June 18, 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.

Summer travel season, such as it is in 2020, has begun and soon you will discover the joys of trying to find an uncrowded and clean public restroom. Good luck with that.

Forbes noted:

“Lavatories are, unfortunately, ideal for the transmission of COVID-19. They are closed and poorly ventilated,” says Stephen Berger, M.D., an infectious disease expert and co-founder of GIDEON, the Global Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology Network.

“Urinals and sinks are crowded together, and partitions rarely extend upward to shield someone’s face. Although toilet stalls are isolated, droplets and aerosols will continue to linger there, several minutes after the last user has left,” he says.

“There are lots of high-touch surfaces in a restroom: sinks, door handles, countertops, to name a few,” says Pat Swisher, founder and CEO of Enviro-Master, a national health and safety company.

“Every time a toilet is flushed, it ejects millions of tiny water droplets, which travel up to 10 feet and land on surfaces,” says Swisher. “Researchers have found that the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, can be shed in fecal matter for up to a month after the illness.” (According to the CDC, it is unclear whether the virus in feces is capable of causing COVID-19.)

Leave it to NPR to introduce us to a new phrase: “social piss-tancing.”

Steven Soifer, president of the American Restroom Association, which advocates for clean and safe public bathrooms, said many businesses are also installing dividers between urinals or closing down every other one.

“There’s a new term out there,” he said. “It’s called ‘social piss-tancing.’”

Soifer hopes the heightened awareness brought by COVID-19 will prompt what he sees as a long overdue overhaul of public restrooms. “We’re advocating for more revolutionary toilet design with the single stall, fully enclosed water closets with toilet seats covers” that are typical in Europe, he said. “That would address many of the issues.”

Just to make sure we have driven this idea into the ground, let’s dive into a new study published this week in the journal, “Physics of Fluids,” which found that when an infected person uses a toilet and flushes it, it sends a lot of water droplets into the air:

According to the characteristics of fecal–oral transmission, there will be a large amount of viruses within a toilet when a confirmed case uses it. Thus, toilets should be regarded as one of the infection sources. However, toilet design and use are often neglected. Improper toilet use will cause cross-infection through fecal–oral transmission among people if precautionary measures are not taken. Such cross-infection usually occurs in family bathrooms and public washrooms.

After you plow through several pages of physics and math, the report points to a recommendation that you can use and pass along: Close the toilet lid before you flush. Maybe toilet manufacturers should come up with a design that automatically closes the lid before flushing.

What’s wrong with what Vice President Pence said about COVID-19

I was inspired to post this item after reading a multi-part tweet from CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta which, in a space of a few hundred words, made some great points about how to process statements about the coronavirus from Vice President Mike Pence. Pence heads the White House COVID-19 Task Force, so his words and claims have some gravity.

I am going to point to some of the graphics Dr. Gupta included and expand on some of the data.

If you missed it, Vice President Pence made some claims about COVID-19 this week that deserve our attention. Some of what he said is his opinion, and he has a right to that. But some of what he said flies in the face of facts, and that’s what we should examine.

On Tuesday, he said: “The media has tried to scare the American people every step of the way, and these grim predictions of a second wave are no different.”

Before we focus on a second wave, know that new cases are still growing at about the same rate they were in late March, when we decided the threat was great enough to shut down the economy.

(Data from Johns Hopkins University/Graphic from CNN)

Let’s remember that one of the most important voices warning us about a “second wave” that will come if we do not socially distance and wear masks is Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is on the White House COVID-19 response team, headed by Vice President Pence.

Dr. Fauci says he has not spoken with the president in two weeks.

“The media” is a pretty broad classification, so I suppose it could be true that some sources that the vice president hears, reads or watches are not reliable, and he might consider them to be scaremongers.

But the vice president also said:

The truth is, whatever the media says, our whole-of-America approach has been a success. We’ve slowed the spread, we’ve cared for the most vulnerable, we’ve saved lives, and we’ve created a solid foundation for whatever challenges we may face in the future. That’s a cause for celebration, not the media’s fear mongering.

While talk of an increase in cases dominates cable news coverage, more than half of states are actually seeing cases decline or remain stable.

Look carefully at his words and you will see he is factually correct. The data show the spread has “slowed” and it is still spreading.

  • 18 states have seen an increase in COVID-19 cases in the last week.
  • 10 more are “stable,” meaning they are not declining.
  • 22 states have fewer cases of COVID-19 than they measured a week ago.

The vice president counts the 10 “steady” states to be on the side of the “good,” while critics would put them in the “bad” column because they are not declining — they are just not getting worse. A fifth of the country is not getting worse. How’s that for a claim?

The Washington Post reported, “Nine states — Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Texas — reported either new single-day highs or set a record for seven-day new coronavirus case averages on Tuesday,” the same day the vice president’s op-ed ran.

(Data from Johns Hopkins University/Graphic from CNN)

There is a difference between saying “we are cured” and “we are not getting sicker faster than we once were.” And make sure you notice one of those deep right states in the middle of the map. That’s where President Donald Trump is heading this weekend for an indoor, no-mask-required, no-social distance-required campaign hoedown.

Both the vice president and the president blame “more testing” for the rise in positive cases but they are not correctly stating what increased testing would reveal. It should reveal hidden positive cases, for sure, but just as importantly, by not just testing people who feel sick, we should see a lot more negative test results, too.

New York is a good example. The state has increased testing, but at the same time it has seen a decline in positive tests.

(Data from The COVID Tracking Project/Graphic from CNN)

Notice these two graphics look like opposites. The vice president and president say when testing goes up, new cases go up. But, as you can see, that does not hold up. Where people are not being infected in increasing rates, the two graphs should look like opposites.

(Data from Johns Hopkins University/Graphic from CNN)

In Florida, we are not testing more people but our positive cases are rising. In Oklahoma, testing has dropped off some but positive tests are rising.

The vice president said in his June 16 Wall Street Journal op-ed:

Lost in the coverage is the fact that today less than 6% of Americans tested each week are found to have the virus. Cases have stabilized over the past two weeks, with the daily average case rate across the U.S. dropping to 20,000 — down from 30,000 in April and 25,000 in May.

But the World Health Organization reported there were 21,754 new positive cases reported in the U.S. on that very day. The day before, June 15, it was 25,314 cases.

(Graphic and data from the World Health Organization)

The vice president is on mostly solid ground when he claims that the percentage of positive tests is declining to less than 6%. It is true for most, but not all states. Alabama, Arizona, Utah, South Carolina, for example, are way above that figure.

(Data and graphic from Johns Hopkins University)

Covering up racist tattoos

I have seen a few versions of this story around the country; tattoo artists who are offering to cover up racist tats for free.

Here is a shop in western Kentucky; one in St. Petersburg, Florida; and one in Maryville, Tennessee (near Knoxville).

Remote work is starting to look more permanent

Employers are starting to look at their expensive office buildings at the same time they are realizing that you can do a lot of your work at home. A question is arising — why come back at all?

New data from PwC, a huge consulting and auditing firm, shows more than half of business leaders surveyed said they will make remote work part of the routine.

More than half of leaders (54%) now say they plan to make remote work a permanent option for roles that allow it, up from 43% in our last survey.

Only 26% of leaders are concerned about losing productivity due to remote work now, a significant drop from the beginning of the pandemic (63% in our March survey) — while 49% are trying to improve the remote work experience for their people.

On top of that, the businesses surveyed, which represent a wide range of the business sector, said they worry most about a “second wave” and that working remotely might keep operations from closing down again.

This is an important shift in employer attitudes, because workers are saying they are not sure they will be safe coming back to work.

Only 47% of employees in PwC’s Workforce Pulse Survey … say changing workplace safety measures will make them more comfortable returning to the office.

(Data and graphic from PwC)

Is panic-moving really a thing?

The Atlantic published a story on “the high cost of panic-moving” which is premised on the idea that city-dwellers may be heading for the ‘burbs or maybe even further out to escape COVID-19, mass transit and crowds. Key words here: “may be.”

This item might be closely related to the one above it. If you can work at home, why live so close to work if you can live more comfortably and less expensively further away?

But, as The Atlantic said, the people who might leave the cities are, for the most part, wealthy. And it may be they are not leaving for good, just until the panic is over.

The middle- and high-income people who could leave the city this year can be divided into two basic groups. First, there are the panic-movers, who hadn’t previously considered leaving before the pandemic hit. In one private Facebook group for panic-movers that I snooped around in for several weeks, the few thousand members looked for advice on how to persuade their New York–loving spouses to leave or asked for recommendations of small towns that are, somehow, very similar to the country’s biggest, densest city.

The second group of movers makes for less exciting trend stories: people who are taking part in normal attrition, of which New York City has plenty—tens of thousands of its residents move away every year. The city is expensive and cramped, and lots of people plan their exit to coincide with the predictable needs of their family or career, or just because they want something different. The pandemic may have accelerated these movers’ timelines by a few months or a year, but the decision to leave was already made.

But it may be more talk than action. There is no real evidence yet that people are permanently leaving cities in unusual numbers. And the whole telecommute thing may seem better in concept than in real life. The Atlantic continued:

And even if moving seems like an effective strategy to stay safe, it’s not exactly clear that it will look that way in hindsight. No one really knows how the pandemic will progress over the next year, in big cities or elsewhere. New York City’s outbreak now seems to be under far better control than those in many popular migratory destinations in the Sun Belt, which could change the calculus for panic-movers. The year is not yet half over, and the first five months weren’t particularly friendly to those with the temerity to predict the future; “may you live in interesting times” is a curse for a reason.

The writer, Amanda Mull, left us with a bit of well-placed caution not to believe the hype that everybody is leaving cities and moving to the country just yet.

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.

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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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