April 1, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing about journalism and coronavirus, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

COVID-19 is spreading fast in prisons and jails

I have mentioned this story a couple of times in the last month and now it is building in urgency. If a COVID-19 outbreak has not unfolded in your local jails and prisons, it will.

The Marshall Project set the stage for a story this way:

Picture thousands of cruise ships jammed with guests but short on hand sanitizer, protective gear and medical care. Every week, a quarter of the passengers get off, replaced by new people with the potential to either infect or be infected with the coronavirus.

There is a place like that in your community: the county jail, captained by your local elected sheriff, who is charged with preventing COVID-19 outbreaks but most likely has limited supplies and often no say in who enters and leaves the jail.

The New York Times reported, “Already, 167 inmates and 137 staff members have tested positive at New York City’s jails, including the Rikers complex, which is described as crowded and unsanitary.”

Those numbers, said Ross MacDonald, chief doctor of the Rikers jail system, came after the first case appeared only 12 days before.

The Times story said people held in the jail are using socks to cover telephone receivers, and some are using diluted shampoo to wash down their cells.

Look at these tweets from MacDonald who, two weeks ago, warned what is ahead.

(Screenshot, Twitter)

This week, he warned that when people held in jails and prisons get sick, they will need intensive hospital care in already crowded public hospitals.

(Screenshot, Twitter)

Public defenders say “a storm is coming” if jails do not release as many prisoners as they can to lower the chances that the pandemic will take lockups by storm. The New York Legal Aid Society added some data to that prediction by comparing infection rates to China and Italy.

(The New York Legal Aid Society)

Now look at the growth curve inside Rikers and outside, in New York City, in this graphic from The New York Legal Aid Society:

(The New York Legal Aid Society)

The problem, of course, is not just in New York.

In Louisiana, where the virus is spreading fast, one federal prison has recorded 30 COVID-19-positive prisoners, at least one staff member has tested positive and one prisoner has died from the virus.

The sheriff in Lamar County, Mississippi, said the state has stopped picking up people who have been sentenced to prison who should be transferred from local jails. So jail populations could be about to rise.

The Salt Lake Tribune said people in prison in Utah still stand close together in lines and precautions like hand sanitizer are considered contraband because they contain alcohol.

After weeks of pressure from guards, federal prisons have banned visitations for now.

A spokesman for a corrections officer union said prison hospital workers are using pieces of towels for masks.

Buzzfeed said volunteers are responding to the threat that the coronavirus poses by raising money to bail people out of jails.

The Marshall Project, which on a normal day is really good, has been full-on great these last couple of weeks while covering COVID-19’s effects on people in jails and prisons. I partner with Marshall on Poynter’s “Covering Jails” projects.

Journalists, take my recommendation and get their daily newsletter, which is packed with story ideas every day. Nobody that I know offers more expertise or follows this part of the coronavirus story more closely.

The CDC may recommend everybody wear a mask in public

The official stance as I write this is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend masks for people who do not have symptoms associated with COVID-19 and who are otherwise healthy. But The

Washington Post quoted an unnamed source who said the CDC is considering changing its guidance.

One concern about telling everybody to wear a mask is that it might give us all a false sense of security: “Oh, now I am protected.”

The World Health Organization said it is not changing its recommendations and that masks don’t help much to control the spread of COVID-19.

Will black Americans feel the impact of COVID-19 more?

Qcitymetro in Charlotte, North Carolina, raised an overdue question: Is COVID-19 affecting black Americans disproportionately?

The opinion piece by Glenn Burkins said in the last week, the number and overall percentage of COVID-19 cases involving black residents in Mecklenburg County grew faster than other populations. The column said politicians should pay attention to that.

As the coronavirus has spread, Covid-19 appears to be affecting the county’s Black population disproportionately. The county’s own numbers appear to bear this out.

On March 22, when the county had 80 confirmed cases of Covid-19, 35% of those infected people were Black. One day later, the infection count had climbed to 108 cases, and Black residents accounted for 37% of those infected.

Now we see the most recent numbers: 230 confirmed cases as of March 26, with Black residents making up 41.3% of the total. (The county had 315 confirmed cases as of Sunday but no demographic breakdown.)

Burkins thoughtfully pointed out the reason he has the data to spot that troubling trend is because Mecklenburg County releases positive case statistics by zip code and demographic. That is not the case everywhere, and you can see why it should be.

The numbers that Burkins pointed to also lead us to remember that racial minorities in America already face health care disparities. Black Americans have a higher rate of chronic diseases and lower access to health care than white Americans.

Black Americans also are less likely to have primary care doctors and turn to emergency rooms more often for primary care. It means emergency rooms may be overwhelmed with cases that might have otherwise gone to primary care doctors first.

BuzzFeed said physicians have been calling on the CDC to pay attention to this issue.

“We know in the US that there are great discrepancies in not only the diagnosis but the treatment that African Americans and other minorities are afforded. So I want to make sure that in this pandemic, that black and brown people are treated in the same way and that these tests are made available in the same pattern as for white people,” said Dr. Ebony Hilton, an associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at the University of Virginia.

Marc H. Morial, the CEO and president of the National Urban League said, “Urban communities of color are likely to suffer the brunt of the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus crisis,” and will need focused federal help.

U.S. News and World Report reported:

“I expect the COVID-19 pandemic to impact African Americans to a greater extent than other more socially advantaged groups,” says Dr. Lisa Cooper, an internist and social epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “This is because as a group, African Americans in the U.S. have higher rates of poverty, housing and food insecurity, unemployment or underemployment, and chronic medical conditions, and disabilities.”

Latinos are most concerned about COVID-19

A Pew study published on March 24 found that Latino workers are the most concerned population when it comes to COVID-19.

Hispanics are more concerned than Americans overall about the threat the COVID-19 outbreak poses to the health of the U.S. population, their own financial situation and the day-to-day life of their local community, according to a new survey fielded as part of Pew Research Center’s Election News Pathways project.

The study said Hispanic Americans are worried about their health and their jobs. That could be based on experience. Latinos suffered greater losses during the 2008 recession than the population as a whole.

Minorities are less likely to work from home

While I sit at my kitchen table writing this column, Latinos are a lot less likely to have jobs that allow them to work at home. The Hill reported:

According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, only 30% of the U.S. workforce is able to work remotely, with less than 20% of black and Latino workers able to.

The study, which compiled data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, found that a little more than 16% of Latinos are able to work from home and less than 20% of black Americans are able to. Asian Americans and whites were the most likely to be able to work from home, with about 37 and 30%, respectively, able to do so.

“If just 16% of Latinos are able to work from home, that means that the vast majority of Latino workers are either being forced to risk their health and keep working through the crisis, or have lost their income or their job,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told The Hill in an email.

How a drop in retail taxes could pressure counties to hike property taxes

I made a mistake in yesterday’s column and in fixing the mistake, I learned about a new story to consider. VTDigger reported that two-thirds of Vermont’s school spending comes from a fund that is mostly derived from property tax. But a third of it is from retail taxes, room taxes and so on. (Yesterday, I had the percentages backwards.)

When a third of the taxes are affected by months of soft or no sales, we can see problems heading down the tracks for local and state governments, which will have to make up that income somehow or cut spending.

The bigger story here is to start looking at where retail taxes, hotel bed taxes and other non-property taxes go in your community. How will all of that affect essential services? And how willing would local governments be to hike property taxes, which are a pillar of local government income?

Why choir practice might be especially dangerous

Here is a story about a Seattle area choir that held a practice in early March. Its members thought they had taken enough precautions, but now dozens of choir members are sick with COVID-19 and two people have died. There is no certain link to the choir practice, but experts say it is likely.

The story says that singers inhale and exhale more powerfully than if you are just talking or breathing, so singers would both take in and exhale the virus with more force.

I am passing this along because I am seeing a fair number of churches that have taken their services online but still offer live music, with singers and band members standing apart. That may not be enough.

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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