How to move beyond scary COVID-19 stories

Covering COVID-19 is a new daily briefing from Poynter

March 10, 2020

Welcome to Covering COVID-19.

Every morning, starting tomorrow and for the foreseeable future, I will offer a menu of story ideas and occasionally point to innovative and thoughtful work that I hope will spark useful, reflective and even uplifting reporting on COVID-19.

I ask you to send me the best things you come across that might benefit your fellow journalists. The best ideas will be actionable, and applicable to any media and any size newsroom. If you’d like to receive this briefing in your email inbox every morning, sign up here.

Let’s get started.

Related: AP Stylebook tips on the coronavirus

What are local jails and prisons going to do when COVID-19 is detected inside their walls? 

Last week, I led a seminar about reporting on jails in Baltimore, where experts warned us that local jails will be a coronavirus hotspot because they’re likely not prepared.

Prisons know who is coming in for long-term lockups. Prisons tend to have medical facilities, although maybe not equipped for a contagion. Jails are a different story. (Though the terms “jail” and “prison” are often used interchangeably, in the U.S. jails are typically run by local agencies and hold inmates awaiting trial or serving short sentences, while prisons are run by state or federal governments and hold inmates for long-term confinement.)

Many are way overcrowded. Hour-to-hour they have no way of knowing who will walk in or how long they will be there. The jailed are often in vulnerable health.

As a guide, look to this memo from a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health to that state’s sheriffs’ and police chiefs’ association. It makes specific recommendations about how they should manage the virus. It includes suggestions for managing supply chains (lockups must supply everything from food to medicine, clothing and more.) It talks about screening people entering the system, including those who have been arrested, guards, office workers, everyone. Imagine what would happen if a third of the workforce could not come to work.

Will jails and prisons begin non-contact visitations? How will that affect attorneys who need to speak with their clients behind bars?

Related: How will the coronavirus impact advertising and events?

Should we “downsize” prison and jail populations? The University of Washington memo says prosecutors and judges should develop a plan for how they might keep more people out of jail and prison. Will police choose not to arrest people for some offenses that they might normally in order to reduce the jail population? Iran released 70,000 prisoners as a response to the new coronavirus.

Need a worst-case-scenario example? See what’s happening in Italy.

Prepare people for a big surge of new positive cases

There is one sure bet when this virus is concerned: As we test more people, we will find more carriers. You could help lower the public freakout if you start preparing your audiences now for what we know is coming. Two things may be true at the same time: The virus is spreading, and we underestimated how widespread it is already. Places like South Korea have tested a lot more people and so it is not a surprise they have detected a lot more cases.

Related: The readers’ guide to understanding the coronavirus

What is exponential growth? 

I know we are journalists and we are infamously intimidated by math. So here is a terrific tutorial on how exponential growth works. I am confident you will use the mathematical phrase “exponential growth” in the days ahead so you might as well spend nine minutes to understand it. You will learn some key terms that will be critical to understanding the spread of COVID-19.

  • What is a “growth factor?” This is one of the most important components of an outbreak. It is a measurement of the spread of the virus from one day to the next and it is expressed as a ratio of the two changes. So growth factor is the factor by which a quantity multiplies itself over time.
  • What is a “constant?” When people are unconcerned about the spread of a virus, it spreads it further and faster. That means it is actually counterproductive to urge people to be unconcerned because they then go about their lives doing nothing to minimize the spread. The constant, in this scenario, is the rate of spread.
  • What is an “inflection point?” This is the point at which the virus spread spikes, flattens or declines. If you want to sound smart you would say, “inflection points are points where the function changes concavity.” You are likely familiar with the concept of convex and concave shapes. Is the number moving in one of those shapes or is it a straight line? If it changes “concavity” you have found an inflection point. Inflection points are a precursor to what will happen next. Constants are the steady movement in a direction, but inflection points are changes in constants.

Related: Here are the tools and technology journalists are using to tell the coronavirus story

Look beyond airlines and cruise ships

You have looked at how COVID-19 has affected top-of-the-food-chain players like airlines and cruise ships, now see what other businesses are being affected at the height of spring break season — places like theatres, museums, zoos, aquariums and theme parks.

Why did the CDC tell people “60 and older” to stock up and stay home?

As an “older person” as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I took a little offense at 60-year-olds being grouped with 90-year olds as “older” people who should stay home and stock up on food and medicine. I wanted to know how they decided that age, 60 years old, was a risk factor.

The CDC page merely mentions people who are at health risk without explanation. The World Health Organization says that of the 70,000 cases so far, 2% were people younger than 19 and, starting at age 60, the number grows. The virus is most lethal for people over age 80.

The CDC has used broad age ranges before in making recommendations for inoculations like tetanus shots and yellow fever vaccines. And the CDC says, “In recent years, for example, it’s estimated that between about 70% and 85% of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in people 65 years and older, and between 50% and 70% of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations have occurred among people in this age group. So, influenza is often quite serious for people 65 and older.”

I respect Vanderbilt University’s Dr. William Schaffner, who said recently, “When my wife and I need to go shopping, we’re going late at night when there are no crowds, and we get in and out efficiently.”

He said a reasonably healthy senior does not have to become a hermit, but “for example, if a grandparent wants to attend a grandchild’s wedding, they could sit off to the side, and bump elbows with relatives instead of hugging and kissing.”

We’ll be back tomorrow morning 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.