November 20, 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.

The number of COVID-19 car repossessions will likely rise soon.

KING-TV in Seattle reports:

Auto repossessions are expected to surge in the coming months as financial hardship programs begin to peter out and temporary consumer protections expire. Due to the economic turmoil brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and record levels of unemployment, more and more consumers are expected to fall behind on car payments.

“We’ve certainly seen an uptick in defaults and delinquencies,” said John Van Alst of the National Consumer Law Center. “I think that’s going to translate into a really large increase in repossessions.”

According to the credit reporting agency TransUnion, the number of auto loan accounts that are 30 days past due moved to 3.1% in August, compared to 3.0% in July.

“I’m almost certain the number of repossessions are going to increase,” said Les McCook, executive director for the American Recovery Association.

You can help your readers/listeners/viewers who fall behind on their car payments by sharing some advice from the Federal Trade Commission.

First, don’t “do nothing.” Contact the lender and see what you can work out. And remember, the FTC says, even if the lender repos your car, “You also might still owe money after your car is repossessed. You could be on the hook for any ‘deficiency’ — the difference between what your car sells for and how much you still owe on it, plus any fees related to the repossession. In most states, your lender is allowed to sue you for it. An attorney can tell you whether you have grounds to contest a deficiency judgment.”

Interestingly, the strong demand for used cars makes it more financially attractive for lenders to snap up the vehicles that have unpaid loans.

Surgical glove supplies are very tight

Around the country, I am seeing increased mentions of surgical glove shortages again.

One survey of 905 hospitals found 40% of them were experiencing a shortage of nitrile exam gloves. NBC News says the federal government admits that it has been unable to stockpile gloves:

The synthetic rubber “nitrile” gloves are a critical barrier to infection for health care workers on the front lines, but experts say the United States is poorly positioned to get ahead of a global shortfall of more than 200 billion.

“Gloves are just needed everywhere,” Mary Denigan-Macauley, the Government Accountability Office’s director of health care, said.

The Strategic National Stockpile, which is supposed to be the source of last resort after hospitals have exhausted their supplies, is running dangerously low on gloves amid soaring demand across the country.

HHS set a goal to have on hand a 90-day supply in the stockpile, or 4.5 billion gloves. But as of this week it had 2 million, according to department officials.

The department estimates the current demand to be at 8.7 billion a month, or 104 billion gloves per year.

Experts said bolstering the supply chain requires a delicate balancing act — stockpiling too much of a sought-after medical product could drive up prices and make it more difficult for hospitals to obtain them.

Where there is a shortage, there is somebody willing to cash in. The Wall Street Journal reports:

In recent weeks, companies employing front-line workers have bought fake versions of “nitrile,” or synthetic rubber gloves, sold in boxes labeled “examination grade,” posing potential health risks, according to glove distributors and manufacturers.

Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand manufacture the majority of nitrile gloves, and the United States imports roughly 70 billion annually. The Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association said it received more than a dozen reports from members about “frauds and fake agents” attempting to sell gloves using forged letters from glove manufacturers.

Which brings up a question: Why must we import nearly all surgical gloves? SFGate reports:

“The big problem with the nitrile glove space is that the barrier to entry is so great,” says Sean Kelly, Chief Procurement Officer for PPE of America. “For surgical masks, also known as 3-ply masks, for $150,000 you can get a machine to make them and you’re in business. … nitrile glove manufacturing is very complex. The raw materials are very difficult to access in some parts of the world.”

The only domestic manufacturer of nitrile gloves is The Showa Group, with a factory in Fayette, Alabama. The company recently announced a $20 million expansion that should be up and running in a few months and will produce 200 million gloves a year.

Outbreak aboard Navy destroyer

Sailors man the rails on the guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Murphy, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Petty Officer 1st Class Devin Langer/U.S. Navy via AP)

A fourth of the sailors on the Navy destroyer USS Michael Murphy tested positive for the coronavirus. Unlike the outbreak that happened on the USS Roosevelt aircraft carrier when it was at sea, the latest outbreak happened with the ship docked in Hawaii.

The Department of Defense only provides general data on COVID-19 infections and does not reveal information about specific military installations.

(Department of Defense)

The CDC emphatically says ‘stay home’ for Thanksgiving

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moved from advising to more like imploring Americans to stay home next week.

Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC’s COVID-19 incident manager, told reporters:

Amid this critical phase, the CDC is recommending against travel during the Thanksgiving period. We’re alarmed. What we’re concerned about is not only the actual mode of travel — whether it’s an airplane or bus or car, but also the transportation hubs that we’re also concerned about.

Just as the CDC said “stay home,” United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and American Airlines said Thursday that people have been cancelling travel plans for next week and that new bookings are dropping.

It is going to be interesting to see traffic flows on Wednesday evening, the day before Thanksgiving, next week. You probably remember this mind-blowing video of Los Angeles freeways on the evening before Thanksgiving last year.

Can COVID-19 patients become organ donors?

I know it sounds a bit dark, but I wondered if people infected with the coronavirus could be considered as organ donors. The answer is mostly, “no.” The federal government’s organ donor website advises:

Consistent with clinical guidance from the American Society of Transplantation, The Transplantation Society, and the Association of Organ Procurement Organizations, the (Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network) does not recommend transplantation of organs from donors known to have the virus. This guidance may change as more becomes known about the course and treatment of COVID-19.

Donation and transplant clinicians should apply their medical judgment in instances where test results are pending at the time of organ offers.

The United Network for Organ Sharing says transplants from deceased donors is up from a year ago, but transplants from living donors are way down because of COVID-19:

Transplants involving deceased donors continued uninterrupted even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through Sept. 6, U.S. surgeons had performed 429 more deceased donor organ transplants this year than at this time in 2019, according to UNOS, the organization that manages the list of all people in the U.S. awaiting an organ transplant.

Recipients of organs from living donors typically don’t have the same urgency as those awaiting organs from deceased donors and these cases are considered to be more elective in nature. So, as COVID-19 cases soared last March, almost all U.S. transplant centers suspended living donor transplants. At the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, “we suspended living donor transplants in March and restarted them on May 14, once we felt it was safe to resume,” Butt said.

Those shutdowns led to a decrease in living donor transplants nationwide; through Sept. 6, U.S. surgeons had performed 1,361 fewer living donor transplants in 2020 as compared to the same time last year.

UNOS’ online database, UNet, contains Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network data for every organ donation and transplant event occurring in the U.S. since Oct. 1, 1987. It is really valuable data for journalists who want to get local with a story on COVID-19 and transplantation.

108,708 people in America are, as you are reading this, awaiting a transplant.

Data reporting reveals COVID-19 truths

The New York Times produced an eye-opening piece that shows the connection between the restrictions that states have imposed and the number of COVID-19 cases those states have recorded. SURPRISE! States that imposed the least restrictions now have the highest caseloads.

Zoom builds in new zoombombing protections

Zoombombers have interrupted school classes, church meetings and public hearings. Now, Zoom says it is rolling out some new protections. The new features include a one-click pause and quick removal of the disruptive participants. By clicking “Suspend Participant Activities,” all meeting features will cease, including screen sharing, recording and breakout rooms.

Zoom also announced that its new At-Risk Meeting Notifier scans social media posts and other public online activity to find shared Zoom meeting links. “When the tool detects a meeting that looks to be at high risk of being disrupted, it automatically alerts the account owner by email and provides advice on what to do,” the company says. “These steps could include deleting the vulnerable meeting and creating a new one with a new meeting ID, enabling security settings, or using another (for pay) Zoom solution, like Zoom Video Webinars or OnZoom.”

Businesses in every state closed despite PPP loans

Permanently closed businesses and retail stores are seen in Downtown Manhattan, New York City on November 11, 2020. (zz/STRF/STAR MAX/IPx)

The Wall Street Journal has done the groundwork that might help you to localize a story about how the first round of Payroll Protection Program payments was not enough to keep hundreds of businesses running in a pandemic.

The Journal took the list of the biggest borrowers provided by the Small Business Administration and compared that list to recent bankruptcies. Half of the bankruptcies have been filed since August. The Journal found, “Dozens of recipients, which come from nearly every state, cited the pandemic as a primary reason for entering bankruptcy.”

(The Wall Street Journal)

About 300 companies that received as much as half a billion dollars in pandemic-related government loans have filed for bankruptcy, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of government data and court filings.

Many of the companies, which employ a total of about 23,400 workers, say the funds from the Paycheck Protection Program weren’t enough to keep them going as the coronavirus and lack of additional stimulus payments weighed on their businesses.

The SBA still has not released the list of every business that received PPP loans and the government is fighting the release of that information. You can see the PPP loan list by state and by industry but not by every individual recipient, so it is not possible to thoroughly examine whether the $660 billion of tax dollars went to businesses that closed anyway. The largest borrowers are listed here, sortable by state and zip code.

The Washington Post explained:

The Small Business Administration has asked a federal judge to delay release of records involving millions of small businesses that received Paycheck Protection Program loans, arguing that publicizing those records would do “irreparable harm” to millions of businesses by exposing allegedly confidential information.

A federal judge ruled Nov. 5 that the SBA must release borrower and loan information about the federal Paycheck Protection Program by Nov. 19. The Washington Post and 10 other news organizations prevailed in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to win the information’s release. But in a Nov. 12 court filing, the agency said it needed more time to determine whether it should appeal.

Will Canadian ‘snowbirds’ fly south?

Normally around this time of year, we in Florida, but also Arizona and other warm spots, see an influx of “snowbirds” from Canada. But COVID-19 has changed their migratory patterns. The New York Times explains:

The United States-Canada land border has been closed to all nonessential travel since March; the closure is slated to last through Nov. 21, though it may be extended. Although people can still fly from Canada to the United States, a reliable bloc of snowbirds is, for now, marooned: More than 70 percent of the more than 110,000 members of the Canadian Snowbird Association usually reach their winter destination by car. And they’re not all eager to jump on a plane in the middle of a pandemic.

“Many are in a holding pattern just waiting for further updates on the border closure restrictions prior to making a decision on their travel plans for the current season,” said Evan Rachkovsky, the association’s director of research and communications.

Air travel booked through travel agencies from Canada to Greater Miami is down by about 90 percent through March compared to last year, according to data from the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The craziest Black Friday rush will be for PS5 game consoles

Gaming enthusiasts queue up to pre-order Sony’s PlayStation 5, outside a retailer in Hong Kong, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Sony’s PlayStation 5 seems to be the hot gift this year.

GameSpot says:

The PS5 and PS5 Digital, which retail for $500 and $400, respectively, have been near-impossible to find in stock since they first went up for preorder in September. The PlayStation Direct website says it is out of stock. Walmart will offer Wednesday 7pm online orders and will restock on Friday but only the very lucky will get through. Best Buy has confirmed it will not have any PS5 units in stores throughout the entire holiday season, so you won’t see the PS5 in any Best Buy brick-and-mortar stores until 2021.

There are plenty for sale on eBay if you are willing to pay twice the retail price or more. I have seen listings as high as $1,800.

Rate my Thanksgiving COVID-19 risk

The Texas Medical Association provides this chart that allows you to see whether you are about to make a risky choice on Thanksgiving and other upcoming holidays.

(Texas Medical Association)

For example, if you want to back out of a gingerbread decorating party, you could point to this chart. The docs are also saying that going caroling in a pandemic is a bad idea. If you want to skip an indoor church service, this chart will give you the pass you need.

Sadly, it does not list 8-hour children’s holiday dance recitals as hazardous, but I am pretty sure they are.

We’ll be back Monday with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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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,…
Al Tompkins

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