October 6, 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.

A week or so ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it made a mistake when it posted a website update that said COVID-19 can spread through airborne transmissions. But on Monday, the CDC reposted the new warning, only this time it was intentional.

It is a significant statement since the warning focuses on how the virus may linger in the air and be spread in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation.

“This kind of spread is referred to as airborne transmission and is an important way that infections like tuberculosis, measles, and chicken pox are spread,” the CDC says.

The new warning makes it clear that while most COVID-19 cases are spread by being within six feet of an infected person, it is also possible to be infected if you are far away from an infected person. The new CDC wording says:

There is evidence that under certain conditions, people with COVID-19 seem to have infected others who were more than 6 feet away. These transmissions occurred within enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation. Sometimes the infected person was breathing heavily, for example while singing or exercising.

Under these circumstances, scientists believe that the amount of infectious smaller droplet and particles produced by the people with COVID-19 became concentrated enough to spread the virus to other people. The people who were infected were in the same space during the same time or shortly after the person with COVID-19 had left.

The new guidance makes it even more important to wear a mask — even when more than six feet away from others — because when you expel infected droplets in the air, the virus also lingers in the air. The new guidance will also, no doubt, focus new attention on ventilation systems in businesses and schools.

The CDC is catching up with similar guidance from the World Health Organization, which published a brief in July that opened the door to the possibility of an airborne virus. Researchers in the U.S. have said for some time that they thought airborne transmission, until now, has been unwisely ignored. They say it is possible for COVID-19 to linger in the air for minutes, maybe even hours, if it is sucked into a heating or air conditioning system and blown back into a room.

Testing does not protect you from COVID — how those rapid COVID tests are supposed to be used

The list of White House occupants, staff and friends that have COVID-19 grew again Monday. It is a good time to remember that testing is not prevention.

Following CDC guidelines, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany should have already been in a two-week quarantine when she briefed journalists (without wearing a mask) on Sunday. On Monday, McEnany announced:

(Kayleigh McEnany)

The statement underscores how the White House misused rapid testing.  The tests were never intended or approved to give the “all-clear” to patients. They were meant to confirm cases in people who had symptoms. And, for the zillionth time, lots of people — especially younger people like McEnany — might not show symptoms. Even when you are infected, you might not test positive for days. It is why the CDC’s guidelines tell you to quarantine for at least two weeks once you know you have been in close contact with a COVID-positive person.

The administration used Abbott Laboratories’ ID Now rapid test as a front-line screening tool for all White House visitors. But now you see the problem with that tactic.

The Food and Drug Administration approved the test to be used only by health care providers “within the first seven days of symptoms.” In other words, it is not intended to test asymptomatic people because it misses one third of the cases it tests. And this is not new. Experts have known for months that the test was not reliable in the way the White House was using it.

Abbott issued a statement, saying:

We also know from our large post-authorization study that ID NOW demonstrates performance of 95% sensitivity and 98% specificity in people within 7 days post symptom onset.

Notice the company refers to “post symptom onset,” meaning it is not intended to reliably detect COVID-19 in people showing no symptoms.

Let’s face it, America is led by seniors

The COVID-19 pandemic makes the time-honored American tradition of electing senior citizens to top government positions more relevant.

At age 74, Donald Trump is younger than many of the people in the emergency line of succession behind him. Forgive a short rant, please, from a senior citizen myself when a New York Times headline says “How to Cover a Sick Old Man” when referring to the president. Likewise, Saturday Night Live (and yes, I realize this is comedy) portrayed Joe Biden as a fumbling senior. Back in March, the Atlantic included a similar senior slam with the line about Trump, Biden and Bernie Sanders that said, “We have now before us three candidates divided by ideology, but united in dotage.” (In case you’re wondering, dotage means “the period of life in which a person is old and weak.”)

The New York Times gathered together a list and reported:

Physical decline is likely to be a major feature of the next few years of American politics, at least. The current line of succession, after Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, features:

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 80
  • Charles Grassley, Senate president pro tempore and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, 87
  • James Clyburn and Steny Hoyer, both 80 or older. The Times calls them Pelosi’s “two most powerful deputies in the House.”
  • James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, 85 and “coasting to re-election,” the Times says
  • Richard Shelby, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, 86
  • Joe Biden, “who turns 78 next month, is nearly a year younger than the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who is also seeking reelection in November.”

While Americans consider two seniors for the presidency, Europeans have been electing younger candidates. Finland’s recently elected prime minister, Sanna Marin, is 34 years old.

The “Rulers, Elections and Irregular Government” dataset, created by Curtis Bell from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, shows the trend.

(Curtis Bell)

The European Union’s current cohort of national leaders has a median age of 52. The group of 28 includes eight leaders under the age of 45.

The number of “under age 40” world leaders who were elected to (or inherited) office is robust. Most of the nations led by those 70 years old and older are in Asia and Africa. With very few exceptions, these leaders are men.

Let’s put the age of recent American presidents against the global trend. Again, you will see the global downward trend against America’s lean toward senior leaders.

(Graphic via The New York Times)

And of course, just as the rest of America is aging, so is Congress.

Why do we elect older candidates? In part, the answer could be because seniors are more likely to vote and we may weigh candidates’ ages against their vitality and experience.

In the EU countries shown in the charts above, many of the prime ministers are not elected by popular vote. They are elected by fellow members of government — parliaments, for example — and the arc toward youth may be a play to constituents and a hope that the leader will be around for a while. And, don’t forget, to get elected in the U.S. you have to be fairly well known and have a track record that will attract donors, or be rich yourself.

As I was thinking of Trump’s age this weekend, I flashed back to a story about the former Sen. Bill Nelson from Florida when he was 74. The interview took place as he took his morning run along the beach. And I thought of the venerable U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper, called “Mr. Senior Citizen,” who championed protection of Social Security at a time when congressional leaders were meeting privately to postpone cost-of-living raises. He fought to expand Medicare. He led the fight to make mandatory retirement virtually illegal. Pepper served in Congress from 1935 to 1991. Those dates are not typos.

As headlines express concerns about “How to Cover a Sick Old Man,” let’s flash back to 1984, when former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm told the Colorado Health Lawyers Association that the terminally ill elderly were like “leaves falling off a tree and forming humus for the other plants to grow up.” Then he said, “You’ve got a duty to die and get out of the way” and “let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life.” Lamm was 48 when he said that.

Later he would add that he was talking about the ethics of using machines and technology to keep seniors alive. “I was essentially raising a general statement about the human condition, not beating up on the elderly,” he said. Now, at age 85, Lamm still says it makes no sense to put a terminally ill patient who has COVID-19 on a ventilator.

The dangerous state of America’s medical supply chain

Tonight on PBS, Frontline and the Associated Press explore why the nation was left scrambling for medical supplies when faced with a pandemic. The PBS publicity release promoting the episode included:

“This is deplorable,” says American Nurses Association president Ernest Grant. “We send soldiers into battle with the equipment that they need. We send firefighters in to fight fires with the equipment that they need. But yet we were asking nurses to do the exact same thing, but without the equipment that they needed. There’s a failure in the system. I think those who are in position to ensure that the supply chain was being maintained, they failed us big time.”

Over seven months of interviewing manufacturers and government officials, analyzing records and tracking key medical supplies, AP investigative reporters Martha Mendoza and Juliet Linderman, along with producer Peter Klein of the Global Reporting Centre and his team, found opportunities stretching across several presidential administrations where that failure might have been prevented.

The program will also explore how the U.S. increasingly became dependent on Chinese suppliers for critical materials such as masks. You will hear from the last American medical mask maker who warned about the problem years ago.

With this week’s new focus on how far and fast COVID-19 can spread, it might be a good time for you to check on your community/state’s state of readiness for a “second wave” while facing a flu season. I was reminded of this while rereading ProPublica’s coverage of how New York City had been forewarned 14 years ago about how, one day, there would be a need for 9,000 or more ventilators. The city bought 500 and then sold them off as they aged and needed maintenance.

Marketplace reported there is still a critical need for the most basic supplies:

Nearly a million teachers have tried crowdfunding for their classrooms over the last twenty years, according to Brett Lee, a professor at Texas State University who has studied the practice.

But recently, teacher crowdfunding needs have changed. “The supply requests during the pandemic are in two categories,” Lee said.

Teachers need supplies for remote learning: headphones, laptops, tablets, cameras. They also need safety equipment for in-person learning: air purifiers, face masks, hand sanitizer, and thermometers.

WLRN Public Radio tells the story of teachers who spend hundreds of their own dollars to pay for plexiglass dividers because the Florida Teachers Classroom Supply Assistance Program cannot be spent on things like COVID dividers or cleaning supplies.

Detailed guidance from local school districts lists examples of what’s allowed — paper, pens, pencils, highlighters, books, art and crafts materials — and what’s not — clothing, electronics, furniture, cleaning supplies.

The prohibition against spending the funding on technology equipment presents another challenge during a crisis marked by an abrupt, and problematic, shift to virtual learning.

For example, high school English teacher Brigette Kinney bought a scanner for her home office, since she was no longer able to make photocopies of pages in books and distribute them to her students. Again, she spent her own money on it.

One in four U.S. women may leave the workforce because of COVID-19

Here is something else that does not show up in the latest unemployment figures.

A new large-scale study by Lean In and McKinsey & Company finds that companies are about to face a workforce crisis. Companies risk losing women at all levels of leadership and management. The study finds:

No one is experiencing business as usual, but women — especially mothers, senior-level women and Black women — have faced distinct challenges. One in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to COVID-19.

This year’s report makes one thing clear: Corporate America is at a critical crossroads. Without bold steps, we could erase all the progress we’ve made toward gender diversity in the six years of this study.

1 in 4 women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable less than a year ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce. This is a critical moment for corporate America. Companies risk losing women in leadership — and future women leaders — and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.

The study says the pandemic has created challenges — especially for women and most especially for Black women — that may lead to two million women taking a leave of absence or possibly leaving the workforce completely. That is a higher rate than men. The study points out that not only would it cost current leaders, but female leaders who are in the “leadership pipeline” will be lost from the workforce, which will have years of implications.

The study includes so many story leads. I will pull two charts that caught my eye. One shows how women say they are reluctant to talk about feelings of burnout and pressure because they worry that they will be judged more harshly than men. They also say they worry coworkers perceive that they are not productive enough while working at home.

(Lean In and McKinsey & Company)

(Lean In and McKinsey & Company)

The women in the survey also say remote work means they do not have regular contact with their bosses or mentors who might not notice the quality and quantity of work employees are doing out of sight.

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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