October 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.

A new story from NPR points to two international studies that question whether open public schools present the coronavirus danger we once thought. Here are a couple of paragraphs that may surprise you:

Despite widespread concerns, two new international studies show no consistent relationship between in-person K-12 schooling and the spread of the coronavirus. And a third study from the United States shows no elevated risk to childcare workers who stayed on the job.

Combined with anecdotal reports from a number of U.S. states where schools are open, as well as a crowdsourced dashboard of around 2,000 U.S. schools, some medical experts are saying it’s time to shift the discussion from the risks of opening K-12 schools to the risks of keeping them closed.

One of the papers comes from Spain. The country is a coronavirus hot spot right now but, as the paper points out, the second wave of the virus there started before school reopened this fall. What happened next is both confusing and concerning.

In some areas of Spain, once schools reopened, COVID-19 cases dropped. In others, it stayed the same. But, the researchers said, they did not find anywhere where cases rose after schools reopened.

“What we found is that the school (being opened) makes absolutely no difference,” Enric Álvarez at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya told NPR. And Spain does a lot of contract tracing so it should be able to tell if any virus cases were connected to schools.

Another study looked at virus cases after schools reopened in 191 countries and, like the study from Spain, found no clear pattern that follows schools opening or closing. As the author put it, “It’s not that closing schools leads to a decrease in cases, or that opening schools leads to a surge in cases.”

Even in the U.S., data from the Infectious Diseases Society of America does not point at schools as “superspreaders.”

There are lots of reasons that schools may be safer than health experts feared. Wendy Armstrong, professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine told Government Technology:

Early in the pandemic it was thought that young, school-age children wouldn’t be able to comply with wearing a mask. “We were wrong,” she said. “Young children are willingly wearing masks and do it proudly.”

They do it with a sense of community, and it is the community that is so important to mitigating the virus on K-12 campuses. “Schools exist as a microcosm of their communities,” Armstrong said. Areas with high community spread, certainly with rates greater than 10 per 100,000, probably should think carefully about reopening schools.”

Of course, there is no national accounting of how many schools report COVID-19 cases. The most cited unofficial site, the COVID-19 School Response Dashboard, uses crowdsourced data from 1,273 schools in 47 states. The dashboard shows the fairly extensive strategies that schools nationwide are using.

(COVID-19 School Response Dashboard)

Of the 50 largest school systems in the country, half are open and 11 more are about to reopen to in-person teaching, according to a survey by The Washington Post. Some systems are reopening classes for the youngest kids first because they say it is more difficult for little kids to learn online.

It is interesting that so far, reopening schools has not had much of a direct link to outbreaks.

The Post story says:

A tracking project run out of Brown University, which includes data through early October from more than 1,200 schools, finds fewer than 1 percent of students and staff had confirmed coronavirus infections.

In Texas, which ordered schools to open, the Department of State Health Services reported nearly 2,000 students with newly confirmed cases for the week ending Oct. 11. That was a tiny fraction — well under 1 percent — of the 2.1 million students attending school in person. Among school staff, too, just a fraction of a percent reported infections.

And in New York City, the school system reported conducting more than 16,000 tests last week, with 28 people testing positive for the coronavirus — 20 staff members and eight students. That was just 0.17 percent of the total.

Data in other states is less clear because districts are not required to report cases. But overall, experts say, infection rates are lower than in the larger community.

It’s not entirely clear why, but experts say factors include mitigation strategies used by many schools, such as required masks and social distancing in the buildings, as well as children’s lower infection rates overall.

The Chicago Tribune says that just as some schools reopen, a new virus surge shuts them right back down again, which raises the question of whether that disruption is worse than just staying virtual until vaccines are available and the cases subside longer-term.

In Boston, the city is closing all in-person classes beginning today until COVID-19 cases decline again.

The CDC redefines ‘close contact’

On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention redefined what it means by “close contact.”

The CDC used to consider 15 minutes of close exposure (within six feet) to an infected person as dangerous close contact. But now the CDC says close contact does not have to be for 15 minutes nonstop, and instead could be shorter encounters with an infected person that add up to 15 minutes of contact over 24 hours.

So, you are just as much at risk if you have frequent short contacts with an infected person, like at a water cooler or coffee break room, as you are one longer encounter on a subway.

The new guidance reflects findings from Vermont, where researchers tell the story of a young prison worker who had had 22 interactions with a number of incarcerated people that totaled 17 minutes over an eight-hour shift.  Six of the people he had contact with had been transferred to this prison on July 28 from out of state. The prisoners were held in quarantine while their COVID-19 test results were pending. None had obvious COVID-19 symptoms, but all six tested positive for the coronavirus.
On Aug. 4, the corrections employee — who had been wearing a mask, face shield and gloves with every encounter — came down with COVID-19 symptoms and then tested positive. A CDC report said the correctional officer had no other known contact with an infected person, the positive rate in the surrounding area was low and that he was most likely infected by his multiple short contacts with a number of infected incarcerated people. Those short, multiple contacts that added up to 17 minutes a day seems to have been enough to expose and infect the guard.

A used pickup truck shortage

As a pickup owner, I am not the least bit surprised the rest of you are waking up to the wisdom of this lifestyle. But as I gloat, a national shortage of used trucks is so great that buyers are willing to drive hundreds of miles to find what they want.

If you decide to buy new, you will pay a premium price because inventories are low.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau says that where there is a hot market there is an opportunity for thieves. Almost inevitably, pickup truck thefts will rise and, already, two of the top five vehicles on the car theft list are pickups.

HotCars.com says there are some good reasons thieves love to steal pickup trucks:

Most thieves love to target pickup trucks that were built before 2007. This is because in 2007 most cars started being fitted with more advanced anti-theft systems that made it harder for criminals to steal them.

One example is their ignition systems. Car manufacturers started making ignition systems that were activated with a key chip, this feature made it harder for potential thieves to manipulate the ignition system without the car key.

Other anti-theft systems such as trackers and electronic mobilizers also became more popular in the early 2000s, making life even harder for carjackers.

Plus, pickup trucks are easier to strip for parts than cars, and there is a big demand for pickup truck parts. And, HotCars reports:

Tailgates and wheels are the most common stolen parts in pickup trucks. Chop shops prefer tailgates because they are the most commonly damaged part of any car so they are in high demand. Wheels also fetch a high price in the black market, a Chevy dealership lost 124 wheels after they were stolen by two thieves.

I had a 1975 Ford Pinto with 200,000 miles on it. The door locks didn’t work. Not one time did anybody ever try to steal that car.

Did I mention that half of America is in a drought?

45% of the area covering the lower 48 states is in a drought right now. A new forecast says it will get worse in the South and Southwest this winter.  The Climate Prediction Center released the winter maps:

By the way, September 2020 was the warmest September on record and 2020 will almost certainly be the warmest year ever recorded. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it will for sure be in the top five highest years, but experts say they are about 75% sure it will be the warmest.

The Halloween candy power ranking

FiveThirtyEight is here to help you deliver the most popular Halloween candy:

So we devised an experiment: Pit dozens of fun-sized candy varietals against one another, and let the wisdom of the crowd decide which one was best.

This is more than a popularity poll. It is a head-to-head dual decided by, well we don’t know who decided the results, but there were a bunch of people at more than 8,000 IP addresses so don’t question the results. It’s solid-ish.

(FiveThirtyEight)

(FiveThirtyEight)

Speaking for the children, if you are considering the candy at the bottom of this list, just don’t. It will harm your reputation. Just turn out your lights or put a quarantine sign on your door and sit this one out.

Our first year in Florida, one of my kids came home with a SlimFast bar. That made an impression.

Correction: In the item about the CDC redefining “close contact,” the guard was infected by the prisoners, not the other way around. We have updated the article and regret the error. 

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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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