July 28, 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.

Many of the computers that schools handed out at the beginning of the pandemic have gone missing. This story is unfolding coast to coast and you should check with your local school systems.

EdWeek reported:

As the coronavirus pandemic hit and public education moved online, school districts across the country rushed to give millions of students laptops, tablets, and Chromebooks, many of which had just been purchased. Now, some of those districts are scrambling to account for all those devices — a task made more urgent by the uncertainty over when students will be able to return to school buildings full-time.

How many are missing? Just take Greenville County, South Carolina, where the school system cannot find 4,000 laptops it handed out last school year. At about $300 apiece, the missing laptops are worth more than a million dollars. The (Raleigh, North Carolina) News & Observer reported:

Parents and guardians of children who failed to give their laptops back at the end of the school year have been contacted multiple times by phone, email and with visits to their homes, he said.

In a final effort to recover the machines, Greenville County Schools issued a district-wide phone message and email blast to parents late Thursday asking that any machines still out there be returned.

“We are making repeated attempts to contact families,” the message says, “but pretty soon we will have no choice but to notify law enforcement and report the missing devices as stolen so we can begin the replacement process. If your child has a school district issued Chromebook and has not received special permission to keep that device over the summer, please contact your school and return the device as soon as possible.”

In Melbourne, Florida, the school system sent 15,000 computers home with kids in a rapid switch to virtual learning and, at the moment, 2,600 are missing.

In Fulton County, Georgia, hundreds of devices sent home with students are missing. The school system said it has the ability to “brick” the devices and make them useless.

Why masks give bankers the heebie-jeebies

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency said in a June advisory that when banks require everyone to wear masks, it raises the risk of bank robberies:

Finally, lengthy and potentially permanent requirements that individuals wear face masks in many or even all public spaces create the very real risk of increases in bank robberies. Historically, banks had policies prohibiting customers from wearing masks and certain head coverings in branches for this reason. Many banks relaxed these prohibitions temporarily during the height of the COVID-19 crisis out of concern for the health and welfare of their customers. While that may have been a prudent decision when the extent of the health risk was still unknown, recent reports of face-covering-related robberies at bank branches and other establishments make clear that broadly applicable face mask requirements are not safe or sustainable on a permanent basis.

The Hill collected stories about robberies involving people wearing surgical masks early on in the pandemic, before health officials advised widespread use of them.

Robberies of banks and other retail stores by people wearing surgical masks have been reported in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Georgia. Insider found other surgical mask-wearing bandit cases in California, Washington and North Carolina.

WTOP radio talked with Bryanna Fox, a former FBI agent and associate professor at the University of South Florida’s criminology department, who said that for someone who otherwise wouldn’t commit a crime, “this could be an opportunity that they take up because they feel more protected.”

“Being anonymized has always been associated with more deviant and criminal behavior,” ranging from bank robberies to the Ku Klux Klan, she said.

The Marlins outbreak jeopardizes pro sports

Only a few days into the season and the Miami Marlins have had 14 players, coaches and staff test positive for COVID-19. Last night’s home opener was canceled.

Is this a sign that the only way to play a season is in a sequestered bubble like the NBA, where players stay and cannot leave? Will anybody put up with a team getting sick and then coming home with the virus? Axios suggested that if the MLB can’t pull this off, what is to suggest the NFL or college sports can do so? All eyes are on this first incident.

Yahoo Sports pointed out the bubble model is working in soccer and basketball:

For the past two-plus weeks, the MLS tournament taking place in a bubble in Orlando, Florida, has registered zero positive COVID-19 cases.

The latest weeklong batch of tests of NBA players participating in the season’s resumption at Florida’s Disney World resort also returned zero positives.

It only took a few days of sports action outside of a bubble for exactly that scenario to start to unfold. Even if the cost from this particular outbreak is “only” a couple of games and the health of a handful of players, MLB should seriously consider whether this outcome is inherent to the plan they implemented and effectively unavoidable if they stick by it going forward. Because people saw this coming. Playing without a bubble was a bad idea, that much was predictable.

Medical ethicist Dr. Arthur Caplan said of course the bubble model will cost jobs and will not be popular among players but, “You should hope that you can keep a job and everybody understands that, but at the same time it doesn’t mean you have to take the more stupid plan.”

The “more stupid plan” he told Yahoo Sports, “is the one that puts teams on planes and buses and into hotels and at restaurants all over the country, in and out of hot spots.”

A concern about the fake fans on MLB games

I am impressed with the fake crowd noise and now the fake fans that sports networks are using to liven up baseball games. And I want to raise a concern that these techniques will add to the conspiracy theories that what we show on TV and online is fake.

I propose that if the networks use the added video and sound, that out of every commercial break there be a reminder to viewers/listeners that there are no real fans attending the game. We should not soften the effects of the pandemic, and a starkly empty stadium keeps us in our reality. And sports reporting requires the same level of truth and accuracy as news reporting. If we add an effect, it should be clearly stated that we have done so.

Why Apple Stores seem to predict the spread of COVID-19

The Wall Street Journal put together a fascinating analysis showing that one way to know where the next big outbreak of COVID-19 is going to hit is to see what Apple Stores do. Apple has been among the first retailers to close stores in hot spot areas right before things get worse there.

(Graphic from Wall Street Journal video)

The Wall Street Journal found “Apple closed stores ahead of most retailers and Apple store closures “proved to be an early indicator of the trajectory of individual cases, other retail closures and government mandated lockdowns.”

The story said Apple does its own analysis of when to close a store using a wide range of indicators that it examines on a county level:

(Graphic from Wall Street Journal video)

Apple can close stores without imperiling the company, the story said, because its retail stores only generate about 8-10% of revenue. And the company has about $80 billion in reserves, so the Journal estimates the company could not sell a thing for an entire year and still not go broke. For that reason, it can close a store quickly if the data shows a virus hot spot in the future.

How will the government convince people to get vaccinated?

When there is a COVID-19 vaccine, the fight is not over. There will be a battle over who should get the vaccine first and how to convince enough people to take the vaccine to produce enough of a herd immunity to matter. An Associated Press poll last week found 20% of respondents said they did not plan to get a vaccine if it became available, with another 31% unsure.

CNN reported:

Convincing minority communities that have experienced higher rates of hospitalization and fatality to get vaccinated is a top concern. Experts said that will have to involve community outreach through organizations people already trust, such as faith-based organizations.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of making sure that we engage them earlier to gain their trust,” (Dr. Victor) Dzau of the National Academy of Medicine said. “There are two ways that people can look at it. One is, are we the guinea pig? Or, two, we should get it first because we are more at risk.”

CNN said the Trump administration is planning to start recording one-minute commercials next month that will include well-known health experts, celebrities, musicians and athletes that will address questions about testing and vaccine safety.

African American adults are less likely than white adults to have received the flu vaccine in the past year or to have ever received the pneumonia vaccine. But both groups mostly avoid flu shots. The latest government data found 75% of white Americans and 64% of Black Americans got the flu vaccine.

If there is no vaccine — then what?

NBC News published a story asking the essential question: “If labs do not produce a COVID-19 vaccine, what is our Plan B?”

It sobers us up to the fact that there is no guarantee that researchers will quickly produce a vaccine that can stand up to an ever-evolving virus. The story said:

Ken Frazier, CEO of the pharmaceutical giant Merck, recently warned that anyone hyping a medical breakthrough before 2021 was doing a “grave disservice to the public” given the inherent challenges of developing and administering a vaccine.

“The reality of the world is that this time next year very well may look like what we’re experiencing now,” Frazier said in an interview with Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley. “I think when we do tell people that a vaccine’s coming right away, we allow politicians to actually tell the public not to do the things that the public needs to do, like wear the damn masks,” he added.

Always look beyond initial police reports

My friend A.J. Lagoe at KARE11 in Minneapolis said out loud something many of us who have been doing this journalism thing for a while can relate to:

Confession: All too often, especially early in my reporting career, I took police press releases as statements of fact. Exhibit A in why not to do that was George Floyd — originally labeled a “medical incident.” Our latest report is on another death where a jail inmate just “collapsed” in the presence of guards and medical staff and “couldn’t be revived.” That’s what we and all the other newsrooms in town originally reported. It’s not true.


(Screenshot, KARE11)

The station now has records that prove Hardel Sherrell didn’t just “collapse.” His death followed a week of documented health problems that officials ignored and downplayed, and government investigations said the jail did nothing wrong.

Keep doing journalism that seeks the truth and reports it as fully as possible.

Eight reasons Election Day 2020 could be a disaster

Politico listed eight things that could go badly.

(Screenshot, Politico)

The story points to how difficult it will be to find poll workers, which could mean some polling places get closed or moved. It included this passage:

Those who are actually administering the election and ensuring that all votes get counted, on the other hand, are facing worrisome funding shortfalls even as they cope with increased costs, as well as technology and staffing needs amid a pandemic. And it’s not like America’s chronically underfunded election system was exactly swimming in money before COVID-19.

And this is a complication I had not considered:

Nursing homes are hardly the only ones saying, “Thanks but no thanks,” to hosting polling places; government offices, schools and churches are all saying vote elsewhere. Schools alone are where 1 in 3 Americans normally vote — and the state of the nation’s schools come November is anything but clear. Minneapolis has already announced that 50 of its 125 polling places will be moved for November.

The closure of workplaces and the move to virtual learning means that millions of Americans come November won’t be living where they thought they would be, and many are far from where they are registered to vote.

I appreciate how this story looks at a range of problematic issues while there is still time to solve them. You could, too.

Ice cream sales are up. Deodorant sales are down.

It seems like we are establishing our priorities differently in the pandemic.

Unilever says as we stay home from the office, we wash our hair less and don’t use as much deodorant.

A BBC story reported:

This week, the company said there has been a drop in demand for personal care items.

Brands like Dove soap and Axe deodorant say that lock-downs have led to a decline in sales.

At the same time, ice cream brands such as Breyer’s … Ben and Jerry’s and Magnum saw their sales increase.

Unilever said consumers are also eating more soups. … And using more meal kits and mayonnaise.

“Sales of ice cream for consumption in-home increased by 15% in the first half and by 26% in the second quarter, significantly offsetting the declines in out-of-home channels,” Unilever said.

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.

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

Looking back at a horrific week

Coverage of the police response and how politicians have responded, urgent questions about showing images, powerful late-night monologues, and more.

May 27, 2022
Back to News