland? Cases are spiking and restrictions end this week

Goodness sakes, I have been watching rising cases of the BA.2 omicron subvariant of COVID-19 and Iceland is racing to the front of the line. The data on hospitalizations is slow coming in but the daily case count is eye-popping.

(Johns Hopkins)

With those numbers in mind, read this from Iceland Review:

On February 25, Iceland’s authorities plan to lift all remaining domestic restrictions due to COVID-19, the country’s Health Minister Willum Þór Þórsson has stated. This includes isolation for those who test positive for COVID-19, though those who are sick will still be encouraged to stay at home. Iceland’s National University Hospital continues to experience strain, particularly due to staff shortages caused by COVID illness.

Humans may have infected tons of deer, which may reinfect humans

This is data from a preprint study, meaning it has not been peer-reviewed, so consider that. But it fits right next to what other reporting — including from wildlife biologists around the country — has found. The new report says, “White-tailed deer are infected in the United States at substantial levels, raising concerns about the formation of a new animal reservoir and potential of spill-back of new variants into humans.”

In simple terms, it means that people may have passed the virus to deer, which may keep the virus around long enough to morph and come back to humans. There are no known cases of deer passing the virus to humans, but cross-species virus infections are common.

You can almost hear the deer saying, “You started it.”

How the pandemic is harming your feet

I don’t know about you, but for a good bit of the pandemic I have wandered my house not wearing shoes or at least not wearing what my father would call “substantial” shoes.

And so, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

Foot pain has been on the rise during the pandemic, as people working from home kicked off their supportive shoes in favor of flimsy slippers and flip-flops, while others … used the time to become more active, which put new strain on their feet.

“In March 2020 I said … ‘Oh, my goodness, everyone is going to have plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendinitis,” recalled Laura Virtue-Delayo, the president of the Pennsylvania Podiatric Medical Association.

Her prediction panned out: Podiatrists, orthopedic surgeons and physical therapists say they’re seeing more cases of plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendinitis — two common foot-pain conditions — than ever before.

Virtue-Delayo, a Scranton-based podiatrist, said her caseload of foot pain patients peaked over the summer, when she was treating about 35% more people for foot pain than usual. The number of new patients with foot pain has gone down but remains above prepandemic levels, she said.

Dr. Kshitij Manchanda, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, says the most common condition his patients experienced was foot pain, either at the arch, heel or big toe. These problems can be caused by improper footwear or even by going barefoot.

The way journalists live now

This would be laughable if I did not hear it from more than one meteorologist.

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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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