June 9, 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.

Epidemiologists are scrambling to tamp down comments from the World Health Organization that suggested people who are COVID-19 positive but do not show symptoms may not be much of a threat to pass the virus along to others. That flies in the face of months of warnings.

But the WHO said the data it is using now is linked to contact tracing, so researchers are zooming in more precisely how infections spread.

Your readers, listeners and viewers are going to be confused by this new WHO claim. Just look at what they will find on a Google search — two stories back-to-back. One says people who show no symptoms may be responsible for 40 to 45% of COVID-19 cases. Another says people without symptoms “very rarely” spread the virus to others. These are completely opposite claims just days apart.

(Screenshot, Google)

(Screenshot, Google)

The WHO said government responses should focus on detecting and isolating infected people with symptoms, and now said that it is “very rare” for COVID-19 to spread from people who are infected but asymptomatic.

Only last week, Time reported just the opposite:

In a study published June 3 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers at the Scripps Research Translational Institute reviewed data from 16 different groups of COVID-19 patients from around the world to get a better idea of how many cases of coronavirus can likely be traced to people who spread the virus without ever knowing they were infected. Their conclusion: at minimum, 30%, and more likely 40% to 45%.

The Annals of Internal Medicine was not vague in its statement about the dangers of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases spreading:

The likelihood that approximately 40% to 45% of those infected with SARS-CoV-2 will remain asymptomatic suggests that the virus might have greater potential than previously estimated to spread silently and deeply through human populations.

Asymptomatic persons can transmit SARS-CoV-2 to others for an extended period, perhaps longer than 14 days.

A couple of weeks ago, the New England Journal of Medicine said it was “clear” that people without obvious COVID-19 symptoms could transmit the virus. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines are based on the very presumption that asymptomatic carriers could be spreading the virus, and that we should socially distance to be safe.

MORE ON COVID-19: 20 states have seen increases in COVID-19 cases in the last five days

The WHO’s statement sparked a quick response from Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, who said the WHO may be referring to “pre-symptomatic” and not “asymptomatic” people. He said there is every evidence that infected people who aren’t showing symptoms still spread the virus.

Without a doubt, this will light new fires among people who believe the entire COVID-19 pandemic has been overblown and that there was no need for stay-at-home orders that keep seemingly healthy people at home. Judging by internet traffic today, it will take a lot of effort to clear this one up.

It’s official. We are in a recession.

The COVID-19 pandemic ended the longest period of economic growth since 1854. The economy grew for 128 straight months, but that ended in February, according to the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit organization that officially makes that determination.

What is a recession?

For all of us who took Econ 101 classes, you can recite this definition with me:

“A recession is the period of six months or two three-month consecutive quarters of real gross domestic product decline. Other key factors that determine a recession, along with a GDP decline, are negative shifts in employment, manufacturing, retail sales and income.”

NBER has a slightly more elastic definition that lends itself to today’s circumstances, “… a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in GDP, real income, employment, industrial production and wholesale-retail sales.”

The NBER definition is more useful right now because the unemployment spike and drops in retail sales and industrial production that were caused by COVID-19 didn’t take two quarters to unfold.

The committee that makes such declarations said this recession is different from others and opened the door to the possibility that it might be briefer than other recessions in history.

Recessions through U.S. history — they are fairly normal

This pandemic-caused recession is unusual, to be sure. But recessions, generally, are not unusual. They are painful, but a normal part of the economic cycle. “Experts” have been predicting a U.S. recession for years. You will find news stories from 2018 quoting economists who said that a recession was imminent.

America’s first recession was in 1797, and like the housing bubble that unfolded more than 200 years later, was linked to land speculation. Just Google the name Robert Morris and read the story of a Founding Father that should be made into a movie. He went to debtors’ prison.

In 1857, America suffered another recession linked to the failure of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company. It was soon reported that the entire capital of the Trust’s home office had been embezzled. What followed was one of the most severe economic crises in U.S. history. A panic began, 5,000 businesses went under and a recession set in for more than a year and a half.

On top of all of that, the SS Central America, a wooden-hulled steamship transporting millions of dollars in gold from the new San Francisco Mint to create a reserve for eastern banks, was caught in a hurricane and sunk in mid-September.

(The Library of Congress)

The recessions of 1873 and 1893 were both linked to railroad failures.

The Great Depression was from 1929 to 1938. It was nine years of hardship. A fourth of the workforce was jobless.

Every decade since has had one, and in some cases two, recessions. Most lasted one or two years. The recessions of 1990 and 2001 only lasted eight months each.

In the 1800s, recessions tended to be shaped more like a V, with a steep decline in which the main players were punished, followed by a steep recovery. The recession of 1971, which lasted seven years, is an example of a U-shaped recession and recovery. U-shaped recessions and recoveries became more likely with the advent of the Federal Reserve in 1913.

MORE ON COVID-19: Slow down with the vaccine optimism. We have a long way to go.

The “Fed” includes the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, which oversees 12 Federal Reserve banks, and the Federal Open Market Committee, which makes decisions about interest rates and the money supply. The Federal Reserve oversees the nation’s banks, except for state-chartered banks. The advent of the Federal Reserve meant the federal government and not private banks could act as the “lender of last resort.” (The Fed also plays a key role in “clearing” checks and processing electronic payments, such as direct deposits.)

The most upsetting recessions are shaped like a W, which is a drop, a recovery, and then what economists call a “double-dip,” where the economy tanks again. That happened in 1980, 1981 and 1982, before the economy settled in for a growth period.

Why does it matter if we call it a recession?

The “R” word shakes consumer confidence. Money.com pointed out what happened last time: “On December 1, 2008 — the day the Great Recession was officially confirmed — the Dow slid 680 points. Shares of firms like Citigroup fell over 20%.”

But on Monday, as the recession was announced, the stock market said, “Hey, tell me something I didn’t know,” and kept chugging upward.

So it won’t be a depression?

America’s Great Depression took nine years to resolve. There were so many ingredients — from stock market speculation to a market crash, bank failures, the Dust Bowl drought and loose lending practices that failed to ensure enough assets behind loans — that it led to four waves of bank failures. At one point, the U.S. Treasury didn’t have enough cash to pay all government workers. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which now insures bank deposits, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates the stock market, both grew out of that crisis.

So, yes, we are now officially in a recession, but we are a long way from a depression. A key to keeping this recession brief will be to forestall a second COVID-19 wave that would force us to close down the economy a second time. That would be devastating.

Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Social distancing works.

Hospitals that serve the poor got the least federal bailout money

There are two stories about hospitals and bailouts to lead you forward today:

  • A lot more of the federal bailout money went to hospitals that primarily serve patients who have private insurance than hospitals who mostly serve uninsured patients.
  • Big hospitals that got bailouts also furloughed employees and paid CEOs millions of dollars.

Kaiser Health has been poring through data to find that the hospitals that were less likely to be teaching hospitals and likely to be more profitable got the most federal relief dollars. Those less profitable hospitals that do more charity work and research saw less than half as much per hospital bed in federal relief.

In other words, the federal government’s help was based on a hospital’s revenue. Not on its need.

(Kaiser Family Foundation)

MORE ON COVID-19: You’ve probably seen this ‘image’ of the coronavirus everywhere. What is it, exactly?

Retailers offer huge sales as they reopen

The Krazy Coupon Lady website, which teaches consumers how to take advantage of coupons and sales, pointed out some massive discounts, including:

Ross: 80-90% of the store is clearance priced, with most items about 70% off Ross prices

TJMaxx/Marshalls/HomeGoods: More than half the store is on clearance

Burlington: All clothing/shoes 50% off, everything else 25% off

Nordstrom Rack: 40% everything storewide (even clearance) for the first week of reopening

Some consumer sites are comparing the reopening prices to typical Black Friday sales. A big difference is that a lot of stores are not accepting returns. That may be particularly sweet justice for hoarders who now want to return 50 pounds of rice and a few cases of toilet paper.

Tipping like there is no tomorrow

Americans are tipping restaurant workers and home delivery services like never before. The Harris Poll found that customers are open to restaurants suggesting a surcharge or higher than normal tips.

The BBC reported:

Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior and expert on tipping at Cornell University, says he is not surprised that people appear to be tipping more than normal.

“One reason people tip is to financially help the service provider and the pandemic may have increased consumers’ perceptions that service workers need financial assistance,” he says.

“Another reason people tip is to compensate people for services — and the increased risk of working during the pandemic may have increased consumers’ perceptions of what a fair tip is.” …

Instacart said that customer tips were up 99%, and shoppers’ earnings from tips had nearly doubled, since the start of the outbreak.

A spokeswoman for the grocery delivery service said that by March, 97% of all orders included a tip — and by May, this had gone up further to 99%.

During the pandemic, a website called serviceindustry.tips was born. The site encourages people to tip to a service industry worker every time you have a drink or a meal at home because of social distancing. The site claims 75,000 workers and 100,000 tips so far. It would be interesting for you to track down some of these folks on the site and see if it is working for them.

Here in St. Petersburg, Florida, folks started a local version of a virtual tip jar where customers can pick a server or bartender to tip.

Airbnb rebound?

Airbnb bookings that were on the ropes just a month earlier are surging, the company said. In fact, May and early June rentals are higher than last year. CNN Business reported:

Airbnb revealed that it had more U.S. bookings between May 17 and June 3, which encompassed Memorial Day on May 25, than the same time period a year earlier. That signals Americans are ready to travel, albeit primarily within the United States.

CEO Brian Chesky said he’s noticed travelers are preferring to stick to drivable domestic destinations within 200 miles of their home. The malaise of international travel restrictions is making it difficult for people to explore outside of their home countries.

Bloomberg added:

The top destinations in the U.S. on Airbnb are almost exclusively traditional vacation rental markets such as Big Bear Lake in southern California, the Smoky Mountains, along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, and Port Aransas in Texas, according to the company.

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.

Correction: The National Bureau of Economic Research is a nonprofit organization, not an official government agency. 

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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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