August 14, 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.

America is facing a mental health crisis. That is not hyperbole, that is a data-driven fact.

Overall, depression, serious consideration of suicide and increased use of substance abuse are about three times the rate that researchers found in the last quarter of 2019. Three times higher.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data drawn from a survey done June 24 through 30. The data show a fourth of young adults in the U.S. said they “seriously considered suicide” in the month before they were surveyed. Close to a third of Americans reported anxiety and depression symptoms and more than one in 10 adults said they have started or increased the abuse of drugs/alcohol during the pandemic.

  • 10.7% of respondents overall reported having seriously considered suicide in the 30 days before completing the survey.
  • 25.5% of respondents aged 18-24 years seriously considered suicide in the month before the survey.
  • 30.7% of people who are unpaid caregivers for adults said they have seriously considered suicide. Men were more likely than women to say they have recently considered seriously suicide.
  • 21.7% of “essential workers” said they seriously considered suicide in the month before the survey.
  • 30% reported symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder.
  • 13% started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19.
  • Overall, 40.9% of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition.

(Data and graphic from the CDC. The study involved more than 5,400 respondents.)

Other data from the survey released Thursday evening:

The study points to the need for immediate recognition that unpaid caregivers — for example, those of you who are caring for a sick parent or partner — are under way more stress than we have known, and lots of people are not dealing with this new stress in a healthy way. The survey found unpaid caregivers “had three times the odds of suicidal ideation” in June compared to previously. The study said:

Although unpaid caregivers of children were not evaluated in this study, approximately 39% of unpaid caregivers for adults shared a household with children (compared with 27% of other respondents). Caregiver workload, especially in multigenerational caregivers, should be considered for future assessment of mental health, given the findings of this report and hardships potentially faced by caregivers.

Three fourths (74.9%) of young adults (18-24 years old) reported “at least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom.” More than half of older adults (25-44 years) reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom.

Two-thirds of people (66.2%) who held less than a high school diploma said they are struggling with mental health issues during the pandemic

More than half of “essential workers” — which of course includes health care workers, first responders and nursing home workers — said they have experienced mental health issues in the pandemic.

People who were previously diagnosed with depression, anxiety and PTSD overwhelmingly said they have had even more trouble coping during the pandemic.

This data deserves to be at the top of every front page and lead every newscast. Your coverage will help people know they are not alone in feeling this stress. You will point your listeners, readers and viewers toward suicide hotlines, substance abuse help and online counseling, and you will interview experts who can help.

This is not a one-and-done story. This survey shows that as long as we have this pandemic and all of the pressures that come with it — including social separation, economic uncertainty, health concerns, child care, uncertainty about school calendars and loneliness — mental health is critically important, just as COVID-19 prevention itself is.

Why people don’t trust contact tracers and why that matters

Salt Lake County Health Department health investigator Mackenzie Bray points to a board showing a hypothetical case that serves as a training tool to teach new contact tracers how to track all the people they need to reach out to after a person tests positive for COVID-19. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

There are about 41,000 contact tracers in the U.S. trying to get the pandemic under control by tracking down who might have infected whom. One big barrier: About half of the time the public won’t give up the information the tracers need to do their job.

NPR interviewed Michael Osur, assistant director and chief health strategist at the department of public health in Riverside County, California:

They’re willing to tell us about their family contacts, who lives in the house. But they’re not willing to share their friends, who they saw, the stores they went to. And that’s been a huge problem because much of our spread has been through those informal barbecues, get-togethers and other places these people have been that we are having a hard time tracking down.

Most of the businesses will be very cooperative. But some of the businesses that hire the food processors or the farm workers, they are completely uncooperative and have told their staff who are positive if they cooperate with us, they’ll be terminated. So, we have two or three businesses that have had major outbreaks that we can’t get into at all. And that’s been a huge problem.

NPR also spoke with Elya Franciscus, an epidemiologist with Harris County Public Health in Houston:

I would say for Harris County is upwards of 50%. I would say half are very cooperative. Another 25% are semi-cooperative and the other 25% are absolutely unwilling to share anything. There’s so much misinformation being put out right now. Our contact tracers are being called names; they’re being cursed at, derogatory language is being used, because there (have) been seeds of mistrust thrown into the community. … They think that the numbers are inflated. We’ve heard multiple people say that we’re getting paid to make up results. So, it’s so difficult to combat all of this.

Not only are contact tracers having problems getting information from the public, the country only has about half as many tracers as experts say we need to get the job done.


NPR has been tracking the contact tracing issue closely and found:

More than two-thirds of states are using a bank of trained reserve staff to pick up contact tracing duties as needed; the 7,580 number of reserve staff is a third smaller than it was six weeks ago. Eleven states said that their contact tracing workforce includes unpaid volunteers.

Only three states — Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont — along with Washington, D.C., currently have enough workers to investigate their coronavirus cases, according to an NPR analysis of how contact tracing staffing matches up with need. Three more states — Michigan, Montana and Hawaii — have enough when reserve staff are included. And 39 states do not have enough.

Look at this graphic from NPR. You have to wonder why, if contact tracing is such a vital part of fighting COVID-19, more data is not available.


Dozens of local health officials have recently been fired or quit

The vilification of Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx give you a window into the life of an epidemiologist in pandemic days. They endure threats and conspiracy rumors, and sometimes their bosses ignore their scientific and medical advice. Around America, dozens of local and state health officials have been fired or quit in recent weeks.

The Associated Press and Kaiser Health News reported:

A review by the Kaiser Health News service and The Associated Press finds at least 49 state and local public health leaders have resigned, retired or been fired since April across 23 states. The list has grown by more than 20 people since the AP and KHN started keeping track in June.

Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the numbers stunning. He said they reflect burnout, as well as attacks on public health experts and institutions from the highest levels of government, including from President Donald Trump, who has sidelined the CDC during the pandemic.

“The overall tone toward public health in the U.S. is so hostile that it has kind of emboldened people to make these attacks,” Frieden said.

The National Association for County and City Health Officials has a useful online directory with quick member contacts for every county and state.

The AP story also said:

“To me, a lot of the divisiveness and the stress and the resignations that are happening right and left are the consequence of the lack of a real national response plan,” said Dr. Matt Willis, health officer for Marin County in Northern California. “And we’re all left scrambling at the local and state level to extract resources and improvise solutions … in a fractured health care system, in an under-resourced public health system.”

Since 2010, spending on state public health departments has dropped 16% per capita, and the amount devoted to local health departments has fallen 18%, according to a KHN and AP analysis. At least 38,000 state and local public health jobs have disappeared since the 2008 recession, leaving a skeletal workforce for what was once viewed as one of the world’s top public health systems.

A week of zero progress on a COVID relief bill

It has been a week since federal unemployment relief expired.

As the Washington Post put it:

It looks increasingly possible that there will be no new deal on coronavirus legislation until September, when an Oct. 1 government shutdown deadline will force legislative action of some kind.

Asked Wednesday if it was possible that there would be no deal until that deadline approached, Pelosi said, “I hope not, no. People will die.”

What was a battle over extending federal unemployment payments, help for small businesses and local governments now includes a fight over the U.S. Postal Service. There is no solid reason to believe Congress will settle the fight before September. President Donald Trump told Fox News:

“They want $3.5 billion for the mail-in votes. Universal mail-in ballots. They want $25 billion — billion — for the post office. Now they need that money in order to have post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” he said. “Those are just two items. But if you don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting. Because they’re not equipped to have it.”

Vice reported an angle that is worth a local look:

The United States Postal Service is removing mail sorting machines from facilities around the country without any official explanation or reason given, Motherboard has learned through interviews with postal workers and union officials. In many cases, these are the same machines that would be tasked with sorting ballots, calling into question promises made by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy that the USPS has “ample capacity” to handle the predicted surge in mail-in ballots.

Vice said 19 mail sorting machines have been removed from five processing facilities across the country. There are some logical explanations for the removals, including that mailings have dropped during the pandemic and the equipment might be better used in other facilities. But when the president is fighting mail-in ballots, there is always a conspiracy theory lurking.

But Washington is about to put some “oomph” in your showerhead

As proof that your government is not frozen in inaction, the Department of Energy has come up with a plan to allow your showerheads to use more water.

All of this goes back to something President Trump mentioned last month when he said, “So showerheads — you take a shower, the water doesn’t come out. You want to wash your hands, the water doesn’t come out. So, what do you do? You just stand there longer or you take a shower longer? Because my hair — I don’t know about you, but it has to be perfect. Perfect.”

MarketWatch explained how we got to where we are:

Since 1992, federal law has dictated that new showerheads shouldn’t pour more than 2.5 gallons of water per minute as the country moved to more efficiency and cost savings. As popularity for multiple nozzles inside a single shower became trendy, the Obama administration defined the showerhead restrictions to apply to what comes out in total. So, if there are four nozzles, no more than 2.5 gallons total should flow between all four.

The new proposal this week would allow each nozzle to spray as much as 2.5 gallons per minute, not just the overall shower system.

The Department of Energy’s own database of 12,499 showerheads from a range of manufacturers showed 74% of them use two gallons or less of water per minute, which is 20% less than the federal standard.

To find out if you have an energy/water efficient showerhead now, the DOE advised:

1. Place a bucket — marked in gallon increments — under your shower head.
2. Turn on the shower at the normal water pressure you use.
3. Time how many seconds it takes to fill the bucket to the 1-gallon (3.8 liter) mark.

If it takes less than 20 seconds to reach the 1-gallon mark, you could benefit from a low-flow shower head.

The DOE also proposed new standards for clothes washing machines. MarketWatch reported:

Last year, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other groups circulated a petition arguing that efficiency rules gobbled up too much time because formerly one-hour dishwasher cycles had turned into 2 1/2-hour jobs because of less-powerful water flow.

The Hill included a DOE quote:

“If adopted, this rule would undo the action of the previous Administration and return to Congressional intent, allowing Americans — not Washington bureaucrats — to choose what kind of showerheads they have in their homes,” DOE spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said in an email to The Hill.

Plumbers say that you can usually fix low water pressure in your home by cleaning the showerhead, replacing it if it is clogged inside or by fixing a stuck flow-restrictor valve. I just about snorted my coffee when I saw some recommendations that you should replace a showerhead every six months. The recommendations came from companies that sell showerheads.

So, if you do not get evicted or foreclosed on in the coming months, you can use more water. Opponents of this plan say when you use more water, particularly hot water, you use more energy, which adds to climate change. There is also a drought or severely dry conditions in about half of the United States as of yesterday.

The way we live now

I have a feeling that we are just calling this “Halloween candy,” knowing full well it will not sit around our homes uneaten for two months. Just be honest and call it COVID medication.

We’ll be back Monday 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,…
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