August 28, 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.

This could be a significant step forward in COVID-19 testing, if this test proves to be reliable.

The Food and Drug Administration has granted emergency approval for a COVID-19 test that takes 15 minutes to process and costs $5. President Donald Trump said Thursday night the federal government will spend $750 million to purchase 150 million tests.

Abbott Laboratories’ BinaxNOW test does not need lab equipment to produce a result. It has the potential to relieve a testing backlog that can take so long that, by the time the results come back, they are not particularly useful. There are other quick tests on the market, but they still require some lab work to produce a result.

The new BinaxNOW test uses a nasal swab and a reactive card. It works similarly to home pregnancy tests, only instead of looking for a hormone, the BinaxNOW test looks for a particle of a virus protein.

Abbott Laboratories said it can start shipping the tests in September, ramping up to 50 million tests a month at the beginning of October. The company also said it will produce an app that will be capable of recording test results — the sort of thing you could use to show that you just tested negative. You can imagine that such a document might be used before allowing a person into a nursing home or while processing a person into jail. It is a significant step up from scanning a person’s forehead with a thermometer, considering so many infected people show no symptoms.

Under the FDA’s emergency approval, the test can be performed by doctors, nurses, school nurses, medical assistants and technicians, pharmacists, employer occupational health specialists, and more with minimal training and a patient prescription.

Still no COVID relief, and a bigger storm is brewing

The White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke on the phone for 25 minutes Thursday. Pelosi’s summary of the conversation was that “we are at a tragic impasse” on a bill that would provide stimulus checks to millions of Americans, expand federal unemployment, hold back foreclosures for a few more months and funnel money to the Postal Service.

The Republicans are offering what some call a “skinny” stimulus bill that would pare the $3 trillion Democratic plan to $1 trillion.

Both houses of Congress come back to D.C. in September. If you think it has been difficult to get a stimulus bill passed, keep in mind that the government will shut down in a month or so without a federal budget agreement. Keep an eye on that. It is a gathering storm.

After the hurricane, the injuries begin

On a late-night flight home, we pulled into the gate and a pilot came on the intercom and said, “You are about to begin the most dangerous part of your journey, drive safely and wear your seatbelts.” I thought of that pilot this morning as Hurricane Laura raced north and south Louisiana digs out. The days after a storm are often more injurious and deadly than the storm itself.

I had the opportunity after Hurricane Katrina (15 years ago today) to work on cleanup crews. We were repeatedly warned about the dangers of mold and, without a doubt, the floods after Hurricane Laura will present similar dangers.

Studies after Hurricane Irma showed the leading cause of storm-related deaths were preexisting health problems made worse by the stress of the storm. Some of those deaths were also related to the loss of electricity that powered air conditioning and medical devices such as oxygen support. 12% of deaths were from carbon monoxide poisoning, usually connected to generators.

A Mayo Clinic report said:

Floodwaters and standing water are the biggest contributors to injury, illness and death following a storm,” says Dr. Boniface. “There is a lot of additional water, and it’s important to avoid floodwaters and any standing water.” Aside from a risk of drowning, Dr. Boniface says it’s often hard to see what’s beneath the surface.

“Many of the injuries we see spike are those related to storm cleanup and exploration after the storm, including lacerations, puncture wounds, falls and chainsaw injuries,” says Dr. Boniface.

While the number of severe storms has grown in recent years, storm-related injuries and deaths have dropped in the United States. I think it would not be a stretch to point to the great forewarning work of forecasters and journalists as contributors to that decline.

(Graphic and data from InjuryFacts)

(Graphic and data from InjuryFacts)

Tornadoes cause the most weather-related injuries. Winter weather is second. Weather-related deaths rise in the winter. But floods are the second-highest cause of weather-related deaths, with heat-related deaths as the third-highest cause.

(Graphic and data from InjuryFacts)

Pull out to a wider view and, over the last three decades, heat deaths became the leading category, according to data from The National Weather Service.

Foot injuries are one of the most common hazards after a storm. The American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons warned us to wear protective shoes (boots), and walking through water wearing sandals is a really bad idea.

How storms affect animals

In the next day or two you will begin to see videos of what you do not want to see in person: snakes and fire ant colonies swimming for safety after Hurricane Laura.

After Hurricane Barry last year, we saw photos of an alligator who found safety under a grill.

But the biggest concern is how a hurricane can destroy wildlife habitats like dunes, trees and freshwater rivers and streams that are now infused with saltwater washed in from the Gulf. Hurricane Katrina killed millions of fish and even interrupted the dolphin population — the National Wildlife Federation said many were injured in that storm.

The National Wildlife Federation answered a question I have wondered about: “What happens to birds during a storm?” The NWF explained:

During major storms, sea birds and waterfowl are most exposed. Songbirds and woodland birds, however, are specially adapted to hold on and ride things out. Their toes automatically tighten around their perch. This holds them in place during high winds or when they sleep. Woodpeckers and other cavity nesters will, barring the destruction of the tree itself, ride out storms in tree holes. Shorebirds often move to inland areas. In a unique effect of cyclonic hurricanes, the eye of the storm with its fast-moving walls of intense wind can form a massive “bird cage” holding birds inside the eye until the storm dissipates. It is often the eye of the storm that displaces birds, more than its strong winds.

What those hurricane cones really mean

How can it be that we did not know that Hurricane Laura would be so powerful until it was?

The public expects more precision in hurricane forecasting than is possible. In part, it is because we do not understand what those “cones of uncertainty” really mean. They are not forecast tracks; they are probability tracks. But as The New York Times explained in a useful op-ed:

The National Hurricane Center says cones will contain the path of the storm center only 60 to 70% of the time. In other words, one out of three times we experience a storm like this, its center will be outside the boundaries of the cone.

I would like for every journalist to take a quick look at the Times’ explainer so we understand what storm cones mean and can explain it to our viewers/listeners/readers. We will need to explain it over and over before the public “gets it.”

26,000 COVID cases at 1,500 colleges and universities

Like you, maybe, I have been trying to keep track of the COVID cases on university campuses. But until you get all of the data on a map, it is difficult to understand how big the pandemic has become on campuses from shore to shore and border to border. So look at this:

“A New York Times survey of more than 1,500 American colleges and universities — including every four-year public institution, every private college that competes in NCAA sports and others that identified cases — has revealed at least 26,000 cases and 64 deaths since the pandemic began.” (From The New York Times)

You can search all 1,500 schools on the Times’ list to see individual school stats and trends. Of the top 10 schools reporting COVID cases, all but one of the schools is in the southern part of the country.

This data shows where the virus has been identified over the course of the pandemic, not necessarily where it is prevalent now. (From The New York Times)

Keep in mind that most of the schools on the list are really big schools, so it should not be a surprise that they produce a lot more cases. Take the University of Central Florida, for example. It has one of the biggest student populations in the country, with close to 70,000 students.

A way to be “Kind” to bees

In an otherwise fairly dreary news cycle, I appreciated this item and thought you might, too.

Kind Snacks, which uses almost 2% of all almonds in the world, said Thursday that within five years, it will get all of its almonds from “bee-friendly” farms. That means that farms that sell to Kind will have to set aside at least 5% of their land for bee and butterfly habitats.

It could not happen at a better time. The Department of Agriculture said bee colonies have dramatically declined in recent years because of something called “bee colony collapse.”

By the way, California produces almost 80% of the world’s almonds.

The times in which we live

KPLC is the NBC/CW station in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

(Screenshot, Facebook)

(Screenshot, Facebook)

(Screenshot, Facebook)

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

Correction: Abbott Laboratories will begin shipping its BinaxNOW tests in September, not October as we had previously stated. We regret the error. 

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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