March 16, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing about journalism and coronavirus, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Which workers face the greatest coronavirus risks?

The New York Times built a map that will spark a lot of story ideas for you. It shows the professions that have the greatest exposure to the coronavirus.

You may not have considered some of these jobs. Lawyers, daycare workers, garbage collectors, janitors and personal care aides all made the list.

How will first responders and police protect themselves in the coming weeks considering how often they have personal contact with people? Will dentists continue to see non-emergency cases during this time of heightened concern?

What ‘spreading exponentially’ means

Last week I explained the flattening of the curve concept and some key terms like “constant,” “inflection point,” and the math behind “exponential growth.” You are going to need a basic understanding of these concepts to cover the spread of coronavirus.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post produced a brilliant online piece that shows how different approaches to limiting human contact affect the spread of the virus. I promise you will learn something from this.

How to keep kids’ brains from turning to mush while out of school

My daughter told me this weekend she was worried that our grandchildren would lose momentum in school if they are out for weeks. She is not alone.

Lots of educational resource websites have flung open their doors and made their teaching resources free. A story about how to keep kids learning while they are away from school would be really useful.

I can imagine newsrooms producing messages like this one from National Geographic, which teaches kids facts about the coronavirus, and running them nonstop for the next few weeks. Instead of TV anchors promoting themselves in station promos, let me come to know you by you doing something good, like teaching.

What if an entire midday newscast was devoted to talking to kids who will be home from school? Midday newscasts often get dismal ratings anyway — what do you have to lose? Take the newscast and cut it into bite-size pieces for online distribution.

What can sports journalists cover?

My Poynter colleague Roy Peter Clark and I came up with a notion we wanted to put in front of you. With sports journalists entirely without games to cover, it would be a great time for them to use their talents to do other things that could be hugely popular.

Maybe sports journalists could use this time exploring old urban tales in sports to find out what really happened. As an example, think about the story of Babe Ruth calling his home run shot. But go local.

Since we do not have March Madness brackets to track, you could set up your own bracket online and have the public battle it out. Every week, based on public voting, the fantasy brackets evolve. It would spark a huge amount of debate. Some years back I saw the State of Louisiana host such a public bracket battle over the best song that came from or mentioned Louisiana. The brackets were set up by genre (pop, rock, Cajun, country, etc.) “You are my Sunshine” was the eventual winner, but not without some bloodshed. This can include any beat or topic — I have seen similar public battles over the best tractor in history.

Take the best sports photos or most memorable videos in local sports history and explore the story behind them. It is a classic Time Magazine treatment that would also involve the photojournalists who were there.

Years ago, a radio station in Carthage, Tennessee, told me about a cache of audiotapes it had collected of every Friday night high school football game it had ever broadcast over the years. After football season ended, the station began Friday Night Flashbacks and dug into the archives to play a game from decades ago. Imagine the fun of hearing the names of people now 50 years old when they were playing high school sports. The station manager told me it was wildly popular and sparked a lot of memories and conversations. TV stations could do the same thing with Friday night highlights, for example, that you have had archived for years.

Look, we are going to need distractions from disturbing news in the weeks ahead. Our sports departments can be great resources to find the best in ourselves.

Judges are suspending jury trials

Maybe you have been there when a jury trial began and sat in a courtroom packed with potential jurors. It is hard enough to get people to show up for jury duty as it is. Now the thought of sitting shoulder to shoulder with people you don’t know, potentially for hours as you wait to be picked or rejected, is making it even more difficult to seat a jury.

The New Jersey chief justice suspended new jury trials until further notice because of the virus, but trials underway will continue.

The Michigan Supreme Court has recommended that all civil jury trials in the state, as well as all criminal jury trials where the defendant is not in custody, be adjourned.

A federal judge in Ohio suspended jury trials, too.

How much of a backlog would a few weeks of no jury trials cause? Think about somebody who has been waiting for a trial for a long time who might now wait a much longer time to find a place on a docket.

As far as I can tell, clerks’ offices are open and are still accepting electronic filings. Imagine what a mess it would/will be if those offices closed.

The drive-thru to limit human interaction

This kind of makes sense to me. Starbucks is considering making some shops drive-thru only.

Starbucks says it has learned a lot from its experience in China, where 90% of its stores have not reopened.

Will there be a drug shortage?

A week ago, the possibility of a drug shortage was a serious question. Today, there is reason to believe the situation is less threatening. NPR has done some good reporting from China that found the manufacturing plants that produce so much of the ingredients for U.S. pharmaceuticals are running again.

NPR reported:

Still, even facilities that are almost back to normal are anticipating a second wave of setbacks.

“A lot of our suppliers still are not answering phones because they can’t get to work or their site isn’t open,” says Elut Hsu, president of Morrisville, N.C.-based Asymchem, Inc., which has eight facilities in northeast China that manufacture drugs and drug ingredients. Asymchem is a contract manufacturer whose ingredients go into antibiotics, oncology drugs and antivirals sold by other companies.

Asymchem had replenished ingredients and supplies ahead of the new year holiday.

“We always stock up enough for at least a month,” she says. “So, we’re OK for now. But the secondary wave of supply issues could be coming.”

NPR points out that there is a 2012 law that requires drug manufacturers to tell the Food and Drug Administration if there is a reason to suspect there will be a shortage of an approved drug.

If there is a shortage, the FDA has an option to lengthen the allowable expiration dates of drugs to make supplies last longer.

Medical device supply-chain

The FDA says there is no similar law that requires the makers of medical devices or even supplies like gloves or masks to notify the government of shortages in their supply chains. I thought it was interesting that the FDA did pass a measure that allows medical personnel to use industrial face masks if supplies run low.

Some veterinary drugs may face shortages

Veterinary drugs don’t just affect dogs and cats. They are also critically important to farmers and ranchers. 

The FDA reports, “There are 32 animal drug firms that make finished drugs or source active pharmaceutical ingredients in China for the U.S. The FDA has contacted all 32 firms and no shortages have been reported at this time. However, six of those firms have indicated that they are seeing disruptions in the supply chain that soon could lead to shortages.”

The report does not name the drugs that could become harder to get but does say the FDA is working with suppliers to avert shortages.

Take care of yourself

We published a video and series of tips Sunday about how journalists can manage their stress while covering this traumatic story. Please share it with anyone who is covering COVID-19.

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 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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