May 26, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Medicare buy-in may become more popular, even essential

This may seem like a dry policy story, but it is anything but that. It will become a hugely important issue in the months before the election.

Almost 2.4 million Americans between the ages of 55 to 64 have lost their jobs during the pandemic. When the next unemployment figures come out, that number will grow even more. And many of them didn’t just lose their jobs, they lost their health care insurance.

Some will be able to get Medicaid coverage with their unemployment. Others may turn to Obamacare, but that can include some pretty high deductibles. Which brings us to another option: “early buy-in” for Medicare, which is different from Bernie Sanders’ proposed “Medicare for all” notion that some Democrats are pushing for.

There are two bills pending in Congress:

  • Medicare at 50 Act by Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, S. 470
  • Medicare Buy-In and Health Care Stabilization Act of 2019 by Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins of New York, H.R. 1346

Both of these proposals would allow seniors who are not yet 65 to buy into Medicare. They would pay a monthly premium, as they would for private insurance, but would be paying into the federal program instead. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden proposed in April that because of the pandemic’s cost to senior workers, the country should lower Medicare eligibility to age 60 and not require a buy-in.

Unresolved, however, is the fact that the country’s Medicare fund is facing insolvency even without allowing millions more Americans to join the system, paid or unpaid. In fact, in recent years, Congress has considered pushing the Medicare eligibility age up to 67, not down to 60.

NPR looked at this topic last month and reported that there is some fog around how changing the Medicare eligibility age would affect private insurance companies and Medicare itself. One notion is that if you get older people out of the private insurance pools, private insurance might be less expensive for younger people. At the same time, allowing younger seniors to buy into Medicare might put healthier, younger clients in that pool.

But it is not as simple as it sounds. NPR reported:

When analysts first started looking at the impact of changing Medicare’s eligibility age, they thought that lowering it would help both the Medicare and private insurance risk pools. That’s because the 60- to 64-year-olds would become the youngest, and likely healthiest, members of the Medicare pool. Conversely, they are currently the oldest, and presumably sickest, members of the pool for individual market insurance.

But that view has changed over the past few years. A 2019 study by the Rand Corp evaluated the consequences of allowing even younger Americans to buy into Medicare. The Rand study found that while people ages 50 to 64 would themselves likely pay less under a buy-in program, that doesn’t necessarily translate to savings for the pool of people who buy their own coverage on the individual market.

“When older adults leave the market, insurers are left with a smaller pool of younger, less healthy, and relatively expensive people (given their age), leading to higher premiums,” the study found.

Again, journalists, this is not just an old folks story. It is a COVID-19 layoff story. It is an issue high in the minds of millennials who are worried about their parents’ health care coverage. It is an emerging political issue in the 2020 election. Ask how many 60-year-olds would take an early retirement buyout from a university trying to cut staff and you would see them jumping for it if they had a viable health insurance option.

Squatters are taking advantage of anti-eviction rules

The National Association of Realtors said squatters are taking advantage of anti-eviction rules by renting short term and then staying put after the rent was supposed to end. And because anti-eviction orders are, in some places, in effect all summer, landlords said they may miss out on summer rental incomes with no way to boot the squatters out.

No wonder parents feel they have less time right now

Like a lot of you, I am a data nerd, so I love scouring data tables for stories. I just spotted this one.

A new U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse survey showed the average U.S. household with kids spent around four hours or so a week interacting with school teachers, but parents spent three times that much teaching their kids. Notice, too, how older Americans are also spending a lot of time teaching kids, which suggests to me that grandparents might be stepping in to help.

Three or four hours a day interacting with a teacher is not going to cut it when schools reopen in the fall.

The same Census data showed how many American households do not have internet access or devices for children to use in distance learning. While, as a percentage, the number of disconnected kids is pretty low, when you look at it as a raw number, you see how many millions of school children have a hard time connecting virtually with classrooms.

Where do you park thousands of grounded jets?

This is one of the coolest stories I have seen in a few days. CNet wondered where airlines put the hundreds and hundreds of big jets that are not flying. By one count, somewhere around 17,000 jumbo jets are parked around the world.

CNet toured the Oakland, California, jet parking lot and pointed out that almost any metro airport will have some version of this scene. CNet said:

The scene at Oakland is just a small slice of the new reality being played out around the world because of COVID-19. At major hubs like Dallas-Fort Worth and Hong Kong and at sprawling airports in the deserts of the southwest specifically designed for storing aircraft, commercial planes crowd aprons and taxiways, sometimes even spilling onto runways that’ve been closed to fit them. In some places, they’re lined in neat rows. In others, they’re packed in formations so tight they look like they’d need an army to untangle.

American, the largest airline in the world, is parking aircraft not just at its DFW home base, but also at airports in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Pittsburgh, where it operates large maintenance bases, and at facilities in Mobile, Alabama; San Antonio; and Greensboro, North Carolina. Other airlines are also parking their planes in multiple locations, but with carriers everywhere the goal is to use whatever space is available. Teruel, Spain, is a popular choice for many European airlines, and faced with little room in the city-state of Singapore, the country’s flagship carrier has flown its giant Airbus A380s to remote Alice Springs, Australia.

The story said that you can’t just park one of those big planes in a desert and forget about it until you need it. Even in storage, crews rotate tires, charge batteries, keep flaps limber, turn on the air conditioning systems and so on.

Every 30 days, an aircraft gets a little more care, but the schedule mostly repeats on the 10-day cycle. It’s a lot of work, but Barton said the goal is to protect American’s multimillion-dollar investment by making sure the aircraft still function. “Touching an aircraft every 10 days — you have to put about eight hours of work into it every 10 days,” he said. “So, it’s more or less a person a day per airplane we park to try to manage the storage program.”

Reactivating a plane for service, which takes about three days, basically reverses the storage intake process. Mechanics take off the coverings; restore and purify the water systems; check the fuel tanks and lines to clear any algae; and finish any maintenance checks still on the aircraft’s calendar.

“If you’ve stored it properly, you’ve validated throughout the whole process that the aircraft systems still work,” Craig Barton, the head of technical operations said. “So, it’s not like you’re going out and hoping that the airplane will start back up.”

The CNet story, written by Kent German, includes some remarkable images and videos of those big jet parking lots.

U.S. births fall, again. But, why?

In the last year, as I have done in a lot of seminars about covering elections, I showed a survey of Americans’ priorities. One of the data points talked about how much different generations of Americans value having children of their own. Boomers value it a lot, but our kids, not so much. So, I ask “why,” and I get all sorts of answers, from financial pressures to chasing career dreams to a general pessimism about the future of the world.

It is playing out in front of us now.

We just got figures that show U.S. births fell to their lowest number in 35 years.

An Associated Press story said, “‘This unpredictable environment, and anxiety about the future, is going to make women think twice about having children,’ said Dr. Denise Jamieson, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Emory University.”

Jobs that didn’t exist before COVID-19

The pandemic has created some new jobs we didn’t consider a couple of months ago, including cart wipers, soft drink dispenser attendants and elevator button pushers.

American Banker said, “JPMorgan Chase said it might station attendants outside elevators to help push buttons, so fewer workers need to touch keypads.”

Those jobs are all chickenfeed compared to the probable growth in robotics since, you know, robots don’t worry about social distancing.

Half of the counties in the U.S. have zero COVID-19 test sites

54% of U.S. counties have no COVID-19 test site, according to Castlight’s special report on local virus testing. The next statistic from Castlight surprised me even more:

An analysis of county-level data shows that 38% of metro counties (those with populations at or greater than 50,000) and 68% of rural counties (with populations under 10,000) have no testing sites at all.

I know you have covered testing so many times. But these next couple of sentences from Castlight are really important to our collective future:

While there is no exact number of tests that, once reached, will guarantee safety, experts have estimated that we would need to test between 3 million to 30 million people per week to begin safely reopening the economy. During the first week of May, the U.S. averaged only about 260,000 tests per day, just over half the minimum recommended amount.

COVID-19 hits the homeless hard

One of the more appalling COVID-19 denier memes asks the knucklehead question that goes something like, “If COVID-19 was so deadly why has it not wiped put the homeless population, because they cannot socially distance and can’t constantly wash their hands?”

That is a question that only somebody who has no contact with the homeless would ask, because the truth is COVID-19 has been particularly hard on homeless Americans.

In some ways it is not surprising. Homeless people tend to be in more frail health, often have respiratory problems even before COVID-19 complications and the American homeless population is aging. Homeless shelters have had to reduce bed capacity, sending even more people to sleep wherever they can.

And, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, tests show a high rate of positive COVID-19 cases when homeless populations do get tested:

Overall, 1,192 residents and 313 staff members were tested in 19 homeless shelters. When testing followed identification of a cluster, high proportions of residents and staff members had positive test results for SARS-CoV-2 in Seattle (17% of residents; 17% of staff members), Boston (36%; 30%), San Francisco (66%; 16%).

San Francisco is on the brink of a true emergency as a rush of homeless people are pitching tents and sleeping bags in city streets because shelters cannot accept them during the pandemic. In one community of San Francisco, close to 500 tents line sidewalks.

The state of California leased 15,000 hotel rooms, in part to help homeless people, and the governor suggested the state use some federal stimulus dollars to buy vacant hotels to turn them into shelters for people who need them.

How COVID-19 has set back the anti-plastic movement

Stores are telling customers that they cannot stuff groceries into reusable shopping bags because of COVID-19 concerns. So plastic bags are back, in a big way.

California allowed stores to hand out plastic bags again, without charging for the bags. Since 2016, California required stores to charge 10 cents per plastic bag when shoppers did not bring their own reusable bags to stores. New Hampshire went further, outright banning reusable bags for now.

The Albany Times-Union reported:

Hannaford, Walmart and Price Chopper have brought back plastic bags.

At the same time, checkout clerks in stores are having customers bag their own groceries if they bring in reusable sacks.

“In an effort to reduce the risk of contamination between teammates and customers, we ask that reusable bag owners pack their own groceries,” reads the signs on Price Chopper stores.

Part of the change stems from worries by checkout clerks that they could contract coronavirus from a contaminated reusable bag that hasn’t been washed recently or on a regular basis.

In some cases, it was not the retailers’ choice. In New York, for example, a plastic bag ban was to have begun May 15 but is being delayed at least until June 15 largely because the pandemic made it unlikely that anybody would be available to enforce the new law.

Maine postponed enforcement of its plastic bag ban until next year.

Experts from North Carolina State University said there is no known reason to worry about reusable bags spreading the virus. They produced this graphic:

North Carolina State University

The question remains whether the anti-plastic movement will pick back up after the pandemic stabilizes. Bloomberg reported:

These reversals have sparked deep concern among activists. Some fear the bans will never be reinstated; others that reusable products may be permanently tainted as “unsafe.” The good news is that activists aren’t the only ones demanding more sustainable packaging these days. So are consumers — and some of the world’s biggest corporations are paying attention.

Campaigns against consumer plastics date roughly to the discovery of the Pacific garbage patch in 1988. The environmental movement was soon galvanized, and single-use plastics — especially grocery bags and straws — became a focus of global activism. Much of this was misdirected. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, plastic bags and wraps amounted to only about 0.3% of all the waste generated by homes and businesses in 2010. By comparison, containers and packaging make up about 30%.

This thoughtful essay from The Berkshire Eagle looks at the well-intentioned efforts to reduce plastic waste that sometimes do not turn out as intended.

COVID-19 is no excuse to ignore childhood vaccinations

Just as an example, in Michigan, fewer than half of infants 5 months or younger are up to date on their vaccinations. If we do not address the fact that parents are not taking children to get routine vaccinations during the stay-at-home orders, we will pay for it soon with outbreaks of diseases like measles. The CDC said we need 90 to 95% of all of us to be vaccinated against a disease to have what they call “herd immunity.”

We have seen this wave building for a couple of months as family physicians moved to online office visits, mass transit made it difficult to get to in-person appointments and parents were reluctant to take their little ones out because of the pandemic.

In Oregon, some smart health workers started parking lot immunization clinics, sort of like I have seen veterinarians do for dogs and cats.

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 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,…
Al Tompkins

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