March 21, 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.

If Congress does not pass a bill that pays for monoclonal antibodies this week, the White House says it will have to cut back shipments of the treatments to states by 30%. The federal government bought 20 million treatments of Paxlovid. Go here to see how much your state got in the last shipment. It was the smallest shipment in several weeks.

Over the weekend, Dr. Anthony Fauci said based on the spread of the BA.2 variant of the virus in Europe, we can expect COVID-19 cases to rise in the U.S. in the next few weeks. At best, he said, the long decline in new cases will flatten out. As The Atlantic points out, “Experts predict that the new BA.2 subvariant could be the dominant strain in the United States in a matter of weeks.” NPR quotes a White House warning from a letter to lawmakers on Tuesday that the country risks being “blindsided” by future variants, which could happen if we stop or slow the testing that would alert us of an emerging threat. The New York Times points out:

While most states still report each weekday, more than a dozen have cut back to once or twice a week, according to a New York Times database. Arizona, Hawaii, Kentucky, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Carolina have moved to weekly reports, as has the District of Columbia. Wyoming has moved to twice-a-week reports. More reductions are expected to come, public health officials have said.

Nationally, the declines in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths are tapering off, and some experts are concerned that the drop in reporting could create blind spots if the pandemic begins a resurgence.

Even as Fauci and others warn that some level of new infections is heading in our direction, states are closing their COVID-19 testing sites, just as they did before the omicron surge in 2021.

Health officials keep playing down the chances of a new outbreak in the United States, but the data they used to rely on is not so reassuring. For example, USF epidemiologist Jason Salemi compared March 17 community-level data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new and old map displays to tell us how concerned we should be. They look like two different places and times:

(CDC/Jason Salemi)

The Biden administration is sending out signals that, within the next week and a half, it needs Congress to approve new funding for vaccines if the shots are going to be ready to be administered in the fall. We do not know for certain if there will be a need for booster shots then, but the administration says if there is, we have to get moving now to be ready.  Republicans say there is no need for new spending. They want to know more about how previously approved budget lines have been spent.

In Europe, some places that tried to relax regulations are reversing course. Austria recently relaxed its mask mandates. Now, masks are required again.

Despite the pandemic, prison populations rose in 19 states

When the pandemic began, prisons and jails aggressively reduced their populations to try to limit the spread of the virus. The Vera Institute’s newest survey shows not only did the reduction not last, 19 states now have a bigger prison population than before the pandemic. Vera reports:

This report shows that the total number of people in prisons declined by a mere 1.1 percent between the end of 2020 and the end of 2021. All states and the federal prison system reduced their prison populations in 2020, but 19 states and the federal government increased the number of people incarcerated in prisons in 2021.


New Jersey has reduced its prison population by 32.9 percent since December 2019, in large part due to a law passed in 2020 allowing most people in state prison to earn public health credits during a declared public health emergency.

This law led to more than 5,300 people being granted early release since November 2020. Initial evidence indicates that this did not harm public safety, and recidivism after the first year was lower than usual for New Jersey.

Two states with large declines in their prison populations in 2020 had the largest increases in 2021.

  • North Dakota’s prison population declined 21.9 percent in 2020 but increased 20.6 percent in 2021.
  • West Virginia’s prison population declined 43.6 percent in 2020, then grew 12.9 percent in 2021.

Other states continued to build on prison population reductions from 2020, with

  • New York declining 20.8 percent in 2020 and then a further 10.8 percent in 2021, and
  • Washington state declining 18.4 percent in 2020 and 14 percent in 2021.

$1.5 billion in police misconduct settlements — see data for your city

The Washington Post compiled a new database showing 40,000 payments made in 25 of the nation’s biggest cities because of police misconduct claims over the last decade.

The investigation for the first time identifies the officers behind the payments. Data were assembled from public records filed with the financial and police departments in each city or county and excluded payments less than $1,000. Court records were gathered for the claims that led to federal or local lawsuits. The total amounts further confirm the broad costs associated with police misconduct, as reported last year by FiveThirtyEight and the Marshall Project.

The Post found that more than 1,200 officers in the departments surveyed had been the subject of at least five payments. More than 200 had 10 or more.

You can search the data by city and even by individual officers in those cities. The displays for each looks like this:

(The Washington Post)

(The Washington Post)

COVID has been detected in 29 species

Over the last two years, I have told you about cases of COVID-19 that have moved beyond humans to big zoo cats, ferrets, mink, deer and housecats. But Medical Xpress’ new report surprised me by saying 29 species have tested positive over the last two years.

Scientists have now found the coronavirus in 29 kinds of animals, a list that has been steadily growing almost since the start of the pandemic and includes cats, dogs, ferrets, hamsters, tigers, mice, otters, and hippos. In most cases, the animals have not been shown to transmit the virus back to humans.

But in at least two cases, it looks as if they can. Minks have spread the virus to people, and in a new Canadian study, scientists identified one person who tested positive after unspecified “close contact” with infected white-tailed deer.

Here’s why this matters. When a virus moves from one species to another, it is an opportunity for it to mutate. If the virus then infects a human, that now mutated virus may be more infectious than the previous version. Vaccinations might not be effective against a highly mutated version. The key is to keep testing, keep sequencing and stay alert to new threats before they become pandemics.

Smoking among adults reaches lowest point in 57 years

A man holds a lit cigarette while smoking in San Francisco, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

A new CDC survey of cigarette smokers in the U.S. says, “In 2020, 12.5% of U.S. adults aged ≥18 years smoked cigarettes, the lowest prevalence since data became available starting in 1965.” The survey says people living in rural areas smoke more, and that tobacco companies have targeted poorer areas of the country with advertising.

The number of people who use e-cigarettes is significant but a fraction of the number of people who smoke cigarettes. The CDC reports:

Cigarettes were the most commonly used tobacco product (12.5%; 30.8 million). Prevalence of use and estimated number of users of other tobacco products in 2020 was as follows:

  • e-cigarettes (3.7%; 9.1 million)
  • cigars (3.5%; 8.6 million)
  • smokeless tobacco (2.3%; 5.7 million)
  • and pipes (1.1%; 2.6 million)

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.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
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

More News

Back to News