October 1, 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.

It appears that a last-ditch effort to reach some agreement on a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill will leave the plan in the ditch.

On Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said they were optimistic about an agreement that could prevent airlines from laying off more than 30,000 workers today.  But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the sides are still “very very far apart.”

The disagreements remain largely around what they have been for months: help for cities that are facing big budget cuts because tax revenue has fallen and liability relief for businesses if workers or customers contract COVID-19 while working at or patronizing the business. And then, of course, there is the price tag. Mnuchin offered a $1.5 trillion counterproposal.

As if to add more incentives to pay attention to a stressed economy this week, Disney announced 28,000 layoffs (most of which are part-time workers) and Marathon Petroleum, the nation’s top refiner, is planning to lay off 2,050 employees.

Here is the 2,153-page Democrat-sponsored bill that the House planned to vote on Wednesday night but then decided to delay with the hope that some agreement might still be possible in the coming days.

The House version of the bill includes money for schools, the postal service, election security and unemployment insurance. House Democrats wanted a vote on even an ill-fated bill Wednesday night so members could go home when Congress adjourns Friday and still say they tried to get some relief — then blame Republicans.

Politico included this passage, which offers insight into why Democrats see a breakdown in talks as helping their election chances:

Pelosi sought to assure her members that if talks do break down, the party is “closer” to the inauguration of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who could help deliver expansive relief early next year.

“We will have our moment,” Pelosi said on the call, according to several people who dialed in.

61% of households with children are “facing serious financial problems,” new data shows

The 30,000 or so airline workers who will likely lose their jobs beginning today is just the latest wave of layoffs and furloughs. And the airline industry has a loud lobbying voice that bartenders and waitresses don’t have.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health adds some context. A new poll shows three-fourths of households that earn less than $100,000 a year are having “serious financial problems” right now. The story goes way beyond just looking at the financial stressors.

A majority of households with children (61%) report facing serious financial problems during the coronavirus outbreak. This includes most Latino (86%) and a majority of Black (66%) and White (51%) households with children reporting serious financial problems. It also includes about three in four households with children that have incomes below $100,000 (74%) reporting serious financial problems during the coronavirus outbreak.

More than four in ten households with children report they have used up all or most of their savings (44%) during the coronavirus outbreak, while an additional 11% report they didn’t have any household savings prior to the outbreak.

Six in 10 households with children (60%) report any adult household members have lost their jobs, lost their businesses, been furloughed, or had wages or hours reduced since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Among households with children that have experienced job or wage losses during the coronavirus outbreak, the vast majority (76%) report facing serious financial problems during this time.

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, a majority of households with children (59%) report serious problems caring for their children, including more than one in three (36%) who report serious problems keeping their children’s education going.

When it comes to internet connectivity, about one in three households with children (34%) report either having serious problems with their internet connection to do schoolwork or their jobs, or that they do not have a high-speed internet connection at home.

Take a look at or listen to this story from NPR based on this new data. It includes stories about families seeing their kids getting increasingly stressed out and parents getting more on-edge with their kids and reports that some students just don’t show up for online classes. This is an important story.

The things teachers hear on virtual calls

We know that when teachers see students face to face, they spot signs of abuse, hunger, depression and more. And we all worry that virtual teaching will miss some of that. But alert educators have also noticed a surprising number of chirping smoke detectors in the background of their students’ virtual classroom connections. It could be that for some parents, the noise has been going on so long they do not even notice it anymore. But the teachers did.

The things teachers see on virtual calls

Jim Sweeney, one of your fellow newsletter readers, spotted this story about how an educator noticed a BB gun in the background behind a student on a call. The school suspended the boy by applying the school’s no guns on campus policy to no guns on camera. A lawyer is now involved.

Trump promised 300 million N95 masks before flu season. We are still 200 million short.

Face masks are stacked before getting technical information printed on them at a new factory in Mexico City. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Flu season is upon us and President Donald Trump promised that by now, we would have 300 million N95 masks in stockpiles. Yahoo News reported:

According to a briefing document circulated on Monday to senior officials in the Department of Health and Human Services, the government now has 87.6 million N95 masks available, far short of the 300 million promised several months ago.

The administration has also stockpiled 49 million KN95 masks, which are certified by China, and are potentially less reliable. A recent study of KN95s imported to the U.S. found that 70% of the masks didn’t meet the required filtration standards.

N95 masks, on the other hand, are approved by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.


There were 13 million N95 masks in federal coffers in the winter of 2020, when the pandemic first arrived in the United States.

Alexander Nazaryan, Yahoo News’ national correspondent, reports, “Instead of using the compulsory powers of the Defense Production Act, which allows for private industry to be commandeered for the sake of national security, the Trump administration has tried to coax manufacturers into helping meet supply shortfalls. They have responded, but it has not been enough.”

When colleges opened, young people spread COVID, new data shows

I am not sure anybody doubted this would or did happen but now we have Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. The CDC says that between Aug. 2 and Sept. 5, “weekly COVID-19 cases among persons aged 18–22 years increased 55% nationally. Increases were greatest in the Northeast (144%) and Midwest (123%). Increases in cases were not solely attributable to increased testing.”

In a statement that might temper pushback that more testing produces more positive cases, the CDC report says, “Incidence in this age group changed 2.1-fold during this time, compared with a 1.5-fold change in testing (possibly related to new screening practices as colleges and universities reopened). Although increased incidence was likely driven in part by an increase in COVID-19 diagnostic testing, this is unlikely to be the sole reason for the observed increases in incidence.”

Is insulin now the price of water?

A patient holds a vial of insulin. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Unless you are drinking some really expensive water, the answer is “no,” despite what President Trump claimed in this week’s debate. StatNews points out that insulin costs most people about $300 a vial. Users typically need two vials a month.

The president could claim that his administration cut insulin prices for seniors who have standalone Medicare Part D drug insurance plans that cap out of pocket pharmacy costs. That means about half of the Part D enrollees qualify and about 3.3 million Medicare beneficiaries use one or more of the common forms of insulin. But not all of them have Part D coverage, so the number of people who would benefit would be below that figure. And keep in mind, that program begins next year.

Kaiser Family Health summarized the situation:

Rising prices for insulin have attracted increasing scrutiny from policymakers. The Administration’s new model that allows participating Part D plans to cap monthly out-of-pocket insulin costs for their enrollees will help some beneficiaries with their insulin costs, if they are enrolled in a participating Part D plan and use an insulin product covered by their plan with a $35 copayment. But the new model applies to only a subset of plans and enrollees, and not all insulin products have to be covered by all participating plans. The new model also does not address underlying insulin list price increases or affordability concerns for people who are uninsured or covered by other sources of coverage besides Medicare Part D.

(Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services)

There has been some relief for insulin users since the pandemic began but it was not the result of any government action. Novo Nordisk offers 90 days of insulin supplies to people who have lost their jobs because of COVID-19. Eli Lilly launched a $35 maximum co-pay for insulin during the pandemic.

Look, I know this sounds a little complex, but 7.4 million Americans use insulin and the figure is rising. The American Diabetes Association says, “Almost 20% of African Americans with diabetes use insulin, either alone or with oral medications, as do 14% of Caucasians and 17% of Hispanics with diabetes. Of adults with diabetes earning below the poverty level, approximately 24% use insulin, either alone or with oral medications.”

When the president claims the price of insulin is as cheap as water, it is an important issue for a lot of people. Consider this: Axios reported that because of the price of insulin, a fourth of the people who need the drug ration their use. Stories abound about people who have died because of that rationing.

This issue is so much more than a debate soundbite. And it is just one drug. Think of it more like a symptom of a much bigger problem that could use your attention.

What is the future of the “business lunch?”

I have not had lunch with a friend or colleague since March. The experts in such things say business lunches may come back, but they will be a lot less frequent because, even post-pandemic, we are not likely to spend as much time at the office as we once did.

The way we live now

This seems about right for 2020.

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.

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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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