December 28, 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 week between Christmas and New Year’s is often one of the dullest news weeks of the year, so much so that main TV anchors take the week off, newsrooms run on minimal staffing and reporters scrape to find anything interesting to cover.

Which makes today’s news menu all the more extraordinary. The lineup includes:

  • President Donald Trump has signed a $900 billion economic stimulus bill that will send about $600 to most Americans maybe as early as this week. The New York Times explains that the $600 will be going to “individual adults with adjusted gross income of up to $75,000 a year based on 2019 earnings. Heads of households who earn up to $112,500 and a couple (or someone whose spouse died in 2020) who make up to $150,000 a year would get twice that amount. Eligible families with dependent children would also receive an additional $600 per child.” As with the earlier round of payments of up to $1,200 sent out in the spring, the benefit declines for those who earned more than those income levels. It cuts off entirely for individuals who earned more than $99,000. In a change from the last round, however, payments will not be denied to citizens married to someone without a social security number, allowing some spouses of undocumented immigrants to claim the benefit this time around.
  • The signature also extends the federal moratorium on evictions. But it only kicks that problem down the road for another month. Eventually, landlords will have to be paid months and months of back rent or go broke. Mayors around the country say their major concerns for the year ahead fall into two main categories: the recovery of small businesses that are the core of their local economies and landlords and renters. Landlords have to find a way to collect the income that they have lost for months as renters have been protected by eviction moratoriums.
  • The Times said, “The agreement will revive enhanced federal jobless benefits of up to $300 per week for 11 weeks, providing a lifeline for hard-hit workers until March 14. (The new benefit is half the amount provided by the CARES Act in the spring.)” The Washington Post explains that freelancers, those who are self-employed and “gig workers” will get some relief: “The bill also extends Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — which targets part-time and gig workers who did not qualify for state unemployment insurance benefits — for 11 weeks. But the new legislation also requires applicants to provide documentation proving employment or self-employment within 21 days of applying for the benefits. Those extending their benefits before Jan. 31 have 90 days to submit the documentation.”
  • The stimulus bill sends some money to airlines but the most important relief to most people will be the $285 billion for additional loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, renewing the program created under the CARES Act. Unlike the last PPP loans, which included big businesses with lots of money, the legislation this time caps loans at $2 million and makes them available only to borrowers with fewer than 300 employees that experienced at least a 25% drop in sales from a year earlier in at least one quarter. Publicly traded companies (companies whose stock is traded on the stock markets) are not eligible for PPP loans this time.
  • Minority-owned businesses will benefit from $12 billion that the bill sets aside just for them.
  • The stimulus bill includes a provision that businesses that received PPP loans and had them forgiven earlier this year will be allowed to deduct the costs covered by those loans on their federal tax returns. This item is more important than you might think.
  • In what may be the largest rescue of arts in the nation’s history, the bill includes $15 billion for movie theaters, entertainment venues, music clubs and cultural institutions after the concert and movie businesses collapsed in the pandemic.
  • As you know by now, this economic aid revives expanded federal unemployment benefits, gives money to states to help buy and distribute the coronavirus vaccines and helps pay for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing programs that states have strained to fund.
  • The stimulus bill also includes $35 billion to fund wind, solar and other clean energy projects which supporters said are important because the future of energy jobs is not in oil.
  • The stimulus bill also includes $400 million to help food banks, and programs that serve seniors, like Meals on Wheels, will get new funds, too.
  • The so-called “three-martini lunch” deduction is in the legislation as well. It restarts an old tax deduction that allowed businesses to deduct entertainment and meal expenses when they are related to business. The president has supported that measure as a way to stimulate the restaurant business.
  • The government shutdown that might have happened Monday night has been averted.

Clarifying advice on vaccines for people with underlying conditions

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says that people who have underlying health conditions can and should get the COVID-19 vaccine. The CDC guidance says:

People with HIV and those with weakened immune systems due to other illnesses or medication might be at increased risk for severe COVID-19. They may receive a COVID-19 vaccine. However, they should be aware of the limited safety data:

Information about the safety of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines for people who have weakened immune systems in this group is not yet available.

People living with HIV were included in clinical trials, though safety data specific to this group are not yet available at this time.

People with weakened immune systems should also be aware of the potential for reduced immune responses to the vaccine, as well as the need to continue following all current guidance to protect themselves against COVID-19.

Why are so few COVID-19 patients getting monoclonal antibodies?

President Trump, Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie all received a treatment of monoclonal antibodies when they were diagnosed with COVID-19. There is still some debate about and not enough evidence to prove whether the treatment lessens the effects of a coronavirus infection, but it does help the immune system fight back in other conditions, including cancer and Ebola.

President Trump said he wanted to make monoclonal antibodies widely available and the government bought a quarter of a million doses and shipped them out to hospitals around the country. But, to date, the Department of Health and Human Services says only about 20% of the drugs have been used. (You can see how many doses your state got here.)

There are several reasons the drugs are not being used. Hospitals say by the time patients come to the hospital, they are usually too sick to benefit from the drugs. Operation Warp Speed officials say it is important for patients to mention the therapy as soon as they are diagnosed with COVID-19. Even then, without clinical evidence that the medicine works, physicians may be reluctant to prescribe it.

There are other problems with this therapy. It is labor-intensive to administer and hospitals are already stressed. USA Today explains:

The drugs are hard to deliver, requiring a one-hour infusion followed by one to two hours of observation. And the people who need monoclonal antibodies are at the most contagious stage of disease, making it tricky to deliver the drugs in facilities like cancer or dialysis centers that commonly deliver medication by infusion.

The drug trials to prove the antibodies’ safety and effectiveness so far only involve hundreds of patients, but larger trials are in the works.

Are new strains of the virus more deadly?

Adm. Brett Giroir, the White House coronavirus testing czar, said the new strains of the coronavirus are not believed to be more deadly than the previous strain, but may be more infectious. But of course, that is not a sure thing.

People who have had COVID-19 are eager to get vaccines

This Axios poll is insightful. People who have contracted the virus want a vaccine to keep from going through that again.

(Axios)

One way of looking at this data is to remember that virus-doubters have said if you are not old or chronically ill, the virus is no big threat. People who have recovered from it seem to disagree.

The ‘undercovered stories’ of 2020 that you can still tell

CBS News asked correspondents to detail what they think are the stories that did not get enough attention this year. It is a great story idea that you could turn to your own reporters, producers and photojournalists to list.  Think of the stories they have pitched again and again that never saw the light of day because of the crush of topical stories that had to be covered.

The list and the CBS correspondent who mentioned them includes:

  • The volunteers who handed out the food at food banks. (Major Garrett)
  • The implosion of the Trump administration’s commission on policing. (Jeff Pegues)
  • The impact of the pandemic on children, including learning loss, loneliness and loss of physical activity. (Nancy Cordes)
  • What is going on in Latin America, including political strife, economic collapse and climate change in Central and South America. Those problems arrive in the U.S. eventually. (Ed O’Keefe)
  • The impact of COVID-19 on women in the workplace: One in four women has considered downshifting or leaving their job to care for others. (Paula Reid)
  • The pandemic’s impact on mass transit, resulting in enormous layoffs in the mass transit systems. (Kris Van Cleave)
  • The growing rivalry between the U.S. and Chinese militaries that continue to challenge each other, including the stealing of military technology. (David Martin)
  • Three-quarters of health care workers in the U.S. are women yet we know very little about the impact of the vaccine on pregnant women and not enough about how COVID-19 affects women differently. (Margaret Brennan)

Other stories ahead in 2021: The changing landscape for health care, including the effect of rural hospitals closing, the future of telemedicine, the ways the COVID-19 drug trials have changed our expectations for a faster and more efficient approval process, cybersecurity in health care, a trend toward transparency in health care pricing, addressing racial disparity in health care magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, and new attempts to control drug prices. Of course, one of the key issues of 2021 will be how the Biden administration attempts to expand the Affordable Care Act.

Hospital pricing transparency

Starting Jan. 1, hospital pricing transparency rules that were passed more than a year ago take effect. You will be able to compare prices for around 300 “shoppable services” at hospitals. The hospitals will have to provide price-estimator tools.

The government’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services explains, “hospitals’ standard charges, including the rates they negotiate with insurance companies and the discounted price a hospital is willing to accept directly from a patient if paid in cash, must be publicly available, free of charge, and presented in a consumer-friendly display.”

Outbreaks among homeless people are so far lower than feared

There is one group of our fellow Americans who have found ways not to catch the coronavirus. Homeless Americans have not been infected in the rates that experts feared, so far. So far. It is a long winter.

And the reason they have not been as sick as feared is that homeless shelters have not been as open as usual, so those who are homeless have had to find other places to live, often away from others.

Make no mistake, the alternatives they often find are worse living conditions, including under bridges, in camps and in tents. And there is a chance that the data that we have showing a lower infection rate could be wrong. It could be that we are just not testing enough people or not testing the right people. And there is no doubt that an infection could spread through a camp community very quickly. The New York Times talked with experts:

Experts caution that the transitory nature of homelessness makes it challenging to gather precise data. And they remain anxious because overall rates of the virus soared throughout the fall. A recent outbreak at a shelter in San Diego served as a reminder that homeless populations, especially those sheltered indoors, are still very vulnerable to the dangers of Covid-19.

“It’s been pretty clear in sheltered settings that when infections enter they spread very rapidly,” said Dr. Margot Kushel, the director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations at the University of California, San Francisco.

One other possible reason for the lower-than-feared infections among homeless people is that some states — including California and New York — have found ways to use vacant hotel rooms to house people.

P.S. don’t flush the face mask

Your public works department would like for you to stop flushing face masks down the tubes.

Trump and Barr’s execution spree

Three more federal executions are scheduled before Joe Biden takes office. It will cap off an execution spree by the federal government that exceeds all states combined. ProPublica describes the executions, which revved up in July:

Officials gave public explanations for their choice of which prisoners should die that misstated key facts from the cases. They moved ahead with executions in the middle of the night. They left one prisoner strapped to the gurney while lawyers worked to remove a court order. They executed a second prisoner while an appeal was still pending, leaving the court to then dismiss the appeal as “moot” because the man was already dead. They bought drugs from a secret pharmacy that failed a quality test. They hired private executioners and paid them in cash.

(ProPublica)

What’s the prediction on business travel in 2021?

I have been taking a pass on most of these prediction stories because who knows what the future holds? They are all just guesses. But this one actually does include some budgeting, so I give you a survey of top executives saying what they think business travel will look like in the year ahead.

(CNBC)

Compare the tech executives to corporate chief financial officers. Asian-Pacific CFOs are a lot more optimistic about near-term travel than European and U.S.-based execs. Half of the European and American business executives say business travel budgets will never be the same. Think about the implications of that for airlines, hotels, conventions, trade shows and corporate communications.

(CNBC)

While your business travel might be stalled, it does not mean the big bosses think you will be working from home forever. Executives in Asia-Pacific companies say they expect workers to get back to the new COVID-protective offices pretty quickly.

(CNBC)

I thought this quote from the CNBC story was insightful:

“I don’t anticipating traveling the way I used to in the past,” says Rajat Taneja, president of technology at Visa and a founding member of the CNBC Technology Executive Council. “On Visa’s technology team, we’ll see a level of permanent change created by the all-virtual, all-video work we’ve been doing for the last 40 weeks.”

That doesn’t mean travel ceases, though. “Social experiences, like a meal or drink together, are hard to have on video. So for me and my team, I think we will have travel but it will be for unstructured work that requires more presence, more ideation and more energy from each other,” Taneja said.

My question for journalists and the journalism world is what the future of travel to cover stories will look like. We cannot become accustomed to “taking a feed” rather than going to speeches, sitting in legislative hearings and chatting in sources’ kitchens.

The way we live now

This is my favorite tweet of the week:

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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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