November 12, 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.

400,000 U.S. COVID deaths possible by February

The Institute for Health Metrics at the University of Washington issued the newest forecast of what’s to come if Americans do not take mask wearing and social distancing more seriously.

The data indicates that if we ease health mandates, it will cost 100,000 more lives than if we are more cautious. Either way, December to February look dreary.



As if to underscore the effectiveness of those things you have read, heard and said a million times, a new CDC published study looks at what happened earlier this year in Delaware. When the state imposed stay-at-home orders, mandated masks and started contact tracing, the weeks that followed were marked by an 82% drop in COVID cases, an 88% drop in hospitalizations and a 100% drop in COVID deaths.

COVID costing college/university jobs

For many of your communities, colleges and universities are one of — if not the biggest — employer. Schools are shedding jobs, and the situation isn’t letting up — nor will it anytime soon.

The Chronicle of Higher Education tracks university employment figures:

September, the traditional start of the fall semester, saw the continuation of historic job losses at America’s colleges just as they sought some return to normalcy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Preliminary estimates suggest that a net 152,000 fewer workers were employed by America’s private (nonprofit and for-profit) and state-controlled institutions of higher education in September, compared with August, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which calculates industry-specific employee figures. The net number of workers who left the industry from February to September now sits at around 484,000.


No doubt journalists can identify with college professors and adjuncts who are looking for work right now. The job market is thin. Look at this chart from

Science included this passage:

The dismal numbers reflect anxiety about university finances amid the pandemic, says Robert Zemsky, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania who studies university finances. Big public universities, in particular, are a “total mess,” he says. “They are losing enrollment, they are losing revenue, and they don’t know what to do, so they have hiring freezes everywhere.” Even universities that are financially stable now are concerned about the future. “Everybody is sitting on their hands and nobody wants to make bets at all right now,” he says.

Halloween parties suspected in COVID outbreaks

It surprises nobody that Halloween parties are the suspected source of new COVID outbreaks on college campuses this week. Pitt, for example, is now in a “shelter-in-place” situation and big parties seem to be the events that spread the virus there.  The University of Tennessee also says off-campus Halloween gatherings added to the virus caseload. Keep these in mind as Thanksgiving approaches and people ignore warnings, but I will post them in the next item just to say we did.

CDC says bring your own Thanksgiving meal and eat outdoors

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued some new guidelines for Thanksgiving, which include two notions we have not heard before.  If you are going to invite people in for a Thanksgiving meal:

  • Tell people to bring their own meal so you do not share food, potluck style
  • Consider eating outdoors, or at least consider opening windows or somehow increasing ventilation
  • Make your gathering shorter. The longer you are exposed to an infected person, even if you are six feet away, you increase your exposure to the virus.

COVID’s connection to mental disorders

The medical journal The Lancet published a report that says patients who are diagnosed with COVID-19 are at a greater risk for developing mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression and insomnia. The study says that around 22%, or 1 in 5 patients who survived the illness, will have some of the signs of mental health issues within a few months of being infected. The study involved 62,000 people who had been diagnosed with COVID.

Jails and prisons rethinking fees for healthcare and phone calls

While we are focusing on fees, let’s look at some of the most outrageous fees of all: the fees that jails and prisons charge incarcerated people.

People being held in jails and prisons in most states have to pay for their healthcare, even during a pandemic. Thirty-eight states charge for healthcare, but some are starting to waive the medical visitation fee so as not to discourage prisoners from seeking medical care, especially preventative care. While the fees may seem low, up to about $8 a visit, that can be a week’s wages for people in prison. In recent months, most states have waived the co-pay for COVID-related healthcare behind the bars.

Since the pandemic began sweeping through jails and prisons, most facilities have severely limited visitation, which makes phone calls even more important to imprisoned people who need to contact family and legal counsel. Jail and prison phone services are notoriously expensive but during the pandemic, some jurisdictions are rethinking the high cost of phone communications.  The Marshall Project collected some examples:

  • The Federal Bureau of Prisons has made phone calls and video calls free. Access to these communication services is likely limited by facility-specific policies, lockdowns and availability of video calling equipment.
  • Shelby County, Tennessee, suspended jail visitations, but to maintain these vital connections between families, it is waiving fees for all phone calls and video communication.
  • During the month of April, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation provided free calls on three days each week. (The department is now only offering two “free calling days” per month.)
  • The Utah Department of Corrections is giving people in prison 10 free phone calls per week, with each call limited to 15 minutes. (Calls that go beyond the 15-minute limit will incur charges.)
  • Other jurisdictions have implemented cost reductions that, while better than nothing, still severely restrict contact between incarcerated people and their loved ones. Prisons in ConnecticutDelawareFlorida and Pennsylvania are offering residents even smaller numbers of free calls per week. The same is true for jails in a number of counties, including Harris County, Texas, and Montgomery County, Ohio.

The pandemic sinks fast food breakfasts

Fast food restaurants have been leaning on breakfast offers to increase sales, but the pandemic has made mornings the slowest sales time of the day now.  The Wall Street Journal reports even though overall sales have recovered some since the early days of the pandemic, morning offerings have not come back. The Food Institute reported:

IHOP, which planned to introduce a fast-casual brand called Flip’d, and Dunkin’ Brands Group recently announced plans to close hundreds of restaurants. McDonald’s Corp. and Burger King parent Restaurants Brands International have reported that sales of breakfast items remain weak.

Breakfast transactions for fast-food during one week in March were up 5% from a year earlier, according to NPD Group data reported by WSJ. However, by mid-April, after lockdown orders and a shift to remote work, breakfast transactions plummeted 54% from a year earlier, which was worse than the 42% drop for restaurant transactions overall. Breakfast transactions have since recovered, but are running 10% below last year’s levels as of the week ending Oct. 25.

Children may ‘regress’ in basic skills and potty-training during pandemic

This study is based in the United Kingdom and finds that there are three main reactions observed in children at 900 schools and childcare centers. One group of kids is doing great and benefit from more family time, but the other two are not so rosy. One group of kids in the study has seen its learning slip some and the most concerning third group includes kids who have lost their basic skills like how to use a fork or the potty.

The government report says older kids have shown that they are getting tired of reading and find it difficult re-entering in-person classes when they are allowed to.  It is all something to be aware of. Kids hate disruptions.

Obama book blitz

Next week former President Barack Obama launches his new book, so he will be on “60 Minutes” this weekend.

Pandemic plus election equals edible marijuana bubble

After the 2020 election, about a third of the U.S. will have access to legal marijuana sales. Shops selling edibles say that Biden Brownies and Trump Truffles are already selling well.

The times in which we live:

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at 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,…
Al Tompkins

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