May 21, 2021

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.

There is still a rental reckoning ahead and it may not be far off. CBS News says, “The trickle of evictions across the country could soon become a flood as renters owe $53 billion to landlords.”

CBS News continues:

Up (to) 40 million Americans are at risk of losing their homes, according to the Aspen Institute.

On average, Black renters are twice as likely as White renters to face evictions, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. …

One in seven tenants is behind on rent, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s prohibition against evictions expires at the end of next month. Even before then, the moratorium may have legal headwinds. Federal courts have ruled the CDC overstepped its authority and a group of landlords announced this week that they may ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the moratorium nationwide. Some states still forbid evictions during the pandemic.

The Eviction Lab at Princeton University says landlords have filed 342,000 eviction orders since the pandemic began.

In Dallas-Fort Worth, just as an example, 34,000 eviction orders have piled up. CBS News went inside Dallas’ eviction court, where 200 lawyers are working pro bono to represent 7,000 tenants facing eviction.

In Lee County, Florida (Ft. Myers), 34,000 people have filed for federal rent and utility assistance, meaning about one in 10 households there say they need help. In Milwaukee, the agency that is managing the rent assistance says it has been so swamped by applications that there is a backlog.

In California, where only 1% of the federal help has been doled out, there is a big roadblock. The Half Moon Bay Review explains that the terms of the California program say that the federal assistance will pay for 80% of the monthly rent, but that the landlord would have to eat 20% of the rental cost. In other words, the landlord will have to lower rent to keep from foreclosing. But the California program also offers to pay a big chunk of back rent.

U.S. News and World Report used data from National Equity Atlas and reported:

Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Alaska and Georgia have the highest shares of renters with debt, each at 20% or more. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the states with the lowest percentages of households with rent debt are Utah, Maine, Ohio, Idaho and Kansas. Only 6% of renters in Utah and Maine are behind on rent, according to the data.

While California isn’t among the five states with the highest shares of households behind on rent, the state does have two metro areas — Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario (22%) and Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana (16%) — with high debt percentages. Hawaii has the highest average rent debt per household, at $5,500, but only 8% of the state’s renters are behind, according to additional data provided by PolicyLink.

Overall, 12 states have rent debt shares under 10%. Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., have percentages of at least 15%. Maryland, where a tenants’ rights bill is awaiting the signature of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, has 19% of households in rent debt.

Think about that. One in five renters in Maryland, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Alaska and Georgia are behind on their rent. As concerning as the overall numbers are, the figure was even higher late last summer.

You might be asking what happened to all that federal help that was supposed to go to people who were behind on their rent. Good question. CBS found 90% of the federal money is still bottled up in the government pipeline somewhere:

Texas has more than $1 billion in funding for rental assistance. More than 130,000 people have applied for the funds and over 16,000 have been approved. But so far, just over $112 million — less than 10% of the funds — has been dispersed to tenants in need, according to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

If the pandemic is easing, why don’t we feel better?

In an especially insightful piece, Ed Yong at The Atlantic hit on a topic that I think resonates with a lot of people. Yong explores why, with new COVID-19 cases and deaths falling rapidly, we don’t feel jubilation.

Some will recover uneventfully, but for others, the quiet moments after adrenaline fades and normalcy resumes may be unexpectedly punishing. When they finally get a chance to exhale, their breaths may emerge as sighs. “People put their heads down and do what they have to do, but suddenly, when there’s an opening, all these feelings come up,” Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, the founder and director of the Trauma Stewardship Institute, told me. Lipsky has spent decades helping people navigate the consequences of natural disasters, mass shootings, and other crises. “As hard as the initial trauma is,” she said, “it’s the aftermath that destroys people.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a singular disaster — a recurring series of traumatic events that have eroded the very social trust and connections that allow communities to recover from catastrophes. Even now, with COVID-19 cases in the U.S. falling and vaccinations rising, many of the people whom Lipsky works with are struggling. Things are getting better, so why don’t they feel better? “A lot of them are really confused by it, because they feel like they made it through and can see a little light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

If you’ve been swimming furiously for a year, you don’t expect to finally reach dry land and feel like you’re drowning.

This might be a time for us to remind ourselves that even while vaccinated people can safely go to the grocery and church, millions of our family and neighbors still suffer the long-haul effects of the virus. Yong writes, “In one study, 30 percent of people with lab-confirmed COVID-19, most of whom had not been hospitalized, were still experiencing symptoms after an average of six months.”

Remember at one point there were 132,000 Americans in emergency rooms with COVID-19. For every one of the 580,000 COVID-19 deaths, there are an estimated nine people related to that person who died. For the most vulnerable populations, there may be multiple deaths in their family.

Some may suffer guilt from not having been bedside at the moment of their loved one’s death. Others never got to say goodbye with a funeral. And, Yong writes, we should expect that in these quieter days, the caregivers who experienced so much death, so much sadness, will relive those moments.

I want to give you one more passage from this remarkable essay that helps explain why people might be reluctant to drop their masks. It was the one thing they thought might protect them when there was no vaccine. Yong writes:

For some people, taking off a mask will mean just exposing the bottom half of their face. But for others, it signifies that they must reevaluate their understanding of risk and danger yet again, with fewer emotional reserves at hand. “I feel more clingy towards the routines I’ve established,” Whitney Robinson, a social epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told me. “Summer feels like an unknown, and kind of exhausting. (It means) navigating new situations, reestablishing relationships, and deciding on COVID norms. It feels tiring.”

Another state jumps on the Vax-a-Million bandwagon

Ohio jump-started its COVID-19 vaccine program by offering a million-dollar lottery to people who get vaccinated. Now Maryland is going to try it, too. Gov. Larry Hogan said:

“So it’s a total of $2 million in prize money for a vaccinated Marylander. … Entry is very simple — all you have to do is get vaccinated for Covid-19 here in Maryland, be a Maryland resident and be 18 or older. Anyone 18 and older who has already been vaccinated for Covid-19 in the state of Maryland, at any time, is also eligible for these prizes and will automatically be entered to win.”

Maryland will continue the drawing for 40 straight days through July 3. On the Fourth of July, a final drawing will be held to award a grand prize of $400,000 to one vaccinated Marylander.

Maryland’s vaccination efforts are far ahead of most other states. It has vaccinated more than 87% of all residents over 65, and more than 67% of all Marylanders 18 and older. The governor said other states need a stunt to get vaccines going and said for Maryland this is “cleaning up and we’re getting close to the goal line and this, we think, is going to push us over the edge.”

Why are so many people googling vitamin D?

Vitamin D pills. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The surest symptom that some new COVID-19 rumor has hit the internet is when Google sees a big spike in searches around a word or phrase. Now, people are searching for information about vitamin D, wondering if it protects against COVID-19. Let’s be clear: There is no such evidence, and too much vitamin D can be harmful.

CNN explains what sparked the interest in Vitamin D:

The fuss began when researchers in the US and UK began comparing the vitamin D levels of various countries to their coronavirus death rates and found an association: The countries who reported lower levels of vitamin D also had higher death rates from Covid-19.

But this is one of those correlation-does-not-equal-causation cases. CNN explains:

After all, people around the world who are at highest risk of vitamin D deficiency — those with underlying chronic disease, an older age or darker skin color — are also the same people at highest risk of dying from Covid-19.

The CNN story explores research that found some levels of Vitamin D might strengthen immune systems and might help with respiratory tract infections, but even that evidence is debatable.

What is the holdup on COVID-19 funeral assistance?

Not only is rental assistance not making it to the people, but that FEMA funeral assistance plan that was supposed to pay for funeral expenses incurred by families who lost loved ones to COVID-19 is also barely trickling out. WTVF in Nashville reported that 4,400 Tennesseans have applied for the benefits and seven (7) have gotten the money.

As teens get COVID-19 vaccines, experts assure that shots won’t affect puberty or fertility

Jenna Ramkhelawan, 12, gets a fist bump as she registers to receive the first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, Tuesday, May 18, 2021, in Miami. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

It only takes a fast-spreading rumor or two to spook teens and their parents away from getting COVID-19 vaccines, so experts are taking every opportunity to say that the vaccines do not affect puberty or fertility. ABC News reports:

“These particles cannot cause any long-term issues, such as autoimmune diseases or impacts on fertility or pregnancy,” said Dr. Stacy De-Lin, a gynecologist and family planning specialist dedicated to preventing the spread of misinformation. “There is no link between the COVID-19 vaccines and fertility — it’s an urban legend.”

Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, agrees there is no biological reason that mRNA could get into your DNA and interfere with adolescent development. “There’s no plausible mechanism by which that could occur,” Hotez said.

There has been anecdotal talk of the vaccine temporarily impacting menstruation in some adult women, but there is no evidence that the vaccine could cause a change in menstruation long-term or could affect fertility.

In fact, in children, teens and adults, it is common for frequency and heaviness of periods to sometimes vary. “Women (and children) can have changes in their menstrual cycle and also have gotten the vaccine, that does not mean that one caused the other,” Dr. Jennifer Ashton, ABC News’s chief medical correspondent, said.

NPPA to train photojournalists, first-responders and cops about ‘right to record’ laws

I am so pleased that the Knight Foundation and the Press Freedom Defense Fund approved $200,000 for the National Press Photographers Association to conduct training for journalists, cops and other first-responders. The training will focus on “the right to record.”

The effort is led by my dear friend, NPPA general counsel Mickey Osterreicher, who is a champion of press freedom and has often taught with me at Poynter. Mickey has been saying for years that this kind of front-end training is our best defense against police interference when the situation on the street gets heated.

Bravo to all involved, including the police who are willing to take this training.

How to make electric cars sound like muscle cars

Jim Farley, Ford Motor Company’s chief executive officer, stands next to the company’s new Ford F-150 Lightning, Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in Dearborn, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Right out front, let me tell you I drive a pickup truck and my wife drives a Prius. For the life of me, I can’t ever tell when that car of hers is on or off. It makes no noise.

I suggested that if Ford is going to make a $40,000 to $90,000 electric pickup truck as the company announced this week, maybe they should make it sound like a truck somehow. Various members of my family including one (journalist) daughter told me it was a bad idea.

But now, BMW is working on a plan to add muscle car sounds to their upcoming electric cars. BMW hired acclaimed composer Hans Zimmer (who wrote tracks for “Lion King,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and many more films) to come up with the throaty rumble that will play over your speakers. Popular Science reports:

Zimmer’s sounds will be used to accentuate the driving experience by providing acoustic feedback to the driver as they press the accelerator pedal. BMW calls this its “IconicSounds Electric” and its purpose is to replace the noises that a traditional gas engine makes as it moves through the rev range.

For example, when the car is in “Comfort Mode,” the driver expects a tame and relaxing drive. The sounds emitted from the vehicle’s on-board speakers are tuned specifically for this. BMW says that this score is aimed at creating an immersive and pleasant atmosphere. Switch to “Sport Mode” and the vehicle wakes up — its sounds are more dominant and powerful. Should the driver mash the pedal, the car’s sensors will pick up on the requested throttle and, within milliseconds, shifts the sound in both pitch and volume to match the requested load.

If you want to hear what it sounds like, go to this video and zoom forward to 1:36 for a snippet.

We’ll be back Monday with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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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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