December 1, 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.

At the end of this month, the country may be on the cusp of a new phase of the COVID-19 crisis: a wave of evictions. But how big and how bad will this be?

One estimate based on census data says, “8.4 million renter households, which include 20.1 million individual renters, could experience an eviction filing” one month from now.

Get your head around that: 8 million households could face evictions in four weeks. To put it in perspective, about 2.5 million people were displaced in the Dust Bowl days. I am way more interested in this than in Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping statistics.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium on evictions ends on Jan. 1. Not only will millions of renters be at risk of eviction, but they will owe months of back rent. Between now and then, landlords will be flooding courts with eviction petitions to get rulings in place that will force renters out as soon as the federal order expires.

But the wave is already crashing ashore. The Tampa Bay Times documented hundreds of evictions around Tampa Bay, Miami and elsewhere in Florida in the last month.

Florida, Massachusetts and others once had state-imposed moratoriums against evictions but let them expire so they would not overlap with the CDC order. But the CDC’s order puts the onus on renters to prove that they have no alternative but to stay in their rentals and that they cannot afford to pay.

An analysis based on the September U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey estimated “renter households have already accumulated between $12.2 billion and $16.7 billion” of rent debt. By January 2021, that figure could double. The Pulse Survey shows that about seven in 10 households that are behind on their rent are households with less than $50,000 in income.

Oregon is considering a state extension of a moratorium ban since there is no promise that the federal government will step in. In Chicago, Cook County opened a new legal assistance effort to get in front of the new wave of evictions. In Massachusetts, more eviction notices were filed a week ago than were filed in all of January and February this year. Boston.com reports:

“We’re facing a public health crisis,” Tom Hopper, director of research and analytics at MHP’s Center for Housing Data and a co-author of the report, told WBUR Monday. “So, the idea that people are facing potential eviction right now is not just troubling from a household perspective, a community perspective, but also from a public health perspective.”

Boston.com says the state’s social services hotlines are ringing off the hook. 

EvictionLab.org is tracking evictions in select cities. This data is as of Nov. 1:

(Eviction Lab)

To get a feel for your local data, visit the Census Bureau’s Pulse Survey. Notice that when you download and open the data tables, the state tabs are at the bottom of the page. It is easy to miss. Here are some quick links:

This story requires a lot more coverage. Some questions to answer:

  • Does the president-elect want the CDC to extend its moratorium on evictions, which recognized millions of Americans becoming homeless would be a major health concern? Biden says he supports legislation that gives renters greater access to legal help since only 10% of renters have legal support during evictions but 90% of landlords do. Back in March, Biden went much further by suggesting a rent and mortgage “forgiveness” effort that forgives, not simply delays, payments.
  • What kind of relief should landlords expect if they continue to get cut off from rental income?
  • How many more months can landlords survive if they cannot enforce payment? How aggressively will landlords go after back payments?
  • What routes will people take to avoid paying back payments of months of unpaid rent?
  • How closely will patterns of eviction follow existing patterns of inequity? (“Low-income households and communities of color are most at risk of eviction,” Boston Indicators says. “This is true at all times, and this pattern is even more pronounced in times of crisis.”)
  • Renters have been telling state attorneys general about the ways that landlords have tried to work around eviction bans. USA Today reports, “Cash-strapped renters nationwide say their landlords tried to skirt COVID-19 eviction moratoriums by changing locks, removing trash containers so waste piled up and — in one case — attempting to unbolt the front door right off an apartment. They told state attorneys general that they were kicked out of their homes after landlords accused them of violating tenant rules, like smoking cigarettes inside their units or failing to take the hitches off of their mobile homes.”

Axios notes other programs also ending in a matter of weeks:

Unemployment: Over 13 million Americans are relying on weekly unemployment checks through two programs that are weeks away from expiration.

Student loans: The CARES Act paused payments on government-backed student loans without interest. About 22 million student loan borrowers took advantage of the payment pause, according to estimates by Student Loan Hero based on government payment status reports. Nearly 3 million borrowers with government-owned federal loans were already in forbearance before the pandemic hit, Student Loan Hero’s Andrew Pentis tells Axios.

State aid: Whatever isn’t expended of the $139 billion allocated to states in the CARES Act will disappear at the end of the year. States have so far allocated more than 89% of the funds, according to an October survey by the National Governors Association. States also won’t be able to turn to a Federal Reserve lending program for aid, since that’s set to expire next month, too.

The COVID-19 slowdown is probably a mirage

Don’t be surprised to see the rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths slowing down during the first half of this week. But do not be misled by the data. The COVID Tracking Project warns:

Over the past eight months, we have observed that the data coming from states and territories during and after weekends and holidays tends to be erratic. We expect to see this trend in full force over the holiday weekend and for several days afterward. As our managing editor Erin Kissane explained on Tuesday, “Holidays, like weekends, cause testing and reporting to go down and then, a few days later, to ‘catch up.’ So, the data we see early next week will reflect not only actual increases in cases, tests, and deaths, but also the potentially very large backlog from the holiday.”

One trend that will likely grab your attention soon is the dramatic spike in new cases in long-term care facilities (nursing homes). The increase in cases is breathtaking and almost certainly will result in worse news in the coming weeks.

(COVID Tracking Project)

Look at this data from Illinois as an example. You will see case trends on the left and a rise in deaths two or three weeks after each rise on the right.

(COVID Tracking Project)

Health insurance companies are making so much money they may owe you a rebate

You might think that a pandemic would be devastating to a health insurance company. But when the pandemic hit, people put off some medical care.  As a result, 2020 has been a banner year for insurance company profits. A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation says:

As the year has progressed, more data has become available to suggest that insurers have been quite profitable during the pandemic. Overall healthcare utilization and spending rapidly declined through the first half of the year as consumers delayed elective or non-emergency care, leaving many insurers with far more premium income than claims costs. Under the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) Medical Loss Ratio (MLR) rule, insurers must spend a certain amount of their premium income on health care costs for their enrollees or pay back any excess profits to consumers in the form of rebates the following year. As of June 2020, KFF analysis found that individual and fully-insured group market insurers were on track to owe substantial rebates to consumers based on their margins and medical loss ratios this year, and even though there are some indications that healthcare utilization was returning to more normal levels, rising numbers of COVID-19 cases across the country may cause healthcare utilization and spending to decrease yet again this fall and winter.

Kaiser says that the insurance companies may have to give you and/or your employer rebates. Or the insurers may choose to keep covering COVID-19 costs without deductibles, or cover telehealth 100%. But a reckoning is coming:

Unless these patterns change substantially in late 2020, ACA medical loss ratio rebates in 2021 likely will be exceptionally large across commercial markets. Rebates to consumers are calculated using a three-year average of medical loss ratios, meaning that 2021 rebates will be based on insurer performance in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

In the individual market in particular, insurers were quite profitable in 2018 and 2019, so even if 2020 turns out to be a more average year, these insurers will likely owe large rebates to consumers. Group market insurers may also owe larger rebates to employers and employees than plans have in typical years, as loss ratios have dropped substantially. This may, in part, explain why many commercial insurers have volunteered to cover COVID-19 treatment costs, waived telemedicine cost-sharing, or expanded mental health services during the pandemic. By increasing their claims costs, insurers can proactively increase loss ratios and owe smaller rebates next year.

When will you have to start paying for COVID-19 care?

The Kaiser Family Foundation says, “Private insurers are currently waiving cost-sharing for COVID treatment for 71% of people with fully-insured coverage. But it’s unclear how long insurers will continue to waive costs voluntarily.”

Will insurers keep covering your COVID-19 care as long as there is a pandemic, or will they cut off this blanket coverage in a month? What if insurers say they will only cover you if you have gotten a vaccination once you are eligible?

(KFF)

The end of school snow days is near

A woman walks past a bicycle covered with snow during a storm, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. The Boston area was blanketed with a few inches of snow during the day. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

About a third of educators surveyed by EdWeek say their school systems have stopped using “snow days” and just switched to virtual learning when winter weather makes travel too dangerous. Another third of all systems are considering it.

Not everybody is a fan of this “no snow day” notion. For one thing, when schools go virtual but do not provide meals, as they would if they were in person, then that is one more day that hungry kids go hungry. At least with snow days, the make-up day and the food that goes with it is tacked on to the end of the school year. Educators also say the winter storms that close schools sometimes also knock out home electricity and internet. A virtual learning day without electricity would exclude some kids. And some say a surprise day off can lift the spirits of students and teachers.

But, critics say, snow days are just a nostalgic notion that are no longer necessary. Soon, snow days will be the kind of things that one generation will have to explain to the next generation, sort of like how I tell my kids about how “long-distance” phone calls used to work.

Real Christmas tree sales are up while we are home

Tim Daley and son Jacob, 9 years, from Tualatin carry their freshly cut Christmas tree at Lee farms on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020 in Tualatin, Ore. It’s early in the season, but both wholesale tree farmers and small cut-your-own lots are reporting strong demand, with many opening well before Thanksgiving. (AP Photo/Paula Bronstein)

The Associated Press reports that people seem to be leaning toward buying real trees this Christmas after years of rising artificial tree sales.

Between 75% and 80% of Americans who have a Christmas tree now have an artificial one, and the $1 billion market for fake trees has been growing by about 4% a year — despite them being reusable.

No one tracks annual sales of real trees because independent tree lots are so scattered, but those in the business estimate about 20 million trees or more are sold each year, most of them at big box stores such as Costco and Home Depot.

Bravo to a reader of this column

Dan Golden is a “recovering journalist” who also reads this column. He saw the piece I wrote a few weeks ago urging journalists to push their governors to release the deeply detailed weekly COVID-19 reports that the White House releases to the states but not to the public.

Golden wanted to know what his governor in Nebraska was hearing from the White House and whether the state was following its advice. So, he sent in a public records request and found, as I told you that you would also likely find, that the state was ignoring much of the White House coronavirus task force’s advice about how to control the pandemic.


In a Monday Twitter thread, Golden detailed some of the key recommendations his state did not follow and he posted the full Nebraska file.

The Center for Public Integrity’s Liz Essley Whyte deserves our collective praise for leading the charge to get these state reports released. She has been collecting as many as she can for you and puts them here.

Journalists, I guarantee that every week these detailed reports will produce at least a handful of story ideas for you. They are very detailed and local. Be like Whyte and push for the public release of these obviously public documents. And bravo to Golden for urging journalists to get in the fight to pry open these records.

We’ll be back tomorrow 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,…
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