October 15, 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.

Every week, the White House coronavirus task force publishes a list of how states are managing their COVID-19 cases, but it does not release the documents to you.

The task force sends those reports to governors. Journalists have to go to the states to collect them.

The reports include county-by-county assessments of how the virus is spreading and other important information. The newest task force report to Idaho, for example, recommended the state close public schools. In other words, this is detailed and valuable data.

Since July, the Center for Public Integrity has gathered the reports from all of the states that would turn them over and compiled them in one place.

StatNews’ Ryan Panchadsaram filed a Freedom of Information request to get the reports. Panchadsaram said:

On August 10, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for these weekly reports. I received an acknowledgment of my filing and when I asked for an estimated date of completion, I was told June 16, 2023 — 999 days from the day this article was published.

Panchadsaram added:

The Trump administration is deliberately restricting these reports from the public, and it’s clear why: they contradict the president, who continually downplays the spread and impact of the virus.

Journalists, you should be FOIA’ing these reports from your governors’ offices. (Some states, like Oklahoma, publish the report every week.) Then, I would push you to post the report on DocumentCloud each week. The Center for Public Integrity is posting the reports as they get them — if they get them.

The DocumentCloud page for weekly state reports from the coronavirus task force (Center for Public Integrity)

This is public data. But right now, journalists are largely having to rely on leaks to get our hands-on vital information about a still spreading pandemic. Last month, CNN tried to get the weekly reports from all 50 states and only could get their hands on 15 of them. WPTV in West Palm Beach, Florida, reported that Florida’s governor’s office said journalists would have to go through the FOIA process to get the reports. But by the time reporters might get their hands on them, the information would be outdated.

For those of you who do get the opportunity to ask questions of Vice President Mike Pence, who is campaigning around the country these days, ask him why his task force is not releasing these documents in one public slug every week. A Congressional subcommittee got its hands on eight weeks’ worth of the reports and found they often contradict what the president is publicly saying about the virus’ spread.

Panchadsaram wrote for StatNews:

The reports do more than include Covid-19 statistics. They also include recommendations for public health actions that challenge the lax approach some governors are taking, such as Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, who continues to refuse to adopt a statewide mask mandate even though a task force report declares “current mitigation efforts are not having a sufficient impact and would strongly recommend a statewide mask mandate.”

The reports show indisputably that the coronavirus is spreading uncontrolled across much of the country. They confirm the need for specific interventions, such as universal adoption of masks in public, closing bars and gyms, limiting gatherings, increasing access to testing, accelerating test results, and deploying a multitude of contact tracers.

Now that I have covered the fact that there are reports and that you are not getting them, let’s dive into the newest one.

The latest task force report shows that more than half of the states in the country have COVID-19 rates that are rising so fast that, just a few months ago, the government’s guidance would have been for every person to always wear a mask outside the home and not to gather in groups of more than 10 anywhere — including bars, gyms and inside restaurants. The virus is spreading faster and the recommendations about how to respond have grown weaker.

The report lists states by color code. The “red zone” indicates a state has more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents and more than 10% of new tests were positive.

One week ago, one state in the country was labeled in the “green zone” for the coronavirus. But now even that state, Vermont, is not at a safe level.

This week, the Center for Public Integrity’s report on the White House coronavirus task force weekly survey shows half of all U.S. states are on the government’s “red list” of states that have high coronavirus tests. (Center for Public Integrity)

The newest report shows:

In last week’s reports, 24 states were in the red zone for new cases. This week, Texas moved from the red to orange zone, but New Mexico, North Carolina and Rhode Island joined the red, bringing the total to 26.

For the second week in a row, the Dakotas, Montana, Wisconsin and Utah led the nation in new coronavirus cases. North and South Dakota also ranked No. 1 and 3 respectively, for virus deaths per 100,000 population.

As I mentioned, the task force used to advise red-zone states to tell residents to mask up and get the heck away from others. But now, the Center for Public Integrity says, the White House task force has watered down its recommendations.

“The majority of cases are from interaction at home with friends and family,” the White House told red-zone Kansas this week. “Kansans should know that such gatherings must be limited in size and include both masks and social distancing.”

Ask your audiences to share their COVID-19 hospital mega-bills

Melissa Wilhelm Szymanski opens up some of her medical bills at home in Glastonbury, Conn., on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. Wilhelm Szymanski got sick earlier this year and wound up with a $3,200 bill because she wasn’t diagnosed initially with COVID-19. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Last year, Congress failed in its attempt to stop “surprise” hospital billing that happens when out-of-network doctors work at a hospital you go to in an emergency. The New York Times focused on one patient with COVID-19 who just got a $52,112 bill for a helicopter trip she took while intubated.

The Pennsylvania patient had no way of knowing that her helicopter, which transported her between two in-network hospitals, did not have a contract with her health insurance plan. Nor could she have known that the air ambulance service, owned by a private-equity firm, faces multiple lawsuits over its billing tactics.

Her health plan, Independence Blue Cross, initially said it would pay $7,539 of the bill, according to billing documents reviewed by The Times, but then rescinded the money. The patient, housebound because of lingering coronavirus symptoms, was left with the full amount.

“She was intubated and on a ventilator when her providers felt it was necessary that she be transferred,” said Leslie Pierce, a division chief at the Pennsylvania Insurance Department, who handled the complaint that the patient submitted to the agency. “She had no decision in the selection process.”

What happened to her is happening around the country in one form or another. The Times’ Sarah Kliff is asking readers to share their COVID-19 treatment bills. She has plowed through the bills of a man and his 3-year-old daughter who were billed $3,900 for a government-mandated quarantine that was supposed to cost nothing out of pocket.

As Kliff explains:

My colleagues and I have written about $2,315 coronavirus tests and $401,886 bills for treatment. We’ve discovered that the price of a coronavirus test can vary by 2,700 percent within the same emergency room.

And what about those “free” coronavirus tests? People are opening mailboxes to find bills that can run into the thousands of dollars. Some of it may be coding errors that happen because the medical billing system is so complicated. But that does not explain everything. The Times found:

One mother in California was surprised that her daughter’s coronavirus test was fully covered but that a $49 “after hours” fee was not — the clinic said it provided tests only in the evening, so as to not infect other patients.

There is the case of friends who both went to the same Austin emergency drive-in coronavirus testing center. One paid $199 in cash for the test. The other used her insurance and got billed $6,408. Most coronavirus tests cost $10, but the Times found some cost thousands because U.S. health care pricing is unregulated and often difficult to understand.

Another case from Massachusetts showed more holes in the system:

UnitedHealth paid $160 for her coronavirus test, but denied the $250 doctor visit that went with it, stating that her plan did not come with out-of-network benefits.

And one more case will give you an idea of the size of this issue. This one involves a woman from Brooklyn:

… (she) had coronavirus diagnostic and antibody tests last month. She was surprised when she logged into her health insurance portal and saw four claims associated with her tests: one for each test, one for the doctor visit, and one for other tests she didn’t realize were being ordered.

Her insurance covered the visit and the diagnostic test. But it paid nothing for an antibody test and the other lab services, which were both sent off to out-of-network providers.

Once your audiences understand that you want to hear from them, and once you make it easy for them to share their stories and documents, you will have only one problem; finding time to report the stuff they send you.

Take these issues to the people running for federal and state offices and ask them what they will do about surprise billing.

Big Solar and Big Wind will soon overtake Big Coal

Gen Nashimoto, of Luminalt, installs solar panels in Hayward, Calif., on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Four years ago, U.S. presidential candidates were fighting over the future of coal and the viability of renewable energy. The pandemic has not slowed the growth of renewable energy.

The International Energy Agency predicts that within five years, solar and wind power will be generating more worldwide electricity than coal. Solar capacity is growing by around 12% a year right now.

“I see solar becoming the new king of the world’s electricity markets,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said. “Based on today’s policy settings, it is on track to set new records for deployment every year after 2022.”

The report adds some global perspective:

Renewable sources of electricity have been resilient during the Covid-19 crisis and are set for strong growth, rising by two-thirds from 2020 to 2030 in the STEPS. Renewables meet 80% of global electricity demand growth during the next decade and overtake coal by 2025 as the primary means of producing electricity. By 2030, hydro, wind, solar PV, bioenergy, geothermal, concentrating solar and marine power between them provide nearly 40% of electricity supply.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were close to 90,000 coal mining jobs in 2012, compared with 46,600 today. The Energy News Network says “in the last decade, more than 300 coal-fired power plants have retired, eliminating coal-related jobs in the power sector.”

The way we live now: Crocs are “cool”

Perhaps this moment was inevitable during a pandemic, when comfort is key and nobody can see your feet on a Zoom call.

Justin Bieber launched a new “Crocs collection” this week and it sold out. The shoes/sandals are yellow with some charms attached.


View this post on Instagram


#JBxCrocs with @drewhouse available tomorrow, 12 PM ET. Link in bio. @justinbieber

A post shared by Crocs Shoes (@crocs) on


Earlier this year, Crocs sold out of its KFC model. You missed that? They look like fried chicken.


They called them KFC X Crocs Bucket Clogs.

Crocs stock is jaw-droppingly high:

(Screenshot, Google)

More shocking, GQ declared Crocs to be “cool.”

Will cargo shorts make a comeback? It could happen. This is 2020. Adapt.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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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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