September 22, 2020

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.

Why the CDC’s Monday COVID guidance retreat matters

On Friday, the CDC updated its website, saying it is possible for COVID-19 to spread through small air particles and somebody who is more than six feet away could be exposed to it.

The Friday guidance shined a light on the importance of ventilation — and with the approach of fall and winter, people tend to gather indoors more, so social distancing could become even more important. The update raised new concerns that the evidence could lead to recommendations that restaurants, bars and other places might need to expand their social distancing policies.

But hardly anybody even spotted the change until CNN reported it on Sunday.

On Monday, the CDC took down the web post and said it was all a big mistake — that the Friday post was a “draft version” and “CDC is currently updating its recommendations regarding airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2.” The CDC said it had mistakenly published guidance that said the coronavirus might linger in the air, maybe for some time.

But note: In pulling back the guidance, the CDC said its publication was premature — not that it was wrong.

If this guidance re-emerges, and significant scientists say it should, it could launch big changes in the way we think about COVID safety as we move indoors for the winter.

And the CDC indicated it could all change again: “Once this process has been completed, the update language will be posted.”

Here’s the timeline:

The old guidance: The CDC’s guidance, as it stood Thursday of last week, was that COVID was mainly spread person to person, by people who were in close contact with each other.

The Friday guidance: The CDC said new science showed that particles may hang in the air for a while, so if somebody spewed the virus into the air and somebody else was more than six feet away, but maybe walked through the air where the particles hung, the person who was more than six feet away could still be infected. Imagine walking down a shopping aisle or through a restaurant where you did not come within six feet of anyone but were still infected.

The new wording said on Friday, “There is growing evidence that droplets and airborne particles can remain suspended in the air and be breathed in by others, and travel distances beyond six feet (for example, during choir practice, in restaurants, or in fitness classes). In general, indoor environments without good ventilation increase this risk.”

The new old guidance: We are back to the six-foot guidance with the possibility of new language in the future that could come back to the Friday guidance.

You can add the World Health Organization to the list of groups who were mystified by the CDC’s Friday post. The WHO said it contacted the CDC to find out about this “new evidence” that the CDC said it had that COVID-19 can hang in the air.

This is the second big flip-flop by the CDC in a month. It changed its recommendations to say that if you are not showing coronavirus symptoms, there is no reason for you to get a COVID-19 test. Then, the CDC changed direction and went back to its recommendation that if you have been in close proximity to an infected person you should get tested, even if you have no symptoms.

But why does all of this matter? The most obvious answer is that it undercuts the CDC’s reputation and raises suspicions that the CDC might be responding to political winds. But there is also a scientific matter at stake. This matter of whether the virus can spread by suspending in the air is a critically important one. The CDC’s briefly revised guidance was in line with the suspicion that just talking or even just exhaling could send virus droplets into the air. Our current understanding is that it takes a more forceful exhale like sneezes or coughs or singing to send the infected droplets in the air and that mainly, the virus is passed person to person.

But the CDC’s short-lived guidance was in line with what some health scientists have claimed, that the virus can linger in the air and just staying six feet away from an infected person is not enough to stay safe.

In July, a briefing published by the World Health Organization opened the door to the possibility of airborne virus. The WHO published an advisory about aerosol transmission July 9:

There have been reported outbreaks of COVID-19 in some closed settings, such as restaurants, nightclubs, places of worship or places of work where people may be shouting, talking, or singing. In these outbreaks, aerosol transmission, particularly in these indoor locations where there are crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces where infected persons spend long periods of time with others, cannot be ruled out. More studies are urgently needed to investigate such instances and assess their significance for transmission of COVID-19.

There is a long history of debates about how various viruses in our history get transmitted. University of Colorado researcher Jose-Louis Jimenez pointed out this summer in a Time essay that tuberculosis, like COVID, was first thought to only be transmitted person-to-person and via “fomites,” objects that are contaminated with the virus. Then scientists discovered that “tuberculosis can only be transmitted through aerosols.” He wrote, “I believe that we have been making a similar mistake for COVID-19.”

The CDC’s weekend advisory and now, change, is not insignificant. If it is reinstated, and it could be, it would mean that the CDC’s research shows the virus can linger in the air, maybe for minutes, maybe for hours. If that is true, we will need to shift into a whole new gear to address ventilation systems, a change that will make mask wearing seem cheap and easy.

Spread of COVID from daycares

Before I leave the CDC news, I wanted to point you to one other CDC study that just came out. It is focused on two daycares in Salt Lake City. Contact tracers found that 12 children got COVID-19 then took it home and inflected at least a dozen parents and siblings. The study points to the fact that children who show no symptoms can and do spread the virus. The study also spoke to the difficulty of controlling COVID in daycares where children are too young to wear masks.

Farmers to get stimulus money right away

While a stimulus plan that might help you pay your rent or mortgage is stuck in Congress with little chance of becoming unstuck, there’s $14 billion in stimulus payments that farmers can apply for right now. The USDA said Monday, “There is a payment limitation of $250,000 per person or entity for all commodities combined.” Make no mistake, this will be a big deal in rural areas.

It is not a new allocation; it has roots in the March stimulus package.

Farmers who raise everything from peanuts to corn to soybeans will be seeing payments. In some cases, they’ll be assisted based on losses suffered during the pandemic and in other cases they will be paid a flat rate. Poultry and egg farmers will get payments based on their income last year. Livestock farmers raising pigs, cattle, lambs and other animals will get payments based on inventory. Other “specialty crops,” including tobacco, shrubs, flower and animal products such as wool, also will be paid based on 2019 sales. The detailed method to calculate the payments is a bit complex.

The Trump administration has showered the agriculture world with payments in 2020. Politico calculated:

Direct farm aid has climbed each year of Trump’s presidency, from $11.5 billion in 2017 to more than $32 billion this year — an all-time high, with potentially far more funding still to come in 2020, amounting to about two-thirds of the cost of the entire Department of Housing and Urban Development and more than the Agriculture Department’s $24 billion discretionary budget, according to a POLITICO analysis. But lawmakers have taken a largely hands-off approach, letting the department decide who gets the money and how much.

The spending surge began in mid-2018 when USDA started writing checks to farmers and ranchers to pay for the damage from Trump’s trade war, which brought about higher tariffs that crushed agricultural exports and commodity prices. Farm sales to China plummeted from $19.5 billion in 2017 to just $9 billion the next year; as producers continued to hemorrhage profits in 2019, farm bankruptcies jumped nearly 20 percent last year.

Car thefts up in pandemic?

I cannot say with authority that car thefts are up nationwide, but I can say I am seeing stories that indicate a rising tide of them.

Westchester County, New York, for example, said it may have a 60% increase this year.

In Bakersfield, California, “In April auto thefts spiked, up 76% from the same month last year.”

Johnson County, Kansas, reports a big uptick so far this year.

Police in Marion, Iowa, say the auto theft increase seems to be related to people leaving cars unlocked.

WUSA TV reports that so-called “jump-in” car thefts are up nearly 400% in Prince George’s County, Maryland, (outside of D.C.) during 2020.

Police said so far this year, victims have reported 286 of these “jump-in” car thefts, just in Prince George’s County. That’s up a startling 362% from the same time in 2019. They said it can happen outside a business or a home. Detectives said they locate only about half the stolen cars.

My friend Jim Sweeney, who has a great nose for news tips, sent me a note wondering if there is a COVID connection:

I’m wondering if more food deliveries and takeout during the pandemic are causing more car thefts. I know people left cars with the key in the ignition or even running before, but I’ve noticed a pattern in the police blotter for Bethesda Magazine’s website. I have repeatedly seen incidents where a car was left running. I know this isn’t a statistically valid sample, but in the latest edition, I looked at downtown Silver Spring, an area I know well as I worked there for 2 jobs over 7 years. I double-checked the addresses on Google Maps and they’re all in the downtown commercial district, with restaurants and high-rise apartment buildings at each address:

Silver Spring area vehicle thefts:

  • A vehicle was taken in the 1000 block of Bonifant Street around 7:15 p.m. on Aug. 31. The vehicle was reportedly left unlocked and running. It was recovered the same day.

  • A vehicle was taken in the 8000 block of Blair Mill Way around 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 1. The vehicle was reportedly left unlocked and running.

  • A vehicle was taken in the 8400 block of Georgia Avenue around 7:44 p.m. on Sept. 4. The vehicle was reportedly left unlocked and running.

  • A vehicle was taken in the 1200 block of East West Highway at 7:55 p.m. on Sept. 5. The vehicle was reportedly left unlocked and running.

Jim’s question is whether you are seeing cars being stolen from food delivery workers who jump out of their cars and leave them running. I have looked around to see if I can find any data on this and I have not, but you should be able to nail down what is happening locally. Every winter police remind us that leaving a car running while you dash into a store, for example, is illegal. Half of all drivers questioned admit they leave cars running in the winter to defrost the windows.

The way we work now

In recent months, some protestors have taken to shining lasers and flashlights into journalists’ camera lens, but this time it was a cop.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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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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