October 2, 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 Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19. The White House tested the first couple after one of the president’s closest aides, Hope Hicks, started showing mild COVID-19 symptoms and then tested positive.

The president posted this message on Twitter just before 1 a.m.:

Followed shortly by this from the first lady:

The president and first lady said they have begun quarantine procedures. With a month to go before the election, this news will have profound implications for how the president will connect with voters and his ability to do the daily work as chief executive. Sean Conley, the White House physician, said, “The President and First Lady are both well at this time.” He said they plan to remain in the White House while they recover and the president “will continue carrying out his duties without disruption.”

But the disruption will begin right away. Trump, who is 74 years old, was scheduled to travel to North Carolina on Friday. Now he won’t be traveling any time soon. If the president quarantines for the typical two weeks, it makes the prospect of future in-person debates unlikely. The next presidential debate is 13 days away.

It is unknown how many other top White House aides may also have been exposed at a critical time. Those at most risk are people who have been within 6 feet of an infected person for longer than 10 minutes, but that is a rough calculation. Among the people the president and Hope Hicks have been close to in the last few days are the president’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Within a half hour of the news breaking, U.S. stock market futures trading sank more than four hundred points. But this would be a good time to remind ourselves that around half of all COVID-infected adults show no symptoms of having the virus.

Without a doubt, the president will now become the face of COVID-19. He has repeatedly promised that the virus would disappear and that it has “run its course.” He has refused to wear a mask and has repeatedly appeared at rallies, ceremonies and public events without a mask and without demanding his followers take precautions. He said he had taken the unproven medication hydroxychloroquine that he hoped would prevent infection.

In an interview on Fox earlier Thursday evening, the president said that Hope Hicks could have contracted the virus from an interaction with a supporter.

“She’s a very warm person,” he said. “She has a hard time, when soldiers and law enforcement comes up to her, you know, she wants to treat them great, not say, ‘Stay away, I can’t get near you.’ It’s a very, very tough disease.”

This may be an opportunity for journalists to explore the public shaming and stigmatization that comes with testing positive. Certainly, there will be a rush to judgment blaming Hicks or even Trump himself.

We cannot know until contact tracing finds out how the president got infected. Hicks tested positive Thursday before the president got his news, but we do not know how the virus traveled around the White House or Air Force One or Marine One.

Friday will be consumed with questions about whether protocols were followed and how many others around the president, from staff to security, may have been exposed. And if more positive gets come back in the days to come, there will be plenty of questions about what effects it will have on the inner workings of the White House.

The White House published President Trump’s updated Friday schedule, which scrubbed all travel, of course. But the president still plans to keep one phone call. Ironically, he will be talking with senior citizens who are vulnerable to COVID-19.

(The White House)

President Trump is not the first head of state or world leader to become infected.

  • United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson tested positive for coronavirus on March 27. He was briefly moved into intensive care.
  • Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, wife of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, tested positive for the coronavirus on March 12.
  • Israel’s health minister tested positive as did Iranian Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar.
  • Prince Charles was tested positive for COVID-19 on March 25 after he came down with mild symptoms.
  • Begoña Gómez, the wife of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, tested positive in March.

This is not the first White House infection, either. Two White House staffers tested positive in May. One of those was a personal valet to the president. A third case included a White House cafeteria employee. There was a fourth case, but the person was not identified.

Understanding the 25th Amendment

The president’s diagnosis sends us back to the U.S. Constitution to remember what the procedure is if a president is not able to fulfill his duties.  Section 3 of the 25th Amendment says, “Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.”

Business Insider expands on the Amendment:

The 25th Amendment of the Constitution was passed in 1967 after fears about presidential succession after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The first two sections deal with presidents and vice presidents resigning, dying, or being generally removed from office, and these sections were invoked in order to elevate Gerald R. Ford to the presidency after Richard Nixon resigned in 1974.

The second two sections of the amendment deal specifically with what to do with a president who is unfit to serve.

A small number of presidents have temporarily surrendered presidential duties due to health concerns.

The first time this happened was on July 13, 1985, when President Ronald Reagan sent a letter directing then-Vice President George H.W. Bush to perform his duties while the president underwent a surgery to remove cancerous polyps from his colon. Bush was acting president from 11:28 a.m. when Reagan was given general anesthesia to 7:22 p.m. when Reagan sent another letter to members of the Senate and resumed his powers.

President George W. Bush had not one, but two instances in which he was deemed “unable” to perform the duties of the president during his two-term tenure.

Again, the president and first lady say they are doing well. But no White House statement has mentioned whether they are experiencing any symptoms. The White House physician says they are doing well.

The future of the campaign

It may be useful to look to history for a comparison of what happened when Theodore Roosevelt, running for a third term, was shot by a fanatic. Woodrow Wilson suspended his campaign during the entire period that Roosevelt was hospitalized.

Today’s jobless figures are the last before the election

The jobless figures that the Labor Department releases today will be the last jobs numbers that voters will see before the election.

We know, even before they arrive, that they do not reflect the tens of thousands of workers who lost their jobs at Disney and other major employers this week. We know they do not reflect the single worst round of job losses in aviation history that started yesterday.

The first eight months of the pandemic involved largely small and medium-sized industries laying off staff. But now the big companies are resizing as 2021 comes into focus.

Allstate just announced that 3,800 employees would be out of work. Publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said Thursday that it would cut a fourth of its employees. Those figures are not in today’s jobless figures. 

The Labor Department says three-quarters of a million Americans filed for unemployment last week.

Homebase, an employee scheduling company, issues monthly reports about what it sees based on company work schedules. The new report offers a fairly grim outlook for what is ahead:

For the third continuous month since June, our Main Street economic indicators remained flat, with 20% of businesses still closed nationwide.

But for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, we saw our employment metrics fall, ending the 6-month period of upward trajectory and signaling worsening conditions ahead for the small business economy.

Having observed declines across states and in industries more sensitive to end-of-summer / back-to-school headwinds, we expect conditions to decline further as we head into autumn and operating outdoors becomes more challenging for businesses as cooler weather sets in.

The only other major economic data that voters will see before the election will be the third-quarter gross domestic product data, which is a measure of the overall economy’s recovery.

The airlines said they would hold off on some of the more than 30,000 layoffs that began yesterday if Congress passed a new COVID-19 relief bill. And the airlines are now saying that if there is a relief bill in the next few days, the airlines could reverse their layoffs.

The White House and the speaker of the House talked again for a while Thursday and again could not come to an agreement. The House passed a more than $2 trillion relief bill that will be dead on arrival in the Senate.

19,000 Amazon workers contracted COVID-19 this year

Back in the spring, we thought of grocery clerks and Amazon warehouse and delivery employees as “essential workers.” Late Thursday, Amazon reported that 19,000 of those essential workers have been infected with COVID-19 this year.

Even at that rate, Amazon wants you to know its 1.3 million employees had a significantly lower (42% lower) infection rate than the general population. Amazon provides a state-by-state chart of actual cases and what it calls “expected cases,” meaning how many cases it would have had if Amazon reflected the case load the rest of the country experienced.

Amazon released the data as employees complain that the company had no plan to deal with the pandemic.

Chinese citizens are getting vaccinated now, while Moderna says no vaccine before Election Day

Samples of a COVID-19 vaccine produced by China National Biotec Group are displayed near a 3D model of a coronavirus. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Moderna, which was once thought to be the leader in the race to have a COVID-19 vaccine, said this week it will not be ready to present a drug to the Food and Drug Administration for approval before Election Day.

There is a drug that probably will be ready, except that it is being developed by a Chinese drug manufacturer, China National Biotec Group — or C.N.B.G. — based in Beijing. The president has spent eight months blaming China for the virus, so it would be a tough sell to convince people to take a vaccine developed by a Chinese company.

The New Yorker’s Peter Hessler reports that hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have already gotten the vaccine.

C.N.B.G., having neared the end of Phase III trials with two different versions of its vaccine, is currently filing application materials with China’s regulatory commission. In normal times, approval could take between six months and a year, but people in the industry told me that the process will be accelerated because of pressures related to both the pandemic and politics. (C.N.B.G. did not respond to a request for comment.)

In the meantime, many Chinese citizens haven’t waited for full approval before getting injected. The state press has reported that hundreds of thousands have already been vaccinated by C.N.B.G., under an emergency-use approval granted by the government.

Hessler says government officials took the vaccine, in part to instill faith in the vaccine and the drug approval system. But The New York Times says the rush to vaccinate so many people with an unapproved drug is mystifying:

China’s rush has bewildered global experts. No other country has injected people with unproven vaccines outside the usual drug trial process to such a huge scale.

The Times’ Sui-Lee Wee reports:

First, workers at state-owned companies got dosed. Then government officials and vaccine company staff. Up next: teachers, supermarket employees and people traveling to risky areas abroad.

The world still lacks a proven coronavirus vaccine, but that has not stopped Chinese officials from trying to inoculate tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people outside the traditional testing process. Three vaccine candidates are being injected into workers whom the government considers essential, along with many others, including employees of the pharmaceutical firms themselves.

The Financial Times says Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel announced at a health conference this week that Moderna won’t seek emergency authorization for the vaccine for frontline medical workers and other at-risk individuals until Nov. 25 at the earliest. FT quotes Bancel as saying most people will not get a vaccine until late March or early April if all goes well. “I think a late (first quarter), early (second quarter) approval is a reasonable timeline, based on what we know from our vaccine,” FT quotes Bancel as saying.

The new timeline is a blow to President Donald Trump’s hopes of having a vaccine before Election Day. Moderna hoped to be able to ask for emergency use by Nov. 1.

Also on Thursday, Pfizer’s CEO said he was unhappy to have his company mentioned in this week’s presidential debate. CEO Albert Bourla told employees he does not want his company’s work on a COVID-19 vaccine to be politicized. Bourla did say that it is possible Pfizer will meet his goal of turning test data over to the FDA later this month and if all goes well, have an approved vaccine by the end of the year.

Can MGM teach us how to safely hold conventions again?

The MGM and Wynn hotels in Las Vegas want to prove that they have figured out how to safely host in-person conventions. They rolled out a “Convene with Confidence” plan that the Las Vegas Review-Journal says is a reaction to the state allowing “1,000 attendees, as long as people are separated into groups of no more than 250 at a time in areas such as banquet halls.”

The Review-Journal reports:

MGM’s convention plan will offer virtual, hybrid and in-person events. Those that include in-person meetings will have the option to use rapid testing and touchless kiosks to screen guests before they enter an MGM venue.

Wynn Resorts said the company is set to launch a lab inside the Wynn Convention Center expansion in the fourth quarter that would deploy thousands of rapid COVID-19 tests daily “at a fraction of the current cost.”

The company said it has been working with the University Medical Center, Georgetown University and leading labs in California and New York to study rapid testing technology that can check thousands of people for COVID-19 in a matter of hours with at least a 99% accuracy rate.

“Upon opening, the program’s plans will be made available publicly, allowing other businesses to adopt or customize the program to their needs,” the statement said. “Highly accurate testing, produced at scale, will allow Wynn Las Vegas to get back to presenting the entertainment, experiences, nightlife and conventions we are known for.”

Other cities will without a doubt keep an eye on Vegas’ progress. The convention industry is worth $100 billion to the U.S. economy.

No stimulus means evictions loom again

Housing advocates set up a living room during a demonstration outside the building that houses New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

In 90 days, we will be right back where we were a month ago … only worse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction ban for people who lost their jobs because of COVID-19 will expire and people who have not been paying their rent for months will owe thousands of dollars, even though many still have no income.

CNN reports:

In a dozen large cities around the country, neighborhoods with elevated rates of medical conditions that put people at risk for serious illness from COVID-19 have seen disproportionately high rates of eviction filings over the last six months, according to a CNN analysis of data from The Eviction Lab, a Princeton University research institute.

That means that thousands of people evicted over the last six months were living in areas with the highest health risks from the coronavirus.

CNN reports:

When the CDC abruptly released its unprecedented eviction moratorium this month, the agency declared that “housing stability helps protect public health.”

The order from the federal agency prevents landlords from kicking tenants out for not paying rent — as long as the renter declares in writing that she has lost income or been forced to pay unexpected medical bills, has done her best to get government assistance, and would be left homeless or stuck in a crowded living situation if evicted.

But landlords can still add late fees and interest on unpaid rent to tenants’ bills, and they can evict tenants for reasons beyond failing to pay rent, such as a lease ending. The order also only applies to tenants earning less than $99,000 a year — or people who received a stimulus check or earn less than $198,000 and file joint married tax returns — although that covers most renters in the country.

Advocates say that without major rental assistance money from Congress or states, there’s a potential for a huge wave of evictions on Jan. 1, the day after the moratorium expires.

“We kicked the can down the road,” Peter Hepburn, assistant professor and research fellow at the Eviction Lab said.

Hepburn added, “Come the first of the year, there are going to be a lot of people who owe pretty significant amounts of money and will be set up for failure.”

Here is some data about where evictions have been adding up this year:

In Missouri, a court has ruled that the evictions can continue if tenants don’t specifically ask for leniency or if the eviction is based on tenants breaking the law, damaging property or violating a contract.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo expanded his state’s eviction ban Thursday. Apartment owners protested that the ban is unfair to owners who also have bills to pay.

The way we live now

I want to close today with two remarkable photo essays.

The first is from Isadora Kosofsky, who documents life in a nursing home where every patient is COVID-positive.

PetaPixel provides a behind-the-scenes look at how Kosofsky got permission to get inside the facility, the safety measures that had to be in place to pull off the project and how the experience affects a photojournalist’s mental health.

The second project comes from Charles “Stretch” Ledford, associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who also happens to be a damn fine photographer.

Stretch sent me this photo essay of life on a college campus these days. It is a study in contrasts from schools warning students to remain socially distanced and students doing anything but distancing from each other. Don’t miss the image of the flute player who is also wearing a mask.

I am struck by how lucky some students are to have a journalism teacher who knows the craft well enough to get work published in The Washington Post.

We’ll be back soon 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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