April 29, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing about journalism and coronavirus, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

If schools open this fall, what will be different because of the coronavirus?

We have focused a lot on opening businesses in the backwash of this pandemic, but it may be even more complicated to reopen schools.

Nobody wants them to reopen more than parents and educators, who worry that another semester of virtual education will cost kids, especially struggling kids, the learning they need.

The White House issued phased guidelines that describe when it is safe to move through each phase of reopening the country. Under the White House plan, schools could reopen in a second phase, which the White House describes this way:

(Guidelines for Opening Up America Again from The White House)

To move safely into the second phase, a state or community would have to measure a decline in positive COVID-19 cases for 14 days. Of course, confirming that would require extensive testing that we do not currently have.

The Washington Post said the White House coronavirus task force is working on detailed plans for reopening schools. The Post said the new guidelines will probably be released within days, so the “phased” plan could still change (you can read a draft here).

Schools would have to make a lot of changes to safely open under this phase. They might institute staggered dropoff and pickup times to keep children from gathering in big groups. Instead of feeding children in crowded cafeterias, the guidelines recommend keeping them with their classes and feeding them in classrooms. Schools would cut back on allowing visitors, including volunteers, into buildings. Schools would space desks and sleeping mats as far apart as possible — ideally six feet or more.

The guidelines warn against hugging, handshaking and holding hands — if you can imagine an elementary school teacher of young children having to refrain from such contact. The guidelines warn schools that they will have to constantly wipe down and disinfect everything, from desks to playground equipment to bathrooms. The guidelines urge schools to examine their ventilation systems. Children, in most places, would likely wear masks.

Of course, if there is a resurgence, all bets are off. It could be right back to fully virtual schools.

CNN said educators wonder how on earth anyone could expect social distancing in schools:

“Anyone who says there’s a way to socially distance in an American high school is kidding themselves or you. It can’t be done,” said Matthew Hazel, a high school English teacher at Freedom High School in Orlando, Florida.

“I’m in a high school with 4,000 students in it. You can’t spread the desks far enough apart, the rooms aren’t large enough and there’s nowhere else to put the children,” he added.

For elementary schools, the challenge to keep small kids away from each other could be even greater.

CNN is maintaining a page that updates where each state stands on “reopening.”

Now comes the race for millions of people to find health insurance

When America slides into double-digit unemployment, and the number of Americans who lose their health care insurance as they lose their jobs grows, what will that mean for the nation’s attitude toward government-supplied health care?

About half of Americans receive health coverage through their employer, and with record numbers filing for unemployment insurance, millions are finding themselves without health insurance in the midst of the largest pandemic in a century. Even before the pandemic, an estimated 30 million Americans did not have health insurance.

MarketWatch reported, “As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the economy and sets mass layoffs in motion, an estimated 3.5 million U.S. workers were “at high risk” of losing health insurance through their jobs in the last two weeks, according to a recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.”

The Trump administration decided not to open the federal Affordable Health Care Plan markets that would allow people who lose their insurance to sign up. But 11 states and Washington, D.C., have opened new open enrollment periods for their state ACA marketplaces to encourage enrollment.

AARP put together a list with signup deadlines that are closing in, so the public needs to get cracking if they want to sign up.

Here are the deadlines for each state’s special open enrollment period. Details vary by state:

  • California: Enrollment is open through June 30 on the state’s website.
  • Colorado: Residents without coverage or who are about to lose coverage due to COVID-19 can sign up through April 30 on the state’s website.
  • District of Columbia: Uninsured residents can enroll in private health insurance through June 15.
  • Maryland: Uninsured residents can apply for coverage on the state’s website through June 15.
  • Massachusetts: Qualified uninsured residents can enroll for coverage on the state’s website through May 25.
  • Nevada: Qualified residents can sign up on the state’s website through May 15.
  • New York: Uninsured individuals can sign up on the state’s website through May 15.
  • Rhode Island: Qualified individuals who are uninsured can sign up on the state’s website through April 30.
  • Washington: Qualified individuals who are uninsured can sign up on the state’s website through May 8.

In addition, Vermont will take applications from uninsured residents during the coronavirus outbreak.

Those who are out of work and have lost insurance coverage should check to see if they might be eligible for Medicaid. It might be a foreign concept for those used to having a job and the insurance coverage that goes with it, but Medicaid bases eligibility on “current monthly income.” A lot of people who just lost their jobs will be eligible and may not know it. That is one reason why it is so important for journalists to report this story.

HealthCare.gov explained:

Medicaid provides free or low-cost health coverage to millions of Americans, including some low-income people, families and children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

Some states have expanded their Medicaid programs to cover all people below certain income levels.

People who worked for a business that had 20 or more employees on their insurance plan and lost their job are eligible for COBRA, which allows workers who have lost their jobs to purchase health insurance under their former employer’s plan. The Department of Labor explains that COBRA “gives workers and their families who lose their health benefits the right to choose to continue group health benefits provided by their group health plan for limited periods of time under certain circumstances such as voluntary or involuntary job loss, reduction in the hours worked, transition between jobs, death, divorce, and other life events. Qualified individuals may be required to pay the entire premium for coverage up to 102% of the cost to the plan.”

Even those who maintain insurance coverage may find health care unaffordable. That was true even before the pandemic. Half of Americans with employer-supplied healthcare said they had “delayed or postponed” treatment or care for themselves or a family member because of cost.

Will COVID-19 change America’s attitudes toward health care?

Prior to the pandemic, Americans were almost evenly divided between whether they considered health care to be the responsibility of the federal government or not.

(Courtesy: Gallup)

A 2018 Pew poll showed six in 10 Americans considered health care to be the government’s responsibility, and a third supported a “single-payer” approach to health care.

Before the pandemic, Democratic candidates for president suggested a range of versions of “Medicare for all,” which would have been a form of government-funded health care, as is common in much of the industrialized world. President Donald Trump strongly opposes government-funded healthcare.

How will American attitudes toward government health care change when millions of workers who have lost insurance go to the polls in November? No doubt this will become a key issue in the 2020 elections. It is another one of those issues that journalists should be pressing candidates to answer now.

COVID-19 is affecting childhood vaccinations

The pandemic consumes so much of our attention that routine and important things can fall by the wayside. Parents understandably are canceling well-child visits to keep children from being infected with COVID-19. But because they are skipping checkups, children are missing routine vaccinations and setting us up for other preventable outbreaks.

The World Health Organization warned, “Disruption of immunization services, even for brief periods, will result in increased numbers of susceptible individuals and raise the likelihood of outbreak-prone vaccine preventable diseases (VPDs) such as measles.”

The New York Times pointed to a study that compares pre-COVID-19 inoculations to where we are now:

PCC, a pediatric electronic health records company, gathered vaccine information from 1,000 independent pediatricians nationwide. Using the week of February 16 as a pre-coronavirus baseline, PCC found that during the week of April 5, the administration of:

  • measles, mumps and rubella shots dropped by 50%;
  • diphtheria and whooping cough shots dropped by 42%; and
  • HPV vaccines were down 73%.

And the trend is everywhere. The Times cited similar data from Minnesota, Washington State and Massachusetts.

The Guardian interviewed a pediatrician in California, who said:

“Could we see an outbreak, let’s say, six months from now? Yeah, I think we can,” said Leila M Iravani, a pediatrician at Total Pediatrics of Orange County in Costa Mesa, California. “I think so. We’ll see sicker kids because they were not immunized.”

Iravani usually examines between 15 and 18 children every day for checkups. But during the coronavirus pandemic, that number has more than halved due to cancellations and no-shows. She estimated that up to 60% of those missed appointments are for vaccines, and probably 50% of those are younger than two.

“We can do telemedicine for the development, but those vaccines are gonna be the thing that’s gonna protect them,” Iravani said.

Add to all of this the global “softening” of attitudes toward the importance of vaccines and we are setting ourselves on a dangerous track, experts warn.

But CNN heard from the Vaccine Confidence Project, a research group at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which found that our collective hope for a COVID-19 vaccine may lead to anti-vaxxers rethinking their opposition to inoculations.

Are people skipping April rent?

The National Multifamily Housing Council said, despite the pressures that Americans are enduring during the COVID-19 crisis, we are, so far, paying rent.

“The National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) found that 89% of apartment households made a full or partial rent payment by April 19 in its survey of 11.5 million units of professionally managed apartment units across the country, up 5 percentage points from April 12.”

“NMHC’s Rent Payment Tracker numbers also examined historical numbers and found that 93% of renters made full or partial payments from April 1-19, 2019, and 93% of renters in March 1-19, 2020. The latest tracker numbers reflect a payment rate of 95% compared to the same time last month. These data encompass a wide variety of market-rate rental properties, which can vary by size, type and average rental price.”

The Council said the figures reflect how flexible landlords have been and that credit card companies and other lenders have been compassionate for the last month. The Council also notes that renters got some help paying bills from the stimulus check.

But there is a lot less optimism about how many will pay rent on time in May, once the stimulus checks are spent and unemployment checks wear thin.

COVID-19 ignited early retirements

Somewhere buried in the data about how many people have lost jobs, filed for unemployment and may be searching for work is the truth about how many people have taken retirement during this pandemic. Economists said it is near certain that the last couple of months have sharply increased retirements.

There are some guesses as to why so many seniors have taken retirement rather than going back to the workplace. One of the most common theories is that seniors do not feel safe going back to work since they (we) are the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research said there has been a big increase in the number of people who are unemployed and not looking for work. The researchers said that may include people who now consider themselves to be retired. In the data, these people show up as “discouraged workers.” This category masks the real number of people who are no longer employed due to COVID-19.

Don’t be surprised when employers offer early retirement packages to seniors. Local governments are already making that move under pressure to cut payrolls fast.

There are some online conversations among people who are close to retiring, and one recurring conversation is that this forced time of staying home is making it easier to retire and to keep away from the office. It is like a forced divorce.

MarketWatch quoted another, very different conversation:

Some even said they were no longer interested in retiring early at all. “I have always liked my job, but this situation has made me realize how much I like going to work and contributing,” one person said. “I no longer have a desire to retire early and plan to up my spending significantly and start working on my bucket list now instead of planning to do it in 15 years.”

The way we work now

This is my dear friend Richard Adkins, a photojournalist at WRAL in Raleigh, North Carolina.

(Screenshot, Facebook)

If you could use some inspiration from solid good work from a guy who has been a photojournalist for a few decades, you can spend some quality time here.

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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