November 24, 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.

ProPublica explores the important question of why schools around the country have wildly different rules about whether students and teachers should wear masks.

Although several states in the past weeks have belatedly mandated masks, 11 states don’t require students to cover their noses and mouths — even when gathered indoors, in small classrooms or in close contact during sporting events, ProPublica found. The states left the matter to local districts.

Some states that did not have statewide rules, like Arizona, recently imposed mask mandates. Even where there is a statewide mandate for schools, locals sometimes push back.

Within states, districts have different rules. In Georgia, for example, only a third of schools require masks. ProPublica says school-age kids in counties that required masks in schools made up a smaller portion of overall cases, while the rate of kids turning up with COVID-19 infections was higher in counties that did not require masks. There may be other reasons for this, however:

… in counties where they make up larger proportions of virus cases, children may be more likely to interact without masks outside school, in homes, playgrounds and other spots. But the findings suggest that a community’s attitude toward face coverings — as reflected in its school policies — plays an important role in transmission.

“If what you’re really showing is the places where they wore masks are doing better, that’s really the bottom line,” said Dr. Benjamin Linas, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Boston University School of Medicine. “Whether it’s specifically masks in schools or not is almost just like an academic question.”

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization stress the importance of social distancing, consistent mask use and staggering bell times to keep crowds out of hallways and to keep crowds smaller at the beginning and end of the school day.

2020 flu season: so far so good

Here is a little good news. So far, seasonal flu cases are lower than normal as of this week. Normally, the seasonal flu is ramping up just before Thanksgiving, just in time for your kin to pass the crud around to you.

While you await your turn to get a COVID-19 vaccination, get your flu vaccine now. Just know that it will not protect you much during your Thanksgiving celebration, if you are going to do that, because it takes a little time for your body to react to the vaccine and build your immunity.

But get on this. Last year, only about 48% of American adults got a flu vaccine.


We do not know why flu activity is lower than normal so far this year. Maybe it is because people are staying home, wearing masks and washing their hands. The good fortune won’t last, especially if half of us do not get a flu vaccine.

Scrubbing makes you feel better but really does not fight the coronavirus much

The Arizona Department of Transportation posts new signage on along highways urging the public to wash hands due to the recent surge in coronavirus cases Sunday, June 21, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

As you read this item, keep in mind that the coronavirus is most spread through the air.

The Atlantic calls all of the scrubbing and cleaning we are doing to “fight the virus” a form of “hygiene theater.”

So, as The New York Times points out, all of that time and money we spend scrubbing stuff really is not that useful, except it might make you feel like you are doing something.

All over the world, workers are soaping, wiping and fumigating surfaces with an urgent sense of purpose: to fight the coronavirus. But scientists increasingly say that there is little to no evidence that contaminated surfaces can spread the virus. In crowded indoor spaces like airports, they say, the virus that is exhaled by infected people and that lingers in the air is a much greater threat.

Hand washing with soap and water for 20 seconds — or sanitizer in the absence of soap — is still encouraged to stop the virus’s spread. But scrubbing surfaces does little to mitigate the virus threat indoors, experts say, and health officials are being urged to focus instead on improving ventilation and filtration of indoor air.

“In my opinion, a lot of time, energy and money is being wasted on surface disinfection and, more importantly, diverting attention and resources away from preventing airborne transmission,” said Dr. Kevin P. Fennelly, a respiratory infection specialist with the United States National Institutes of Health.

Now, let’s be clear, disinfectants and scrubbing do help control bacteria and can help limit the spread of the common cold and seasonal flu. And, as the Atlantic pointed out:

(Quite rare isn’t the same as impossible: The scientists I spoke with constantly repeated the phrase “people should still wash their hands.”) The difference may be a simple matter of time. In the hours that can elapse between, say, Person 1 coughing on her hand and using it to push open a door and Person 2 touching the same door and rubbing his eye, the virus particles from the initial cough may have sufficiently deteriorated.

Still, the Times story included the observation of a guy who no longer shakes hands with his tennis partner, but then they both handle the same tennis balls. So what’s the point?

Plenty of ventilators but a shortage of people to operate them

In the spring, hospitals begged for ventilators, and the Trump administration can rightfully claim that Operation Warp Speed ignited new ventilator manufacturing. Now we have a shortage of pulmonologists, respiratory therapists and critical care specialists to use those machines. That won’t be a quick fix. The New York Times reports:

But with new cases approaching 200,000 per day and a flood of patients straining hospitals across the country, public health experts warn that the ample supply of available ventilators may not be enough to save many critically ill patients.

“We’re now at a dangerous precipice,” said Dr. Lewis Kaplan, president of the Society of Critical Care Medicine. Ventilators, he said, are exceptionally complex machines that require expertise and constant monitoring for the weeks or even months that patients are tethered to them. The explosion of cases in rural parts of Idaho, Ohio, South Dakota and other states has prompted local hospitals that lack such experts on staff to send patients to cities and regional medical centers, but those intensive care beds are quickly filling up.

The Times says about half of the acute care hospitals in the country, mostly in rural areas, have no such specialist.

This study says lots of the ventilators in the Strategic National Stockpile are not sophisticated enough to meet the needs of COVID-19 patients and warns that ventilators need lots of maintenance that requires specialized technicians.

The study also points out an issue that will arise in the years ahead. Because several companies manufactured ventilators in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the machines they produced do not use interchangeable parts, so there will have to be a massive stockpile of spare parts to fit each model. Why on earth did the government contracts not specify that interchangeable parts should be used in all government-purchased machines?

$50 for a quick COVID-19 test to get into a restaurant

Starting today, a New York City restaurant wants customers to pay for a $50 rapid COVID-19 test. While you wait to find out if you test negative, they will serve you a glass of champagne. The $50 goes to the testing company, not the restaurant. City Winery’s deal is less expensive than I paid at a local drop-in clinic and I didn’t get champagne. Don’t you just love problem solvers?

Eight mayors tell D.C. that it is time for a domestic Marshall Plan

Eight mayors (Youngstown, Ohio; Dayton, Ohio; Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio; Huntington, West Virginia; Morgantown, West Virginia;  Louisville and Pittsburgh) penned an op-ed telling Washington that it is time for a Middle America version of a Marshall Plan.

The op-ed, published in The Washington Post, includes this passage, which carries the tone of “you love us when you are running for office, it is time to pay up with some action”:

Virtually no major federal attention has been given to the greater Ohio River Valley since the adoption of the Appalachian Regional Commission in 1965. A new regional and federal collaboration can rebuild and reposition these regions to be economically competitive domestically and globally. Absent such a partnership, it is certain that difficult times will continue, and the opportunity will be lost.

We’ve seen the consequences of inaction before. Pittsburgh, for example, never prepared for deindustrialization of heavy manufacturing and steel in the 1980s, and it took 30 years to build its new economy. It was a painful demonstration of how people and communities can be destroyed by believing the world will not change. Pittsburgh and other cities should not repeat this mistake.

Nonpartisan research led by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Sustainable Business finds that “the Ohio River Valley stands to lose 100,000 jobs as the fossil-fuel economy continues to decline in the face of superior, cost-competitive renewable energy development.” Without action, these jobs will be lost forever, and it will lead to even deeper despair for another generation.

I wonder what mayors in your coverage area would say in such a message to Washington if somebody was willing to listen.

Should Biden choose a woman to run the VA?

Stars and Stripes includes an interesting piece on a push for President-elect Joe Biden to appoint a woman to run the Department of Veterans Affairs. The story included this insight:

Joe Chenelly, the national director for the nonpartisan advocacy group AMVETS, said whoever runs VA will need to come to the mostly thankless job equipped with the ability to run a massive bureaucracy. Female veterans’ issues need to be a focus of the next secretary, he said, and a woman running the department could give gender-specific issues some much-needed momentum.

“Women’s health will be a key issue. … It’s best to have someone who’s already familiar with VA, someone with a proven track record of running something of magnitude. Seems like a lot of people when they come to VA really don’t know how huge and complicated it is,” he said.

Women are the fastest-growing demographic in the military, with the number using VA health care almost tripling since 2000, from 160,000 to 475,000, according to VA data. However, the department has been criticized for being slow to adapt.

While more women are relying on the VA, critics say it’s still a male-centric system, with predominantly male waiting rooms, exam areas and doctors. Some female veterans have said the lack of gender-specific care, privacy, equitable facilities and security can be barriers to seeking VA treatment.

Stars and Stripes mentions four women who might be in line for the job, even while Former Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Murphy, the first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress and former Army secretary, appears to be a strong contender, as well.

Universities are selling dorms

It is happening in Arizona, Manhattan, Maine, Vermont and beyond; schools that are under financial pressure are selling off their unused dorm buildings. Student housing represents $11 billion in buildings and there is great uncertainty about how COVID-19 will permanently change the need for student housing.

Drones in a pandemic

In this aerial photo taken with a drone, fire retardant blankets leveled homes in Talent, Ore., on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, after the Almeda Fire tore through the area. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

2020 may be a year where we see a much wider use of drones to deliver vaccines to remote areas. Merck recently announced it is ramping up a pharmaceutical delivery project. Drone delivery services have become increasingly important in developing countries. UNICEF reports:

So far, eighteen countries have deployed drones for delivery and transportation purposes during COVID-19 pandemic. Some of them did it as a part of experimentation and tests, while others maintained their regular drone delivery operations. Three countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, namely Rwanda, Ghana and Malawi reported the use of drones to deliver regular medical commodities, COVID-19 supplies and medical samples since the beginning of the pandemic.

UNICEF says in Ghana, drones have sped up the collection and delivery of coronavirus testing samples. It makes me wonder how much of an opportunity we are missing by not using this kind of technology in rural America.

The National Conference on State Legislatures says:

In Florida, drones are being used to monitor beaches and announce public messages about social distancing and in the summer may be used for rescue missions by giving a life jacket to distressed swimmers without making human-to-human contact. Local governments in Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey and New York are also using drones to perform police and fire functions such as dispersing groups of people by advising people about social distancing laws, warnings and fines.

In 2020, at least six states — Florida, Idaho, Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota and Virginia — enacted 11 bills concerning drones. 2020 was a year when states recognized that drones could be useful in assisting in emergency management, helping law enforcement agencies with things such as traffic crash reconstructions and searching for everything from lost people to pythons in the Everglades.

The NCSL says:

Florida, Idaho, Minnesota and South Dakota allowed drones to be used for emergency management, including wildfire containment. And Virginia allowed localities to regulate the take-off and landing of drones on property owned by the local governments.

Since 2013, at least 44 states have enacted laws addressing drones and an additional three states adopted resolutions. According to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Churches will be an important venue for vaccine information

For sure, some charlatan preachers have spread nonsensical theories about the coronavirus. But in the weeks ahead, churches may be an important voice in encouraging people to get vaccinated. StatNews profiles a minister who also happens to have a medical background. Ministers may become even more important voices in getting vaccine information to Black Americans who, for good historical reasons, have greater skepticism about vaccines.

More stressed since the election

A new Harris poll shows a fourth of Americans say they are even more stressed now than they were before the election. In the poll conducted for the American Psychological Association, six in 10 people said they are stressed by the notion that the transfer of power between President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden won’t go smoothly.

The pandemic slowed U.S. greenhouse gas emissions

Maybe this will lower your stress level a little. A new BloombergNEF study says we will end 2020 with a 9.2% reduction in greenhouse emissions that contribute to climate change. It is the biggest drop in 30 years, and it takes us back to 1983 emission levels. But there are caveats, including that 2021 may see the economy pick back up along with emissions. And if the forest fires we recorded this year are common in the years to come, it will slow any emissions progress. But the study says the more we wean ourselves from coal, the faster the emissions will drop.

The 10 most commonly used passwords

Five years ago, the most commonly used password was “123456.” What do you suppose the most common password is now? It is “123456,” with second place going to “123456789.” Nordpass analyzed a quarter of a billion passwords and found that we are still incredibly lazy.

Results of Nordpass’ 10 most common passwords study (Nordpass)

Other popular 2020 passwords include “football,” “iloveyou,” “letmein,” and “Pokemon.”

Your phone has a coronavirus app. Just turn it on.

You probably are not taking advantage of technology that could alert you if you have come close to somebody who tests positive for the coronavirus. This technology could make up for the severely lacking contact-tracing systems in the U.S. but few of us bother to turn the alerts on. The alerts use software built by Apple and Google and work on both iPhone and Android devices.

Friends, do this, especially if you are going to travel next week to one of the states that has alert systems. The Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler walks you through all of the privacy concerns and Bluetooth questions. As he says, it is a shame that federal and state governments have bungled this opportunity so badly that it is not widely used.

Some of you just have to turn the alert on (it took me 20 seconds) and others will have to download an app. Most states have not gotten around to making it into this decade so they do not have an app for you to use. You might ask why. You will also notice that some of the states with the worst outbreaks right now, such as Wisconsin and Texas, have no alert app.

iPhone users in Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., can turn on this technology without having to download an app; if you’re running iOS 13.7 or later, go to Settings > Exposure Notification to turn this feature on.

Otherwise turn to this list of 15 states that have their own alert systems (compiled by The Washington Post) and download a state-specific app:

These states have announced an intent to launch services or are running limited tests:

The way we live now: Colorado edition

I am not judging. Well, yes, I guess I am. I definitely am judging.

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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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