President Trump and the CDC just reshuffled coronavirus guidelines for schools  

Plus, it's time to check in on local government budgets, workplaces are tracking health records, zoos and aquariums are in trouble, and more.

July 9, 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.

President Trump and the CDC just reshuffled coronavirus guidelines for schools

President Donald Trump said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance for schools to reopen in a month or so are too tough and too expensive. Now, the CDC says it will reconsider its guidance.

You would think that the CDC’s guidance is based on medical evidence and that it would be so well thought out in advance that we would not be discussing changing it weeks ahead of a new semester. You would think.

The White House pointed to one recommendation as an example of a CDC recommendation that was too onerous: “Have children bring their own meals as feasible or serve individually plated meals in classrooms instead of in a communal dining hall or cafeteria, while ensuring the safety of children with food allergies.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said millions of children cannot supply their own meals. But the guideline includes a provision that says the schools should provide individually plated meals in classrooms. It is not saying that there would be no food whatsoever supplied by the school.

Maybe the most useful thing I can do for you is to remind you of a few of the most difficult provisions in the CDC’s guidelines for schools.

The CDC recommended all students, teachers and staff wear masks. It pushed schools to have backup staffing plans if teachers can’t or won’t come back to class. The CDC suggested staggering in-class teaching with remote learning and the said buses should make multiple deliveries and pickups at schools to limit students congregating in large numbers.

The guidelines also say, in part:

Space seating/desks at least 6 feet apart when feasible.

If feasible, conduct daily health checks (e.g., temperature screening and/or or symptom checking) of staff and students.

Close communal use shared spaces such as dining halls and playgrounds with shared playground equipment if possible.

Ensure that student and staff groupings are as static as possible by having the same group of children stay with the same staff (all day for young children, and as much as possible for older children).

Create distance between children on school buses (seat children one child per row, skip rows) when possible.

Actively encourage employees and students who are sick or who have recently had close contact with a person with COVID-19 to stay home. Develop policies that encourage sick employees and students to stay at home without fear of reprisal, and ensure employees, students, and students’ families are aware of these policies. Consider not having perfect attendance awards, not assessing schools based on absenteeism, and offering virtual learning and telework options, if feasible.

Teach and reinforce use of cloth face coverings. Face coverings may be challenging for students (especially younger students) to wear in all-day settings such as school.

Ensure ventilation systems operate properly and increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible, for example by opening windows and doors.

Drinking fountains should be cleaned and sanitized, but encourage staff and students to bring their own water to minimize use and touching of water fountains.

The president implied that he could withhold federal money from schools that do not get students back in classrooms. Note that about 90% of local school budgets come from state and local governments, but the feds do fund special programs in schools in economically vulnerable communities.

CNN said that President Trump may not be able to cut off federal funding, but “the Trump administration could issue an interim final rule to block funding enacted in the March CARES Act for schools that don’t reopen. The law provided $13 billion for school districts to cover COVID-19 costs.”

This might be a good place to stop and look at the newest projections for COVID-19 deaths from the University of Washington.

(University of Washington)

The red dotted line is if we reopen and don’t wear masks. The green line is if we all wear masks and socially distance.

Pay attention to the fact that this forecast takes us into November, which would put us at the doorstep of what might be a second wave of the virus, if there is one. Health officials say there almost certainly will be.

Opioid deaths are spiking during the COVID-19 pandemic

Since the first COVID-19 case was reported in January, drug overdoses in the United States are up 20%, according to the national Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, a data project launched by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The American Medical Association said:

The AMA is greatly concerned by an increasing number of reports from national, state and local media suggesting increases in opioid-related mortality — particularly from illicitly manufactured fentanyl and fentanyl analogs. More than 35 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality as well as ongoing concerns for those with a mental illness or substance use disorder in counties and other areas within the state

The association added:

This also includes new reports about the need for evidence-based harm reduction services, including sterile needle and syringe services and naloxone.

And if that is not enough, NPR reported that drug and alcohol treatment centers are nearing financial collapse.

In April, the National Council for Behavioral Health surveyed its 3,400 members, most of whom are nonprofit community treatment centers. Nearly all — 92.6% of both residential and outpatient centers — had cut back their programs, forcing many to furlough employees or lay them off. A month into the pandemic, two-thirds of those centers said they had enough cash to last three months or less.

“Unfortunately it’s a self-perpetuating cycle,” says Chuck Ingoglia, CEO of the council. “You have fewer staff or fewer programs, which means you can treat fewer people,” he says, “which then has long term impact on your revenue.”

Consider these examples from the DEA’s mapping program:

  • Shelby County, (Memphis) Tennessee: The Shelby County Health Department reported 391 suspected overdoses from April 7 to May 7, 58 of which were fatal, the most in a 30-day period since tracking began in January 2019.
  • Franklin County, Ohio: Franklin County coroner Dr. Anahi Ortiz reported the first four months of 2020 showed 50% more deaths than in the same period of 2019. Ortiz also reported a pattern of weekend spikes.
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Milwaukee County’s Emergency Medical Services Division reported March and April 2020 show a 54% increase in drug overdose calls compared to the same time period in 2019.

People with addictions have a tough enough time managing their lives in the best of days. During a pandemic, experts say, sobriety relapses are more common.

Emotional distress, economic insecurity and isolation are all triggers that can touch off unwanted behavior.

Physicians said patients who are in treatment for addiction to opioids may have problems getting to the clinic for methadone or other medications for treating or managing addiction.

The Detroit Free Press reported:

While administrators and clinicians at metro Detroit mental health agencies and substance abuse treatment centers are still reeling from the loss of staff to COVID-19, they also face heightened pressure to continue serving vulnerable people who are now even more likely to experience relapses, overdoses, deeper depression and suicide attempts, compounded by the pandemic.

For some agencies, that means moving in-person groups to Zoom video conferences and telehealth sessions over the phone, paring down capacity because of social distance protocols and putting some programs on hold. But for others — despite skyrocketing demand for services — dealing with reductions in their capacity to provide those services could mean budget shortfalls and a looming threat of closures.

The Outer Banks Voice looked at the health issues common among people with addictions that make enduring a bout of COVID-19 more difficult, including reduced lung capacity:

Specifically, people who smoke or vape, or use opioids or methamphetamine may face heightened risk. In addition, chronic opioid use already increases the risk of slowed breathing due to hypoxemia, which can lead to cardiac and pulmonary complications that may result in overdose and death. While all people should be taking precautions to prevent exposure to COVID-19, this is particularly critical for higher risk groups, including people who smoke, vape, or use opioids or methamphetamine.

Physical distancing measures, while critical to COVID-19 mitigation, eliminate the important element of social support needed for addiction recovery.

It’s time to check in on mid-year fines, fees and taxes

Here we are in the middle of 2020 — a good time for you to tally up how your local governments are doing with collecting key sources of income that the pandemic will have gutted.

Take a look at traffic fines, parking fines and court fees, which will have dropped significantly as people all but stopped driving for a couple of months.

In recent years, cities and towns, especially smaller towns, have become reliant on fines and fees as a significant income stream. And of course, poor people pay the most, often paying fines for not paying fines that they could not afford in the first place.

You can also look at fuel taxes, which help fund transportation budgets, along with hotel and tourism tax income and rental car fees, which will be practically nonexistent. noted:

Waiting on Washington may be the hardest part, but states and localities face other unknowns. For one thing, most states followed the feds in moving their income tax filing deadlines back, from April 15 to July 15. Since returns will reflect last year’s income levels, they should be pretty healthy. Still, quarterly payments that normally would have been due in June may come in short of expectations.

Then there’s the economy. With coronavirus cases surging, states are either putting the brakes on reopening plans or, to a limited extent, shifting them into reverse. Optimism that the disease would die down to an extent allowing the economy to shift into full recovery mode will have to be tempered for a while. That’s bad news for everyone. It also makes it difficult for revenue forecasters to know what type of receipts their jurisdictions can count on.

The National League of Cities just surveyed more than a thousand municipalities and found:

74% of municipalities have already started making unavoidable cuts and adjustments in response to the projected $360 billion revenue loss for cities over the next 3 years.

65% of cities are being forced to delay or completely cancel capital expenditures and infrastructure projects, which will not only stifle job growth and slow local economic activity, but further jeopardize economic recovery efforts in communities across the nation.

What can we learn from the AIDS epidemic?

I am a big fan of The Retro Report, which mines up old stories to find out what we could learn from them. Looking back at America’s slow response to the AIDS epidemic could teach us key lessons for fighting COVID-19:

  • Understand where supplies are and are not.
  • Communicate a clear and consistent message.
  • Epidemics follow commerce and travel around the world.
  • Contact tracing is vitally important to controlling the disease.
  • When a health infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate it cannot get up and running quickly enough to catch up with a fast-moving pandemic. Basic research costs money and takes time. We need good testing, surveillance and a health care infrastructure that can handle a surge in demand.
  • “The clock is always moving,” even when government responses to an epidemic move slowly.
  • The public needs clear, specific instruction to avoid the disease. In the AIDS epidemic, activists took on the role that the government would not.
  • Denials and looking the other way do nothing to stem an epidemic.

As you watch the video, you will notice a familiar face: Dr. Anthony Fauci, who 39 years later is still trying to teach us the same lessons. All of those decades ago, Fauci warned that another pandemic would come our way.

I suspect that you could find applications for this idea locally if you mined through your archives to see how your community responded (or didn’t) to AIDS and how that mirrors (or doesn’t) your local community’s response to COVID-19.

The military wants veterans back, even those with pot convictions

These days, a solid job in the military might sound more appealing. Buried in the Defense Authorization Bill that the House Armed Services Committee passed last week is a little provision that might be of interest to veterans who left the service, got into a little trouble for having weed in their pocket and now would like to come back to Uncle Sam for a job.

Federal News Network reported:

Currently, getting caught with marijuana while not in uniform can keep you from reenlisting again. But as the nation’s views on marijuana are changing, so are some lawmakers’ thoughts on the issue.

A provision submitted by Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) allows the leaders of the military services to grant a reenlistment waiver to people who have left the military, gotten a misdemeanor cannabis charge, and want to come back in.

The waiver can be granted if the military official thinks the person is vital to the national interest.

Lobster prices are really low

I am doing more on this topic than I might, considering it is mainly a “Maine” story. But some widespread and complex topics — retail economics, international trade and climate change — all find an intersection in this one story. I hope it will help you to think more broadly about the small stories in your backyard.

This is good news if you are in the mood for a lobster roll, horrible news if you are a lobster fisherman.

It’s the time of year when tourists are usually flocking to the New England coast and fishermen are making their money. But the tourists are not flocking this year and 2020 also follows a year marked by a Trump trade war with China that dried up demand. Exports dropped by half last year.

President Donald Trump promised lobster fishermen in June that help is on the way. But a month later, they still don’t know what he has in mind.

The Bangor Daily News explained:

China imposed retaliatory 25% tariffs on American lobster in July 2018 as part of an escalating trade war between the two countries. Lobster exports from Maine to China plummeted immediately. In September 2019 those tariffs were raised to 35% but reduced this February to 30%. Maine is particularly hard hit because it accounts for about 80% of the value of that fishery in the United States.

Right now, lobster fishermen are only getting about half of the price they got a year ago. Bloomberg said COVID-19 interrupted the most important part of the export season:

U.S. lobster prices have plummeted to the lowest in at least four years after the spread of the virus halted charter flights to Asia at a time when sales usually boom for Chinese New Year celebrations.

An Associated Press story said you could see summer lobster prices drop even further, to the lowest they have been in years:

That could translate to lower prices to consumers, who are already paying less than $6 per pound for lobsters in some Maine markets. Prices around $8 or $9 per pound are typical of this month in Maine.

“The state needs to do something to curb supply, because there is no demand,” said David Cousens, a lobster fisher and former president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “Otherwise we’re going to have a disaster.”

Cousens said many fishers are seeing prices of $2 to $3 per pound at the docks. Last year’s average price was $4.82 per pound. For wholesalers, live, 1.25-pound lobsters were worth $6.74 per pound in the Northeast in April, according to business publisher Urner Barry. That was 13% less than a year ago and 37% less than two years ago.

And, The New York Times reported, warming Atlantic waters have moved lobster further away from the coast so it costs more to fish.

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at or on Twitter, @atompkins.