October 27, 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.

Utah hospitals warn they may soon be rationing medical care. Hospital administrators there are so concerned about the statewide surge in COVID-19 cases that they have drafted a list of protocols they are asking the governor to approve for when they have to start making decisions about who gets care. The Salt Lake Tribune says:

In the event that two patients’ conditions are equal, the young get priority over the old, since older patients are more likely to die.

Hospitalizations normally rise after the number of new cases increases, and Utah repeatedly set new records for daily case totals last week. At least two Utah hospitals have opened overflow ICUs this month.

But one of the defining features of intensive care is access to doctors and nurses with specialty training — and opening new beds does not mean those health care workers can staff them.

The hospitals say hundreds of nurses are not able to report for duty because the nurses are living with family members who have tested positive or, in some cases, because they are parents who have children at home and they can’t send them to school.

In El Paso, Texas, the coronavirus spread is so fast and wide that city officials there are asking people to stay home for the next two weeks. There is already a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew there.

The Texas Tribune reports:

COVID-19-related hospitalizations in the area have spiked from 259 to 786 in less than three weeks — a 300% increase, according to Angela Mora, the director of the El Paso Public Health Department. And over the past 14 days, El Paso County has seen nearly 10,000 cases, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Over the weekend, in El Paso County alone, 199 people were in the intensive care unit, and close to half of them were on ventilators. The governor is sending emergency backup help, beds, ventilators and other supplies.

CBS News reports:

A report by UT-Austin released Thursday said “the El Paso region has the most threatening projections, with an estimated 85% probability that COVID-19 cases will exceed local hospital capacity by November 8th, 2020.”

According to the same report, five other regions have a more than 25% chance of hospitals being overwhelmed within 3 weeks: Amarillo (28%), Lubbock (29%), Wichita Falls (30%), San Angelo (29%) and Galveston (33%).

It is a familiar story in Montana, where the big increase in COVID-19 cases is making a health care worker shortage worse.

NBC News, in the space of a tweet, summarized the situation:

Not to be coldly financial here, but don’t forget that when hospitals get overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, they start shutting down the more lucrative health care that pays the bills, including elective surgeries, endangering the longterm financial viability of those hospitals.

We also know from experience this year that when COVID-19 cases go up that people start staying away from doctor’s offices for routine but important preventive health care.

The World Health Organization warned the entire Northern Hemisphere is facing “a dangerous moment.” That’s no small statement.

What we learn about infected health care workers

A study just published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention focuses on what we can learn from looking at health care workers who were infected with the coronavirus.

A third of the health care workers were nurses. Health care workers accounted for about 6% of overall cases studied at 13 sites, so these are not comprehensive figures, but may be big enough to raise some questions, if not provide definitive answers.

One of the starkest findings is that 89% of the health care workers who got sick with COVID-19 had an underlying health condition. The most common were obesity, hypertension and/or diabetes. And the age of infected hospitalized health care workers was younger than the average hospitalized COVID-19 patient. The study said, especially during this pandemic, health care providers should pay close attention to and prevent obesity and other conditions that add to the risks of an already risky profession.

Bloomberg is giving employees a $75 stipend to come back to the office

Bloomberg says it is going to give employees $75 a day to help them offset the cost of transportation and other supplies they might need to get safely to and from work during the pandemic. The company says it understands that people who might normally take mass transit may have to drive or Uber and that those options cost more.

“We’re excited to offer this additional benefit, which will help those coming back select the commuting option with which they’re most comfortable,” said Ken Cooper, head of human resources at Bloomberg, in an email to staff.

I am sure your newsroom is drafting a similar memo to you even as you read this.

Government pulls offer to vaccinate mall Santas first

Santa Claus waves during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Nov. 28, 2019, in New York. Macy’s said Santa Claus won’t be greeting kids at its flagship New York store this year due to the coronavirus, interrupting a holiday tradition started nearly 160 years ago. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez, File)

The Department of Health and Human Services came up with the idea that if Santa and Mrs. Claus performers would help promote a coronavirus vaccine once it became available, the government would push Santas and helper elves to the front of the vaccine line.

But once The Wall Street Journal reported the story, the government pulled the plan, and now Santas are not happy.

Ric Erwin, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, called the news “extremely disappointing.”

“This was our greatest hope for Christmas 2020, and now it looks like it won’t happen,” he told the Journal, which first reported the story.

This all, of course, raises the question of how Santas will be doing their work in a pandemic. It is going to be a sad sight to watch little kids talk to Santa through plexiglass or on a Zoom call.

Toys, dollars and board (bored) game sales are big in the pandemic

The Financial Times reports:

Mattel has produced its biggest increase in quarterly sales in a decade as parents buy housebound children Barbie dolls, Hot Wheels cars and other toys to keep them entertained during the pandemic. Shares in Mattel, whose other brands include Fisher-Price and American Girl, jumped 7 per cent in after-hours trading as chief executive Ynon Kreiz said the California-based company was “chasing a large, very meaningful surge”. “When kids stay at home, parents want to keep them entertained and engaged,” he said.

FT reports that dolls sales led the way for Mattel, and Barbie led all doll sales. CNBC reports:

Barbie is one toy brand that flew off the shelves. Mattel, which manufacturers the iconic line of dolls, said it was up almost 30% in each segment. Producing $532.2 million in gross sales, it was the brand’s best showing since 2003 as the company sees positive reception for a more inclusive range of dolls.

Mattel also says Uno card games are selling well in the pandemic.

Hasbro told Wall Street that sales of board games, including Monopoly and Scrabble, are going great during the pandemic.

Companies are offering incentives for employees to vote

One week from Election Day, corporate America is pushing the “get out the vote” movement by offering employees paid time off, some even closing stores for a few hours next Tuesday.

Bank of America, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase & Co. say workers can take three paid hours off to vote. Best Buy says it will stay closed until noon next Tuesday.

The New York Times says what two years ago was a ripple of companies that financially encouraged voting has grown into a real wave:

Two years ago, when executives from PayPal, Patagonia and Levi Strauss founded Time to Vote, a nonpartisan project that asks companies to encourage workers to participate in elections, there were around 400 members. In recent weeks, membership has shot up to more than 1,700. A similar initiative, called A Day for Democracy, has attracted more than 350 companies since it began with seven Boston-area companies in July. ElectionDay.org, sponsored by the nonprofit organization Vote.org, has gathered pledges from more than 800 companies promising employees paid time to vote.

A Day for Democracy claims:

Make Time to Vote’s more than 1,600 supporters in all 50 states include:

The executive order that allows government workers to be fired fast

It is not a mystery why this story did not get wider play last week, with all the stuff that crowded it off the newscasts and front pages, but it is really significant. It could soon be much easier to fire 100,000 federal employees, including people like Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Last week, President Donald Trump quietly signed an executive order that creates a new classification of federal employees called “Schedule F” for employees serving in “confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating positions” that typically do not change during a presidential transition. The Independent explains the new rule:

The range of workers who could be stripped of protections and placed in this new category is vast, experts say, and could include most of the non-partisan experts — scientists, doctors, lawyers, economists — whose work to advise and inform policymakers is supposed to be done in a way that is fact-driven and devoid of politics. Trump has repeatedly clashed with such career workers on a variety of settings, ranging from his desire to present the Covid-19 pandemic as largely over, to his attempts to enable his allies to escape punishment for federal crimes, to his quixotic insistence that National Weather Service scientists back up his erroneous claim that the state of Alabama was threatened by a hurricane which was not heading in its direction.

The Trump administration says the changes allow government agencies to fire long-standing employees who can’t or won’t do the job but are protected by civil service rules.

“Career employees in confidential, policy-determining, policy‑making and policy-advocating positions wield significant influence over government operations and effectiveness,” the order reads. “Agencies need the flexibility to expeditiously remove poorly performing employees from these positions without facing extensive delays or litigation.”

The Washington Post describes the new rule in an opinion piece:

Its implications, however, are profound and alarming. It gives those in power the authority to fire more or less at will as many as tens of thousands of workers currently in the competitive civil service, from managers to lawyers to economists to, yes, scientists. This week’s order is a major salvo in the president’s onslaught against the cadre of dedicated civil servants whom he calls the “deep state” — and who are really the greatest strength of the U.S. government.

The White House admitted last winter to seeking to purge from payrolls those deemed insufficiently reliable — the “bad people,” in Mr. Trump’s words. The protections for career civil servants currently in place at least put some roadblocks on that path, hence this legally dubious plan to erase those protections with a touch of organizational sleight of hand. Not only will politically motivated firing become easier, but it will also be easier to hire those who meet Mr. Trump’s standards: obsequiousness and, more often than not, a lack of qualifications. With no competitive process in place, leaders can appoint whom they please — or rather, who pleases them.

Everett Kelley, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement, “Through this order, President Trump has declared war on the professional civil service by giving himself the authority to fill the government with his political cronies who will pledge their unwavering loyalty to him — not to America.”

Federal News Network, which monitors work issues for federal employees, notes:

Agencies won’t be able to reclassify career federal employees in policy-making roles immediately.

Under the executive order, agency heads are under a 90-day deadline to review all current positions and consider whether they should move to Schedule F. The initial deadline for a preliminary review falls on Jan. 19, 2021, a day before Inauguration Day.

Agencies then have another four months to finalize those determinations. For positions not excepted from the competitive service by statute, agencies must petition the director of the Office of Personnel Management to include those positions under Schedule F.

FCW.com, which covers federal government tech issues, says if Trump wins reelection, Democrats would likely try to do something to head off the executive order and, if Biden wins, then in all likelihood he would reverse the order as easily as it was signed.

Inside a refugee camp at America’s doorstep

I just wanted you to see this piece from The New York Times. Partly I wanted you to see the result of immigration policies, whether you agree or disagree with them. And I want you to sample the rich writing of Caitlin Dickerson. Here are the first few paragraphs:

A butter yellow sun rose over the crowded tent camp across the river from Texas and a thick heat baked the rotten debris below, a mixture of broken toys, human waste and uneaten food swarming with flies.

Clothing and sheets hung from trees and dried stiff after being drenched and muddied in a hurricane the week before.

As residents emerged from the zipper-holes of their canvas homes that morning in August, some trudged with buckets in hand toward tanks of water for bathing and washing dishes. Others assembled in front of wash basins with arms full of children’s underwear and pajamas. They waited for the first warm meal of the day to arrive, though it often made them sick.

The members of this displaced community requested refuge in the United States but were sent back into Mexico, and told to wait. They came there after unique tragedies: violent assaults, oppressive extortions, murdered loved ones. They are bound together by the one thing they share in common — having nowhere else to go.

The way we live now

Posted by Carol Gable, NBC producer:

(Carol Gable)

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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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