June 5, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

We let down our collective guard and now we will pay for it. 20 states have seen increases in COVID cases in the last five days.

Globally, new cases are going up by 100,000 per day. In fact, May 30, the world recorded the most new cases on any given day since the pandemic began — 134,064.

If anything close to this trend continues, you have to wonder what the threshold will be for states and cities to reinstate stay-at-home orders and close businesses again, just as they are starting to reopen. Moreover, it is difficult to predict how people would react if governments did attempt to impose new restrictions. Journalists, I hope you will ask those questions at the daily briefings.

We don’t know yet how much of a connection there is to the nationwide protests unfolding across America. It may take a few weeks before we notice a related increase, if there is one. You also have to consider that the new cases nationwide are rising at the same time that retail and businesses are opening up. It could be a combination of factors at work.

Thursday, Florida reported the single biggest increase in new cases since the state has been keeping COVID-19 infection records. Earlier this week, Florida had its biggest one-day spike in six weeks.

The Mercury News reported California recorded 3,000 new cases in a 24-hour period twice this week. And, the Mercury News said, jails and prisons are still a key source of new cases:

Officials reported an outbreak of the disease at Avenal State Prison. News reports say that a single case at the prison, first reported on May 16, has spread to 593 inmates and more than 20 staff members.

The Avenal prison outbreak is just the latest example of where Californians appear to be most at risk for contracting COVID-19. In addition to prisons and jails, the most likely locations for repeated outbreaks are long-term care homes for the elderly, food processing plants and social gatherings, according to a public health experts and an analysis by this news organization.

Latin America and Africa, once mostly spared from COVID-19, are now hot spots, and the Middle East and Asia are also seeing worrying trends.

What is the future of nursing homes after the pandemic?

My wife is a minister and we have both, in recent years, attended to our mothers in nursing homes, so I am more than a little familiar with nursing homes and the caring, special people who work there. After 16,000 COVID-19 deaths involving nursing home patients, it is safe to say that a revolution will be necessary to change the industry’s reputation.

Forbes quoted Robert Kramer, president of the consulting firm Nexus Insights and a “long-time observer of nursing home finances,” who said, “There never will come a time when we will return to the old normal.”

Nursing home companies are suffering crippling new costs and families are moving seniors out. The Forbes story said:

Now, eight in 10 senior living executives report that residents are moving out faster than others are moving in. Consumers likely are responding to at least three trends: the risk of COVID-19 in facilities, the inability of family members to visit patients during a lockdown likely to last for months, and high costs at a time of widespread economic distress.

Some of those short-term challenges may fade over time. But some will not.

Nursing home labor costs are higher as facilities pay overtime and raise salaries to keep people coming in to work. On average, nursing aides earn $13 an hour.

Nursing homes and retirement centers are spacing patients out as part of their COVID-19 response, meaning they are using their space less efficiently, which means less profitably.

And the homes are finding that even while they socially distance patients, they have to find ways — usually more expensive ways — to keep patients from being socially isolated from family, friends and other residents.

McKnight’s Senior Living website, a site for the retirement home industry, said:

The industry is likely to see a massive ownership shakeout, the article noted, with some analysts predicting that as many as half the current operators may go out of business, unable to find the capital they need to keep going. Industry analysts disagree on whether this will result in ownership consolidation or a net decline in beds — or both.

Forbes also pointed out that nursing homes have another hurdle in front of them: lawsuits.

Unless Congress grants them some waiver of legal liability, nursing homes and assisted living facilities are facing a massive wave of lawsuits from families of residents who became sick or died. And even with a waiver, which the facilities are lobbying hard for, it is uncertain whether insurance companies will be willing to cover them for future pandemics.

Wired wondered how some nursing homes escaped being infected. Here is what they found that those facilities did right:

  • They stocked up on safety supplies like masks and protective gowns.
  • They screened everyone who walked in the door.
  • They hired more staff to clean.
  • They washed their hands nonstop.
  • They socially distanced early on.

The San Francisco Center for Jewish Living is a 9-acre senior housing complex in the Excelsior neighborhood and home to 300 elderly residents. Despite half of all California COVID-19 cases coming from nursing homes, not one case came from the center.

“Getting an early start was really the most helpful thing we did,” Peggy Cmiel, the director of clinical operations at the center, told Wired. “The doorknobs in this facility have never been more clean before.”

Airlines sound positive, are adding flights

Are airlines seeing signals that Americans are about to start flying again? Or is it just wishful thinking that they are adding domestic flights and reopening lounges?

Look at the number of flights that FlightRadar24 tracked since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and you will notice a tiny curve upward.

(FlightRadar24)

What about passengers? The Transportation Security Administration’s daily count of people who passed through security shows a steady uptick in passengers but still way, way below a year ago (see the right column on the chart below).

(Transportation Security Administration)

Delta said it is flying roughly 100 more daily flights in June versus May, including service out of its Atlanta hub and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

CNBC reported, “American Airlines said it plans to fly 55% of its domestic schedule in July, up dramatically from May when the airline flew 20% of its schedule from a year earlier.” CNBC also reported that United Airlines “is ramping up its July schedule to 25% of what it flew during the same month in 2019.”

Will movie theaters survive the shutdown?

AMC Theatres said this week it may not survive the COVID-19 shutdown. CNN Business reported:

The theater chain, which closed its theaters earlier this year, expects to have lost between $2.1 billion and $2.4 billion in the first quarter.

The company also said that its revenue fell to $941.5 million, which was down roughly 22% from $1.2 billion in the same quarter last year. This quarter, the situation has gotten substantially worse.

Even as the theaters themselves open for business, studios are delaying the release of big films that would attract customers.

I have my doubts as to whether drive-in theaters will be more than an interim patch for people who want to get out of the house but not sit next to somebody else, but here is one musician who envisions using the drive-in concept for concerts.

Forbes reported that even indoor theaters are getting creative:

Across the country, we see gigantic indoor movie cineplexes — such as the Marcus Majestic Cinema in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and Twin Creek Cinema in Bellevue, Nebraska — converting their enormous parking lots to drive-in theaters and showing outdoor double features all summer long.

But drive-ins are not just for movies these days. Earlier this month, Keith Urban became the first major artist to do a drive-in concert when he performed for a few hundred medical personnel sheltering in cars and trucks at the Stardust Drive-In Theatre in Watertown, Tennessee. Around the country, drive-in venues are hosting movie screenings, concerts, comedy nights, stunt shows, family matinees and more.

The COVID-19 damage down there

For the guys who walk around unmasked and show no concern about COVID-19, this might, you know, grab their attention. Researchers in the U.S. and China said the virus may cause damage to testicles.

The American Journal of Emergency Medicine noted that so far, the studies have not shown that the virus is passed through sexual contact.

It is important to say that the tests so far are really small and the number of cases reported is tiny. There were media reports a month or so ago that the testes area may be sort of reservoir for the virus, and that women may “clear” the virus faster because of that. But research has not confirmed that, and it may have been more media noise than science.

How to read a science paper

Just to write the little snippet above I had to read three science journal papers. Over the years I have, like many of you, learned how to move through the mundane to get to the important findings. Carl Zimmer at The New York Times has plowed through thousands of science journal papers in his time and provided some guidance on how to consume these often difficult to navigate papers:

The coronavirus pandemic now presents an extra challenge: There are far more papers than anyone could ever read. If you use a tool like Google Scholar, you may be able to zero in on some of the papers that are already getting cited by other scientists. They can provide the outlines of the past few months of scientific history — the isolation of the coronavirus, for example, the sequencing of its genome, the discovery that it spreads quickly from person to person even before symptoms emerge. Papers like these will be cited by generations of scientists yet to be born.

Most won’t, though. When you read through a scientific paper, it’s important to maintain a healthy skepticism. The ongoing flood of papers that have yet to be peer-reviewed — known as preprints — includes a lot of weak research and misleading claims. Some are withdrawn by the authors. Many will never make it into a journal. But some of them are earning sensational headlines before burning out in obscurity.

To me, key questions when evaluating studies include:

  • Who paid for the research?
  • How does this match up with what others have found?
  • How big was the sample?
  • Can the results be replicated?
  • Who reviewed the research?
  • Who published the research and what are their standards?

When I talk with a researcher I often ask, “How has this study changed the way you live your life? Or, “How has this changed how you treat patients?” If gives you an idea about whether they have personally embraced the results.

Covering homelessness from a social distance

I wanted to be sure you saw this story on Poynter by Barbara Selvin about how journalists who cover homelessness are trying to do their job even while they cannot be face-to-face with the people they cover.

The story included this passage:

Reporters covering these unhoused men, women and children face a new concern on top of their ongoing challenges, challenges both ethical (“Do I help?”) and emotional (“My heart is breaking”). In the pandemic, these journalists are asking themselves: Could the very act of reporting harm my sources? Could I infect these people, who live so precariously, with the virus?

IRE opened resources to help you report on police departments

The Investigative Reporters and Editors, God love them, opened up their member-only section to help you look deeper at your local police departments.

IRE conferences produce mountains of presentations that the group posts online for members. IRE posted a range of tipsheets and presentations on how to get started investigating police corruption, how to use data to document your stories, how to track lawsuits that cost communities millions of dollars a year and a conversation about how “covering the police beat” has changed in recent years.

Here are direct links to some of those resources:

Basic first steps to identify potential stories of police misconduct or corruption

Learn how to harness data to uncover police misconduct

Investigating police lawsuits, tracking misconduct lawsuits and settlement payments

How to write about police misconduct when disciplinary records aren’t public

After Ferguson: What’s next for reporting on policing in America? DeRay Mckesson, Oliver Laughland, Errin Haines Whack, Wesley Lowery

Covering the protest line

Let’s all give a cheer to Doug Haddix, the executive director of IRE, for opening the vaults. By the way, if I have not said it to you today, join IRE. I have been a member for years and have my membership on auto-renewal.

The way we work now


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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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