COVID-19 cases on military bases jump

Plus, drug prices are rising because of border closures, what not traveling costs us, the argument to reopen national parks and a COVID-19 NFL helmet.

July 16, 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.

As coronavirus cases are increasing in civilian communities all around the U.S., outbreaks on military bases are jumping, too.

CNN reported:

The US military has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, with the number of confirmed cases in July growing by about 4,000, a jump of about 60%, according to Defense Department statistics.

The number of positive cases jumped by some 1,700 alone since Wednesday, prompting a return to more restrictive policies at several military installations, according to one defense official. There are currently 10,554 cases of coronavirus in the military, including forces in the U.S. and overseas, according to Pentagon officials. There have been 18,016 cases since the Pentagon started keeping track.

(Data and graphics from the U.S. Department of Defense)

The Pentagon does not provide base-by-base information but CNN’s Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne reported that military installations in Texas, Florida and California are hot spots. It shouldn’t be a surprise since members of the military often live in the communities around bases, forts and ports.

Meth, marijuana and heroin prices are rising because of COVID-19

Drug dealers feel that travel restrictions to and from Canada and Mexico will jack up drug prices, similarly to what happened after 9/11. Some dealers have begun diluting what they sell to preserve supplies. Other international reports said COVID-19 has interrupted the global cocaine trade.

Methamphetamine prices are rising in California. A pound of meth cost about $1,000 in November and is twice that now, according to Bill Bodner, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Los Angeles field office.

NBC News reported that marijuana prices in New York rose 55% since the start of the pandemic, while cocaine prices rose 12% and heroin is going for 7% more now than pre-COVID.

Fox News reported:

The outbreak of COVID-19 has sent the price of heroin, methamphetamines and fentanyl soaring, as the likes of the Sinaloa cartel — and its main rival, the Jalisco “New Generation” — struggle to obtain the necessary chemicals to make the synthetic drugs, which typically come from China and are now in minimal supply.

“The cartels have suffered from COVID-19 due to the inability to get the regular shipments of synthetic opioids and precursor chemicals for the massive production of meth from China,” Derek Maltz, a former special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration Special Operations Division in New York, told Fox News.

NBC News also reported that the COVID-19 shutdown has caused huge interruptions in cartels’ ability to launder cash. With businesses and shops closed during the pandemic, it is more difficult to move cash around. Drug agents said they have seized big caches of money and drugs as a result.

Trying to be a COVID-aware drug dealer

The South Seattle Emerald, a nonprofit hyperlocal news site, delivered an interesting story examining how COVID-19 has affected the drug trade. The story explained how a dealer named Allan keeps stocked up on protective gloves and hand sanitizer, and how some customers have lost their jobs and don’t have the money to support their buys:

“Most of my clients wanted fronts (a payment system similar to a tab). I had to tell them, ‘I can’t front you because you don’t have an income. I don’t know when you’re going to get one.’”

In years past, Allan has sold drugs to cash-strapped customers in “goods-for-goods” exchanges: he recalls accepting antique guns, DVD players, and video game consoles as payment. Those transactions have all but disappeared during the lockdown. “I’m not going to give you my TV if I’m stuck in the house, right?” says Allan. “If anyone is getting that stuff, it’s the pawnshops.”

According to Allan, the combined effects of the federal stimulus package and an increase in unemployment payouts helped revive his customer base. “When unemployment checks rose to $600 a week, business came back,” he says. “It gave people a lot more leeway to pay bills and still do what they wanted to do.”

What not traveling costs us

I have to admit that this little section is my favorite of the week.

My mother lived with an overarching philosophy that if you have a chance to go somewhere you have never been, by all means, GO. When I see stories on the news about an earthquake in Haiti, a plague in Africa, a pandemic in China, climate change in Alaska, the stories connect differently with me because I have seen those places with my own eyes.

National Geographic reporter Ruth Terry explored this notion of a connection between empathy and travel and what we lose when, because of a pandemic, we stop traveling, stay home and turn inward.

“The coronavirus pandemic and, more recently, the global Black Lives Matter protests have forced an uncomfortable reckoning — that all the travel in the world might not be enough to engender the deep cross-cultural awareness people need now,” Terry wrote. She continued, “While experts conclude that travel may not inspire enough empathy to turn tourists into social justice activists, the alternative — not traveling at all — may actually be worse.”

Once we get back to normal, maybe we will resolve to not only expand our view of the world, but to encounter it and make an effort to learn from those encounters.

Should national parks be open?

They closed and then reopened for the most part, but now there is disagreement about whether to close national parks again. The New York Times reported:

But now, with Arizona leading the nation in coronavirus infections per capita, pressure is mounting to close Grand Canyon and other national parks in states across the South and the West that face spiking caseloads. As locked-down Americans clamor to return to the outdoors and families seek out safe vacations from limited options, the national parks could become the latest battleground in the fight over reopening.

In a statement, the National Park Service defended parks’ decision to remain mostly open. “With the support of Department of the Interior and National Park Service leadership, park superintendents are making decisions to modify operations for facilities and programs based on federal and state public health guidance.”

Parks have revised operations to better protect visitors and people living in adjacent communities. In Utah, Zion National Park is reducing visitors with a first-come, first-served ticketing system. In California, Yosemite National Park is taking limited reservations. Grand Canyon has closed some entrances, shops and visitors’ centers, and restricted Colorado River trips to protect hard-hit Native American communities nearby.

Those who argue in favor of reopening parks point out that the risk of infection goes down outdoors. The Deseret News reported:

With international travel out, 1 in 3 Americans are still planning on taking a road trip this summer, according to one survey, and 24% of them are heading to national parks.

Last year, over 327 million people visited national parks, and while concerns over the pandemic may dissuade some from visiting, a camping trip is also one of the few viable trips people can make this year.

While there’s usually plenty of room for social distancing when hiking a trail, traveling through gateway communities presents a greater risk.

The COVID-19 football helmet

Did you see the COVID-19 protective football helmet that the NFL is considering?

Yahoo Sports reported:

The Oakley Mouth Shield was developed by Oakley in collaboration with the NFL and NFL Players Association. The league hopes that it’s a more attractive option for players who have pushed back on the idea of wearing masks during gameplay.

NFLPA medical director Dr. Thom Mayer told ESPN that visibility and breathability have been the biggest concerns voiced by players in the initial development stages. He said that “claustrophobia has not been an issue yet” among the few players who have tested the device.

The shield is clear and has plastic slits. The idea is to block droplets from players’ mouths and noses from spreading while discouraging players from touching their faces during gameplay.

“Clear plastic with slits or holes in it that block any direct path of a droplet, but do promote air flow, communication, soundwaves,” (chairman of the NFL’s engineering committee Dr. Jeff) Crandall said.

Will colleges, high schools and youth sports insist on these, too?

Mass transit is desperate for riders

The Associated Press published a story that said mass transit systems worldwide are doing everything they can think of to get riders back onboard.

But the constant cleaning is expensive and doesn’t do anything to stop the transfer of COVID-19 if you are standing next to a coughing person in a crowded subway car or bus.

The AP pointed to a promising ultraviolet light technology called far-UVC light, which “can be circulated continuously in an enclosed space and kill some forms of human coronavirus as effectively as conventional UV light — without the harmful effects to human eyes and skin. Far-UVC light could offer a whole new level of protection for passengers and transit employees, if it is also found to be effective against the virus that causes COVID-19.”

Get local: Check on your local bus, train or subway system budgets. How is ridership going and how much in the hole is your local transit system compared to a year ago? What forecasts are local transit systems providing about future demand if workers do not return to offices until there is a vaccine? How much of the “work-from-home” culture does your local transit authority believe will endure after COVID-19?

How immigration change affects America’s forests

The plain fact is that most tree planting that happens in the U.S., particularly on federal land, is work done by temporary workers from Mexico and South America. They typically come into the states in October and work for six months.

But because the Trump administration suspended most H-2B seasonal temporary visas, forestry companies said they will fall desperately behind on reforestation work this year. The federal government’s reasoning was that it wanted to save those jobs for out-of-work Americans.

When companies like Georgia-based AgWorks place help-wanted ads for U.S. citizens, they get a trickle of interest. AgWorks typically needs 6,000 seasonal immigrant workers.

A story by Politico said:

…their work is invaluable to maintaining healthy ecosystems critical for supporting wildlife habitats. The forests also help ensure clean water, reduce soil erosion, and fight climate change through carbon capture. The forest industry is also a major part of local economies in states like Alaska and along the West coast.

A labor shortage would be another blow to an industry that has suffered from the pandemic and was already bracing for fewer trees to be planted this year.

Kathy LeCompte, owner of Brooks Tree Farms in Brooks, Oregon, said that her farm has seen mass cancellations of seedling orders from customers worried about the safety of allowing planters onto their property or exposure while working.

A law firm offered free wills for teachers

I can’t decide if this is real public service, the worst possible promotion or a statement about the times in which we live.

But a law firm in Tampa Bay is offering its services to draft a will for any teacher who is ordered back to the classroom.

(Screenshot, Facebook)

Why do people act so wild on camera?

My old friend Wayne Freedman at KGO in San Francisco wondered why there seem to be so many people captured on camera behaving badly. He turned to some experts to learn the psychology behind the outrageous behavior.

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.