September 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.

We tend to pay attention to the COVID-19 case numbers in such a local way that it is easy to miss the much larger and more important picture. The New York Times is tracking the total number of cases at universities nationwide and just published this stunning number:

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 51,000 cases and at least 60 deaths since the pandemic began.

The Times plotted the data on an interactive map that allows you to scroll over each school. The darker the dot, the more cases have been reported:

(Data and graphic from The New York Times)

The Times also has a searchable chart that allows you to enter school names and see reported numbers of COVID-19 cases. Texas, Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina are among the states with the highest case numbers on college and university campuses. Texas has the most cases by far.

However, the Times added a note about the data: There is no national government database of COVID-19 cases on campuses, which should prompt journalists to ask, “WHY?” I hope journalists will push universities to publicly report their cases and if they do not, report that refusal to do so.

Just as we have no database on jails and prisons, which are COVID-19 hot spots and related to some of the most virulent super-spreading events, it is difficult to understand how the government has not pushed universities to routinely report COVID-19 cases. Ask state health officials why they are not collecting this information and making it public.

Even when they do collect data, the Times said, universities scrub that data.

With no national tracking system, colleges are making their own rules for how to tally infections. While The Times’ survey is believed to be the most comprehensive account available, it is also a near-certain undercount. Among the colleges contacted by The Times, many published case information online or responded to requests for case numbers, but at least 360 others ignored inquiries or refused to answer questions. More than 170 have reported zero cases.

Given the disparities in size, reopening plans and transparency among universities, this data should not be used to make campus-to-campus comparisons. Some colleges remove people from their tallies once they recover. Some only report tests performed on campus. And some initially provided data but then stopped.

The Times is also trying to break out specific fields of study to see if some university branches expose students more than others. It has found, for example, that universities with medical schools have reported a significant number of COVID-19 cases:

(Data and graphic from The New York Times)

Note that the Times pointed out that not all schools report data and, even when they do, not all schools report data broken out by specific areas of study — so it is not possible to directly compare one school to another.

Almost certainly, the Times said, all of the counts are underestimates.

AstraZeneca pauses its COVID-19 drug trial

In the world of drug trials, it is not unusual for a phase three trial to hit the “pause” button. But when the pause involves one of the leading COVID-19 trials, it is news.

AstraZeneca announced late Tuesday that it will pause to explore a serious adverse reaction in a drug trial participant in the United Kingdom. The development underscores how difficult it is to predict a date for when a safe and effective drug will emerge.

StatNews reported that the pause could send a chill over other drug trials underway:

An individual familiar with the development said researchers had been told the hold was placed on the trial out of “an abundance of caution.” A second individual familiar with the matter, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the finding is having an impact on other AstraZeneca vaccine trials underway — as well as on the clinical trials being conducted by other vaccine manufacturers.

There are nine drugs currently in phase three testing around the world.

New study: Was the Sturgis rally a “super-spreader event?”

Bone Thugs-n-Harmony performs at the Iron Horse Saloon during the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020, in Sturgis, S.D. (Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

I truly don’t know how much to make of this study that made a lot of social media noise Tuesday. The study said, “We conclude that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally generated substantial public health costs, which we calculate to reach at least $12.2 billion.”

The study makes the astonishing claim that 19% of 1.4 million new U.S. COVID-19 cases between Aug. 2 and Sept. 2 were connected to the Sturgis rally.

The study continued by saying the figure was just an estimate that could have issues — so, in a sense, don’t get too concerned about specific numbers — but “we nonetheless conclude that local and nationwide contagion from this event was substantial.”

The study documented a few interesting details about this year’s rally, including that bars and restaurants were fully open, and alcohol sales were up 27% over last year, which the study said may mean that the people at the rally this time were even less concerned about risks than usual. (Some on social media suggested the increase might reflect that people chose not to drink in crowded bars.)

The researchers used cellphone pings to find out where people were coming from and going to. Armed with that data, it looked at COVID-19 trends in the places where the most people lived. About 10% of the people who attended the rally are from South Dakota, which did see a small increase in cases in the weeks after the rally. But, the study said, “Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, Washington, and Wyoming saw a 10.7% increase in COVID-19 cases more than three weeks following the opening of the Sturgis Rally, and about two weeks following the close of the events.” Those states were among the most widely represented states at the rally.

The study gets pretty specific. I will list some counties where some of you might want to dive deeper:

The results continue to show strong evidence that in the weeks following the Sturgis Rally, COVID-19 cases grew more rapidly in counties that sourced more attendees to the Sturgis. In our highest absolute inflow counties — comprised of Adams County, Colorado, Jefferson County, Colorado, Weld County, Colorado, Maricopa County, Arizona, Clark County, Nevada, Anoka County, Minnesota, and Campbell County, Wisconsin — we find that the Sturgis Rally is associated with a 13.5% increase in COVID-19 cases.

Without contact tracing, I am not sure we can say as confidently as the study implies that all of this is connected. It is also true that some of the counties that experienced increased COVID-19 rates after Sturgis were experiencing growth before the Sturgis event.

The Senate may vote this week on a skinny stimulus plan

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said now that the Senate is back in Washington after several weeks off, he may, later this week, bring up a slimmed-down COVID-19 stimulus bill. The GOP bill may come in around $500 billion, while House Democrats want a $2.2 trillion stimulus.

The GOP Senate bill includes some help for specific groups, including small businesses, child care and the post office. It also renews a battle over providing shields to businesses if they are sued in the event that workers or patrons contract COVID-19 and blame those businesses. This has been a contentious issue since the start of the pandemic and President Donald Trump has insisted on this protection. It is not an insignificant issue since the first wave of lawsuits regarding COVID-19 has begun working its way into the courts.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, “Let’s do a more targeted bill now. If we need to do more in 30 days, we’ll continue to do more. But let’s not hold up the American workers and American businesses.”

But Sen. McConnell said the looming election may be the single biggest issue that gets in the way of passing a second stimulus bill as both sides dig in.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday that the Senate bill “will go nowhere.”

COVID-19 policies lean toward people who have kids

As companies try to find a way to help parents work and care for children who are home attending classes, a predictable friction is unfolding. Employees who do not have children say they are being forgotten. The childless employees say they get more work, while the workers with children say their colleagues just don’t understand how difficult it is to work and raise a family right now.

The New York Times pointed to a few examples:

The tension between parents and nonparents has been most vividly displayed at Facebook.

In March, Facebook offered up to 10 weeks of paid time off for employees if they had to care for a child whose school or day care facility had closed or for an older relative whose nursing home was not open. Google and Microsoft extended similar paid leave to employees dealing with children at home or a sick relative.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive and a father of two, also said the company would not be scoring employees on job performance for the first half of 2020 because there was “so much change in our lives and our work.”

Every Facebook employee would receive bonus amounts usually reserved for very good performance scores, irking some childless employees who felt that those who worked more should be paid more.

A pretty ugly exchange unfolded on an online employee discussion site.

The Times pointed out that the friction is real and may be wider than we know.

Resentment from employees without children about extra parental benefits existed at companies before the pandemic, of course. But the health crisis has amplified that tension. Parents who had normally been able to balance work and home are struggling to help their children learn remotely while still doing their jobs.

In a July survey of 1,700 people conducted by ZipRecruiter, a job-listing and recruiting site, parents said that if schools did not reopen at all this fall, the number of hours they could work would be reduced. Mothers said their working hours would be reduced 9%, while fathers said their time would go down 5%.

I wonder if some of this frustration is coupled with a few other things. We all feel like we are working harder and longer hours than ever while we are working from home. There is no separation from the home and office when the home IS the office. And since you cannot see how hard others are working, it may seem nobody is working as hard as you.

It is also true that we all benefit from a well-educated population … and that when our co-workers don’t have to worry about family matters, they are more productive. There is also the more compassionate matter of doing what we can to help our co-workers.

This topic has so many layers. I hope you will explore it both for your news reporting and also how it plays out in your newsrooms.

Will the pandemic eventually spark car sales?

The Detroit Free Press said car companies are saying it will take years to recover the sales that have been lost in the first part of this year. The U.S. car industry expected to sell 17 million vehicles in 2020. The real figure will be closer to 13 million.

But the pandemic also seems to be changing our attitudes about whether to own a car. Prior to the pandemic, Americans were increasingly considering mass transit and ride-sharing rather than buying a car and driving it ourselves. Now, owning a car is taking on a new glow.

USA Today said:

Of Americans currently shopping for vehicles, more than 1 in 5, or 22%, had not planned to buy one before the pandemic began, according to a recent survey by car-buying site CarGurus.

Times are still challenging for the industry. Car sales have declined in 2020 due to the economic downturn and record unemployment. The Center for Automotive Research, a nonprofit that tracks the industry, projected 2020 U.S. sales of about 13 million vehicles, down from a previous forecast of about 17 million.

(Data and graphic from USA Today)

New car buyers may find some sweet deals right now. According to experts at Edmunds, “more 2021 model year vehicles are making their way into dealerships as automakers ramp up production. Edmunds data shows that 4.6% — or approximately one out of every 20 vehicles sold — in August were 2021 models, compared to 1.8% — or about one out of every 50 vehicles sold — in July.”

Edmunds said the average Labor Day discount is $3,111, which is more than $150 higher than a month ago and up more than $300 since June.

Used cars are in big demand, partly due to the fact that people do not want to use mass transit.

Edmunds said:

Consumers considering selling or trading in their vehicle in the near future might want to pull the trigger now.

Edmunds analysts say that used vehicle trade-in values are also increasing dramatically. Edmunds data reveals that the average value for all vehicles traded in during the month of July climbed to $14,066 compared to $12,083 in June, marking a 16.4% increase that is just shy of $2,000. Our analysts note that limited new vehicle inventory and a surge in demand for used vehicles are driving values up: Edmunds data reveals that the average days to turn for used vehicles dropped to 38.3 days in July compared to 44.1 days in June. This 13.1% decrease is the steepest month-over-month drop that Edmunds has on record.

Order food, coffee, parking while in your car

While researching the car sales figures, I came across this little gem of a story. If it is true that we will spend more time in cars and less time in mass transit, marketers are interested in in-car tech that will allow you to order stuff from your car’s touchscreen. Imagine you are driving home and a restaurant you like is having a quick sale — you would get an alert as you got near the place.

Geo-fence tech would allow a restaurant to know how far away you are from picking up an order. It could send you weather alerts specific to where you are driving and constantly update the weather along your route.

If you run low on gas it will notify you of some places you might go fill up. And it can find you a parking spot that is open near where you want to shop, then reserve the spot with the touch of a screen. This may be your future.

The way we work now

KUER news director Elaine Clark was editing at her home Monday when a windstorm with 100 mph gusts roared through Utah and sent a branch through her window. As she said on her Facebook post, “Well, that’s where I was sitting. P.S. I’m fine. Just terrified.”

(From Elaine Clark/Facebook)

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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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