October 19, 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.

The first two days of this week may be high drama and will likely determine if your audiences have any hope of a stimulus bill before Election Day. A lot hangs in the balance, including stimulus checks for most Americans, rescue loans for small businesses and billions for airlines.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says Republicans have today to work out a stimulus bill or there will be none before Election Day. It is unclear if her 48-hour notice puts the deadline at Monday night or Tuesday midday, but suffice to say it is soon-ish.

Also Tuesday, (which, notably, is two weeks before the election), the U.S. Senate probably will vote on a smaller version of a stimulus bill that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says will include a stand-alone Paycheck Protection Program aimed at helping small businesses. As you know, the first PPP loaned small businesses money that would not have to be repaid if the businesses used at least 60% of the loan to keep workers on the job.

And then, on Wednesday, the Senate may vote on a so-called “skinny stimulus bill.” Democrats have always said they would not go for a smaller deal because they want the more than $2 trillion plan that they passed months ago.

So here is where we stand. CNET summarizes the proposals:

The Senate’s Oct. 20 PPP bill: This $500 billion effort will focus on the Paycheck Protection Program that was part of this spring’s CARES Act and provided forgivable loans to small businesses as an incentive to keep employees on the payroll. This bill doesn’t include funding for another round of stimulus checks.

“Skinny” bill revote: On Oct. 21, the Senate will vote again on a $500 billion package that includes a $300 enhanced unemployment benefit and aid for small businesses, funding for school reopenings, and support for the US Postal Service. It also has limited liability protection for employers and health care workers, which sets limits on who can sue if they contract COVID-19. It won’t include a stimulus check for individuals.

$1,200 stimulus checks: On Oct. 6, after being hospitalized for COVID-19, Trump said he’d sign a bill authorizing another $1,200 check immediately. Another direct payment to qualified people is one of the areas that everyone — both Republicans and Democrats — appear to agree on.

Airline assistance: With the airline industry hit hard by the coronavirus-induced economic downturn and starting to furlough workers, negotiators have tagged airline assistance for stand-alone legislation. “Let me just be really clear,” Pelosi said Oct. 8. “I have been very open to having a stand-alone bill for the airlines.” The House earlier passed a $28.8 billion airline support bill that Pelosi suggested could be the starting point for legislation.

Support for the US Postal Service: This summer, the House passed a bill that would address concerns about the service and the upcoming election and provide $25 billion in additional funding. The Senate didn’t take up the bill.

Two big things are holding up an agreement. There are lots of other issues, but there are two main ones.

How much will the government send in stimulus checks? $1,200 seems like the common ground.

Federal unemployment benefits are a different matter. Democrats wanted $600-a-week benefits, the GOP proposed $300-a-week benefits, and a $400-a-week compromise looks likely. The benefits would likely run through the end of January.

One of the biggest issues is how much and whether to send $300 billion to cities and states to help them offset pressing budget problems. The local governments say they need the money to pay for essential services like police, fire and health workers, including those who would administer a coronavirus vaccine.

The federal deficit is now $3.1 trillion, a record

While Congress and the president consider whether to add another stimulus to the economy that could cost somewhere between $1 trillion and $2 trillion, there is the news that the federal budget deficit just hit $3 trillion.

Let’s be clear about what a budget deficit is. It is different from the federal debt. The deficit is the gap between the taxes that the government takes in and what it spends. The debt adds up deficits from year to year. A deficit would be like you spending more than you earned one month, and the debt would be everything you owe to everybody.

In all probability, the deficit will grow when the government does resolve its standoff over a second stimulus bill. 

Researchers at Columbia University say that 8 million Americans have fallen into poverty since May. The researchers say the poverty rate rose to 16.7% despite the CARES Act. The rate is even higher for Black and Hispanic Americans and families with children.

Politicians rush to raise Social Security increase

In one way, it is a good time to be a senior citizen as politicians scramble all over themselves to find a way to grab our vote. Last week, the Social Security Administration announced the annual Cost of Living raise, or COLA, would be 1.3%. That would mean an average raise of about $20 per month (which will buy you one 15-ounce can of Metamucil or a two-week supply of Boost).

But now, two congressmen say seniors should get a 3% COLA, which would mean a raise that would at least be enough to cover a couple of months of electric bills.

Nobody seems to know where that money would come from.

States’ vaccination plans are due now

Your state was supposed to have submitted a plan for how it will distribute vaccines by this weekend. It will be interesting to see what is in the works. Go ask. States are supposed to set up distribution centers for the vaccine (which does not yet exist) by Nov. 1.

It is going to be difficult for states to have a solid plan when they do not know what vaccine they will be distributing. Some of the potential vaccines are two-dose medicines, meaning the sites would have to handle double the traffic than they would if the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — a single-dose vaccine — gets approved. Right now, Johnson & Johnson has paused its drug trial because of concerns about an illness in at least one volunteer in the massive trial.

The other issue that states cannot resolve until they know which vaccine will be approved is storage. Some of the medicines require storage in extremely cold temperatures, so states will have to work out how to store and ship the vaccines.

The general plan is for the federal government to buy the vaccines from the drug companies and figure out how many doses go to each state or region. The states will disburse the doses to the health care providers who will give you your shot.

And, journalists, pay attention to this. The local governments, especially local health departments, are waiting for federal dollars to trickle down so they can do the planning that they are supposed to be doing right now. CNBC reports:

So far the CDC has allocated $200 million to jurisdictions for Covid-19 vaccine preparedness, though much of that funding hasn’t trickled down to the local level, said Lori Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

In many instances, local health departments haven’t received any funds for vaccine distribution. Many of them are already strapped for cash and lack the critical data reporting infrastructure and staffing to carry out a vaccine campaign on this scale, Freeman said. The data systems will be critical for understanding what percentage of the population has been inoculated, she said.

“When you’re talking about executing a mass immunization program on the ground with all the money sitting at higher levels of government, it doesn’t make any sense,” Freeman said.

(Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials), who represents state health officials, said ASTHO has asked the federal government for an additional $8.4 billion in funding to carry out vaccine distribution. That funding would largely go toward filling staffing shortages and ensuring health-care workers have adequate personal protective equipment, he said.

“The No. 1 issue that we are trying to be very clear about is the states are going to need more funding,” he said.

Journalists, this would be a good time for you to spend a little time reading that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “playbook” that the feds released a couple of weeks ago. It sets the priorities of who will get the vaccines first, second and third. The first wave of vaccines will go to the elderly, the vulnerable (such as people in jails and prisons), people who have disabilities that put them more at risk and front-line health care providers.

We are still waiting for word on where store clerks, police officers and, yes, journalists might fall on the “essential worker” list. And, you will see, the CDC playbook has no guide for when we will get around to vaccinating children.

‘Shipageddon’ is something new to worry about

A Cosco Shipping cargo container boat is shown with its anchor out on rough seas in Elliott Bay, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Logistics companies are saying there are going to be big bottlenecks in the shipping industry between now and the holiday season. Since the pandemic began, shipping companies say every day has been like the Christmas rush because we have turned to online shopping.

You may notice FedEx and UPS costs will be higher this fall. The New York Times offers this advice:

The practical tips for people planning their holiday shopping: If you’re that person who waits until the last minute … don’t. Really.

If you’re buying online or sending holiday gifts to loved ones by mail, it might take far longer than it has in previous years. The Postal Service is almost pleading with people to mail Christmas gifts early. (And if you rely on e-commerce sites for diapers or other household essentials, it’s probably not a bad idea to build a buffer ahead of potential end-of-year shipping delays.)

Jason Goldberg, the chief commerce strategy officer at the advertising giant Publicis who goes by the nickname “Retail Geek,” also said that retailers have less merchandise stocked up than usual for the holidays because the pandemic disrupted their typical inventory planning.

Walmart, Amazon and Best Buy are all going to try to beat the shipping rush with earlier-than-usual Black Friday sales. Bloomberg called this “Christmas Creep,” which means pushing the holiday shopping season ever earlier and stretching the limits of shipping networks already strained by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Postal Service is already pleading with you to mail holiday gifts early.

This year you may meet some new delivery services like Instacart and Shipt that will be used by companies like Bed Bath & Beyond. Shipt is owned by Target and does same-day delivery. Walmart uses Instacart.

WHO says remdesivir has little or no effect on COVID-19 deaths

Remdesivir, which is one of the “miracle” drugs that President Donald Trump said helped to “cure” him of COVID-19, “has “little or no effect” on death rates among hospitalized patients, according to the World Health Organization.

The WHO just released interim results from its drug trials involving remdesivir and a few other medications. This drug trial involved 405 hospitals across 30 countries on 11,266 patients, with 2,750 given remdesivir.

There is, however, another way to look at this WHO study. WHO is interested in preventing deaths, but Gilead Pharmaceuticals, which produces remdesivir, points out that the drug does appear to be helpful in keeping sick patients from getting sicker. When it is used early in the illness, as it was used on President Trump, it seems to have the best effect. European countries are stockpiling millions of doses of remdesivir as caseloads rise.

What’s up with a decline in lettuce consumption?

Iceberg lettuce sales are falling. Lettuce sales peaked in 1989 when a California produce company figured out how to package greens and keep them fresh in a bag.

(From Bloomberg)

The sale of Kale and other tasteless stuff is growing, because it is 2020 and nothing makes any sense.

(From Bloomberg)

The way we live and work now

Two posts from two journalists:

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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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