California State campuses will hold most classes online this fall semester. The move casts a national shadow.

Plus, why you should be skeptical of thermal scanners, a Social Security increase is unlikely this year, funeral directors need PPE, and more.

May 13, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

I wanted to be sure you saw the development Tuesday afternoon that, if it spreads across the country, will have a huge impact on so many of your communities.

California announced that 23 state university campuses will move nearly all classes online in the fall. How will that huge decision shape the cities those schools are in, and how will that decision cast a national shadow?

California State chancellor Timothy White said, “Our university when open without restrictions and fully in person … is a place where over 500,000 people come together in close and vibrant proximity. That approach, sadly, just isn’t in the cards now.”

The announcement came shortly after infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci warned a U.S. Senate committee against opening up workplaces and schools too quickly.

California will allow in-person classes for instruction that can’t adequately be taught online, such as clinical nursing courses, biology labs or for capstone engineering projects that use specialized equipment, for example. These in-person classes will come with intensive precautions. Only a few other campus activities will be allowed and most student housing will be closed.

Schools nationwide are under pressure to make decisions now about what they will do in August because students need time to decide whether to enroll and where they will live. International students are under extra strain right now, unsure if they will be allowed to enter the country in the fall.

Right now, most universities across America are planning to return to campus in the fall. This graphic, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, shows what schools are planning. The Chronicle also has a searchable list of schools and their plans.

(Graphic: Chronicle of Higher Education)

Some school leaders have sounded remarkably confident about their plans to reopen schools in the fall. But everybody understands that plans made in May could radically change before August. Even if students return to campus, an autumn resurgence of the coronavirus could send students home and university classes back online.

Schools nationwide are already working out how they will financially survive the pandemic. Hiring freezes, pay cuts and furloughs are fairly common already, and schools said without students in dorms, without student fees and with a possible drop in enrollment, the fall semester could be disastrous. CNBC estimated 14 million students were sent home during the spring semester. Lawyers began assembling class-action lawsuits to return some of the fees, meal plan money and tuition that students paid for the spring semester.

Axios assembled a list of what some schools are saying about losses so far:

University of Arizona announced furloughs and pay cuts for nearly all of its employees this week after the institution projected a $250 million loss, the Arizona Daily Star reports. The university said it has already experienced $66 million in losses.

University of Michigan said in a letter from the president that the school could face revenue losses as large as $1 billion by the end of the calendar year.

Washington University in St. Louis will furlough 1,300 employees for 90 days, NBC affiliate KSDK reports.

University of Missouri is anticipating a 12.5% budget cut on its Columbia campus, with upcoming layoffs and furloughs likely, the Columbia Tribune reports.

Valparaiso University in Indiana announced it will furlough 200 full-time and part-time employees, the Times of Northwest Indiana reports.

Journalists, what happens in California often foretells what will unfold nationwide. Keep asking questions of your local universities. They are likely to keep an optimistic public face so as to not discourage enrollment. But, within weeks, plans will have to be set in stone for the fall.

Be skeptical of those digital scanner thermometers

Workers walk past a thermal scanner installed at the entrance of an office building during the coronavirus outbreak in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Last week my wife came home from the ophthalmologist disappointed that they would not let her keep her appointment.

A clinic worker had pointed a digital thermometer to her head and said it showed she had a low-grade fever. I tested her with two thermometers and found that her temperature was perfectly normal. In fact, one showed her temperature was 98.2 degrees. On reflection, she said, she saw the clinic worker changing the thermometer’s batteries just before they used it on her because something was wrong with the way it was reading.

I tell you this story because it appears that we are heading toward using thermal scanners all over the place to determine if we are fit to fly, work, shop and who knows what else. It reminds me of how so many workplaces use drug tests to determine if you are fit to work when we all know how often those tests produce false-positive results and that the more reliable tests are way more expensive.

The National Institutes of Health, among others, have been looking at questions about the reliability of digital temperature measurements for years. They found all sorts of variables can affect measurements, including what the person was doing just before the reading is taken; whether the reading is taken in a cold or warm location; or from where on the body it is taken, for example from inside the ear, or oral or anal readings.

NBC News found that at least 10 companies are pitching other companies and government agencies worldwide to adopt temperature scanners for use in airports, schools, hospitals and office building lobbies.

But, NBC News reported, there are some big problems:

Thermal imaging is an imprecise method for scanning crowds, and doesn’t measure inner-body temperature.

Coronavirus only produces a fever after a person is infected for days, if there are symptoms at all. A recent study in Iceland looking at tests from a sizable portion of the population found that 50% of everyone who tested positive were asymptomatic.

Which brings us to a new Washington Post story that said:

Georgia’s Gwinnett County sought help from an unusual source: an Illinois-based seller of red-light traffic cameras. RedSpeed USA had begun advertising a “fever detector” that it described as fast and accurate, using “ground-breaking technology [to] identify symptoms of illness.” The county of nearly a million people in the Atlanta suburbs, where more than 2,400 have confirmed infections and 87 have died, quickly approved an emergency purchase of four scanners to be installed inside county court and office buildings.

Gwinnett County paid $30,000 per scanner, twice as much as industry leader FLIR Systems charges for similar technology.

Here are some other problems with thermal scanners from the Post’s story:

They can sense elevated skin temperatures, they aren’t precise enough to tell whether someone has a fever or something else: The warmth of a person’s skin is often quite different from their core body heat. People with heavier builds, health conditions or hot flashes can trigger the system’s alarms; so, too, can anyone just walking in from a hot car or parking lot. Many people with COVID-19 infections haven’t actually had fevers: The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month that as many as 25% of infected people don’t show any symptoms at all.

The world’s largest maker of such equipment, Oregon-based FLIR Systems, strongly cautions buyers to understand how the systems are meant to be used. The company has posted online disclaimers that its cameras are not “for medical purposes” and can’t be used “to diagnose the coronavirus” or “find individuals experiencing coronavirus symptoms.”

But pay attention to this from the American Diagnostic Corporation, a manufacturer of medical diagnostic equipment:

Core temperature is the temperature deep within your body. Most think of normal temperature as 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, but that can be misleading. (And it might not even be “normal” anymore; several recent studies have suggested that human body temperatures have been dropping over the last century.) Like other vital signs, including blood pressure, this number merely represents a population average. At the individual level, everyone’s body temperature is unique and can vary by about a degree. So, it’s likely your average body temperature falls more in the 97.6 to 99.6 degree Fahrenheit range.

In addition, your body temperature varies, not just when you’re ill, but at different times of day and depending on certain environmental factors. Age also plays a role, as does site selection (where on your body you take the measurement). The chart included here shows how some of these variables impact temperature ranges.

(Courtesy: American Diagnostic Corporation)

One place you could go to talk with experts about thermal testing is surveillance research and reporting firm IPVM, which has focused on manufacturer’s claims, including several cases of fraudulent claims, from international companies that are peddling their thermal scanners.

Here’s the kicker to all of this. At just the time there is a global gold rush to sell thermo-scanners, the Food and Drug Administration said it would not require the typical 130-day “pre-market” clearance, a period of time the FDA uses to determine whether a device is what it says it is and does what it claims to do. The FDA said in a pandemic, the need for testing equipment is urgent, so it is taking a pass on holding up the marketing of devices that are not intended for “medical use.”

That means if a doctor uses the device, it will have to clear FDA approval. But if the device is going to be used to determine if you can board a plane, go to work or grocery shop, the FDA said it will not stop a manufacturer from selling it.

The FDA did say that when these thermal scanners are used for “triage use,” not medical use, they can only scan one person at a time and not the dozens some companies have marketed their gear as being able to achieve.

There probably won’t be much if any increase for Social Security recipients this year

If the economy continues unfolding as it is, the Social Security Administration may not increase benefits much, if at all, later this year. MarketWatch noted:

Based on the (consumer price index) data between January and April of this year, (the cost-of-living adjustment) for next year would be zero, according to Mary Johnson, a Social Security policy analyst for The Senior Citizens League. There are still five months until the administration announces the (cost-of-living adjustment) for 2021, which occurs in October.

But even if the adjustment was above zero, it still wouldn’t be enough for most retirees, studies show. Many Americans rely on Social Security benefits for some, and in some cases most, of their retirement income, but the benefit doesn’t align with actual cost of goods for retirees.

Since 2000, Social Security (cost-of-living adjustments) have increased benefits by 53% but the prices of what retirees typically buy has grown almost double, to 99.3%.

Kiplinger agrees that cost-of-living adjustment increases for 2021 will almost certainly be less than 1%. The benefit increases are set in a formula that is supposed to keep the monthly payments in line with inflation. The Social Security cost-of-living adjustment is based on consumer prices, so as prices for everything from fuel to groceries increase, so do benefits. If prices fall, so do payouts.

One of the pressures on the consumer price index right now is weak oil prices. But seniors drive less than other age groups, so they do not realize the benefit of lower fuel prices as much as people who are driving to work or driving kids to school.

About 69 million Americans receive Social Security benefits.

Funeral directors say they need PPE gear, like right now

A Columbus, Ohio, funeral director named Jeff Edwards said “last responders” like him have taken care of the bodies of lots of COVID-19 victims and are now running out of protective equipment, just like first responders are.

Fox 28 in Columbus reported:

“As last responders, we are exposed to deceased who have been diagnosed with infectious diseases some of which can live in the body long after the deceased has passed,” Edwards said.

Edwards said Friday that he has heard from a couple of his friends in the business that they don’t have any PPE, and they don’t know what they will do when they get a call that is a positive tested COVID-19 case.

The Ohio Funeral Directors Association said they are hearing of PPE shortages from both urban and rural funeral homes.

The story also said:

Some funeral directors have suggested that hospitals and morgues who are sending them deceased people who have had coronavirus provide removal staff with PPE in a sealed bag.

I have seen stories about similar shortages in Texas and Boston.

WBUR reported:

Key questions linger for those working with the dead and families mourning their loved ones in small services: How long can the virus stay on a body, and can someone get the virus from the dead?

“I’ve asked that question probably 10 times and nobody’s really given me a good answer yet,” said Bob Lawler, funeral director of the Lawler and Crosby Funeral Home in West Roxbury.

The funeral homes have to treat every body as though it might be infected with COVID-19.

In Oklahoma, the state gave funeral directors access to the state’s stockpile of personal protective equipment. Oklahoma funeral directors said they were running out of protective gear just when the state stepped in to help.

When a dead loved one gets a stimulus check

No matter how much you need it, don’t spend the stimulus check that comes to a dead loved one.

KLS-TV reported:

Return the entire payment unless the payment was made to joint filers and one spouse had not died before receipt of the Payment, in which case, you only need to return the portion of the payment made on account of the decedent. This amount will be $1,200 unless adjusted gross income exceeded $150,000.

U.S. News and World Report pointed out:

A similar situation unfolded under former President Barack Obama during the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, when more than $22 million was erroneously distributed in the form of one-time stimulus payments to roughly 89,000 beneficiaries who had already died or been incarcerated prior to receiving their check, according to a subsequent inspector general report.

Will stay-at-home orders add to childhood obesity?

Public health researchers said the COVID-19 induced stay-at-home orders will add to the problem of childhood obesity.

Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health reported:

While much has been written about poor food and lack of physical activity in schools, the data show that children experience unhealthy weight gain primarily during the summer months when they are out of school. Unhealthy weight gain over the summer school recess is particularly apparent for Hispanic and African American youth, and children who are already overweight.

“There could be long-term consequences for weight gained while children are out of school during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says (associate professor of epidemiology Andrew) Rundle, who specializes in research to prevent childhood obesity. “Research shows that weight gained over the summer months is maintained during the school year and accrues summer to summer. When a child experiences obesity, even at a young age, they are at risk for higher, unhealthy weight, all the way into middle age.”

Not only are kids cooped up at home, but the home pantry is stocked with what the researchers said is typically “ultra-processed, calorie-dense comfort foods.”

Should you sanitize the inside of your car?

The answer to this falls under the “it can’t hurt” category. It is more important that any person riding in the car with you does not cough and sneeze and spread germs all over you. I know you get tired of hearing this, but use soap and water to clean the car’s interior. Harsh cleaning wipes may damage it, plus they will stink up your car. While driving, bring in as much fresh air as you can.

USA Today offered this comforting note:

The part of the vehicle you are likely to touch the most is the steering wheel, and that needs to be cleaned often and thoroughly, as recommended by the CDC. According to Expedia Travel Group’s website, the average steering wheel has 629 colony-forming units per centimeter — bacteria per square centimeter — six times filthier than an average cell phone screen and four times dirtier than a public toilet seat.

Gear shifts, window controls and door lock buttons could also use some cleaning love.

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.