The important stories left underreported while we were focused on COVID-19

Plus, local public health officials are quitting, bizarre coronavirus cure claims about copper and silver, the statues argument turns ugly, and more.

June 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.

Did you see that headline in the Chicago Sun-Times?

(Screenshot, Chicago Sun-Times)

More than 100 people shot in one weekend. That rivals some of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, the kinds of events that would lure TV networks to “go live” for days and wonder what it all means.

But these shootings happened around a bigger area than a school, and they were scattered over a few days, rather than a single violent incident.

And what about the nine more shot in Charlotte, the four shot in Buffalo, the five shot in Austin, the four shot in Auburn, Alabama, the 11 shot in Minneapolis, the nine shot in Syracuse and the four shot in Milwaukee? And there are more.

It seems that we have so many pressing issues — from a pandemic to an election to protests and demands for police accountability — that the everyday carnage around us has become background noise that we will deal with someday when the economy recovers and climate change and affordable health care don’t have the spotlight.

But here we are, not quite mid-year and we are tracking ahead of last year for homicide, murder and unintentional deaths involving guns.

Detroit police chief James Craig said this week, “I’ve begun to really start thinking about what is going on. We predicted early on, this was certainly pre-(George) Floyd, that because of the COVID and the stay-at-home (order), there would be tremendous tension, tremendous stress.”

(Data and graphic from Gun Violence Archive)

(Data and graphic from Gun Violence Archive)

Local public health officials are quitting

This seems like a good time to spend some energy documenting the lives of your local health officials, who usually do mundane but important off-camera work but now find protesters in front of their offices and homes. In the last few weeks, a bunch of them quit.

The National Association of County and City Health Officials said in recent weeks 20 public health officials have been fired, quit or have retired because they are having to stand up for public health in a politically charged pandemic.

The association said in a press release:

Across the country, in red states and blue states, large metropolitan areas and rural communities, public health department officials and staff have been physically threatened and politically scapegoated. Too many have lost their jobs for trying to protect and defend the health of their community in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many others have stepped down, interrupting their careers, to protect themselves and their loved ones from actual or perceived threats. We are losing expertise, experience, and most importantly, leadership, at a time when we need it most.

The organization, which represents 3,000 local health departments, said in addition to threats, health officials are being hamstrung by state and local governments that feel pressure from businesses and activists who want businesses to reopen without health precautions.

Public health departments are facing lawsuits over their authority to close businesses, schools, and places of worship in order to protect the community at large — the very action that is credited with saving hundreds of thousands of American lives from this virus. Some state legislatures are looking to limit public health’s authority to act to keep us safe when the virus spikes, which will inevitably lead to additional blame on the public health system that was made virtually powerless. Even something as simple as guidance to wear a cloth mask has been weaponized, permitting the virus to go unchecked as a political pawn. As a result, when communities look to public health to protect them, health departments will be hamstrung. When disease rates increase, public health will invariably get the blame.

The Washington Post reported:

Ohio’s public health director, Amy Acton, shifted to an advisory role after enduring months of anger against the state’s preventive measures, including armed protesters at her home bearing messages including anti-Semitic and sexist slurs. One Republican lawmaker linked Acton, who is Jewish, to Nazi Germany; another called her a dictator.

Georgia’s public health director said last month that she receives threats daily and now has an armed escort.

Pennsylvania’s secretary of health, who is transgender, has come under fire for the state’s handling of the pandemic, including from a county official who resigned after saying at a recent meeting that he was “tired of listening to a guy dressed up as a woman.”

Four public health officials in Colorado have left their jobs recently.

Copper and silver are stars of several COVID-19 cure claims

Any time there is a big health concern, somebody has “just the thing you need,” sort of like Mr. Haney on “Green Acres” (we can wait for you to hit this link if you don’t understand that reference).

If you believe the marketing, what you need in these pandemic times is … draw near … copper.

The New York Times explained that copper is all the rage. You can have it in your socks, your underwear, on your wrist and now, inside your body.

In recent months, there’s been a surge of interest in materials laced with the metal, including socks, bedsheets and coatings that can be sprayed onto surfaces. Multiple companies are marketing face coverings and masks with built-in copper linings, touting their germ-killing properties. One company even offers a “nasal wand” designed to apply “the touch of solid copper” to the hands, face and nostrils at the first sign of illness.

Before you guffaw at copper, know that, for centuries, it has been thought to have antimicrobial properties. The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a study that said the COVID-19 virus could not last four hours on a copper surface, compared to five or six times that long on other surfaces like steel and plastic. The study said, “On copper, no viable SARS-CoV-2 was measured after 4 hours and no viable SARS-CoV-1 was measured after 8 hours.”

The New York Times spoke with researchers who are testing copper in labs. The Times found a basis for the notion that copper-infused masks, for example, could have some value, but it might depend on how much copper is in the mask and whether it is made in such a way that the copper would capture the virus before it hit your body.

If copper face coverings also curtail the coronavirus, that could come in handy for people who mishandle their masks, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech. A hefty dose of copper could diminish the chances of viable virus making it into the eyes, nose or mouth via a wayward hand that’s touched the front of a mask.

Still, copper may yet have a role to play in the pandemic. Installing copper-based surfaces in hospitals has been shown to cut down on transmission rates of certain pathogens, including antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Dr. Djoko thinks it could keep coronavirus in check in such settings, too.

But all experts emphasize that having the metal around doesn’t let anyone off the hygiene hook. Copper on its own is no cure-all — and its effects aren’t instantaneous. It takes about 45 minutes for copper to reduce the amount of virus on a surface by half.

At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to a company offering a copper “Germ Stopper,” which the FDA said purports to “mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose, or cure COVID-19.” The FDA was not amused by the company’s claim that you could just touch this piece of copper and kill the coronavirus.

Copper won’t make the virus evaporate, but how much of a tool it will become in fighting the spread, we will see.

We also have wild claims being made about silver. In the last two weeks, the FDA sent warning letters to two companies trying to sell silver lozenges and other stuff. One of the companies offered a liquid that you can drink or even stick up your nose to ward off the virus. The FDA told the company to knock it off.

TV evangelist/survival food bucket salesman Jim Bakker is among the people who want you to buy stuff laced with silver as a sort of hex against COVID-19. Some hucksters have claimed their silver products can “isolate and cure” COVID-19. Bakker’s people didn’t quite claim that but walked right up to that line — and the state of Missouri went after him.

A podcaster said statues of Jesus should come down, too. This will be ugly.

Podcaster Shaun King said Tuesday that protesters should not stop with Robert E. Lee or Christopher Columbus — they should tear down statues that make Jesus appear to be a White guy, since the Scriptures do not say what he looked like.

King didn’t stop there. He suggested murals and stained glass showing a White Jesus should also come down. He said he got 20 death threats in 12 hours. King is not new to controversy.

You may remember this theme from 2013 when Megan Kelly declared on Fox News that Santa was White and “Jesus was a White man, too.”

We can probably assume Jesus looked more or less like everyone else in that area at that time. The soldiers needed help pointing him out to arrest him. The Scriptures don’t describe Jesus’ appearance. Some scholars point to Revelation 1:14-15 as a clue that Jesus’s skin was bronze and had wooly hair. Around A.D. 400, images of Jesus started showing him with a beard and long hair — maybe not surprising because that is how artists at the time portrayed Greek and Roman Gods.

This whole conversation reminded me of what I saw inside the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. It is the traditional location where Mary lived and got word from the angel Gabriel that she would give birth to Jesus. On the upper floor of that cathedral is a moving collection of art showing Mary and Jesus in many ethnicities. These are a few of the images I captured of how artists from different ethnicities imagined the Holy Family in ways that are relatable to them.

A tile mosaic from Japan found inside the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. (Photo by Al Tompkins)

A tile mosaic from Thailand found inside the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. (Photo by Al Tompkins)

When it comes to artwork, perhaps it is more useful to focus on the message than the messenger’s appearance.

The way we work now

(Screenshot, Facebook)

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.